Sunday, February 23, 2020

Review: Episode 5 of Portrait Artist of the Year 2020

I'm very late posting my review of Episode 5 of Portrait Artist of the Year 2020 - which you can see on demand on Sky Arts or Now TV.

Line up for the decision on the Shortlist

The Artists, Self Portraits and Sitters

As always links to the artist's website (if they have one) are embedded in their names.
You can see videos of their Heat Portraits on

Professional Artists

  • Graeme Duddridge - worked for two decades as a commercial photographer and painted in the evening. Now trying to spend more time on the painting. Studied at Kent Institute of Art and Design, Aberystwyth School of Art and The Art Academy London
  • Nick Fear - based in Leicester; paints from photographs
  • Tim Gatenby - a contemporary British figurative artist who nostalgically paints modern imagery such as motorways and pop culture with a traditional Old Master approach. Been selected for selected for the Columbia Threadneedle Prize Exhibition (2018), Royal Society of British Artists (2018), the New English Art’s Club (2014), BP Portrait Prize (2012) and the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition (2019, 2012)
‘The art of painting naturalistically from life, although now seemingly in resurgence, is a counter wave to work produced from photographs which have an inherent drawback of flattening an image and stiffening the subject matter with its limited tonal range.
  • Keith Robinson Instagram Twitter - Born in Helensburgh, raised in Immingham, live in Surbiton. Been selected for a number of important open art competitions (BP Portrait 2007, 2008, 2016, Threadneedle 2013, Lynn Painter-Stainers 2014)

  • Pippa Thew - lives in Devon between Dartmoor and the sea. Prefers to use traditonal watercolour. Several of her paintings have been exhibited by the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colour and the Society of Women Artists.
  • Suzy Wright - Studied at Westminster University. Usually creates stitched drawings on calico. Works part-time in an art shop and the rest of the time as an artist. Worked in pencil, biro, and watercolour on the day of the heat - but has no plan for how she appliers her colour.

Amateur Artists

  • John Bennett - no website or public social media site. Has been spending more time on his painting since he retired. Spent 20 hours on his self-portrait
  • Iman Sidonie-Samuels - no website or public social media site. 17 year old living in London. Paints horizontally.
  • Rebecca Underdown Instagram - Created a self portrait of her family - as a compilation of images of them as individuals to be congratulated on 'having a go' despite having a small baby in tow and what she refers to as a severe case of baby brain

A small reminder of how what looks relatively straightforward on screen is anything but on the day!

The self portraits

I do like it when the Director asks for a steady shot of all the self-portraits because it is the ONLY time you get any real sense of each in relation to the others - and the size does vary quite considerably.

This wall was a mixture of sizes, techniques - with some puzzling narratives to unpick.

  • The portrait of Graeme with a ventriloquist dummy was by far the biggest and 
  • that by Keith Robinson was by far the smallest. 
  • Rebecca's family composition was a brave effort and to my mind it came off well.
  • Most - but not all - are looking straight out at the viewer. I tend to prefer those which are not looking directly at me.

The self portraits

The Sitters

An interesting choice this week, the sitters for Episode 5 were
  • John Cooper Clarke - an English performance poet who first became famous during the punk rock era of the late 1970s when he became known as a "punk poet".
  • Fearne Cotton - an English television and radio presenter
  • Haydn Gwynn - an award-winning Englih actress

Episode 5: Themes

The themes I identified were:
  • how much time do you get on screen re. progression to the shortlist?
  • the attraction of different media
  • the attraction of puzzlement in the self-portrait
  • how/where do you start?
  • how much do people look at the person (from life) as opposed to the features (from technology)
Empty and waiting - before the start

How much time people get on screen depends on how likely they are to get to the shortlist

You can more or less tell who hasn't got much chance of making to the shortlist before the Judges start discussing the painting. Simply on the basis of airtime per person.  Interestingly you can also tell this when standing in the Heat as it soon becomes obvious which artists the Judges like and which are getting filmed more.

Remember the editing is done afterwards - but they have to have enough film to edit from!

The attraction of different media

It seems to me that if you tend to work in a non-usual media (not necessarily unusual - except in relation to creating portraits for a competition where most seem to use either oil or acrylic) then you might stand get a better chance of getting selected for a heat.

For example Suzy Wright's approach is unusual - using biro and watercolour.
We also never seem to get a lot of watercolourists - and I'm wondering if that's because there are not a lot of watercolorists who can paint using saturated paint? (i.e. watercolour has a tendency to disappear on screen next to acrylic and oil)

The attraction of puzzlement in the self-portrait

If you create a portrait which puzzles the Judges, it strikes me you stand a much better chance of getting selected if your portrait is OK AND it generates questions they want answers to e.g. they want to know:
  • which person created the portrait (re Rebecca's) 
  • WHY does this person have no shoes on etc etc (re Graeme's)
  • why the diptych (re Tim's)

How/where do you start?

