Thursday, March 01, 2018

Review: Episode 7 of Portrait Artist of the Year 2018

Interestingly the social media coverage of this series of the Portrait Artist of the Year programmes seems to be waning as the series progresses. I guess it might be one of those which captures interest from some people who have never seen it before at the beginning - but it's the real art fans who stay to the end!

One such fan turns out to be Michael Ball who was one of the sitters in this week's Heat 7 which was televised on Tuesday evening.

Which means that the Heat 8 (which I went to) is going to be the very last one to be televised! How predictable is that!

This is my review of Episode 7 of Portrait Artist of the Year by Sky Arts - with added observations about things I noticed during the programme.

Entrance to the Wallace Collection - hosting Heats of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of he Year 2018

The Professionals

The 5 professionals were
  • Radovan Bolcar - Born in Slovakia. Degree in Contemporary Fine Art at York St. John University. He has had a passion for drawing and making art since school.
  • Lauren Carter Bridges - Based in Bolton, she used to be a Jeweller but two years ago she gave it up and now works on portraiture. She does minimal sketches and took 20 hours to paint her self-portrait with her daughter. Has been selected to exhibit at ROI, RBA, SWA art society exhibitions at the Mall Galleries 
  • Lynton Parmar-Hemsley - Based in Stalybridge. He seems to be known as Lynton Hemsley on Google and Lynton Parmar-Hemsley on Facebook. He had a 30 year career in advertising before becoming a full time artist 4 years ago and this was his third time on one of the Sky Artist of the Year programmes.  He is also a caricaturist and runs a company known as Arty Party Portraits
  • Leanne Pearce (Twitter) - a professional contemporary portrait painter.From Grimsby and lives in Gateshead. First degree in fine art at Northumbria University in the North-East. Second degree in Graphic Communications. She gave up an admin job in a Law Court to focus on portraiture. Her self portrait was very large. She also does her underpainting in acrylic using big brushes before she starts to paint in oil.
  • Phil Tyler - He has been painting for over 30 years and also teaches art at Brighton University. He is well practiced in the art of portraiture having done over 900 self-portraits.  He's also in ING Discerning Eye, Royal Institute of Oil Painters, The Lynn Painter-Stainers prize among others. 

The Amateurs

  • Samira Addo (Facebook Instagram) - Recently graduated with a Masters degree in civil engineering. She works as an engineer and also has a "full time hobby" as a portrait artist and a studio! She studied Art to A Level and is particularly interested in portraiture and now works in acrylics and oils.  She taught herself oil painting using You Tube Videos. The Heat was the first time she had painted anybody from life.
  • Amy Eccleston - see her Facebook Page Amy Leigh Eccleston-Artist. Describes herself on her website as a a young artist currently based in Cornwall, England with a keen interest in Art and a BA (Hons) in Fine Art, at the University of Plymouth.  Works mainly in graphite or coloured pencils and for some reason chose to abandon these and use pastels for her portrait of Michael Ball. Not a good choice.
  • Steve Johnson - gave up a career as a graphic designer to do a full time portrait course at Heatherley's School of Art.
  • Cait Webb  (Facebook- Originally from Australia, she has been a Professors of Robotics at Edinburgh University for over 15 years. She researches and builds robot insects for a day job and plays the harp as well as paints as a leisure pursuit.  Her watercolour self-portrait was painted in two hours.  

Survey of the Self Portraits

Viewing the self portraits
Again, as you can see from the pic (even if you can't see the portraits) there is an enormous range of different sizes and formats. It needs to be an exceptionally strong small portrait to hold up against some of the bigger ones to get shortlisted and then win the Heat.

The Sitters

The three sitters were:
  • actor and singer Michael Ball - very jovial, seemed like a good sitter but a bit concerned about the blancmange pink background
  • actor Robert Bathurst (Cold Feet and Downton Abbey) who was described by one judge as sitting like an Easter Island Head i.e. absolutely rigid and still!  He was rehearsing 2 hours worth of lines in his head!
  • BBC presenter Anita Rani had a curious attire - part singlet and part sari - and seemed to be completely unable to sit still. I confess I felt sorry for her artists - there's absolutely nothing worse than a twitcher!  

Discussions and Observations

View of the competition in the restaurant space at the Wellcome Collection

Setting Up Time

In one of my previous blog posts I commented on the setting up time. I couldn;t quite work out how people were getting their supports gridded up and coloured supports added - and now I have the answer

Cait Webb - one of the amateur artists this week - emailed me in advance of the Heat being shown on television to say she had written a blog post about the experience from the amateur perspective

RECOMMENDED READ: Sky Portrait Artist - the 'amateur' perspective. So now you know what it's really like!  It's also very helpful in terms of the preparation she undertook to prepare herself for the Heat.

