Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Review: Episode 8 of Portrait Artist of the Year 2018

At last we've got to Heat 8 of The Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2018 - which I watched during the afternoon at the Wallace Collection!

This is a long one. You'll need a comfy seat and a hot drink!

Portrait Artist of the Year 2018 - Entrance to the Wallace Collection
I've been sitting on lots and lots of photos for the last 11 months!. I've now released most of them in an album on Flickr - essentially for the benefit of all those contemplating having a go at applying for 2019 - see Call for Entries - Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2019

They include
  • photos of ALL the art materials and palettes that each artist was working with - which is interesting of itself!
  • plus what it really looks like when everything is 'happening'.
My photos of the Heat - see the link to it above if you want to view them

Plus you get to see what the environment is really like - once you take into account all the cameramen and the production team. (They're mostly people dressed in black!)

Tom surrounded by cameras and sound mikes
- not a lot of space should you want to stand back from your portrait!

The Artists, Self-portraits and Sitters

This Heat included six professional artists and three amateur artists (for a discussion of 'professional;' and 'amateur' see my last blog post about this series Review: Episode 7 of Portrait Artist of the Year 2018)

In the listing below:
  • a link to the the artist's website is embedded in their name - for those wanting to know the standard of work by artists who get selected
  • links to their social media follows - should you wish to follow them

Professional Artists

The six professional artists were - in alphabetical order:
  • Frances Bell (Facebook Instagram) - Trained in a traditional sight size drawing (no painting for a year while you learn to draw ) and painting from life in Florence at the Charles H Cecil School. Frances has been a regular exhibitor at the annual exhibitions of a number of the national art societies and she has also won a number of awards. The judges very much liked her self-portrait because it did NOT look like a typical traditional pose. She'd in effect painted herself from head to toe sat on the ground with an element of foreshortening - and on top of a rather nice carpet. It took 20 hours. 
  • Christabel Blackburn (private Instagram | Twitter) - She originally studied the foundations of figurative drawing and sculpture - also at Charles Cecil Studios in Florence - but just for one year. She then completed her training in figurative drawing, painting and sculpting at The London Atelier of Representational Art. This is her profile on LARA's website
  • Tom Croft (Instagram) - professional portrait painter who works in oils from his garden studio based in Wolvercote, Oxford. He spent three years producing work for Manchester Football Club and has painted footballers Wayne Rooney, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs. He's also a a member of the Oxford Art Society and opens his studio to the public during Oxfordshire Artweeks. He kept us biting our nails until the end - and pulled it out of the bag!  
  • Beverley Fry - professional artist from Shropshire who has sold and exhibited for 35 years, with over 10 solo exhibitions and also ran a studio gallery for 13 years. This was the self-portrait she painted - the judges liked the composition.
  • Michelle Ives (Instagram) - a professional n artist and illustrator living and working in Glasgow, Scotland. Originally from South Africa, she trained in graphic design and illustration before moving to the UK and gaining further qualifications in the field of animation.  She mostly paints landscapes and has also been in “Sky Landscape Artist of the Year” competition 2016. Very fond of green!
  • Jonathan Luxon (Facebook) Based in North East Scotland. Former music teacher who did a Joint Honours degree in Fine Art and Music at Canterbury Christ Church University. He has been been working as a professional artist in North East Scotland since 2009.  He started painting landscapes at the start of 2016, exploring his local area of Findhorn Bay and the Highlands. His self portrait was 'eyeballed' from life and painted in 35 hours and the inclusion of himself in the mirror was an afterthought. He paints with an acrylic underpainting - and then oils on top and he had a planned timeline - but didn't quite manage to keep to it.

