Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Review: The Final of Portrait Artist of the Year 2018

Last night was The Final of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2018 - and this is a review of the programme and the decision.

The Final Portraits painted in 4 hours.
My guess as to who would win proved correct. The question up for discussion - in this post and any comments you might like to add - is whether or not the decision was justified.

What follows is my response to what we saw in the episode - in terms of
  • the painting of Emili Sande, 
  • the three portrait commissions - and finally
  • what happened in terms of the decision-making.
Before the start - the set-ups for
(left to right) Danny Howes, Samira Addo and Hetty Lawlor

The Final Portraits - at the National Portrait Gallery

I think the three finalists were incredibly fortunate in having Emili Sande as their subject. She's got a "good head" and was incredibly still for four hours.

I made notes while watching.
  • they all took photos as reference
  • both Danny and Samira gridded up - the latter for the first time. 
  • Hetty just stuck to her routine of starting with the eyes and getting those right and working out from there, measuring by eye as she went.
  • Danny used a grid because he upped his normal size and used the photo and the grid to get the drawing placed on the canvas - and then painted from life
  • Samira worried about using the grid as it seemed to throw out her timings. She looked quite tense and troubled by time.

In terms of who produced the best portrait - in Emili Sande's view it was Hetty.

I liked the portraits produced by both Hetty (best likeness) and Danny - some lovely painting of skin tones, which is clearly something he is very good at.

For me Samira seemed somewhat stressed having changed her normal way of working and while she definitely pulled it back towards the end, for me it wasn't one of her better paintings - although better than the one she produced for the semi-final where it was absolutely impossible to tell who the sitters actually were.

Hetty's drawing (in coloured pencils and acrylic) of Emili Sande

Danny Howes painting of Emili - the largest painting and 'head'

Samira's painting of Emili

The other artists

There were a dozen artists working from a video of Emili Sande in a nearby room - with the winner promised a pass to the next series. To be honest, I wasn't impressed by most of what I saw. It occurred to me that these might be the reserve painters who could fill in at the last minute at a Heat if somebody dropped out or got sick. I could be wrong....

The winner in the sideshow turned out to be a female Army helicopter pilot called Hannah Shergold who produced a large and very colourful painting using palette knives (and has an interesting website! Turns out she is a a fully qualified Lynx helicopter commander who has served all over the world including Canada, Kenya, Germany and Afghanistan.)

The Commissions

I wish they'd given more time to the Commissions. If the decision is supposed to be based on both why not give them equal time?
I thought the choices were interesting - and what's more the commissioned portraits were all excellent.

Interestingly the judges didn't see the commissioned portraits until the portrait painting in 4 hours had been completed.

The Judges view ALL the portraits for the final for the first time
Their conclusion:
  • all top quality - definitely no "duffers" 
  • all three produced very strong portraits 
  • all three were easily commissionable 
  • it was the toughest decision ever!

Portraits by Danny Howes

Danny was generally considered by the Judges to be a 'safe pair of hands' and 'very reliable' and 'very commissionable'.

Kathleen found his portrait of Emili to be incredibly competent. His treatment of Emili's hair was a 'tour de force'. Kate really liked some beautiful passages of paint in her portrait.  Tai felt it was a bit prosaic and lacking in poetry.

Tai liked how his vision was so much larger and the finesse was more accomplished when given more than four hours for a portrait. Kate was very taken by all the tools. Kathleen was impressed by how he had captured vivacity and energy in the face and expresses who the sitter is as a man.

In my view, Danny's was the largest and most complete of all the portraits of Emili and the only one to bring in a lot more than a head and shoulders perspective. He'd made the best use of the time and had adjusted his normal way of painting to achieve this without losing control over his brushwork.

Personally speaking I found Danny's commission the most professional and by far the most impressive in terms of "most likely to be asked to do a portrait commission for the National Portrait Gallery" - in the very near future!

Portraits by Samira Addo

Their view was that Samira was the biggest risk of the three but that she played with colour and colour contrast and her portrait of Emili had captured the spirit of the person she was representing.

All three were impressed by Samira's treatment of Zandra Rhodes, the tilt of the head, the mouth open (only possible when painting from a photo!), leaving passages of orange in her face. Tai found it breathtaking.

