Thursday, January 23, 2020

Review: Episode 1 of Portrait Artist of the Year 2020

On Tuesday this week, the first episode of Series 6 of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year was broadcast. The Heats of Portrait Artist of the Year were filmed in a brand new venue in April last year - in the main hall of Battersea Arts Centre.

Episode 1 in the Main Hall at the Battersea Arts Centre
Asa Butterfield being painted by three artists - one of which is the eventual heat winner

So we have some 72 very nervous artists around the country ( 8 heats x 9 artists in each heat) who have all been waiting for months to find out what they look like on television!

Nine found out how they came across on television on Tuesday night when the first episode of the sixth series was broadcast on Sky Arts - and made available via Now TV (see this post for how to access via Now TV)

About Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2020

The Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year competition ranks alongside the other prestigious UK Art Competitions covered by this blog.
  • It has been running for some years and this is the sixth series
  • It has a major cash prize of £10,000
  • It's commissioned by Sky Arts and broadcast on television 
  • The judges include leading figures in the art world - who are the same as for previous series:
    • award-winning portrait painter Tai Shan Schierenberg
    • independent curator, art historian and arts broadcaster Kathleen Soriano (currently Chair of the Liverpool Biennial and was previously Director of Exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts and Head of Exhibitions & Collections at the National Portrait Gallery) and
    • British art historian, curator and arts broadcaster Kate Bryan (who is also currently Head of Collections for Soho House)
  • There are three well known sitters for each heat. Sitters are young and older "celebrities" of varying degrees of recognition
  • The series is very popular with lots of aspiring portrait artists of various ages - not least because it offers the opportunity for an enhanced profile.
  • It also attracts artists who already have an established careers as artists and in some cases are well known and collectable portrait artists

This is the Facebook Page. You can also see artist profiles and speeded up videos of the portrait painting on this page

Call for Entries - you can check them out

For reference - for those interested in being part of this competition in future

The 2020 Commission - worth £10,000

The artists are all competing to win a £10,000 commission to paint Nile Rodgers for the Albert Hall - although none of them knew this when they painted in the Heats last year.

Other rewards available are the chance for the semi-finalists and finalists to exhibit their work in the competition at a central London Gallery - and sell it.

Plus the chance to get noticed irrespective of whether or not they win the Heat. This is, of course, where websites and social media links are quite critical - because nobody can contact you if you don't have a way of being contacted! (see below for how well they did on this score!)

Episode 1: The Artists, Self-portraits and Sitters

Designation as to whether artists are professional or amateur is entirely determined by the artist and can be completely meaningless. (see the profiles below to see what I mean). 

I do wish Sky Arts would provide some basic criteria for artists so that the designations are more meaningful and less misleading to viewers.

The professional artists

The four professional artists in Episode 1 are
  • Lee Boyd (Website | Instagram | Facebook) - graduated from the University of Ulster in 1993 specialising in Ceramics. He also qualified as a stone mason, has been a jewellery designer for an exclusive jewellery store in England and taught fine art, ceramics and sculpture up to degree level. Appeared on the BBC2 programme “Show me the Monet”. Worked in graphite in the heat.
  • Lauren Carter Bridges (Website | Instagram | Facebook) - born and bred in Bolton, she is a self-taught full time fine artist who specialises in portraitureTwo years ago she started a new initiative: The Artist Loft, family-run art space in Astley Bridge on the outskirts of Bolton. Lauren also participated in Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2018.

  • Peter Holt - (website) A former illustrator from West Yorkshire. Has exhibited in the exhibitions of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and for the Lynn Painter-Stainers Prize, ING Discerning Eye Prize and the Ruth Borchard Self Portrait Exhibition. He was elected as member of the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts in June 2019
  • Charles Williams - Artist, writer, lecturer, illustrator and Venice Biennale participant (Website | Instagram | Facebook) He 
    • BA Maidstone School of Art
    • graduated from the Royal Academy Schools in 1992
    • has a PhD on drawing 
    • a founding member of the Stuckist art group
    • has written two books about drawing and painting
    • has been elected to be a member of both the New English Art Club (1996) and the Royal Watercolour Society (2010)
    • spent a month working in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 
    • teaches in the Painting School of Canterbury Christchurch University Fine and Applied Art degree course in his native Canterbury.
    • Exhibitions include 23 solo exhibitions in London plus work in RA Summer Exhibition, Hunting Prize, Lynn Painter Stainers, Threadneedle Prize, The Marmite Prize, and Discerning Eye. Currently has an exhibition at and is doing a talk on Some New World: Artist Talk with Charles Williams at Canterbury Christ Church University (talk is on 30th January)
Williams' methodology is, to some extent, determined by the circumstances of his training - 1980s Art Colleges were the site of an ultimately futile battle between Abstract Formalism and figurative, representational ideas, both with their traditions and taboos, and he tries to synthesize them in his work. A keen observational draughtsman, Williams has published two books on working from observation, and several magazine series, but it seems to play little part in the work he exhibits.New English Art Club profile (I suggest maybe his NEAC colleagues watch the programme!)
Basically, the other artists were up against stiff competition in term of Charles's background and experience - although I'm guessing they weren't aware of this at the time.