Jonathan Luxon - with a few other subjects in his eyeline

Amateur Artists

The three amateur artists were:
  • Rebecca Bright (Instagram) - Graduated from Cambridge with a degree in medieval and modern languages and last April was an Account Director working in Advertising. She takes on commissions in her spare time and would like to become a professional artist - and it looks as if she might have taken the plunge!
  • Alastair Faulkner (FacebookInstagram | Twitter)- I don't think Alastair will mind if I say he looked to me like he might be very young. Then we found out he is training as an orthopaedic surgeon in Dundee! He graduated with a degree in Medicine from The University of Edinburgh in 2012 and currently works for NHS Highland. He paints in his spare time as a hobby. He was also taught drawing by a plastic surgeon in Cambridge re. how to draw anatomically. He  is very much a self-taught artist and painted his large self-portrait "Self Portrait in Green Scrubs" over several months. He has a blog called Bones and Brushes.
  • Pal Kumar (Instagram | Twitter) Grew up in India and is now an 18 year old A Level Student who lives in London. He like drawing in a mix of graphite and charcoal and had a drawing in Wildlife Artist of the Year 2017
Pal - totally unfazed by the cameraman and sound man!

Survey of the Self Portraits

You can see the self portraits in my Flickr file referenced above.

Again the self portraits were very varied in both size and nature.
  • Small scale is not a problem if the painting is interesting. 
  • Getting a lot out of simple media like pencil and charcoal is regarded as good. 
  • compositions which are interesting are appealing
  • pulling the viewer into the painting is a bonus
  • constructive tensions are positive
  • using colour for mood can be helpful
  • the directness of the gaze can grab attention of the viewer
  • demonstrating that you can paint tone in colour is an asset

The sitters

Kirsty Wark and artists - at the beginning

The sitters were:
  • Meera Syal CBE - the British comedian, writer, playwright and actress and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She seemed an excellent sitter. She'd come prepared with her iPhone and ear buds.
  • Sir Derek Jacobi CBE - an English actor  - on stage and television and stage director. Probably best known among my generation for 'I Claudius' in 1976.  Twice winner of a Laurence Oliver Award and also a winner of a Tony Award.
  • Kirsty Wark FRSE - a British journalist and television presenter, best known for fronting BBC Two's news and current affairs programme Newsnight since 1993, and its weekly arts spin-off programme - plus occasional forays into the Royal Academy of Art.

    Meera Syal and artists - near the end

Discussions and Observations

For the most part observations are around themes within the series as a whole as opposed to specifically referencing any one sitter(s) in this Heat. Not so easy at the beginning but a lot easier now.

The Florence School

There has been a very clear antipathy throughout the series to those artists trained in Florence.  It was interesting and encouraging therefore to hear Joan Bakewell make this exact observation towards the end of the show.

Personally I don't think this very clear bias is fair - particularly in the current context of society at large where diversity is being encouraged. It  seemed to be apparent that neither did Joan or maybe she is a proxy for the programme makers? 

A Judge might not like the style - but that's personal - and Judges should be basing their judgements on whether at the end of the day a painting is a good portrait - not whether they personally like it or not. 

For example, I'm very much reminded of Series 1 in which Sandy Nairne (at the time Director of the National Portrait Gallery) reminded them that his primary consideration is whether or not a portrait is a good likeness!  Something which hadn't figured much in the panel's comments up until that point - but did in subsequent series! (This is the benefit of binge watching Portrait Artist of the Year on catchup!)

Otherwise if the Judges don't like Florence School Style of Portraiture why are the programme makers not just totally open about this and enable some professional artists to avoid wasting their time?

The terms and conditions of the competition state
all of the criteria for judging and the decisions of the Judges shall be at the discretion of the Judges and the Producer and shall not be not open to dispute or discussion.
However I'm not an entrant and I'm certainly not bound by those rules! I've spoken at length in the past about the potential jeopardy organisers and/or judges introduce into art competitions when Judges choose to operate their own "unspoken rules" as opposed to those advertised to entrants - because it is a competition and because there are rules about competitions and about fairness to entrants!

I'm also reminded of another competition where the sponsors and organisers of the competition have now changed the rules to eliminate unwarranted bias by Judges which clearly undermines the fairness and the reputation of the competition - which then gets reflected on the sponsors.