Kate said they wanted somebody exciting and different and that's what she got from these paintings.

In my view while the approach to painting is interesting and distinctive, Samira's portrait of Emili was the most incomplete of the three. Yet again, there was lots of white space - as in unpainted canvas. There has been no attempt at context at any stage during the competition.

Portraits by Hetty Lawlor

The Judges felt Hetty had chosen a phenomenal angle when painting Emili and really found the look in Emili's eye - but they wanted to see her produce more from the poise. They felt she had got the best likeness and had consistently achieved the best likeness in every round. Kate felt that her portrait of Emili might be her favourite. Tai commented that she got the best likeness.

Tai and Kathleen both felt she got a great sense of Geri.

I thought Hetty had produced both a very accurate likeness and an excellent portrait of Emili and I'm not in the least bit surprised that Emili Sande chose it.

I was surprised by how accomplished her work was when she stepped up with the size she worked at with the commissioned portrait.

The best portrait artist of the year?

Did the best portrait artist win? That depends on who's making the decision.

Is this competition capable of determining "the best portrait artist of the year".

It can certainly come up with answer so long as you preface with "Sky Arts" and limit consideration only to those who applied and who the Judges liked - but that's NOT the same thing as "the portrait artist of the year" by a very long way.

There was an interesting response to those who voted in response to Sky Arts question about who should take The Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year

Let's start at the beginning.

This is what two of the judges said at the beginning of the programme about the Final
What we want to see is not only the ability to capture likeness but to make art, to make something that tells us about what it is like to be alive today
Tai Shan Schierenberg
We need to know this is an artist who will continue to grow and evolve and make us proud
British art historian, curator and arts broadcaster Kate Bryan
Now on this basis alone I knew the winner was going to be Samira.

Why? Well, there's a number of reasons which largely revolve around what they said (as per the edit) and the profiles of the artists in the final
  • Danny was the safe and reliable option. They were not expecting fireworks - nor given his experience were they expecting any major change in the way he worked. Having come to this conclusion in advance they were very unlikely to change their minds.
  • Hetty uses coloured pencils. That on its own meant she was very unlikely to win - because there is a well established aversion within the 'higher echelons' of the British art world to anything which isn't oil or acrylics when it comes to creating portraits (check out the terms and conditions of the BP Portrait Award re. media). Interestingly we don't always see this in other countries where there seems to be more openness and tolerance for the use of other media for portraiture.
  • Samira was the only one who intrigued Tai - in terms of painting - and when all said and done the only portrait artist amongst the Judges is Tai!
Artists all over the world complain about Judges and how selections are made.

However in my opinion they are wrong to do so (even though I sometimes complain myself!) - if they don't "get" one fundamental "truth".

THERE IS NO RIGHT OR WRONG ANSWER - there can only ever be 'personal opinion'.

Which means that Portrait Artist of the Year in a sense is a nonsense title - because this is a decision based on three people and a very limited pool of candidates - which certainly does does not include many of the best portrait artists around today.

This is a TALENT competition, not a definitive statement about who is the best portrait artist.

To make some sort of assessment of the "best portrait artist", we'd need to see a lot more than the number of portraits we see in this competition - and remember that not every artist cares for competitions - no matter how good, bad or indifferent they are.

We also can't be talking about "best portrait artist" in terms of the future because that can only ever be pure and utter speculation.

After all, we only have to look at how wrong so many Judges have been in the past when we try and remember the names of people who have won talent contests - because they aren't around any more!

Like other competitions this competition is theoretically judged on the best performance in the last round - which means we're talking "best paintings" and not "best artist".

If you want to engage with the masses then at some point all the best talent competitions involve the public - and they decide. However, then the competition potentially runs foul of the problem that the public always vote for the person they like the best irrespective of who actually performs best.

Add in a fourth judge - as they did in the first series of this programme - and you might well get a very different decision - because another perspective and opinion has been added to the mix.

Sandy Nairne arrived as the independent Judge for the Final of the First series and announced that capturing a likeness was an absolute and necessary prerequisite of a portrait painter i.e. portrait painting is NOT JUST ABOUT THE ART! It actually has to look like the person.

