Thursday, January 18, 2018

Review: Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2018 - Episode 1

I'm going to start doing a commentary on each of the episodes of  Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2018 - much as I've done for the BBC's Big Painting Challenge in the past.

That's because I have FINALLY worked out how to access the programme online (see yesterday's post - How to watch Sky Arts - Portrait Artist of the Year 2018 without subscribing to Sky!).

Top down view of sitter and artists

First a quick resume about the programme and what the prize is this year.

Portrait Artist of the Year 2018

This is a competition which ranks alongside the prestigious art competitions elsewhere on this blog.

That's because the artists are competing to win a £10,000 commission to paint Kim Cattrall, the actress. The intention is that the finished portrait will be added to the permanent collection at The Walker Art Gallery in Kim's birth city of Liverpool.

For reference - for those interested in being part of this competition in future
A total of 30 famous performers will sit for the competitors.  The semi-finalists will also be joined by another 13 wild cards to compete for a place in the final.

The portrait paintings are judged by a 'heavyweight panel'. They are the same as for previous series:
  • award-winning portrait painter Tai Shan Schierenberg
  • independent curator and Chair of the Board of the Liverpool Biennial Kathleen Soriano (who also used to be the Head of Exhibitions & Collection at the National Portrait Gallery and Director of Exhibitions at the RA) and
  • British art historian, curator and arts broadcaster Kate Bryan.
The three Judges with Frank Skinner
The series is presented by Frank Skinner and Joan Bakewell.

They say some very sensible things as voiceovers. One cannot but help think these may have been scripted for them - but it makes for a more educational programme!

Episode 1

A portrait should represent a likeness, the personality and possibly the mood of the sitter
Joan Bakewell - quoting what the Tate has to say about a portrait
I settled down in front of my iPad last night to watch - and was very favourably impressed by the programme.

I also spotted my arm and part of my head during the opening credits - but that's by the by!

Each week I'm going to identify the portrait painters by name and see if I can find a link to their websites so you can see the sort of people who enter this competition. Plus I'll give a link to their Facebook PAGE if they have one.

I very much liked the fact that the programme identifies how long it had taken each artist to complete their self portrait which was part of their entry to the competition.

The artists - the amateurs

The six amateur artists are:
  • Paul Berryman - His charcoal self-portrait which got him into the heart took him 2.5 hours.
  • Kelly Frank (Facebook) @ksfrankart - trained as an architect and became a painter
  • Hetty Lawlor - age 17 (at the time) from Kilmeena, Westport, Co Mayo on the west coast of Ireland. One of the youngest ever to be selected from the thousands of entries for this competition, she was also doing the competition while studying for her A levels!  This is the image which got her into the Heat
  • Beth Lee  studying fine art and creative writing at Lancaster University
  • Charlie Parker - a part-time cognitive behavioural therapist - who is partially colour blind - from Durham
  • Alan Speed - a technical co-ordinator in a London architectural firm
I can well understand amateur artists not having a website prior to being selected for a television competition. However, it's very disappointing to see that artists don't use the opportunity of an appearance on television to raise their profile. It would appear Hetty is the only person who made sure she had a website up and running before the episode was aired.

Hetty Lawlor with her 'knock-out' self portrait before the competition

The artists - the professionals

The three professional artists are
  • Judith Henihan an Irish artist living and working in County Kildare
  • Kieran Ingram - website won't open.
  • Charlotte Baynes - previous contestant. An artist and teacher who is the only artist to have a fully fledged active website demonstrating a wide range of work.

The sitters

The presenters are Frank Skinner and Joan Bakewell


The 45 minute episode started with the judges taking a look at the self portraits that were part of the selected artists' entries.

My observations are not so much a critique  - more designed to pull out learning points.

I found very little I wanted to make any adverse comment on re the way the programme is put together - with the possible exception of the choice of venue.

The atrium restaurant area of the Wallace Collection has a glass roof thus effectively creating the equivalent of plein air portraiture and making the portrait artist's job that much more difficult than it should have been. One of the mantra's for a portrait artist is work out your lighting at the beginning and then stick to it!  I suspect it's one of the reasons why people ended up using their iPads so much!

Pay attention to the self portraits!

