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Pat Phelan

Pat Phelan was a popular and prolific portrait artist, whose subjects included some of the country’s leading politicians and business people. His retrospective exhibition in 2006 included portraits of Seán Lemass, Maj Vivion de Valera, Michael Smurfit and Tony O’Reilly. Businessman Ben Dunne was a great admirer of his work, and a portrait of Dunne, with his wife Mary, was also on show. Working in oils, pastels, watercolours and charcoal, he painted portraits as well as landscapes.
He was upfront about his use of photography, saying he was sure most portrait painters used cameras even if they did not admit it, “but I’m damned sure if Rubens had had a camera he would have availed of it”.
However, he advised against young artists using cameras. “You need years of solid grounding in life drawing, which I’ve had. And I’d paint a live model anytime for someone with the time and patience to sit.” His method of creating a portrait was to take 30 to 60 photographs of his subject before he began to paint, experimenting with poses and lighting until he got what he wanted. He then worked from one photograph, relying on the others to highlight certain expressions or features. When the portrait reached a certain stage, he invited the subject for the first of three or four sittings. He could complete a portrait in a week, and he put this down to the discipline he acquired when he worked in advertising.
He spoke of the “terrific feeling” he experienced when he began to achieve a likeness and sensed a painting was going to turn out well. But a good likeness did not necessarily make a finished portrait; the composition also had to be good to make the picture work. It was not always possible to predict how a painting would turn out. “The flesh tones are the hardest; sometimes they’ll go dead and grey on you.”He found painting men easier than women – “I suppose they have more lines and angles to get a hold on” – and avoided flattering his subjects. “But I do try to get the best of them, and everybody has a best.”
Asked what feature was the truest indication of character, he said: “People seem to think it’s the eyes, but eyes can be very deceptive. The mouth is the most difficult feature to paint, and the one that gives the face its most characteristic expression.” Born in Portlaw, Co Waterford, in 1927, he was the son of Richard Phelan and his wife Margaret (née Dunne). As a child he showed a talent for drawing and his father encouraged him to enrol at Waterford School of Art, where he studied under the brilliant Scotsman Robert Bourke. He won a scholarship to the National College of Art, Dublin (now NCAD), where the renowned Prof Julius Romain and Seán Keating were among his teachers. Phelan subsequently found employment as an illustrator and designer with advertising agencies including McConnells, Wilson Young and Janus. It was not until he began to enjoy success with portraits, which he produced at weekends and at night, that he decided to become a full-time artist. He rented several studios in central Dublin, before building a purpose-built studio at his Terenure home. He established a solid reputation as a portraitist. Commissions included chairmen and directors of RTÉ, the deans of the faculties of medicine and commerce at UCD and six lords mayor of Dublin. Sporting portraits included champion jockey Johnny Murtagh, golfer Des Smyth and rugby player Ciarán Fitzgerald. Portraits from the world of showbusiness included Maureen Potter, Eamonn Andrews, Paddy Cole and Noel Purcel