Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Duncan Shoosmith is Portrait Artist of the Year 2019

Last night Duncan Shoosmith won the Final of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2019 

Paintings in the competition by Duncan Shoosmith (left to right) Self Portrait, Jodie Comer, Laura Linney (in the Final) Courtney Pine, Dame Cleo Laine (Commission for the Final)
The Final was actually held at the National Portrait Gallery on 13th June 2018.

This was the day after the announcement of the BP Portrait Award - which is how come I noticed the Judges were in the Building the next day as the winner and I went to use the lifts to find a quiet place for an interview!  After the interview and lunch I went in search of where they were filming the final - and my first guess turned out to be correct.  You can see the photos I took in an album on my Facebook Page Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2019 FINAL - of which more later

This post contains
  • commentary on the themes of the Final
  • observations on the Finals Process 
  • points you in the direction of pictures of what the Final actually looks like from the artists' perspective. 
  • where to read more if you're interested in applying in future years
The Prize for winning the competition is a £10,000 commission. This year the commission was to paint Tom Jones for the National Museum of Wales. So a not insignificant prize and a not insignificant sitter to paint for posterity.

The Three Finalists

Sara, Tom and Duncan outside the National Portrait Gallery - doing their walk for the camera

The three finalists were:
  • Sara Lavelle (Twitter | Instagram) - video - Foundation Diploma in Art and Design (Distinction) at Falmouth University and then went on to study Illustration BA (Hons) at the University of Brighton (and got a First Class Degree). As a final year graduate she had only recently taken up painting. Now based in London.
  • Tom Mead (Facebook / Instagram) - video - Always nice to see a website which includes evidence that the artist goes to life class and can draw from life! Currently doing a BA degree in Painting at the University of Arts (Wimbledon). He creates paintings with a multifaceted perspective on individuals which suggest movement. Loves to paint in acrylic. These are Tom's paintings in the competition.
  • Duncan Shoosmith (Facebook/ Twitter / Instagram) - video - based in Wiltshire; combines painting at home in his garage with looking after his three young children. He does great portraits of kids if you take a look at his website!
One of the themes within the programme was of the old professional versus the two young cubs metaphorically snapping at his heels or as someone put it 'youth ganging up on old age'. It's certainly the case that the only painter who was professional or had any experience was Duncan Shoosmith. After last year's final one might have taken this to mean that he could be written off - and that youth and innovation would win through.

Comments from the Judges at the beginning suggested that what they particularly liked about these three portrait painters is that they all come at portraiture from their own unique angle.  
  • Duncan has his own bold and structural way of painting based on intense observation from life
  • Tom has a unique and fragmented style which suggests movement
  • Sara paints without a plan and finds her way to the end image and has a luminous way of painting skin
They were very pleased with the three they had chosen.


One of the themes within the programme concerned the stress and nervous energy associated with a Final. The suggestion from the Judges was that the artists live off their nerves and that this is a good thing.  From the comments of the artists, they recognised that nerves were natural in the context of the Final but that they'd prefer if they felt a bit more relaxed.

This was the set-up for the Final. You may just be able to spot the olive green chair for the sitter underneath the very big painting - and the ACRES of space between easels and sitter.
I'm really not sure why they place them so far away as they manage with much less space and enable the artists to be closer to the sitter during the Heats.  If they'd had the crescent shape arrangement as for the Heats they'd have been much closer. Maybe it's all just due to the shape of the rubber underlay to protect the floor?

Painting the sitter from quite some distance
The sitter in this instance was Laura Linney. I kept looking at her and not being quite able to work out who she was - there again I don't watch films much and hadn't yet started watch Ozark!

First meeting between the sitter and the artists

She was an excellent sitter - and seems like the sort to turn up on time and aim to reduce the stress levels for the artists. All the space was put to good use with space for masses of close-ups of every painter and their brish work during the course of the programme.

Decision Time 

Laura Linney decides

I watched this bit of the proceedings. It's very stage managed.

waiting to hear the sitter's decision
As ever the easels are turned and the sitter chooses.

Laura and Duncan discuss his portrait - you can better judge the likeness
Laura was very complimentary about Duncan's painting and watching her I was in no doubt which one she would choose.

Duncan looks down on hearing that Laura Linney has chosen to keep his portrait
Duncan however appeared quite overwhelmed by being chosen. I guess it's the first inkling you have that you might be the winner....

The Judges decision

The Commission and 'Final'  Paintings by (L to R) Duncan Shoosmith, Tom Mead and Sara Lavelle

The Judges genuinely seemed bowled over by the quality of the Commission Paintings which they did not see until after the 'Final' Portraits had been painted.

I think it was Kate who remarked that they were the best commission paintings they'd ever had in a Final.

That's another way of saying that these three just raised the bar for all those who come afterwards.