It's always interesting to see the different approaches that people use to get their artwork started.
  • Some get stuck in straight away
  • Some seem to arrive with a tinted canvas from which they can start going light and dark
  • other start sketching to learn how the person works (it's amazing how much you learn through this sort of exercise)
  • some sketch in paint and work and sometimes work on more than one support before they get going on their final heat portrait
  • others just do a lot of looking - for a long time. I'd really begun to wonder whether Pippa was gripped by stage fright as we didn't see her doing a lot and she didn't start her portrait until after lunch
Then there's the people who start with one of the following.....
  • big shapes with amorphous edges
  • suggestions only 
  • tiny detail - often starting with the eyes
  • outlines
  • colours - with no edges
  • very big brushes
  • very small brushes

What I don't see a lot of - and this might be because it gets edited out is measuring out how the person is going to fit on the support. Very often because most completely duck the notion of painting any more than just the head.

For me, I'm looking to see who can draw and size accurately - no matter what approach they use to start.  If they can do both those well then there's a very good chance they'll produce a good portrait with an accurate likeness.

How much do people
  • look at the person (from life) - as opposed to 
  • the features (from technology)?

When looking at those who seem to work from their technology, it struck me that most are never ever looking at the whole person. They tend to focus on features and quite often seem to start with some element of detail.

By way of contrast, those painting from life are sizing up the whole presence and then thinking out how to place on the page and/or crop.  They start from the big picture and work from big shapes to detail.

I think there ought to be a NEW RULE!
You MUST complete:
  • at least one portrait of a whole person - with hands and feet
  • at least one portrait of a head and shoulders 
and it's up to the artist which one is completed for the submission and which one is completed on the day of the Heat. 

Now that, in my opinion, would really start to sort out the wheat from the chaff and avoid the shortland name for this competition of "Head Painter of the Year"!

In the meantime - demonstrate that you can paint a lot more than just a head if you want to go far!

Decision Time

Sitters choose portrait to take home

It's always interesting when you get to this stage. I've always had a sneaky suspicion that some artists choose the one they least like so they can bury it!

It's also always interesting to see if the sitter picks the same portrait as the Judges. In this instance it was 2 out of 3 because none of the portraits of Haydn made it to the shortlist.
  • John Cooper Clarke chose the diptych by Tim Gatenby - which didn't surprise me . It looked a very John Cooper Clarke sort of painting!
  • Ferne Cotton chose the portrait by Nick Fear. Again - no surprises.
  • Haydn Gwynne chose the painting by Becca - in which she has purple hair!

Judges choose shortlist of three

Things that worked for and against artists were:


  • achieving a good likeness and/or a real sense of the spirit or character of the person
  • getting the colouring right
  • delicacy
  • accuracy in proportions
  • skill in using the brush


  • not achieving a likeness
  • losing the likeness they's achieved early on
  • cramped / cropping weak
  • weak skills in brushwork

To which I would add I always think better of those who know how to compose/crop and place the person on the support.

The Artists in Episode 5
(left to right)
John Bennett, Pippa Threw, Rebecca Underdown, Suzy Wright, Iman Sidonie-Samuels,
Nick Fear, Graeme Duddridge, Keith Robinson, Tim Gatenby

The shortlisted artists were all men. They were:
  • Tim Gatenby
  • Nick Fear
  • Graeme Duddridge
The decision about who is the winner is always made on the basis of both self portrait and the Heat Portrait.

Judges review and comment on the paintings

Here are the two paintings for each of the shortlisted artists

Tim Gatenby
The Judges commented that Tim seemed to be painting the spirit of John Cooper Clarke - in terms of the diffuse and ghostly character.

Tai liked the creation of atmosphere. (I wondered exactly what he meant by this and whether it was code for diffuse painting)

For me the division of the support in two and the ghost painting suggests something which might get a little formulaic.

Nick Fear

Joan Bakewell commented on how seeing the Heat Portrait made her appreciate his self-portrait more.

Judges commented on how Nick had to go loose to be able to follow his style but complete within the timescale

I can't remember who said it but one of the Judges commented that Ferne has the look of a subject in a Vermeer painting but that nobody had recognised this or tried to follow through.  Not sure I agree - but I do think there is something about somebody who has a face with strong features - I want more emphasis on the features and rather less on the hair!

Graeme Duddridge

The Judges liked the fact Graeme captured JCC with a few strokes but there was some sense it was just edging towards a caricature.

I thought it was a pity he lost his feet. The crop was neither one thing or the other and needed to be higher or lower. Plus the painting seemed cramped. I think he just didn't get the measurements right at the outset.

Episode 5 Winner

The winner of this Heat was Tim Gatenby. 

For me this was emphatically NOT a strong heat where more than three might have made it to the shortlist and any of them could make it through to the semis.

I'm not saying Tim shouldn't have won - just that as some heats have lots of good artists this gets balanced out by those heats where there are people who fail to impress on the day - and this was one of those.  Confession time - I wasn't racing to review it!

Next week in Episode 6

One more Episode and then we're into the Semi Final!

The sitters next week are Ricky Wilson, Adrian Dunbar, Zawe Ashton - and I only know who two of those are.

More about Portrait Artist of the Year 2020 and 2021

You can see all the self portrait submissions from Episode 5 in a larger size on the Artist of the Year Facebook Page.

My reviews of previous episodes of this year's competition can be found below:

It's now too late to enter Portrait Artist of the Year 2021.  However if you;re interested in the details of how to enter Portrait Artist of the Year 2021 for applying for 2022, these can be found in my blog post Call for Entries: Portrait Artist of the Year 2021. However they might introduce my new rule! ;)

The 2021 series will be filmed in March and April 2020 this year for broadcast starting in January 2021.

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