Wednesday, December 16, 2020

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

Tonight is the Final of Portrait Artist of the Year and this is my review of last week's Semi Final (Autumn 2020) and a prediction of who I think will win.

The first Semi Final of Portrait Artist of the Year in 2020 actually took place on 30th April 2019 (I was there and took lots of photos).

By way of contrast, the Semi Final for Series 7  Portrait Artist of the Year took place this summer - in pandemic approved circumstances with no audience - and was broadcast last Wednesday. 

Arriving at the semi-final

So here's the review. It covers:
  • Some preliminary conclusions - which inform the result
    • The competition intensifies
    • The set up does NOT HELP!
  • The Semi-finalists
  • The Sitter
  • Observations about the Semi-Final (the reality and the programme)
    • anyone's day
    • painting as a product of experience
  • Making A Decision
    • What Bernardine Evaristo liked
    • What the judges liked and disliked
    • The Finalists
    • What I liked

Some preliminary conclusions - which inform the result

Before I start, I'll tell you my some of my main conclusions from all the Semi Finals I've watched so far.

The competition intensifies

It's very nerve-wracking for some of the artists. 
  • Whereas in Heats it was obvious there was a range of experience and skills - in the semi-final the theory is that they are all "on a par" - which means it's even more competitive and some people do not perform their best under pressure
  • Those who are relaxed and keep their cool seem to do better than those who allow the process to impact on them
  • Those who are more experienced should do better - but this is not always the case. 
  • Sometimes those with least to lose do very well.

The set-up does NOT HELP!

In the Heats, there are three artists for every sitter and while they are further away than they would be if painting a sitter in their own studio it's not dissimilar to the distances seen in life class between sitter and artists.

When it comes to the semi-final, this all changes. 

Just look at the distance between the easels and the chair for the sitter!!!

  • It's one sitter and eight artists arranged in a flattish semicircle around the sitter.  It's very much the case that some have better views than others i.e. profile only.
  • Plus there is a HUGE distance between sitter and artists 
  • AND it's much easier to see what other artists are producing when entering and exiting at breaks - which can be quite unsettling!
  • AND there is a designed background - of hanging books and fairy lights - which the Judges make clear to the cameras they'd like to see in the paintings. (Meanwhile most of the artists are just hoping to create a good portrait and never mind the background!)
Personally, having seen the results, I really don't think the Semi-Final context is conducive to good painting. I've seen far more people who have disappointed the Judges and/or me than those who have excelled - which is really disappointing when you know the semi-final includes really good artists who could do better.

I looked back at what I wrote in April - near the beginning of first lockdown - about the Series 6 Semi-Final - and there's not a lot I'd revise
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 in between 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.
All this - and Bernardine Evaristo - to paint!

Semi Final Artists - Portrait Artist of the Year (Series 7: Autumn 2020)

The eight painters were the winners of their respective heats.  There were four professional artists and four amateur artists. 

Links in the Episode are to my review of that episode where you can see 
  • their submission portrait 
  • portrait produced during the heat
  • their mini bio and background.

Four Professional Artists

Sarah Cowley Website | Facebook | Instagram | Commissions  (Episode 6
Alvin 'Kofi' Ferris Website | Facebook | Instagram (Episode 5)
Si Sapsford Website | Instagram (Episode 7
Eugenie Vronskaya Website | Facebook | Instagram   (Episode 4

Four Amateur Artists

Kayoon Anderson Website | Facebook | Instagram (Episode 1
Morag Caister Website | Instagram  (Episode 8
Curtis Holder Website | Instagram (Episode 7
Sally Ward Website | Instagram (Episode 3

The Judges commented in how they each had quite distinctive styles and approaches and that all are here on the basis of 'incredible merit'.

Tai commented that he wanted to see a third exceptional work of art from each of the painters and to be confident that the right people were going through to the Final


The Sitter for the Semi-Final was the Booker Prize winner and writer Bernadine Evaristo - who is also , Professor of Creative writing at Brunel University.

Interestingly she was also one of the Sitters for the Portrait Artist of the Week - for Duncan Shoosmith who was 2019 Portrait Artist of the Year. As soon as I saw here I thought there were going to yowls and choruses around the world of "I've painted her!!!"Indeed if you want to 'have a go' you still can - this is the link to the Facebook Video of the four hour sitting

Bernardine Evaristo

Her face is very interesting and does not exhibit normal proportions - she has a chin which is longer than most and her fabulous hair is exactly the sort of hair which gives portrait artists nightmares in terms of shape, tones, texture and detail. She was a really good test for the semi-finalists.

Observations about the Semi-Final (the programme)

Anyone's day

There's a difference between what presenters say to camera and what they might think in private i.e. there's always an incentive to make a competition look like a close run thing.  However on this occasion I think they genuinely thought anybody could win - but what they left unsaid was "if everybody performs at the top of their game". 

The issue of course who was more and less likely to perform well under pressure.

Painting as product of experience

This sort of intense competitive situation creates tensions and worries - before, during and after the event.  Doubts about yourself and your abilities are best allayed if you have a stack of experience of drawing or painting from life. It's a bit like driving a car when you can sometime get from A to B with no actual memory of making choices during the journey because your skills are so ingrained that they just work automatically.

