Thursday, October 14, 2021

Review: Episode 1 of Portrait Artist of the Year Series 8 (Autumn 2021)

Portrait Artist of the Year returned to our screens last night for Series 8. This is the first of my reviews of every episode, semi-final and final and the commission over the next 10 weeks or so.

Title caption for Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2021 (Series 8)

We learned that the £10,000 commission this year will be to paint Nicola Benedetti - a Scottish-Italian classical solo violinist who won BBC Young Musician of the Year when she was 16 and is now one of the most sought after violinists of her generation - for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

I think I might have guessed where they might be holding the Final if it's not at Battersea Art Centre!

This is the link to Episode 1 on Sky Arts. It is being broadcast every Wednesday evening at 8pm on Sky Arts Channel - which is available via Sky, Now TV and Freeview.

View of the pod structure inside Battersea Arts Centre

For more about how this art competition works see yesterday's post How Portrait Artist of the Year actually works in practice

The Artists

The artists on their "pic of the artists photocall" outside Battersea Arts Centre

They've not yet got the Artists Profiles upper Series 8 Episode 1 on the usual page - which also usually provides you with a speeded up version of their heat painting. I guess they're processing that and it might appear later today?

The distinction between Professional and Amateur is self-identification and - as always - it's debatable whether some are in the right category.

The order below is alphabetical - not as they appeared on the programme.

The Professionals

There were four professional artists
  • Shane Berkery (Website | Instagram) - an Irish-Japanese contemporary artist based in Dublin, Ireland. His cultural background has been a major influence on his work and is a frequent theme in his paintings. Berkery primarily works out of his studio in Dublin and is represented by The Molesworth Gallery.
  • Alicia France (Website | Instagram) - Her home town is Rochdale and she is now based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. She studied Art for a degree. She is a British artist who won the Portrait/Figure Category Award in the Jackson's Open Painting Prize 2018 (see interview). Paints on aluminium. You can see her "Self-Portrait in Green velvet" on her website.
  • Araminta Lawrie (Website | Instagram) - lives in Hampshire creating figurative paintings and classical portraiture with a contemporary twist. Did an Art History Degree at Nottingham University (2010-2013), followed by a Masters at Sotheby's Institute/Manchester University (2013-4). She has also studied at studied at Sarum Studio, Charles Cecil Studio (summer school), London Fine Art Studios, The Art Academy and Heatherley’s School of Art. Works in Public Relations.
  • Tedi Lena - (Instagram) - (b.1996) Graduated with a BA (Hons) degree from the Sir John Cass School of Architecture and Design at the London Metropolitan University. In addition to his university studies, Lena attended short courses at Hampstead School of Art and the Royal Academy of Arts. He painted a portrait of Frank Bowling which was selected for the BP portrait Award in 2019. He came with a signer as he is deaf. It worked very well I thought. Good to see people with disabilities on a programme like this. A number of you will recognise some of his portraits in this video about him

The Amateurs

There were five amateur artists
  • Nicola Cummings (LinkedIn) Lives in London - is Head of Art at Queens Park Community School. Looked very familiar to me but  I couldn't work out / remember why. She really likes Gabrielle who she got as a model.
Experienced Head Of Art with a demonstrated history of working in the secondary education industry. Skilled in Drawing, Contemporary Art, Art Education, Visual Arts, and Painting. Strong arts and design professional with a Bachelor's degree focused in Fine and Studio Arts from Wimbledon School of Art.
  • Joseph Dupre (Website | Instagram) - he's a a UK based artist and doctor. Splitting his time equally between these two passions.   Draws, prints and sculpts. Won the Art Scholarship to Dulwich College for a remarkable series of closely observed portraits in line. Has studied at the Royal Drawing School and has exhibited in various competitive open exhibitions. BUT he's a doctor 2007-2013 - Manchester School of Medicine, MBChB; 2011 - Humanitarian and Conflict Resolution Institute, MA; 2016-2019 - Specialist Medical GP Qualification, MRCGP (I like his bird mobiles!). He did a monoprint for the Heat.
  • Kat Hughes (Facebook) - Her self-portrait took 40 hours to complete. Needs to get her online presence sorted!
  • Tony Robinson (Website | Facebook | Instagram) - born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK and now lives in Wexford in Ireland. Completed a Fine Art Foundation course there. Graduating with a fine art degree at Stoke-on-Trent he moved to Ireland, working for a time as a mural painter and sign-writer. Founder of plein air festival, Art in the Open (2008), based around Wexford, Ireland. He paints plein air a lot and doesn't normally have the luxury of four hours to complete a painting.
  • Denni Waterhouse [Instagram] - Has loved art from a very early age, qualifying in the subject at both GCSE and A-level. Currently in her third year at the University of Art in London. Comes from Grimsby and her local paper wrote about her before the programme.