The present attitude, in my opinion, just serves to undermine the status of this competition as other more prestigious portrait competitions for serious portrait painters certainly do NOT object to the Florentine School of painting!

Nor do clients for portraiture given the very robust business apparently done by those who trained in Florence!

The Anatomy of the Eye

Throughout the series there have been some very clear errors in relation to how artists have portrayed the eye - and some of these errors were seen time and time again.  This summary is not particularly about artists in this heat so much as a summary of errors I saw across the heats.

These include:
  • making the eye far too flat. It's amazing how many artists forget that an eyeball is round and this is reflected in the form the eyelid takes
  • trying to make the far eye in a semi profile pose appear much bigger than it is or could be in reality - in order for it to be seen. I suspect artists are moving their heads to try and see more and missing the point that while the sitter has to remain still and on the same spot - SO DOES THE ARTIST!  The first person to invent a gizmo which allows artists' heads to return to the same spot when trying to get the drawing right stands to make a lot of money!  Maybe a head restraint? ;)
  • failure to draw contours around the overall shape of the head at the angle at which the head is held - specifically at the brow line. I've lost count of the number of subjects I've seen painted with a deformed brow line and a far eye which is either too high or too low.
  • overemphasis of the catchlight - so that what you see is the catchlight and not the eye.  While an eye may look dead without a catchlight, if the artist overdoes the catchlight it can also makes a sitter look weird.
  • Getting the eye colour wrong - which, in my opinion, is just "not allowed" within the context of a portrait which is trying to look representative
  • failure to portray the variations in the iris - there are lots of colours in the iris and a fair few striations too. 
Bottom line it's always possible to tell who did and who didn't have a good look at the eyes!

Seeing yourself in a portrait

There is a theory that many artists when portraying a sitter also portray their own characteristics, especially if they are more familiar with painting themselves rather than another person from life.

Another theory suggests that the inclusion of the artist's features in a portrait of a client is not accidental - see Why portraits look so like the artistArtists impose own likeness on royal portraits and the Every Painter Paints Himself website 

It was however quite remarkable to watch one of the painters produce a portrait of Kirsty at the beginning which looked remarkably like her own self-portrait. I've never seen it happen before in front of my eyes. It became more like Kirsty over time - although it did omit Kirsty's brown eyes! Or as Frank put it about the green eyes....
"Those eyes are so green, they could start traffic!"

Painting to a timeline

I've referenced the timing issue before in my comments.

It is very evident that even if it's the strength of your self-portrait submission which makes the difference and carries you through to the final three, you still have to make a good job of the portrait - even if things may not go quite as you had planned.

They key to this is:
  • painting to a timeline i.e. have in mind a plan for what you need to get done by what time 
  • being able to speed up if need be
  • not panicking and doing anything stupid at the last minute!
One of the painters who made it to the final three had a plan - but did not get fazed when he found himself near the end but about an hour behind.

Another painter who made it to the final three didn't have the mouth or chin painted with 30 minutes to go. However he kept his cool - after a small timeout - and got stuck in and got both painted in before time was called. Not to the standard he would have liked - but they were both there!

Geeks, gadgets and gizmos

Jonathan Luxon won the Advanced Geek Equipment Award from me for the most inventive gadgets and gizmos. Some art manufacturer needs to get this man on a retainer and pay him for coming up with aids for artists.

I loved his holder for his jars (to avoid them being knocked over!), his clever tool for matching paint mixes to the colour you are trying to emulate in your subject - and the way he tied his mahl stick to the easel so he never dropped it  and it was easier to handle.

[UPDATE: See the first comment for the origins of the colour checker tool - you can have one too!]

The colour of shadows

Shadows are NOT a variation on black. Shadows (i.e. tonal variations) have colour - or at least they should have.

For me the colour a portrait artist uses to paint variations in tonal values (i.e. shadows and highlights) is a very clear indication of their experience in painting people - and their ability to look for and see colour.

