Local portraitist breathes life into canvas

By Denise Gilliland

Three canvases on easels sit by the left wall of the small apartment, leaving little space to walk in and adding life and colour to the white living room. Hues of blue, green and yellow draw the eyes to the portraits in progress, while Christan Nicholson, master artist and 27-year resident of Centretown, points to them and speaks passionately about his work and himself as a portratist.

“It’s in the last 22 years I started to become aware that I was considered at least one of the top portrait painters in the country,” he says.

Nicholson wasn’t always this successful. Though he grew up and was schooled in the Maritimes, he says he moved to Ottawa knowing that if he wanted to make a living painting portraits, he needed to be somewhere more conservative. After living here four years and working at Algonquin College in the periodicals, he moved to Vancouver where he sold about 40 portraits to a gallery for around $6,000.

“It was a huge deal at the time,” he says of his first big paycheque, which covered his rent.

He applied for his first commission and won it, painting J.V. Clyne, a former chancellor at the University of British Columbia.

“That was my first public commission and they paid $2,000 for that,” he says.

Glen Allison, who offered Nicholson the commission, inspired him to take control of his painting career.

“He said, ‘Christan, you should be able to make a living portrait painting,’” says Nicholson. “He didn’t tell me how to do it, he just said those words and they stayed in my head.”

It was those words that made him decide to move back to Ottawa where he has lived since, painting on a full-time basis.

According to Gwynneth Evans, former director general of the National Library of Canada, Nicholson’s appeal is his ability to bring the portrait to life, something that isn’t easily done unless the artist is passionate about his work. She has received a lot of positive feedback about the portrait Nicholson painted of Marianne Scott, the first female national librarian.

“People like it very much,” she says. “It’s realistic, lively and with lots of movement and colour. It’s as if you’re sitting down with the person.”

It was the casualness of Nicholson’s portraits that earned him the commission to paint former Governor General Romeo LeBlanc. LeBlanc wore Nicholson’s cardigan for the portrait rather than his suit jacket, stating that the jacket just wasn’t him.

“I didn’t know if it was allowed for him to be painted so informally,” says Nicholson. “But apparently he’s allowed to be painted however he wants.”

LeBlanc selected Nicholson to paint his portrait. Rideau Hall has planned an official unveiling of the piece in February.

Nicholson attributes much of his technique to the presence of art sitters, chatty people who sit with him and offer him enough distraction to keep his art from becoming overly formal.

Nicholson never allowed anybody to see his unfinished works or watch him paint until he began teaching private students about two years ago. He then came upon the idea of an art sitter and found that it helped him relax more when painting.

“I realized that was a wonderful way for me to get back in touch with my creativity,” he says.

“An art sitter does help him with his painting,” says Matthew MacKenzie, a former art sitter. “His work is better with somebody to talk to. It keeps him from becoming bored and noticing nobody is around.”

However, not everybody is a fan of Nicholson’s casual style. While Marion Dewar, former mayor of Ottawa, enjoys the portrait Nicholson painted of her, she says there has been some negative feedback about it not being very ‘mayor-like’.

“Some of the regulars at council didn’t like it. They were asking, ‘Why is there no [mayoral] chain on?’” says Dewar.

“The curator at the time said to me, ‘I want him to do you, not a picture of the mayor.’ It’s quite different,” she says. “After it was painted the curator said to me, ‘I can really see you.’”

Nicholson’s portraits have earned him national recognition as he’s been asked to apply for four more commissions.

The painting of J.V. Clyne which was valued at $2,000 back in 1980 is valued at about $30,000.

Evans best sums up Nicholson’s work. “He makes the portraits come alive instead of making them look like they died and have gone to heaven.”