Friday, April 03, 2020

Review: Semi-Final of Portrait Artist of the Year 2020

This is a rather different review of the semi-final of the Portrait Artist of the Year 2020.

The sitter and the artists from the back of the Hall

In this discombulated world we're living in at the moment, I'm hearing from artists who can't paint. I've also been affected in terms of long posts - hence the very long delay before this review has been posted.

It all seems so very disconnected from real life.

Even more so given that although the semi-final was on television two weeks ago - as the coronavirus thing hit hard - in reality and in my head, it had all taken place in Battersea 11 months ago!

I vividly remember watching it with Tom Mead - one of last year's finalists - and discussing with him which artists we thought were going to be the finalists.

So here's the review. It covers:
  • Profiles of the Semi-finalists - with their self-portraits
  • Observations about the Semi-Final (the reality and the programme)
    • what the Judges are looking for
    • The Heat Paintings
    • Backgrounds
    • Nerves
    • The Set-Up 
    • Go Big or Go Home
    • Time Management and Speed
    • The use of technology
  • What the judges liked and disliked
  • What I liked  
  • The Finalists

Semi-finalists in Portrait Artist of the Year 2020

The artists in the semi-final were all the Heat Winners. They are listed below in order of the broadcast Episode - with an image of them with their own self portrait submission.

The semi-finalists survey the set-up for the semi final of Portrait Artist of the Year 2020
- and a very theatrical blingy background for the sitter


Charles Williams - Professional Artist, writer, lecturer, illustrator and Venice Biennale participant (Facebook | Instagram)
  • Graduated with a BA from Maidstone School of Art, then graduated from the Royal Academy Schools in 1992 and has a PhD on drawing 
  • now teaches in the Painting School of Canterbury Christchurch University Fine and Applied Art degree course in his native Canterbury.
  • a founding member of the Stuckist art group and has written two books about drawing and painting
  • 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 
(From: Review: Episode 1 of Portrait Artist of the Year 2020)

Charles Williams with his self portrait - head, upper torso and hands
As he did in the Heat Charles knocked out several quick watercolour sketches learning about the person and working out the best approach to the sitting before tackling his oil painting.


Chris Longridge (Instagram | Twitter) - Amateur artist because he's got "a proper job".
  • Loved the bit during the episode where he confesses to being a TV journalist!! He's currently the Associate Editor of Digital Spy (and prior to that was a Senior Editor of Heat for six years).  
  • He has a really interesting take on the similarities between interviewing celebrities and teasing out their characteristics and personality when painting their portrait. 
  • There again he does have a degree in social anthropology from the LSE! 
  • No art website that I can find. (He should get himself one - he's good!)
Chris Longridge with his self portrait submission - with cropped hands


Inge Du Plessis (Facebook | Instagram) Professional artist
  • This is a link to her self-portrait The Woman who Stood Still for Too Long (90 x 55cm) - about her turning 50.  
  • Originally from Cape Town, South Africa she moved to the UK in 2009 and now lives in Maidenhead in Berkshire. 
  • Completed a Fine Art Honours Degree and have been painting professionally since 1999 - after many years working as a cabinet maker and running her own design and manufacturing business. 
  • Previously participated in PAOTY 2016.
Inge du Plessis with perhaps the most "look at me" self portrait of the competition


Eleanor Johnson (Instagram)
  • based in London, UK (b.1994). 
  • She graduated from University College London with a BA in History of Art in 2017 and is currently undertaking an MA in Fine Art at City & Guilds of London Art School. 
  • Won the Young Artist Award at the Society of Women Artists Annual Exhibition in 2018 (I KNEW she looked familar!). 
See Review: Episode 4 of Portrait Artist of the Year 2020

Eleanor Johnson with her nude self portrait - but only half a head


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 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) 
See Review: Episode 5 of Portrait Artist of the Year 2020

Tim Gatenby with his diptych self portrait of his complete self


Christabel Blackburn (Instagram)
  • an artist who studies and specialises in the human form. 
  • Degree in Classics at Newcastle University followed by studying portraiture at the Charles Cecil Studios in Florence. She then completed her training in figurative drawing, painting and sculpting at The London Atelier of Representational Art.
  • Her style is pared down and minimalist.
  • Participated in PAOTY 2018. Her very spare but jewel-like portrait of Meera Syal was chosen by the sitter but she didnt get shortlisted.
  • This is her self-portrait
See Review: Episode 6 of Portrait Artist of the Year 2020