Plus Cait comments on my next theme which whether there is a difference between the professional and amateur artists in reality.

The professional vs the amateur artist

One of the things which has kept coming up for me time and again in this series - but has only built in significance over time - is the issue of who is and who is not a professional artist or an amateur artist.

It seems to be that sometimes amateur artists have more experience of art than some so-called professionals eg they may have an art school degree - and yet choose to call themselves amateurs because they earn a crust doing something else.

Then there's the person who calls themselves a professional artist and yet evidence suggests that they must be very new to this particular occupation.

Then there's the issue of skill levels and the speed at which people work. One thing I've observed about very experienced painters who paint on a very regular basis is they build up a very good understanding of how long it takes them to paint from life and hence what sort of support is best for them to choose in terms of both format and size.

It's more likely that those who don't paint quite so often will choose to stray from their usual medium or size of support or type of support more often than those with more experience.

It's more likely that professionals know what works for them - but maybe that's not always the case. Just as the fact maybe amateurs can produce more interesting paintings.

I'm not making comments about specific artists. Just making an observation that the labels are sometimes saying different things to different people.

How to create a distortion

Another "accumulated over time" comment concerns distortion. One thing I've noticed at the beginning when people take photos is that they don't always take care to make sure that their camera or iPad is absolutely parallel to the subject and NOT at an angle. Otherwise distortion (eg barrelling)  is introduced into the portrait if the photo is then used for gridding up on the support and transfering contours from photo to grid. That in turn makes it very difficult to get a likeness.  (see page 51 of my book for the sorts of distortion you can generate and how to get a better reference photo)

It's one of the reasons why artists who paint from life say they can tell when a work has been produced using a photograph.

The thing is your view is true if you use your eyes and it may be distorted if you've used your camera. 

If you go to life class and practice eyeballing a drawing, you'll find that with practice you can develop skills which mean you can sketch in the contours and features much faster than somebody can transfer to a grid!

See if you can spot the portrait with distortion present in this week's bunch.

An interesting trick for oil painters

Add caption

Phil Tyler demonstrated an interesting trick. He works with oils and focuses on keeping the colours on his palette and in his mixes clean rather than muddy. He made the point that this happens much more quickly if the palette area you work on is small. To help him do this he places cellophane over the BIG area on which he wants to work and then puts the oil paint down on top of the cellophane and develops mixes also on the cellophane. When it's got to the point where colours are getting too mixed up and muddy, he lifts the cellophane and starts again. No mess!  (I did however wonder about wasted paint....)

Oil and pastel and why they can be very similar

It's a fact that many leading pastel artists also paint in oils - and vice versa.  The results can also be very similar.

That's because both pastel and oils can both be used in almost the same way to create very similar results - so long as no smoothing of the pastel is involved.  Think of it a bit like using pastel as if it's an alla prima brush stroke applied using your hand.

It's also very fast since pastel provides considerable scope to cover very large areas very fast - so long as you use the pastel properly and drag it lengthways across the surface rather than trying to use it like a pencil or a small brush.

The trick is to pick the right support. A smooth paper with little tooth is never the right paper. (I personally much prefer an abrasive surface - which also tends to stop you smudging and smoothing too much)

I've never ever seen judges like a "smoothed out" pastel artwork in a competitive situation. It might be possible to use this method of blending - but whether it is wise to do so is a completely different matter.

The two portraits "hedge your bets" option

Two of the artists - Phil and Cait chose to work on two portraits. While one undoubtedly started off as a sketch or s study, they both set it aside and started another. It was unclear whether this was because they thought they could do better if they started again. Sometimes the second is no better than the first - it just looks different!

Interestingly Cait reverted to her first study for the submission at the end while Phil persevered with his second knowing he already hand a banker if need be.

[UPDATE - see Phil's comment on this blog post. He was actually working on both and swopping between the two. I can't think why they didn't include this information in the programme as it's an interesting approach to a competitive situation like this]

I'm always left wondering when artists do more than one portrait whether they might have done better if they'd done quicker sketches in terms of working out what to do and then put more time into designing, drawing and painting.

The Halfway Review

To be honest at the halfway point I didn't have a clue as to who would win. I could see maybe three or four who maybe had a slight edge - but it wouldn't take much for them to fall by the wayside and somebody else come through strngly in the second half.