I'd recommend those thinking about submitting an application to take part in the 2019 competition (which will be filmed later this year) to pay particular attention to the section near the beginning where the judges look at the self-portraits.
  • you can see very clearly why some of the artists got through. 
  • If you're going to do a self portrait then you need to have one that stands out and is different different from the crowd. 
  • Size isn't everything - some of the best self portraits were small.  
  • Very evident from this section that people are working in all sorts of different media - and mixed media
  • Plus it's a good education in how Judges can respond to specific renditions in terms of  design and composition, accuracy and proportions, style, use of media - and reflections on art history


Three artists are allocated to each sitter. Four hours are allocated to create a portrait - albeit with breaks.

This absolute non-negotiable time constraint is a huge factor in how well everybody does.
  • They are all painting somebody they've not tried painting before 
  • they have to start and finish and make a good job of a portrait in just four fours of painting time.
  • Having attended a heat, the actual length of time is longer as they get a break for lunch and a short break morning and afternoon - which happens with a little bit of warning but not necessarily when you want to break.
Interestingly they are all painting people who are NOT used to sitting for a portrait and who are equally struggling with the challenge of remaining still for four hours - with a regime of breaks.

A number of the artists used technology as an aid

  • mainly to get a record of the face and to be able to enlarge the photograph to see detail.
  • However, as Heat #1 wore on it became self-evident that another very good reason for doing this was to preserve the lighting as seen when they start. The atrium restaurant area at the Wallace Collection where the heats took place has a glass ceiling which bathes it in lots of natural light - which is great BUT presents exactly the same problem as faced by every plein air painter - but not very often by portrait painters. The light moved and completely changed the tonal values evident on the face!
It was also interesting to also see the various bits of kit people used to keep their typically tablets and phones in easy view.

One very interesting accessory brought by Charlotte Baynes was something she called "fishing goggles".  Apparently they are binocular glasses which work like a telescope or a loupe - a bit like opera glasses - so you can see detail. I 'googled' the make she was using and they're called Camman 3*28 Glasses Style Fishing Binoculars Telescope but before you get excited the consensus online was that they were cheap and vision through them was not that good.

Frank Skinner wearing fishing goggles
However it does suggest that thinking about rather using better portable telescopes might be a good idea - especially if used in conjunction with a screen. Check out monocular bird watching telescopes to see what I mean!

There again - in four hours can it ever be about the detail when what you really need to do is nail the big shapes, mass, tones, edges and colour?

Interesting techniques used 


Media used varied quite a bit. It's great to see a portrait competition where dry media is used.  Paul Berryman used charcoal, Judith Henihan used pastels for her self-portrait and Hetty Lawlor used a very interesting mix of coloured pencils and acrylic

Paul Berryman used a large brush and charcoal dust to create a charcoal ground at a middle value on his support; he then used a pounce bag (as used by Holbein). His reason for doing so was to avoid being too tight and a way of getting shapes and values down on paper

Charcoal pouncing bag used for drawing by Paul Berryman
(I think) artists brought their own supports. It looked as if a few very sensible people had already treated them with a mid range colour. Others used untreated linen for their mid value

In fact the use of the mid range support - which offers scope to go up and down the tonal value scale seems to me to be a very time efficient technique - and of course instantly eliminates the blinding mind-numbing white!

Most went straight in with paint to try and size and outline the head - some very wet while others used a very dry brush.  Very few drew (unless drawing rather than painting).


It's always interesting to see what size people go for - and whether they've chosen the right size of support for the size of head they choose to do.

Beth Lee used a very large canvas to paint what was a relatively small head and then used part of the canvas as her palette! I got the sense from comments by the judges that they were disappointed she was painting in a very different way to the self portrait she sent in.

A comment for applicants to ponder on - at length!

I was impressed by Kelly Frank's drawing and so was at least one of the judges. She did not grid up or use a photograph to work from. Rather she did it all through observation, sight sizing, using straight lines to start with to establish the key markers of top of head, bottom of nose and chin to get proportions right

Size issues also apply to the size of brushes artists use. I very much remember commenting last year re the BBC painting Challenge on the fact that you can often tell an amateur artist because  they like using just one size of brush and don't "change gear" when they need to get a lot of paint down in one area - notably for backgrounds. I saw it again in this episode. I love seeing an artist who is confident painting with a big brush!


Most artists stuck to doing just the head. That's certainly a sensible option given the contraint on time.

Only one artist - Alan Speed - opted to do the whole pose - and being brave enough to do this impressed the judges.