They also expressed the view that the Commission Paintings were critical to the decision about who won the Final.

So here they are.....

Commission Painting of Dame Cleo Laine and Final Portrait by Duncan Shoosmith
This is a simply STUNNING portrait of Dame Cleo Laine which would merit hanging in the National Portrait Gallery.  As the Judges indicated, the strength and personality of the sitter was rendered in a very powerful way.

I personally left the National Portrait Gallery on the day of the Final convinced that he was going to be the winner - based just on the strength of his painting that day. It was a very good likeness and the painterliness was really impressive.  He's a mature painter in every respect who has hit his stride....

Commission Painting of JazzieB  and Final Painting by Tom Mead
I was very impressed by Tom Mead's painting of Jazzie B - albeit I'm less enamoured with his style of painting. I really didn't like the big jagged gap between the two heads of Laura Linney (but that might be my own prejudice based on drawing multiple heads of the same person in the same sitting)

I'm also wondering why the judges did not mention once the polaroid photos of David Hockney with the multiple profiles. It was the first thing I thought of when I saw Tom's approach. I've always been a fan of the polaroid photos because they always seemed to me to speak more of dialogue and timescale for an event in time. Tom's trying to do the same thing and when he produces something like the Jazzie B painting it definitely works.

Commission Painting of Claire Rutter and Final Portrait by Sara Lavelle
I think Sara's nerves got to her on the day. I'm not sure having to be repeatedly asked about your nerves and how you were coping is the best way of helping an artist on the day - especially when they are young and relatively inexperienced. It would have been kinder to ask them more about what they hoped to do after the competition was over!

However she certainly pulled her painting round towards the end of the day - and indeed for me she got second place due to some lovely colour and brushwork.

Her portrait of Claire Rutter is good - but didn't quite match up to the quality of the two commission portraits by the other two - where they really raised their game.  Brave of her to go big and pull it off though.

Discussion about both commission and heat paintings
There was an intelligent discussion of the relative merits of the different commission paintings and the paintings done earlier in the day.

The consensus of the Twitterati was that their decision was right - which makes a big change from last year.

Note that Duncan was the only person to do hands - and what hands! They were amazing - as was the truly stunning portrait of Dame Cleo Laine.

Hands are an opportunity for a painter to impress - and by the Final that's what you should be aiming to do as a Finalist!

Cleo Laine's hands by Duncan Shoosmith

As he hears he has won, Duncan Shoosmith again looks down - but this time needs his knees as well!
For those who'd like to read Duncan's perspective on the Final do take a look at the Cass Arts Interview with Duncan on their blog in which he talks about:
  • what he aimed to do in the Final to produce a painting he was proud of
  • his process - using acrylic to 'draw in paint' to start with to map out the head, proportions and angles
  • why he tends to start with warm colours
  • what it was like painting Tom Jones - and his approach to finding a likeness
From a painting point of view the competition definitely shook me up, pushed me, and improved me…and I’m determined to keep that momentum going.
It's worth emphasising his advice in the interview for those wanting to apply to Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year in the future
It is like nothing you can imagine! It's stressful, tiring, and testing good fun but also a bizarre experience. My advice would be to practice, practice, practice. In the 2-3 weeks running up to my heat I sketched and painted a head in between 2 and 3 hours every day. Forget the 4 hours, you need to be quicker than that. Find a way of working that results in something half decent at the end of 3 hours. Forget any negativity about working from a tablet in this competition it's virtually crucial given the amount of time that the sitter is obscured from your view and it also means you have some reference, however inferior to life, to work from during the breaks this should buy you another 40 minutes of working time. Have comfort that the programme makers will look after you. They are not trying to stitch you up. They are not laughing at poor likenesses. They are supportive and appreciative of your efforts.
I very much endorse what Duncan says - and those who have been reading my blog posts over the weeks of this series will know I've said it all before!

To underline what he means - this is what the Final actually looked like while Duncan was painting Laura. It's impossible to keep painting without an iPad!

This is what the Final actually looks like.
Duncan can't see the sitter at this point - which is why he needed an iPad!

Duncan goes on to paint Sir Tom Jones in The Winner's Film - which follows the £10,000 commision of painting music legend Tom Jones for the National Museum of Wales. The film - which is well worth a watch - follows Duncan's approach and process of planning the painting from two 2 hour sittings, photography in various places and an awful lot of experimentation with poses and crops. Followed by painting and attending the unveiling of his painting of Tom Jones. Tom was unable to attend due to prior commitments but got an early viewing in London. Here's a tweet from @RealSirTomJones.

More Learning Points re. Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year

PLUS below are my blog posts from last year which contains lots of learning points about painting in this competition for those aspiring to compete this year.

Learning Points re the 2019 competition

Learning Points re the 2018 Competition

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

How to watch if you don't have Sky

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