Painting as a product of how much time you usually allow

I'm absolutely certain that those who are very used to taking more than 4 hours to complete a painting - and/or have very little experience of painting to a defined short-term deadline are very much at a disadvantage when it gets to the nitty gritty. 

You might want to be thoughtful - but can you take time out to think - and still get the painting finished on time?

Choosing the right size of format for the day

  • Go too small and you run the risk of looking inconsequential. 
  • Go too big and you create a major challenge in terms of finding the time to get all the paint on your support@
There again it's often easier to paint big than it is to paint small - and it's certainly easier to correct mistakes.

Making A Decision

What Bernardine Evaristo liked

Bernardine chose the large portrait painting by Kayoon Anderson.

Kayoon Anderson and her semi-final portrait of Bernardine Evaristo

What the Judges liked and disliked

Judges reviewing the paintings produced during the Series 7 semi-final

For the Judges:
  • some have fulfilled promise
  • some have fallen short
  • some have exceeded expectations
For me - all of them (except for Curtis and Sally) seemed to go a bit or a lot backwards.

The Judges liked:
  • the fact that Sally set out to achieve a good likeness and had embraced the books background and made very intelligent use of the vertical book stack
  • the coloured pencil drawing by Curtis stands out because it is so very different and very big
  • the positive and brisk approach by Kayoon who had selected her crop quickly and then produced a portrait with wit and charm
They also commented on how
  • Eugenie's painting was very striking but was not correct
  • Morag did not spend enough time on drawing before she started
  • I think Sarah was a disappointment - they seemed as if they were really looking forward to more of the same.

The Finalists

The three artists selected for the Final of Portrait Artist of the Year (Series 7: Autumn 2020) are:
  • Curtis Holder
  • Sally Ward
  • Kofi Ferris
Curtis Holder and his coloured pencil drawing

Sally Ward and painting

Bernardine thought she captured her determination.

Kofi Ferris and his painting

I think either Kofi or Curtis is going to win - and knew they'd be both in the finals since the Heats.  

I knew Kofi and Curtis would be selected and after that I was umming and erring between three female artists - which I think the Judges were too.

announcement of finalists

What I liked

My predictions as to who would get selected for the final varied throughout the programme. There was no question it was a fairly close-run thing

I jotted down names on a couple of occasions while watching it for the first time and these were - in the order of "certainty"
  • Eugenie / Kofi / Sally
  • Curtis / Kofi / Eugenie
For the record here's my take on how everybody performed - and I refer you back to my preliminary comments as to some of the reasons why. I think Tai best summed it up
Some people have fulfilled their promise and others have sadly not quite got the curve
and Kate added
and some have exceeded our expectations
Before reading on, I want to emphasise that all but one were the artist I thought did best in their heats and I have no doubt they deserved their place in the final. What really disappoints me is that the context does not enable them to do well.

Exceeded my expectations

  • Curtis very definitely did better than I expected - and I always thought he'd be in the Final. He also stands out as very different and his own man when it comes to making art - which is an attractive feature in artists. I loved the fact he was totally unafraid about squatting on a stool in front of the sitter and engaged her in conversation while he knocked out three drawings before he started on the actual portrait. That's confidence!

Hit the Mark

  • I had Kofi down as a finalist from very near the beginning of his portrait painting in his heat. He just has a really strong sense of maturity as a portrait painter. He really understands how to paint in a way which goes beyond approaches used by any others. However I thought both Kofi's submission and heat painting were better than his semi-final painting. I'll be very surprised if he doesn't win. To my mind it's his to lose. 
  • Sally started with a very clear objective of achieving a good likeness as this was the weakness of her heat portrait. She achieved it - with the exception of the chin which she made rather more conventional. She was also the only person who made the background an effective part of her painting. 
  • Kayoon started in a confident way with a big head and just powered through the semi-final. She impressed Tai with her technique for getting a likeness correct - which he mentally tucked away to try himself!! When I started watching the semi-final for the second time I was convinced she got selected. 
Overview of the sitter's review of the semi-final paintings
Foreground (l to r) Eugenie, Kofi and Morag

Excited - and then disappointed

  • I was absolutely certain Eugenie would make the final - until I saw her final painting.  It was so much better earlier in the process. By the end, what was good had been flattened and worked on too much and had lost what was good. The hair was flattened and dead - and given that's a very clear part of her identity that seemed such a bad move. If Eugenie had stopped after an hour's painting I think she might well have been selected.  I thought he start was stunning!


  • Sarah disappointed - and the problem was the size of the head (far too small) and the composition (too much empty negative space - filled with grey paint). It was just very ordinary. It didn't even demonstrate what a good watercolour painter she is. I was hoping for great things from her and I do wish she'd tackled a head portrait as she'd done in the Heat. 
  • Morag does not have a stack of experience to fall back on and I wasn't expecting her to be selected. However I did expect a better painting than the one we got. I've looked at her other work online and I think it's just a simple case of this artist being very talented in terms of emotional content but she now needs to put in the hours so she builds up the artistic brain and muscle which enables her to radically change the ratio of successful to 'so so' paintings.
  • Si did not get a lot of air time - so I knew she wasn't selected. Her portrait was OK - but was just not as good as her heat portrait. Also her third painting made me realise she paints in brown - and not much else. 


Have you seen what's been happening elsewhere?

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