On the whole I'd say it's only a strategy worth employing if you are an artist who is
  • used to painting more than just the head (as Alan obviously is based on his very interesting 'group' self portrait of his - which I really loved) - and 
  • if you can pull it off!
Alan Speed's painting of Michaela Coel - partway through

I'm not sure he did the latter and both Tai Shan Schierenberg and Kathleen Soriano commented on how he was 'losing' how the body as more colour was added in his very loose approach to painting. It was a portrait I certainly liked a lot more nearer the beginning/middle (see above) than at the end. I'm thinking maybe it was a tad overworked?

That's also one of the things that can happen to artists in a situation like this - you think you have to work for the whole four hours. It takes a lot of nerve to stop and do nothing before the end!

That said - Alan was the only one who tried to do the whole person and tackle some interesting perspective - so all credit for having a good go!


I loved the use of speeded up painting in the programme to demonstrate how people were actually approaching the portrait and applying media to support. Very educational. It also makes you want to keep replaying bits of the programme again and again (which is a lot easier on an iPad than it is on a television!)

I particularly enjoyed watching Judith Henihan paint (and I LOVE her portraits of sportsmen on her website!)

Judith Henihan's painting

The judgement

After four hours the artists get to choose which portrait they want to keep.
  • David Tennant chose Hetty Lawlor's portrait
  • James Morrison chose Beth Lee's portrait - he really liked the palette on a canvas
  • Michaela Coel chose Alan Speed's painting
The look on Hetty Lawlor's face the moment
David Tennant said he wanted to take her portrait home with him

The Judges decision-making at the end involves:
  • reducing the nine artists down to three to get a shortlist - and then 
  • reducing down to one for the Heat Winner who goes forward to the Semi Final.
It was apparent that the process worked through eliminating those that were weak very quickly and then debating the relative merits of the rest.

Interestingly, mixing up the portraits, one against another, was one method the Judges found highlighted which were better and which were weaker. You can like a painting and then put it next to a good one - and suddenly it doesn't look quite so good!

It struck me that this is a technique that artists can use for self-assessment of their own paintings!

Each of the portraits received comments in turn.  It's interesting to hear the pros and cons, the avoidable mistakes and the unresolved problems

Shortlisted artists in Episode 1

The shortlisted artists were
  • Charlotte Baynes
  • Hetty Lawlor
  • Judith Henihan
In deciding who moves forward to the semi-final they also took the submitted self-portrait into account - which also heightens the importance of this when submitted as part of the application.

It was rewarding to hear the intelligent comments.....

The Heat Winner was Hetty Lawlor - and a very worthy winner too!

My only crit. would be there was no mention of the fact she used coloured pencils to produce the portrait! There's some manufacturers (prompt - Faber Castell!) who should be falling over themselves to sponsor her!

Tai-Shan added
"We were blown away by her submission because it has an emotional content as well as being technically inventive and she did that again today.  And that is really rare.  When these two things come together it's just unbeatable."

I had never painted from life before, but I could see the character of the sitter more. Although it worked better when they didn’t move! The mobile phone makes it easier to get a likeness when the sitter keeps moving. It also helps when the light and shadow move.
What advice and tips would you give another artist thinking of applying to Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year?

Don’t enter when you’re studying for your leaving certificate! Multi-tasking is not on my skill-set! But in all seriousness, it is an eye-opening experience that I would recommend to any aspiring artists, and you meet the most wonderful people, both artists and camera crew.
I hope you enjoyed my commentary.

Same time next week?  Maybe a day earlier?

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  1. Agree with just about everything you have said. Particularly the “plein air” aspect. Also, I could almost hear the sucking of teeth from the classically trained purists when they saw the tablets and phones. Now here’s a thought; if the lighting was constant and the artists were allowed to sit closer (as they would for a commission) and tablets were banned, would it be a better (and fairer) test of artistic prowess? Just a thought......

  2. Hi Alain here (Alan Speed referred to above). You can see more of my work at
    The comments above and from the judges were spot on - I did loose it after the half way mark but nevertheless it was a great day out and the programme was also a delight.

  3. Really enjoyed this Blog Katherine. The artists do so well coping with the filming, time restraints, lighting and working in front of an audience. Credit and respect to all that are brave enough to take part !

  4. Thank you for your episode by episode commentary, which I have found very insightful and useful. I am enjoying the series. Especially, it's mixture of styles and materials.


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