Christobel Blackburn with her self portrait - head upper torso and hands


Christos Tsimaris (Instagram | Video)
  • Born in Greece and training in both art and construction (the latter to pay the bills!). 
  • 1987 - 1988 - Private tuition, Atelier School of Drawing, Thessaloniki, Greece Less
  •  1988 - 1993 - B.A. Hons Degree, School of Art of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
  • 1996 - 1997 - Masters Degree, European Fine Art, Winchester School of Art, Winchester
  • 1995 - 1996 - Post Graduate Studies, Byam Shaw School of Art, London 
See Review: Episode 7 of Portrait Artist of the Year 2020

Christos Tsimaris - with his self portrait - head and shoulders


Toby Michael (Facebook | Instagram) Lives in Buckingham and went to Stowe School. Graduated from Winchester School of Art in July 2018


See Review: Episode 8 of Portrait Artist of the Year 2020

Observations about the Semi-Final (the reality and the programme)

What the Judges are looking for

There's no question, the Judges had BIG expectations. They felt that
  • the semi-finalists were high quality 
  • they each had a distinctive style - and different sensibilities
  • with major contrasts between then - some were "chalk and cheese"

The Heat Paintings

Future contestants please note....

When I arrived at the Hall in the Battersea Arts Centre where the Semi-Final was being held, the Heat Paintings were all lined up at the back of the hall.

Of course the big thing for each of the artists is they've typically never seen any of the other artists before and all they had to go on in terms of where the competition was coming from were the Heat Paintings.

Heat Paintings by (L to R): Chris Longridge, Inge du Plessis, Christabel Blackburn and Tim Gatenby

Heat Paintings by (L to R):
Charles Willims, Toby Michael, Christos Tsimaris and Eleanor Johnson

First things first - if one was judging who was likely to make it through to the Final, there were some clear front runners.

For me the standout Heat Paintings were by Inge du Plessis, Christabel Blackburn and Christos Tsimaris. That might be because I'm picky about unfinished studies.
I was very puzzled by the paintings by Tim Gatenby (foggy) and Toby Michael (very subdued - the paints seemed to have sunk into the support and it had lost colour).

I was greatly intrigued by Charles William's portrait - which to me looked a bit like a studious TinTin.

I also thought that the two studies by Chris Longridge and Eleanor Johnson, while good likenesses, would have looked so much better if finished to the edge. The lack of finish made them look weaker in the company of other stronger paintings.  It suggested a possible issue to do with how the artists allocated their time.


However something bothered me.

It took a few seconds before the brain cells cranked up a gear and I spotted that not one single heat painting had a proper background. They all had backgrounds but, by and large, it was a single flat colour with minor tonal variations.

Which made the unfinished nature of the two paintings even more odd.

I'm not surprised. Despite all the palava of the production team creating backgrounds as set dressings, the reality is that there is barely time to make a good job of painting a person without bothering about the background.

For the Semi Final, the Judges emphasised that they had created a background associated with the profession of the sitter - and that this was importantand part of the challenge

What then became interesting was HOW each artist had painted their background - and whether or not it was finished.

I watched as some of the same painters tried to introduce a background
  • on an even more crowded set 
  • on an even bigger support 
  • when they were all even further away from the sitter..... 
Bottom line - Sky Arts and Storyvault Films  (who make the programme) and the Judges have got to get to grips with reality.

In four hours - less all the time artists are deprived of a good view of the sitter due to interviews and the production crew getting inbetween artist and sitter - the most you can expect is a good portrait of the upper torso including the hands.
If you start asking for a background as well then people will come a cropper - as happened in the semi-finals.

The Set-Up and use of technology


Look at the distance between Elaine Page's legs and half the artists

One has to highlight the set-up. I cannot emphasise too much how far away the painters are from the sitter. There's between 15 and 20 FEET between sitter and painter.

The chances of getting a profile are also quite high given that eight people are all painting the same sitter.

Gievn the distance, most made some use of technology for the features of the face as they were much too far away to be able to see and represent it accurately. I think Charles might have been the only person not to use technology and his likeness was not good.

Bear in mind Charles is a tall man (6 foot?) - just look at the distances between sitter and artists


There's no question, when it gets to the semi-final, the nerves come out to play!

It happened last year for very odd reasons (see Review: Semi-Final of Portrait Artist of the Year 2019  - the sitter had got the dates mixed up failed to turn up until gone midday.

I think it happened this year too. Chris painted three portraits at various times. I felt really sorry for those others who just seemed to have a bad day at the office and did not come up with the goods.

I think there's a lot to be said for having a routine which you know really well for how you approach a portrait and sticking with it and not trusting to luck or "it'll be alright on the day". Solid habits are more likely to trigger solid painting and creativity than winging it.

