Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Review: Episode 8 of Portrait Artist of the Year Series 7 (Autumn 2020)

Episode 8 was actually Heat 4 - but was the last programme before the semi-final - so just one more semi-finalist to identify out of those going forward to compete to get into the Final of Portrait Artist of the Year 

After the painting and drawing

Episode 8: The Artists, Self-portraits and Sitters

Artists in Episode 8

There were five professional and four amateur artists in the Heat. These are their profiles, self portraits although something seems to have gone badly wrong with the links to the overhead recordings. 

Professional artists

  • Gulja Holland ( Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter ) Born in 1990 in Malta; working and living in London. Graduated with a BA (Hons) in Fine Ar from Leeds College of Art in 2015. Currently studying for an MA at the Royal College of Art.  I divined from her Instagram that Episode 8 was actually Heat 4. 
  • Geoff Harrison ( Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter ) - Samaritan Centre Manager. His self portrait took 40 hours, Made the (infamous) semi-final in 2019.
  • Jill Iliffe ( Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter ) lived and worked in South London before moving to Surrey in 2018. Studied at Wimbledon School of Art, achieving a BA in Fine Art and an award by the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation for excellence in drawing, which then funded her subsequent MA in Drawing in 2009. Has been widely exhibited in both public and commercial galleries and is a member of the Society of Graphic Fine Art. 
  • Kelvin Okafor ( Website | BlogFacebook | Instagram | Twitter | - b.1985 . Award winning London based pencil artist Kelvin Okafor is renowned for his freehand hyper-realism drawings in graphite and charcoal. Graduated from Middlesex University with a B.A. (Hon)s in Fine Art. Launched a new online Academy in July 2020 - having gone online as many other artists have done in these curious times.
  • Gabriel Zubillaga ( Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter ) - Spanish/Basque artist living in London with his wife and two children. He needs to sort his website out.

Amateur Artists

  • Morag Caister ( Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter ) - b. 1994 in London but grew up between London and Brighton. Graduated in Fine Art (Painting) from the University of Brighton in 2019. Working as a pizza waitress at the time of the heat. She has had her work selected for the 2020 ING Discerning Eye Exhibition and is currently exhibiting at Gallery 94, @artatglyndebourne
  • Kittie Cameron (Instagram) - From Huddersfield. Studying Fine Art at Goldsmiths College. Uses charcoal and soft pastels
  • Annie Cavanagh - ( Instagram ) - Law Student at Peterborough. Uses coloured pencils but made a couple of comments about them which aren't strictly correct (says CP artist who spent many years optically overlaying colours and then selectively erasing them!)
  • Lynda Lorraine ( Website slow to load | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter ) - Anglo Filipina Artist, based in London, UK. Trained at the Slade School of Art. Works as a Media Technician at the Royal College of Art.

The Self Portraits

Self Portrait Wall

This is a summary of the size, format and content of the self portraits in this heat

  • Large x 1
  • Medium x 6
  • Small x 2
  • Landscape format x 1
  • Portrait format x 6
  • Square format x 2
  • full size x 1
  • torso including head and hand(s) x 1
  • head and shoulders x 5
  • head x 2

The Sitters

The Sitters were:

  • Kwame Kwei-Armah - a British actor, playwright, director, singer and broadcaster who is also Artistic Director of the Young Vic.
  • Dame Katherine Grainger - a British former rower, current chair of UK Sport and the UK's most decorated female Olympian. Also currently currently Chancellor of the University of Glasgow
  • Fred Sirieix - a French maître d'hôtel best known for appearing on Channel 4's First Dates, and BBC Two's Million Pound Menu.

Episode 8: Themes

Head and Shoulders vs the Long View

The epsidoe included discussion about the nature of the format chosen by artists for the heat painting.

For the first time (I think) we heard the Judges observe that most contestants choose to do a head and shoulders. On that basis I think it's a reasonable assumption that they are impressed by those who choose to do more.

Such a pity though if you don't get the scale right at the beginning and chop off their feet. Much better to chop at knee level rather than demonstrating you can't measure.

Not that this proved a problem for the winner of this heat.


The backgrounds were commented on a lot in this heat - not least because the backgrounds behind the sitters were depicting the sort of abstracted techniques that some artists use to set off their portrait i.e. 
  • impasto with lots of juicy paint
  • spotting / stains / drips
  • layering of similar colours
Comments made by the Judges included:
  • they liked Jill's big turquoise expanse in her self-portrait. I thought she might have turned it down a bit and gone for a Holbein turquoise - which is very effective
  • Gabriel commented that he didn't normally paint on a white ground (which kjust made me ask the question "so why are you then?"). Kathleen was also very unimpressed as in her view the white ground was just glaring around his small study and was very distracting. This happened partly because his study was too small for the size of his support (i.e. don't use a big support and then not cover it)
  • Geoff was in trouble because he's chosen to go with a gray support - presumably to correspond with his excellent self-portrait. That might seem on the face of it a wise choice - but when you only have 4 hours and not 40 hours to paint a portrait you cannot get enough paint on to lose the impact grey paint has on the paint that is covering it. His painting - which had an excellent likeness just looked too grey - as Kate observed.