I thought it was good to see a member of not one but two of the national art societies having the gumption to have a go in this competition.
I'd like to see more do likewise. That's a hint. The closing date is 7th February for the Heats this year!

The amateur artists

The five amateur artists in Episode 1 are
  • Jack Briggs (Website | Instagram) - Studied Fine Art and Art History at Aberystwyth University. 26 year old supermarket assistant from Welshpool. An apprentice tattoo artist. 
  • Inma Garcia Carrasco (Website | Instagram | Facebook) - a Spanish-born business analyst and artist who moved to London in 2007.  Studied at Facultad de Bellas Artes, a very traditional art school in Seville. In London London, she continued her training at LARA (London Atelier of Representational Art), the Art Academy and the New School of Art. .
  • Jennifer Chung (Instagram) - a 17 year old A level student from Nottingham. She works in coloured pencil on black card. 
  • Jo Halden (Website | Instagram) - lives in North Shropshire and is a full time artist. She does commissions for a variety of subjects; animals, people, houses and gardens.
The colour tones are absolutely marvellous
  • David Treloar (Instagram) - BA: Wimbledon School of Art and Post Grad: Royal Academy of Art London. Prepared for the heat by painting every single day. 

The self-portraits

You can see all the submissions in a larger size on the Artist of the Year Facebook Page.

a wall of self-portrait submissions is hung during the Heat and can be viewed by the public
  • Landscape format x 1
  • Portrait format x 7
  • Tondo x 1
  • full size x 1
  • torso including hands and head - 2
  • torso and head x 1
  • head and shoulders x 5

You get a sense of the size of the self-portrait submission when you watch the programme as it's always pictured next to the artist.
There are two major consideration when it comes to the size of the self-portrait
  • you have to bring it to the Heat - so if you are travelling a long way on public transport you're going to want it to be portable (and dry!) - which is why I guess those who don't live near London tend to paint smaller
  • I always think that those with larger paintings always knew they'd drive to the Heat!
We also hear in the programme how long the artist spent spent on submission - in terms of hours or days.

See also my comments under Outcome: Consistency between submission and heat painting

The Sitters

I only knew one of the sitters (must be getting old!) despite the fact that I had watched programmes one of the other actors was in!
  • Asa Butterfield - well known young actor with a very long IMDB profile. Tweets about carbon offsetting....but not about Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year. Maybe somebody forgot to tell him when he was airing?
  • Micky Flanagan - well established and well known comedian. Has got a profile image on the home page of his website which looks like one of the portraits of him!
  • Anjli Mohindra - a British stage and screen actress from West Bridgford, Nottingham, best known for her television role in The Sarah Jane Adventures as Rani Chandra, as Nadia in the BBC One series Bodyguard (still can't remember her!), and as Josie Chancellor in the ITV series Dark Heart.
Shortlisted Artists are asked to produce an artwork depicting a Portrait of a Sitter allocated by the Producer

BUT you don't get to choose

  • who you paint
  • where you put your easel - watch the programmes (and my photos) to see how far the easel is from the sitter. The reason people use iPads is because they can't see the sitter's face properly!

Episode 1: Themes

For those new to my reviews, I try to work out a few themes to comment on for every programme, in terms of things to think about before, during and after the programme!

Media: Doing something different makes you stand out

In terms of submissions we had:
  • a painting on a very smooth photographic paper done in oil using 30 brush strokes - by David Treloar
  • Jennifer Chung  using coloured pencils - which were used again in the heat
  • one artist used an industrial sander to knock back the background
  • Lauren Carter Bridge used an aluminium support - which causes problems when applying paint at the beginning
  • David Treloar brought his colour palette swatches to remind him of what colours made what to try and avoid all the colours becoming "mudgie hell"
Colour swatches

Approach: how to start

every artist has their individual some start with colour and texture while others prefer to concentrate on the form
Two of the artists - Charles Williams and Jo Halden - got their sitter very fast and right from the off. Charles William talks about how he practices using sketches to learn how things work.

David Treloar focuses on blocks and shape and imposes constraints on himself to avoid over-painting - and limited the brushstrokes in his submission.