Go big or go home

Four artists painted on big supports (presumably on the basis of the "go big or go home" school of thinking) while others painted on upports bigge rthan those they used in the Heats. Only Inge and Charles were in the same ball park re large supports

What happened then was that:
  • Either some artists apparently failed to 'practice big' in advance
  • Or failed to fill the whole canvas - so the painting looked big but in fact the bulk of it was unpainted support (except for that laid down in advance). Two artists (Chris and Eleanor) did this - just as happened in the Heats.
Those who painted big were:
  • Charles Williams - who painted the whole sitter and filled the canvas even though he painted it in half the time of the other painters (having spent the morning doing several quick studies)
  • Inge du Plessis - who is very competent at painting big and painted head, torso and hands
  • Christos Tsimaris - who has some very dramatic whole arm, big brush moves and painted the whole body excluding the feet!
    Thoe who painted bigger were:
    • Christabel Blackburn - who painted head, shoulder and hands and had a well balanced composition
    • Eleanor Johnson (i.e. her support was bigger) - who painted head and shoulders - but did not fill the support
    • Chris Longridge who started by trying to paint the whole blingy set and had a small hole left for the sitter. I think he forgot it was a portrait competition! His background reduced as he progressed - but his constant reworking caused him problems
    and Tim - who for some reason made the classic mistake of painting a portrait of the whole person on a landscape format - which means you end up with a tiny person and a lot of space either side.


      To my mind the more successful portraits were painted
      • on a size of support which the artist knew they could cover and create a decent likeness in the time allocated (minus interviews / being obscured by cameras etc) 
      • using a composition which worked well in terms of both capturing the sitter and placement on the canvas.
      The ones which were noticeably weaker didn't work  well in terms of one or both of the above.

      I had my eyes on these two from very early on....

       Time Management and Speed

      I think more than a few artists had a bit of struggle with time management. Just an impression - but it seemed to result in some artists producing portraits that were not as good as the work they were capable of.

      Whether this was down to changing the way they painted or the size of the format they painted on was unclear but it as not a good day at the office for some painters.

      By way of contrast, while watching her paint on the television, Inge went off like a rocket and got a lot of paint down very fast. It's very clear she knows how to manage her time

      Making A Decision

      What Elaine Page liked

      She seemed very taken with the variety of perspectives on her and seemed to appreciate her legs had been painted by ome.

      I have to say the likenesses were extremely variable but you would never ever tell from the comments she made.

      She chose the painting by Eleanor Johnson.

      Eleanor Johnson with her portrait

      What the judges liked and disliked 

      My photo of the semi final paintings while they were prepating for the discussion

      It's worth saying in advance that PAOTY is a high risk competition for artists who like painting certain types of people, or in certain contexts or in a particular way

      The Judges liked:
      • the good likeness, glamour and sense of presence in Eleanor's portrait
      • the very good head study produced by Toby 
      • Christobel's "yummy" use of paint. Tai regarded her as phenomenal in terms of she puts paint down.
      • Inge's good understanding of both composition and colour
      • the way Chris persisted in trying to find solutions to the problems he was having
      The Judges noted and/or disliked
      • Elaine's grubby skin/nose in Eleanor's painting
      • The proportions in Chris's painting - which probably arose from him changing it three times
      • the way Elaine became more and more distant in Tim's painting in terms of physical distance and definition
      The Judges seemed to reget - as indeed I did after seeing their respective Heats that:
      • Christos Tsimaris seems to rely on beautiful incidents which make the painting come to life. It didn't happen this time.  I think they wanted to see him in the Final - but also felt he was 'high risk'.
      • Charles Williams somehow lost what he was good at i.e. his style of painting and his ability to capture "masterful essence". I personally don't think any of it appealed to him.  Maybe too bling and glitzy?

      What I liked 

      I think you can almost tell who will get selected before the end by who gets close-ups and interviews at the easel during the day. Not an exact science - but you do get some clues as to who the Judges are interested in - and one knows there will have been discussions with the Director as to who needs to be filmed.

      There were three artists who I immediately discounted
      • the face on Charles Williams was just too far from reality to make it a contender - although I admired he was one of ??? to try a full scale portrait.
      • Tim Gatenby's portrait was another fog. It wasn't the portrait of a PAOTY finalist
      • Elaine Page's head on Chris Longridge's portrait was far too big
      Of the five who were left
      • I wasn't taken with the blue gash over Elaine's face in Christos Tsimaris's painting - and it lacked 'something'. I suspect Christos would agree with me re the latter.
      • I didn't think Eleanor Johnson had done enough, even though she'd produced a good likeness. I also really disliked her skin tones which looked very chalky.
      Which left three who I liked a lot.
      • Inge du Plessis impressed right from the start and kept doing so while I was there. I'd also worked out which was her Heat Painting - which was very obviously strong. She knows how to paint colour and tone. She also painted head, torse and hands - within a good composition. Plus she seemed to get quite a bit of attention from the Judges and presenters so I knew she was very definitely a contender!  
      Inge du Plessis with her portrait - VERY 3D!

