Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review: Semi Finals of Portrait Artist of the Year 2018

The Semi Finals (Episode 9) of Portrait Artist of the Year was broadcast on Tuesday evening. I was able to catch up on the programme, make my notes and review social media comments this morning - and what follows is my review.

The Semi Finals of  Portrait Artist of the Year 2018

I'll see if I can make sense of what happened.

The Semi Finalists

The Semi Finalists
(Left to right: Leanne, Samira, Danny, Hetty, Brid, Lisa, Corinne and Jonathan)

The semi finals comprised four professional artists (links in the Heat Numbers are to my review of that Episode):
and four amateur artists
In terms of looking back at the series as a whole it's interesting to see whether the choices made in the Heats survived the challenges associated with the Semi Final.

What was different

First of all they changed the location. Using the Cafe de Paris was suggested to be a good way "taking them out of a safe environment" - although why an environment in which each artist probably had one of the more stressful experiences of their lives should be regarded by artists as "safe" is beyond me!

It was also suggested that the nature of the environment would be something the artists could capture in their portraits. There are some very obvious reasons - see below why this was something of a ridiculous hope!  Quite apart from the fact that most artists had stuck to head and shoulders portraits in their heats!

However the location did mean that they could control the light better - no "plein air" challenges from the overhead lighting to challenge them - because there was no natural light and they could make sure lighting was equally good for all artists (at least I assume they did this!)

Instead of one, the finalists had to paint TWO sitters within four hours.

Personally, given that this strategy favours some artists over others in terms of painting technique and speed of painting, IMO it was a bit much:
  • NOT to notify them in advance - so they had a chance to practice doing two portraits in four hours (ie effectively halving the time they had previously).
  • NOT to extend the amount of time available for painting - An extra hour or two could have made a very big difference to the outcome of this part of the competition - and the painters would still have had less time to paint a portrait than they had previously
Bottom line I think that while it is perfectly fair to make the challenge more difficult at this stage in order to the traditional "sort them out", this needs to be done in such a way as to
  • maintain a level playing field and 
  • avoid any context or tactics which favours one artist over another.
Could they have raised the stakes and been fair to all artists? Of course they could.   I'd suggest this is something for the company making the programme to reflect on for the future.

The models

Lily Cole and Simon Callow

The models were:


This is a slightly different review in the sense that we've already seen all the painters paint at least once. 

Performance Anxiety

This week I got the impression that the major challenge for most people - besides two sitters in a new context - was the FACT it was the semi-final. The atmosphere was more intense and was commented on as such by more the one painter while others just looked more worried.

I think a bit of performance anxiety crept in to some people's paintings. Certainly some painters paintings just fell away as the session progressed. They actually didn't look like they'd been painted by the same person who had painted in the Heats. 

Timing out the window

For those focusing on keeping their cool and just working steadily - in order to keep a lid on nerves - there was the contrary issue of needing to remember all the time that they were painting two people and had to create a unity and balance between the two individuals - but in the same amount of time they had to do one person in the Heat!

I thought Jonathan summed it up rather aptly "Why didn't I start panicking sooner?" - because at the end of the day there is always only a limited amount of time to get the painting done.

The painters arranged around the sitters

The Double Sitter Challenge

Now this is a subject I know something about. My Drawing the Head class at the (what was then) Prince's Drawing School always had two sitters - and if you made sure to sit in a particular place it was perfectly possible to draw two models within the time allowed - which was 2 hours actual drawing time.

I absolutely LOVED doing two sitter portrait drawings. There was always the question of how much to do and how to position them on the paper and within the four lines - and just how much to draw!  Then there was the question of which was the best angle for heads and profiles - and how to convey how they sat in their chair - from the front, side and rear!  I remember learning that getting 'how they are sat' right was probably one of the best ways of making the drawing look convincing.  When somebody didn't look right at the end, it was generally something to do with how I'd drawn the way they were sitting.

However it takes several goes before you begin to get the hang of drawing/painting two people at the same time. If you've never ever done it before the chances are you can get some element of performance anxiety.

Below are four drawings of two sitters that I did in graphite on A3 paper in two hours in class.

Drawings Heads #8

Drawings Heads #9

Drawings Heads #10

Drawing Heads #11
  • Drawing from life classes - where the sitter is clothed and sitting (most life classes are not!)
  • Drawing two people at the same time and getting used to relative sizes and how to construct a drawing 
As such I'd obviously recommend the Drawing a Head Class public course at the Royal Drawing School for those living in London (every Thursday night between 6.30pm and 9pm)

Decision Time

The Sitters

Lily Cole chose Leanne Mullen's portrait of her. For me it's main asset was that it spoke of two people being in the same room at the same time. Whether there was enough contrast between their faces to reflect both gender and age I'm not sure.  However it had a very coherent colour palette.
Leanne Mullen's portrait of Lily Cole with Simon Callow in profile

Simon Callow chose Jonathan Luxon's painting. Lily felt that Jonathan had captured Simon really well.  I'm not sure she would have said the same about his painting of her - and I think Jonathan would probably have agreed.  Too much hair and the profile isn't quite right.  However he's got a really nice contrast between the two skin tones due in part to difference in lighting - and difference of age!