The Halfway Review

I was running round the space where the Heat was being filmed - getting photographs of setups and workstations while nobody was around.

One of my photos at half time - with Beverley's workstation and portrait in the foreground

I must confess however that my main thought at half time in the afternoon was mostly about how some of them were going to finish in the time!

There were some clear front runners for me - and the most obvious of these was Frances, even though the likeness wasn't quite there - because her painting was luscious!  I also liked Tom's but wondered how he was going to finish. I remember having a chat with his wife after the mid-afternoon break when it was clear he was going to have to really push to get to the end.

I've had a chat with him since and apparently the explanation for going wrong on timing was installing a grid app on his ipad the day before and then trying to use that and finding it messed about with the flow.  Fortunately he was an experienced painter and mapped in the whole lower half of the face in 30 minutes!

From which I take it the clear recommendation is never ever change the way you normally work in the Heat!

If you need to work differently to be able to produce a portrait in four hours then you need to practice!

Decision Time

Sitters choose their portrait to take home

The paintings of Meera were all incredibly different but each captured something of her and each had their own merits.

Having learned that she is quite a quiet and private person (nobody except her family knew when she married Sanjeev Bhaskar - not even her agent!) I can see why the smaller portrait might appeal to her - as a gut choice.

Meera Syal choose a very spare but jewel-like composition by Christabel Blackburn
Derek Jacobi was quite theatrical about his choice. He was quite astute in his comments - with Rebecca providing an unforgiving portrait of what he actually looks like, Frances painting him in a way he'd like to be seen and Pal providing a portrait which he found intriguing.

He chose the portrait which intrigued him!

Derek Jacobi chose the portrait by Pal Kumar

Again each of the paintings of Kirsty had something interesting about them. I very much agreed with the Judges - I think Beverley lost something in her painting towards the end - in the first half it very much looked like she might be a front-runner and she definitely had a good plan and the profile was true.  The morph of Michelle's painting from being a self-portrait into a painting more like Kirsty was remarkable and how on earth Tom finished in time I have no idea.  He's probably good in a crisis!

Kirsty chose his painting and I rather think it's because he got the eyes right.

Kirsty chose Tom's portrait
Incidentally he has since done another painting of Kirsty which is much better - which you can see on his website

The Shortlist of Three

The Heat Participants - waiting for the final three shortlist announcement

The Judges chose:
  • Jonathan Luxon (extreme right)
  • Frances Bell (5th from left)
  • Thomas Croft (4th from left)
In my view it was an excellent shortlist and any one of them could have been chosen as a winner when portraits and self-portraits were looked at together.

I think it was small mistakes made or things left unfinished by the two who did not get selected which in effect lost them the heat eg Frances lost the likeness she had earlier and Tom did not get the modelling in around the lower half of the face because of lack of time.  Jonathan did not make a mistake - apart from maybe working on  too large a support and leaving a BIG pink patch unfinished - but apparently it's his habit to work large and then cut down at the end.

The review of the six paintings - self portrait and portrait by each of the final three

Below are things the Judges mentioned at various points in the programme and which they took into account when judging ALL the portraits.

The artist is highlighted if one of the three and not if not selected.

Things the judges liked:
  • catching the likeness of the subject - as displayed by Tom and Jonathan 
  • capturing the sense of the person - which Tom did
  • the way in which an artist can continue to maintain a likeness even as the portrait developed - as demonstrated by Jonathan all the way through the heat
  • the naturalistic colour palette  and handling of light displayed by Frances - much admired by Tai
  • the colour of shadows in Jonathan's portrait of Meera
  • demonstration of a facility with paint and tone- i.e. confident handling of tone in colour and paint as a medium - as demonstrated by Tom and Frances
  • an interesting and accomplished self-portrait - a major strength for Jonathan, Frances and Tom.