I was very glad at the end to find that judges also felt that it was a very evenly balanced heat.

They also commented that the three artists who had Anita were all struggling to get a likeness because she was moving around a lot. It made me think that maybe the sitters are not well briefed about their need to practice sitting still.

Maybe Sky Arts should put them on a performance contract? ;)

Decision Time

Sitters choose portraits

If you rewatch this Heat - or any of the others - I suggest you watch the sitter's eyes and how long they linger on the different portraits relative to which painting they choose.

I maintain it's a dead giveaway.

The point at issue here is how much people take in at just one glance and how discriminating people can be even when their eyes have seconds or less to appraise a picture.  In this instance they're evaluating two things :
  • does it look like me? (which doesn't mean "Is it realistic?" - it means "Do I recognise this face?")
  • do I like the way it's been painted?
Think about it next time you submit an image to a competition! Those that get selected are very often those that read well and demand attention because of design and use of colour

Anyway, after that diversion and much complimentary commenting by the sitters......

Michael Ball chose Radovan Bolcar's portrait of him
- it was a good likeness of him and an attractive portrait

Robert chose Leanne Pearce's portrait
- who had produced a large painting which in some ways was the most like Robert
Anita picked the portrait by Lynton Parmar-Hemsley
- and I have to say I agreed with her choice. 

I thought it was the one which looked most like her - and the colours were delightful (although they haven't reproduced well here)

Judges choose shortlist

For what it's worth before we get to what the judges thought, my choice was Samira, Radovan and Lynton.  But at the time I was only judging on the portrait only - and I got two right!

Waiting for the final three shortlist announcement
Things the judges liked:
  • Phil knew how colours work together
  • Radovan captured Michael Ball's likeness
  • Samira had a lot of elements of the painting fighting it out on her canvas - but they judges like the kinectic energy this created in her portrait. They also liked her enjoyment of the process of painting which they thought reflected well in the palette
Things the judges were less keen on
  • the use of pastel for the portrait. They said they thought Amy could have been in contention if she'd stuck to graphite.  
  • not quite catching a likeness - and likenesses that came and went again
  • not quite drawing the structure of the face in terms of what they can see - rather than what they know is available
  • paintings which are overworked
The judges chose:
  • Phil Tyler (4th from left)
  • Samira Addo (3rd from right)
  • Lynton Parmar Hemsley (2nd from right)
    Phil Tyler - Self portrait and portrait of Michael Ball

    Samira Addo -  self porrait and her portrait of Robert Bathurst

    Lynton Parmar-Hemsley - self portrait and portrait of Anita Ran

    Heat 7 winner

    Waiting for the announcement of the Winner of Heat 7
    The winner of the Heat was Samira Addo - which I was pleased about as I'd picked her as one of my shortlist.

    Which means yet another woman and yet another amateur in the semi-finals!  It's going to get really interesting in a fortnight's time!

    Samira Addo - after she won Heat 7

    The comment from the Judges was that Samira had taken a risk and she was constantly having to negotiate how she painted - but had pulled it off. They liked the way she painted a lot.

    I've come to the conclusion that these Judges are a painterly bunch who like painters who enjoy their painting - and are painterly in their mark-making!

    Robert Bathurst by Samira Addo
    Samira with her self-portrait
    However at the end of the day, one had the strong impression that they really liked her self portrait too.

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    REFERENCE: Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 

    This is the Call for Entries - Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2019

    Below are my PREVIOUS blog posts about the 2018 competition and my reviews of earlier heats
    - in which I comment on specific aspects for aspiring future contestants!

    Previous Years

    Gareth Reid is Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2017


    1. Thanks for your review. I thought that I should point out, as it wasn't evident in the program that I worked on both portraits of Michael Ball at the same time, working on one, putting it to one side and then working on the other. I started in acrylic for speed and layering and used it all, before swapping to oil in the last two hours. I kept both paintings in the go until the very end when you have to choose just one, and it was in the last two minutes I made my choice, based on the fact that it had captured something of him. I do agree that Radovan and lyntons portraits were stunning

    2. Thanks for the extra information.

      As you say that wasn't at all evident in the programme and yet it would have been an interesting approach and process to have highlighted.

    3. Hi Katherine, on second viewing I did mention it just after lyntons was painting his picture upside down. I talked about it giving me fresh eyes. But it wasn't that clear in the edit. If I get accepted again I would probably go bigger but who knows how I would tackle the problem. That's why it's exciting.


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