Jonathan Luxon's portrait of Simon Callow with Lily Cole in profile
I'd have been seriously looking at either or both these paintings for a place in the final - although I think only one would have got through.

The Judges

Here's the final lineup of the eight portraits.

The Eight Semi Final Portraits

Interestingly the programme showed us for the very first time the process of whittling down the portraits to the final three - from a different perspective. As a result we could see that the portraits by Brid, Lisa and Corinne went first. Of these I was surprised by Brid - but something went wrong with the portrait and it just didn't work in the end.

Paintings by Bríd, Lisa and Corinne were quickly pushed to the back
Next out was Leanne and I think Jonathan was the last to be put to one side.

The judges made it very clear that they were looking for diversity and a mix of styles and approaches - or, as one might interpret this (and several have) not necessarily the three best portraits!

The Finalists

The three artists chosen as Finalists are:
  • Danny Howes (professional)
  • Samira Addo (amateur)
  • Hetty Lawlor (amateur)
The really interesting thing about the choices made is that:

The Simon Painters - NOBODY IN THE FINAL!
None of those who focused on Simon and had Lisa in profile made it through to the final

All four of those who focused on Lisa and had Simon in profile made it through to the final five and ALL THE FINALISTS came from the Lily Painters Group.

The Lily Painters
Hetty, Danny, Samira (ALL FINALISTS) and Leanne - whose portrait was chosen by Lily
Personally I would have thought that very much suggested that the first group - painting Simon - had the more difficult task in terms of tackling Lily's profile - and it would have been fairer to have had at least one from that group i.e. one from each group and then one other.

Again something for the company that makes this competition to think about for the future - in terms of how to make the competition a more level playing field for all contestants.
BELOW are the portraits produced by the Finalists

Double Portrait by Danny Howes

Danny was referred to in effect as being solid and reliable - and more importantly was the only person to tackle the whole of the upper torso - including hands - and the chairs. In other words he had tackled a 'bigger challenge', covered far more of the sitters and done a good job of the painting of the faces, although the likeness of Simon wasn't quite right. He had also made a point of studying the body language - and, more to the point, of telling the Judges that this is what he was doing.

(I've become convinced over time that this competition is partly about being able to perform while painting and of being able to be articulate when the Judges ask you their question - and offering your views about what it is important to do and sound articulate and well-informed when you do so!)

I got the impression from comments made by the judges that he was Mr 'boring but reliable' - and applied paint to the face nicely!  I think he got through because he made sure he'd done a decent job of painting the upper torsos of his sitters.

Samira Addo turning her easel to present it to the sitters
Samira commented she was only about half way through with 30 minutes to go.  Tai is obviously intrigued by her and her approach to making marks on canvas - which is not unexpected given the way he makes marks on supports.

I personally found the merging of the two heads very confusing. It might make an interesting painting but does it make for a good portrait of two people? I'm much less sure about that.

Hetty Lawlor's Double Portrait - two very good likenesses
Personally, I thought this one caught the likenesses of both individuals well - it's extremely good of Lily - and also tried to capture more than just heads or head and shoulders. It was also the only painting which got consistently better as it progressed and really conveyed the 'slumping' of the sitters that was happening - maybe because she didn't start to tackle posture until she'd got her heads right.  I also liked what she did with the background in terms of suggesting the twinkling of the lights.

The Judges commented that she had really stepped up to the challenge of looking more at the models and less at her phone. (I also noticed that se'd upgraded to an iPad!)

The Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2018 Finalists
Hetty, Samira and Danny.

The choice of Samira Addo for the Final drew SCREAMS of tweeting online (check the hashtag #portraitartistoftheyear to see what I mean.

The point made by most of them was if that "If you just looked at the painting, would you be able to tell who either of the sitters were"?

In other words - in their view - it failed what I now refer to as "The Sandy Nairne Necessary Test of a Good Portrait" i.e. does it look like the sitter?

Can you tell who the sitters are?

I have to say I think those who have squealed loudly have got a point. For me it's a painting by a painter NOT a portrait artist.

This was one individual's riposte

To which my riposte would be that some of the individuals are clearly identifiable even if the painting was somewhat stylised whereas others were not - and I would then ask whether these were paintings that were identified by the artist as paintings or portraits i.e. did it actually matter who was the sitter?


The Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year FINAL is next week and the sitter will be the awarrd-winning singer/songwriter Emeli Sande.

I suspect it's going to be either Samira or Hetty based on comments from the Judges to date.

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

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