Things the judges were less keen on:
  • the way an artist loses a promising start - by losing the likeness 
  • "predictable painting" whatever this is
  • predictable poses (i.e. Florence School)
  • artists who were less confident handling colour (which is not the same as using artistic licence)
  • structural defects (i.e. this is not the way the head / face works) e.g. eyes in the wrong place
  • styles in this heat which were very different from the self-portrait - which suggests inexperience as a painter (i.e. an experienced painter would know how to paint within their limit for the time available e.g. cut down the portrait to just a head)
  • shadows on the face which are grey - they just make the sitter look grubby

Jonathan Luxon: self portrait and portrait of Meera Syal

Frances Bell - self portrait (which was the one I liked the best) and her portrait of Derek Jacobi

Tom Croft: self portrait and his portrait of Kirsty Wark

Heat 8 Winner

First the line up of three waiting to hear the judgement. Jonathan has his eyes closed!

Waiting for the announcement of the Winner of Heat 7

and then the result

The winner - Jonathan Luxon!
At least we aren't going to have a lone man in the semi final. There will now be two of them - and six women!

This is a link to Jonathan's interview with Cass Arts

The Semi Final Next Week

I'm looking forward to it! How about you?

The sitters are Simon Callow and Lily Cole.

The semi-final in the next episode will be between:
  • Heat 1: Hetty Lawlor
  • Heat 2: Leanne Mullene
  • Heat 3: Bríd Higgins Ni Chinnéide
  • Heat 4: Lisa Puhlhofer
  • Heat 5: Corinne Pierre
  • Heat 6: Danny Howes
  • Heat 7: Samira Addo
  • Heat 8: Jonathan Luxon

You can find links to all the past episodes and my reviews below.


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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. The colour checker that the winner used looks just like the one suggested by Mark Carder on the draw mix paint channel on youtube. His realist work depends on good values and he's an advocate of checking everything! I've always thought it has a weak spot in as much as the sitter and the paint chip you're checking need to be at the same angle and under the same light source, or the value will be wrong. But what do I know, I use charcoal...!

  2. As an avid watcher of this series (and the Landscape version, which is far more maddening) and a serious amateur myself, I have been irritated by the randomness of some of the comments made by the judges. Like you, I was overjoyed to hear Joan allude to the distrust of 'unfashionable' styles, like it has any real bearing on whether it is a good painting or not. I'm all for moving with the times, but the bias towards different irrespective of quality is unfortunate. I find Tai the least random of the three, which is possibly not surprising. The lamenting that someones photo-realistic style in the submission (that must take many months to create) doesn't match the work in 4 hours is also a recurring theme. Don't put someone through who works in that style as this is essentially impossible to recreate all prima. Finally (and I love the show, really I do!) the clusters of above average artists in the same week, artists that would have walked other heats is infuriating!

  3. Some very sound points made!

    I'm going to try and round up a series of tips before the closing date for the 2019 submission

    It was going to be just for artists - but I'm now minded to do one for the organisers too.

  4. My tip for entrants would definitely be to practice painting within a 4 hour deadline, in fact with all the interruptions for filming & interviews it is more like 3 and a half hours! The timing is crucial.
    My painting did not quite go to plan & it was down to the timing of my stages and lack of experience with painting portraits. I spent a little too long on the beginning stages of sketching, blocking in and underpainting. This really needs to be done very quickly to allow maximum painting time. With half an hour to go, I had to make the decision on whether to tackle the background or not, and was I worried I would end up with something half finished or very rushed. In the end I left my underpainting as it was and although I do like green, my original intention was to paint more local colour in the background, having the odd “speck” of green showing through to enliven the surface....So unfortunately I was not able to complete this.
    For me, the answer would perhaps lie in practising laying down the initial drawing and blocking in quickly. I would like to be confident enough to draw in boldly with a paintbrush and omit any measured sketch or drawing altogether....for other artists with different painting methods, a different approach would and learn!

  5. Thank you for your insight into the challenges of the programme and how things went for you. That makes a great deal more sense of what your portrait looked like.


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