Sketching and starting over

I think there was a great deal of worry about whether Morag was ever going to start. She did a great deal of sketching - which in my book means you LEARN how the person sits/looks and how their body is put together. It should mean you can progress the painting faster when you get going given you are not then assessing while painting to the same extent as others.
(excluding all those who are working from an ipad and a gridded up photo)

Morag not only spent an age sketching but when she got going she started to draw on a large format support. Then abandoned it and started again. By the look of it she didn't start to paint until after lunch.  I think it's the first time I've seen the Judges looking nervous!

However once she got going she started to motor and towards the end was using a lot of paint and the portrait was really coming together.  Basically she draws and paints on an exponential trendline.


I've met Geoff and he's a lovely chap and I was willing him to do well - and was really pleased to see his self portrait which was wonderful.

Self Portrait by Geoff Harrison (2020) 
An artist who has submitted two stunning self portraits as entries to this competition

However I think he succumbed to some overthinking. 
  • He decided to try and do the portrait as if the artist is looking up at the sitter - because it lends stature to the sitter
  • Plus he was wanting to know what symbols might be appropriate for Katherine Grainger.
For me it seemed as if he was trying to get into his four hour portrait the same approach he'd used for his excellent self portrait - which included lots of symbols about his life - and it's just not possible.  For the Judges there was a lot to like about the heat painting - except it was too grey.

Decision Time

Sitters choose portraits

Kwame Kwei-Armah chose the drawing by Kittie Cameron

Paintings of Kwame Kwei-Armah

Kittie Cameron and her portrait of a sleeping Kwame

Dame Katherine Grainger chose the painting by Geoff Harrison

Paintings of Katherine Grainger

Geoff Harrison with his portrait of Dame Katherine Grainger

Fred Sirieix chose the drawing of his eye by Kelvin Okafor

Drawing and two paintings of Fred Sirieix

Kelvin Okafor with his drawing of Fred Sirieix's eye

Judges choose Shortlist

I think they had a lot of trouble with this shortlist - in part because it must have seemed very difficult to ignore Kelvin Okafor - who is the best realist artist they've ever had on the programme and I think surprised them with how much character he can get into a drawing of just an eye.

Kelvin is the best realist we have ever seen

I'm guessing at the end of the day, there was a notion of they knew what they'd get if they chose Kelvin i.e. more of the same - and he wasn't going to generate a portrait in the Final - even if he might do a great commission. So I have no doubt he was in the final four - but the Judges went with the three young female artists who were starting out - who had produced a creditable performance and did indeed generate a feeling of wanting to know what more would look like.

Waiting to hear the shortlist announced - in Heat 4 / Episode 8

The shortlist selected was:
  • Gulja Holland
  • Morag Caistor
  • Kittie Cameron
Paintings by the shortlisted artists
(left to right: Kittei cameron, Morag Caistor and Gulja Holland) 

It's always really interesting when they line up the original self portrait submission with the painting done in the heat. You see things which weren't evident before - and it becomes a lot easier to see who is fighting it out for the top spot.

Paintings by Gulja Holland

Tai wondered if Gulja  had some form of synesthesia given her wish to translate her emotions about the painting into colour. Kathleen commented that a lot of what Gulja does is about suggestion rather than accuracy.

Paintings by Morag Caistor

Morag's strengths lie in her interesting brushwork and very sensitive paintings with a sense of emotional content. She has a unique and expressive language for painting in the opinion of the Judges.

The Judges concluded that they very much wanted to see another one in this series.

Paintings by Kittie Cameron

Credit must be given to Kittie for attempting a self-portrait of herself in recumbent mode complete with dirty socks. We not only have hands - we also have feet! Plus features of daily life. It was definitely one of the more 'complete' self portraits.

She also portrays life in whatever way it presents itself and depicts a strong sense of character and personality. Finally she is capable of producing a very good likeness

I predict she will do well as an artist.

The Heat Winner

Announcement of winner

The heat winner was Morag Caister - who was completely taken aback and had obviously not expected to win.

So yet again an amateur artist won.

The winner is Morag Caistor

I thought the Judges might favour Gulja when I saw the short list - although I personally favoured Kittie Cameron - but that's because I'm a big fan of anybody who draws in dry media like she does (and I do!) 

The Judges said of Morag that the artist
fought hard to create a likeness which was both convincing and emotionally charged
I must confess I was not convinced - until right near the end - when she laid on the extremely effective cream wash in the background - and I realised she had really caught a likeness and sense of Fred - even if he was a man sat in a non-existent chair! Plus like the Judges when I saw her self-portrait and the heat painting together she very much reminded me of last year's winner.....


Sky Arts is now available on Freeview - but "on demand" is not.

This is probably the most important post for all those who don't have Sky or access to Freeview or want to watch on demand - AND it's how I watch the competition "on demand" - except I now use a Now TV stick plugged into my television - How to watch Sky Arts - Portrait Artist of the Year 2018 without subscribing to Sky

These are previous posts about the competition

Learning Points re the 2020 competition

I've just spotted that I didn't write up the Final - because of the surge in Pandemic changes I think. Must correct that!
plus my blog post which highlighted Does Portrait Artist of the Year ignore older artists?

However How to watch heats of Portrait Artist of the Year 2021 was followed by PAOTY 2021 Heats Closed to the Public - which is why there will be none of my photos of the process this year.

Learning Points re the 2019 competition

Below - 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 2018 competition

These are my reviews of the competition in 2018 highlighting learning points - as it was broadcast. More than one of those artists who participated in 2019 thanked me a lot for the commentary and advice - including some who went a long way!

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