Approach: The tendency to paint heads only

The tendency to paint heads only does not do the artist any favours.
  • A head us a very small part of a person 
  • AND the face is a very small part if the head
  • If you can do hands as well you stand out from the crowd. Hands are difficult - and portrait painters need to be able to paint them.
  • If you limit yourself to head and shoulders then there is more of a focus on whether the artist gets the likeness right
Credit seems to be given to those who portray more of person in both physical and personality sense.

Approach: Use of technology

It's a good idea to have an iPad and a reference photo for all those times when the camera and production people get inbetween the artist and the sitter.

It's also practical for those who cannot see the details due to the regimented distance they are from the sitter - which is not helpful.

However, I do have reservations about those who don't draw from observation and work exclusively from tablet or phome.  I don't think anybody who used technology all the time did well in the Heats in 2019.

Approach: Use of sketching and drawing to learn

Sketches of Asa Butterfield by Charles Williams
Rebecca Freear I thought Charles Williams’ approach was intelligent. He made a number of studies in order to get to know the sitter’s characteristics and then distilled this knowledge into a minimal representation. Reminded me of Matisse.
Couldn't have put it better myself!


For those planning their timings for their heat if they get a place
  • First two hours are before lunch
  • Second two hours are after lunch
You need a break but nobody is stopping you from working through lunch if you get behind.

Outcomes: Judges Expectations

The Judges hope that the painters will use the set in their heat portrait painting. Generally it doesn't happen. I'm not in the least bit surprised because most artists need all the time they have to focus on the sitter.

Normally, one would also expect a portrait to provide a sense of the interior life of the sitter. However when you have a lot less than 4 hours just to achieve a good likeness then expecting anything more is rather extreme!

So forget about the judges expectations as voiced in the programmes and just do the very best you can at portraying the sitter by doing the best you can do - and as much as you can do!

Outcome: Consistency between submission and heat painting

The consistency between the submission and heat portrait suggests how experienced an artist is irrespective of whether amateur or professional.

It also comprehensively tells you that this artist painted that submission - you don't just have to take their word for it! (Important point for anybody ever tempted to get some help with their submission!)
Hence the quality of the submission is of critical importance. It’s a proxy for what you might be able to do in relation to the £10k commission!

Decision Time

Sitters choose portrait to take home

  • Asa Butterfield chose the painting by David Treloar
  • Micky Flanagan chose the painting by Lauren Carter Bridges - which looked lush!
  • Anjli Mohindra chose the painting by Inma Garcia Carrasco
Which means only one of the shortlisted artists was chosen by the sitters!

Judges choose shortlist of three

First the judges need to decide which paintings they like the best - which they do by moving the paintings around and put one next to another.

The artists line up for the Judges decision

Things the judges liked:

  • the "aliveness" and atmosphere of the Lauren's painting of Mickey
  • the way Jo is masterful in the crisp clear simple way she puts the paint down and her beautiful skin colours
  • distilling an essence of the sitter
  • not overworking a painting
  • making a piece of work that the painter was happy with

Things the judges were less keen on: other paintings
  • proportions which are wrong
  • the wrong sense of the sitter - making him look heavy when in fact he's very youthful and 'light'
  • losing the likeness over the day
  • making a sitter look too young
  • becoming obsessed with the detail

The Judges shortlisted
  • Jo Halden
  • Lauren Carter Bridges
  • Charles Williams

Episode 1 Winner

In deciding the winner the Judges take BOTH portraits into account.
First the lineup of the six paintings
Then the line up of three waiting to hear the judgement.

It was observed that the personalities of the three painters shone through....

Lineup of the six paintings of the shortlisted artists

self-portrait and painting of Mickey Flanagan by Jo Halden

self-portrait (with daughter) and painting of Mickey Flanagan by Lauren Carter Bridges

Self portrait and painting of Asa Butterfield by Charles Williams

The Judges decided that the Heat Winner was Charles Williams.
There were lots of people on Twitter disappointed with the choice of the winner - they felt that they'd picked a cartoon like figure and the implication was that there was no real skill involved. Whereas the judges - and I - would disagree.

Try it! (Here's the video of the painting)

PAOTY2020 Episode 1 Timelapse - Chares Williams from Storyvault Films on Vimeo.

Although personally I would also have been very pleased to see Jo Halden win - I thought the way she approached her painting to be quite exceptional in terms of draughtsmanship, colour and tone.

I'm sure she'll be invited back!

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Next week's sitters are: Trevor Nelson, Noel Clarke, Ashley Roberts.

This was the heat I attended so you'll also get my pics from the heat after it has been broadcast which will show you what it's really like!

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