I found it interesting how Sandy Nairne did not get to continue in that role of independent and well informed expert artbiter - and one can only speculate as to the reasons!. However the discontinuity of opinions between somebody whose business was all about displaying and commissioning portraits and a panel which includes two judges with much less experience of portraiture for me speaks volumes.

So - bottom line - judgement when based on personal opinion basically boils down to what an individual likes (and dislikes) - and, in this instance, who these three Judges like.

That's why I'm always intrigued by who is judging a competition and why I regard it as essential that this information is shared with prospective applicants for a competition BEFORE the closure date for submissions.

You can almost tell what will happen just by who gets chosen as judges.

For example, this particular panel have demonstrated a complete aversion to the Florentine 'traditional' school of portraiture in this series. Whether that is right or fair is up for debate - however the fact is they don't like it.

So much so that I'd venture to suggest that it may very well be a complete waste of time for any painter who has been taught to paint in a classical way to enter this competition. You'd do far better to enter the BP where such prejudice is very definitely not evident based on the eclectic range of portraits that get selected for the BP exhibitions.

So as to the outcome - Samira won - as I knew she would. 

At the end of the day, the Judges ignored the excellent draughtsmanship and the craftsmanship and competence in producing very good likenesses and very good portraits - and went for that illusive "magic" element (which Simon Cowell calls the "x" factor!)

However, I think THEY ALL DID WELL overall and I have three alternative titles for them
  • Hetty is "Best Practitioner in getting a Consistent Likeness"
  • Danny is "Most Likely to be Commissioned by Major Institutions"
  • Samira is "Most Magical Treatment of Paint" (to quote Tai) 
NONE of them are Portrait Artist of the Year because we are looking at far too few portraits to make that assessment.

I was really sorry for Danny who had obviously put his heart and soul into it and was obviously really upset not to win. I felt he really deserved it with that simply stunning commission portrait and the way he progressed his painting during the course of the competition.  I was also extremely impressed by Hetty's unnerving ability to capture people every single time without any apparent effort.

I guess I'm getting old and am just past the "being impressed by magic" stage.....

Let's not forget, the real test of "who is the best" really comes in five years time and ten years time - when we check back to see how people are doing as portrait artists......


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REFERENCE: Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 

This is thCall 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


  1. Someone spoiled the ending for me before I got to see it, so I'm not sure how I would have felt going in blind. I was really sad Danny didn't win, because I personally liked his style best and technically he's a very strong painter. I thought Samira's commission was stunning, and her competition piece worked at considerable distance. I thought Heddy's competition piece was gorgeous (save a bit of hardness at the jaw) and her commission piece was a bit dark and overly polished and pretty (but not bad).

    I was vastly underwhelmed with the final commissioned piece, which looked to me like something done with vectors in photoshop, and was massively, massively out of place among the gallery.

    As a whole, I loved the series, and the introduction to a whole bunch of new artists, and was really glad to read the reviews as no one I knew was watching to discuss it with, and the links to said new artists were helpful.

  2. Thanks for your insights,I happen to agree with your explination I was awed by Hettys
    ability to get a likeness and think Dannys commission was the best I think Samira was different so thats why she was chosen, my wife however thought the Judges got it right.

  3. An interesting read expanding on different aspects of the Sky competition. Thank you. I saw that you mentioned - the "well established aversion within the 'higher echelons' of the British art world to anything which isn't oil or acrylics when it comes to creating portraits". As a watercolour portrait artist I have hung with the RWA and RI in the past but can't apply for the BP (or for my local Bath's Holburne Portrait Prize - got in with an oil portrait.) Do you think the problem is compounded when there is prize money? (watercolours etc traditionally at a lower price point) Interested in your views. ( I show with the wonderful SWA.)

  4. I've loved reading your analysis of each episode of the series, even if I haven't agreed with all your opinions, I've really enjoyed your insight. As someone getting back into painting your blog seems like a fantastic resource, thank you.

  5. Thank you Katherine I have really enjoyed reading your reviews on the series.
    I do agree with your opinions above. The final three were selected to represent different styles of painting and I think they had already decided on the winner before the final.
    The format of the show will always favour artists whose style of painting can be achieved in four hours (and under the pressure of filming etc ) - so can never be a true representation of the diverse world of portrait painting today.