      • Christabel Blackburn - in part because her Heat Painting of Adrian (Line of Duty) Dunbar. Her sparse minimalistic lush way of painting grew on me as the paintings progressed. I loved what she did with the hair! (see below) I liked tthe fact she painted what she saw as the essence of Elaine rather than the blingy theatrical background. She saw her as a happy person and felt the yellow suited her better. Oddly, I kept thinking she looked familiar and it took until I wrote this review for me to realise I'd seen her paint previously in the Heat I watched at the Wallace Collection in (see Review: Episode 8 of Portrait Artist of the Year 2018.)  - where Meera Syal chose her painting
      Christabel Blackburn with her portrait

      •  Toby Michael - who was producing a very competent head study. He's chosen the very risky "I'm only doing the head so it has to be pretty well perfect" strategy.  In effect, the competition for the third place for me was between him and Eleanor - as they both did ONLY head and shoulders - and I thought his was the better painting - in part because of some of the ways in which I thought Eleanor's painting did not quite make the grade.

      Toby Michael with his portrait

          The Finalists 

          Inge du Plessis was called first

          I think the right three were chosen. The finalists were:
          • Inge du Plessis
          • Christabel Blackburn
          • Toby Michael
          Toby was, in pretty short order, very emotional, very pleased and then quite ecstatically happy!

          The Finalists - Toby Michael, Christabel Blackburn and Inge du Plessis

            The Judges considered them to be the people who were most successful on the day.
            They responded to the brief while staying true to the brief of who they are as artists.
              I was very pleased because my prediction turned out to be the same as the Judges!

              Very minimalistic with lush paint - crop of Christobel Blackburn's portrait

              A bit of a controversy

              You could tell that a LOT of people were expecting Eleanor Johnson to be chosen. (apologies to those who read this on Friday night when I had the names mixed up and very many thanks to Dennis for spotting the mistake!).

              In fact I had a debate about this with a few people before the decision was announced as I'd already decided she was NOT going to get selected. The same thing happened again on Twitter after the programme was broadcast.

              I'll try and explain why I think she wasn't - although obviously I don't know the precise reasons why.

              The main reason for doing this is because I think the explanation contains some learning points for people coming later.

              So here goes - in random order:
              • Based on me spending some time watching her paint, Eleanor seems to paint from technology all the time. I think the only time she looked at Elaine was when she took her photo. The position of her canvas completely obscured her view of Elaine.
              • While Eleanor is very good at capturing a likeness, I think she's much less good at capturing the colours and tones of skin - and that's entirely because she's looking at a screen and not at the person.
              • Possibly the most important factor was that Eleanor painted on a large support - but failed to fill it. In effect her painting was a study not a portrait - and others produced portraits which looked more like the finished article.  Since she'd done the same thing in the Heat and had not produced a 'normal' portrait for her self-portrait submission, the Judges had never seen whether or not she could paint more than a head and shoulders - and to get into the Final you need to do this at some point during the competition (which is one of the reasons why I advocate going for at least a a head, upper torso and hands in the self-portrait)
              • No hands. I have a suspicion that the Judges look at the websites and social media sites of artists in the semi-final. I know I would if I were a Judge. If your sites lack evidence of an ability to paint more than head and shoulders, they will have spotted this - and be looking for evidence that you can do more.
              • Too much use of black and white and not enough use of colour. This approach can render the face both mucky and chalky at one and the same time.
              • Her technique is a little bit "samey" and tends to render a portrait which for me seems to be more illustrative than painterly. There's not much variation between Heat Painting and Semi Final apart from the fact they were different sitters.
              • I didn't detect any enjoyment of paint for paint's sake - as you get with both Inge and Christabel for example. 
              Finally I think she can and will become a very good painter - if and when she spends more time looking at her sitters and less on copying the screen on her technology - and also spends a lot more time painting "more of" her sitters.

              To be honest it's exactly the same comment I could make about a lot of promising painters who've got something - but have not yet mastered the whole package.

              I'll probably try and write up the Final on Sunday....

              More about Portrait Artist of the Year 2020 and 2021

              Portrait Artist of the Year 2020

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

              Portrait Artist of the Year 2021

              It's now too late to enter Portrait Artist of the Year 2021. However:
              • The filming of the 2021 series of Portrait Artist of the Year has now been CANCELLED. Hopefully this means that when they start filming again, the public will be able to attend.
              • If you're interested in details in applying for entry for 2022, take a look at the details of how to enter 2021 - which can be found in my blog post Call for Entries: Portrait Artist of the Year 2021.

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