    I do however love watching this show, as it is so fascinating to get an opportunity to see how different artists work. They were all very brave to enter the show and there were a lot of worthy winners that didn't reach the final.

  6. I think the judges got it wrong, a portrait first and foremost has to be a likeness and Hetty excelled in that. They chose a very clever graphic designer and her attempt st the double portrait in the semi final should have counted against.

  7. As you say, the result was almost a formality, solely because of the judges. I wouldn't have selected Samira from the semi final as that portrait wasn't a worthy piece. The moment that happened the result of the final was pre determined. Almost too predictable.

  8. I said in a previous comment that didn't appear for some reason, Samira is a very good graphic designer, not a portrait painter. I agree the painting in the semifinal should have put her out of the running.

  9. Do not be underestimate how much blatant political correctness has played a part in the decision making process throughout this entire series. I have watched avidly and it is as clear as daylight. I am appalled.

  10. The same thought had occurred to me.

    I suspect when programme making these days there are clear guidelines as to "what's important" if there are issues that need to be addressed.

  11. I think Hetty was robbed. She is 17 and to be able to do the kind of work she does with coloured pencils is nothing short of incredible. The picture of Geri was phenomenal, the likeness, the background with the flag all of which completely encapsulated her and her career in one shot.

  12. I wonder what would have happened if the final portraits were entered for the BP Portrait Award? I would like to think that Danny’s painting would have been accepted ( maybe a prize Winner?)and also Hetty’s. So talented for a 17 year old. I agree with Neil, how could Samira have had her semi final portrait selected . Impossible to recognise the sitters.

  13. My son and I really thought Hetty should have won. What a talent!!! But I agree with whoever commented above. A certain amount of political correctness seems to reign... Having said that and having had misgivings about the Kim Cattrall commission, I was subsequently impressed by the way the portrait captured her essence- apart from the indigo blue hair perhaps!!!

  14. My son and I thought Hetty should have won. What a talent!!! I agree with the comment above. A certain amount of political correctness seems to reign and one could pretty much tell who the winner would be. Having said that and having had misgivings about how the Kim Cattrall commission would go, I was impressed by the way the outcome captured the essence of Kim - minus the indigo blue hair perhaps!!

  15. I have often felt there is a bias towards young artists on this show and Samira's win followed that pattern. Having said that 17 year old Hetty displayed quite extraordinary ability, was amazingly consistent in each round and would have been my choice.

  16. I have watched this show since its first year along with its sister show - Landscape artist of the year, and for me the show is marred by the bias of the judges, in particular Kate Bryan, whom I think rather dominates the decisions ( in my opinion ). On the whole, I feel they tend to reject the more traditional artists - even if their work is clearly superior - in favour of the more contemporary artists. I liked Samira's work but she should never have got through the semi final and once she did, the eventual winner was predetermined. Her work in the final was clearly inferior to the other two, but she won nevertheless, and I think the competition has lost credibility now.

  17. Don't forget all the Hyper realism contestants that have also received a bashing from the bias judges. My partner and I have watched both disciplines of show from the start but have grown an unfortunate evasion to the franchise since witnessing the chain of events depicted in this excellent breakdown. I feel the judges have lost all credibility and are unfortunately showing their narrow mindedmess with regards to actual talent being appreciated, recognised and celebrated. Shame as the show started with such good premise and could've gone the distance...

  18. I was surprised at the remarks to the effect that the winner is not the portrait artist of the year. Surely we all understand that only the people who apply can be in the running! I'm always astonished at the standard the competition reveals.

  19. @ Crosspatch - I suggest you reread the comments under "The best portrait artist of the year?"

    There are a number of much more prestigious competitions which have artists entering and exhibited who have produced some really great portraits - albeit within the confines of the criteria for those competitions.

    The thing to remember for this one is it's the "portrait artist of the year" just so long as that title is prefixed by "Sky Arts" i.e. this is the best portrait artist judged by the team of judges who work for Sky Arts - in their view.

  20. I was at the Final of the 2019 Portrait Artist of the year this summer (it will be televised next year) - and it is the same as before - the three Judges.


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