The Self Portraits

Self Portraits Wall

Most of the self portraits generally seemed to me to be a bit smaller than usual when viewed as a group.


  • Landscape format x 6
  • Portrait format x 3


  • Large x 2
  • Medium x 3
  • Small x 4


Unusually one of the self-portraits included an etching - and this was the first to be shown in the first episode of the latest series. I think there's a subtle message in there somewhere!

Only one of the self-portraits chose to include a mask - which seemed unusual for me given the context.

For me the only ones in the running for making a difference as to outcome are those that include hands and/or are full size.
  • full size (including hand) x 2
  • upper torso (no hands) x 2
  • head and shoulders x 3
  • head and hand x 1
  • head x 1

The Sitters

Artists participating in the heat 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 

The sitters for Episode 1 were:

  • Gabrielle - who is a British singer and songwriter
  • Jacob Fortune-Lloyd - an actor who starred in The Queen's Gambit and also appeared in Wolf Hall        
  • Grace Neutral who is a British television presenter, model, and hand-poke tattoo artist who has tattooed eyes!!!
I saw some comments on Twitter which suggested the cast of sitters was underwhelming. I'm wondering if they were filming before older, more mature stars would venture out to a set?

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!

Different approaches to creating portraits

As always we can expect the people who select artists for the Heats to focus on creating a good mix of different approaches 

It was no surprise to find in this heat that we had one artist who favours drawing over painting - and was producing a mono print in the Heat. 

The importance of getting a likeness

While the Judges like artists who have a range of styles, they do also tend to comment if an artist fails to achieve a likeness. 

Getting a likeness only comes from practice and learning how to identify which are the features which convert a particular individual's visage.

Getting a likeness is also important when you paint on commission!
I'm really happy that it's me
Grace Neutral
TIP: The type of practice required for getting a likeness is drawing people from life - a LOT.
 This can be done in life drawing classes - but it can also be done with a sketchbook and pencil and drawing people when you see them - on the bus or train, in the street, on the television. 

My favourite (pre-osteoarthritis) has always been drawing people in cafes, restaurants and art galleries! I always tended to focus on the shape of the head and hair and  the posture - rather than features - but it does teach you an awful lot about much likeness is dictated by things other than eyes, nose and mouth!

The importance of HANDS!

This jumped out at me when looking at the self-portraits. 

The self-portrait is an opportunity to get a 'jump' on the rest of the participants in your heat. Demonstrating that you can paint more than a head is a good way of doing that - and there was only one which was a head only. 

HOWEVER few took the opportunity to portray HANDS!
  • only one painter went for a full figure with both hands (another did a less detailed full figure SP with a hand against the light)
  • only one painter included one hand.
Bottom line there was a major deficit on a feature which many artists struggle to include when creating their Heat Artworks - and could have included in their self portrait.
I'm so glad he included the hands
Kathleen Soriano - commenting on Tony Robinson's painting
All credit to Nicola Cummings who had one hand in her self portrait and included two hands in her heat painting. It didn't work out - but good for her for having a decent go at giving herself a good chance!

Nicola Cummings - with her portrait of Gabrielle

Working to a time budget: scope to overwork as sell as fall short of delivering

The time limit is something many artists find difficult. The complaint is usually that they didn't have enough time. 

However there's another way of looking at this:
  • How much time does it normally take an artist to produce a portrait?
  • Have they practiced adjusting their painting practice to the time budget of 4 hours?
  • Is 4 hours too little for them - do they run the risk of not finishing?
  • Is 4 hours too much for them - might they run the risk of overworking?
What I'm worried about now is a last minute correction - and it ruins the whole thing
Kat Hughes
Tony Robinson got shortlisted. He made the point that he usually had much less time as he mainly paints landscapes and works plein air. I thought he got off to a brilliant start - and my only concern was whether he was going to overwork his painting because he had more time than usual.

Another artist, who I think was in with a chance of being shortlisted, made a change late in the day - which to my mind undermined the portrait and consequently their chances of progressing.

TIPS:  It's worth reminding people that 
  • four hours is the time allowed. You don't have to use all of it. You can put your brushes down when you think it's finished - whenever that is.
  • If you can't paint to a time budget of 4 hours then you haven't prepared properly for the heat and are unlikely to do well. 
  • Make sure you know how you need to adjust your normal painting practice for the limited time budget - and then make sure you finish!

Decision Time

Sitters choose portrait to take home

  • Gabrielle chose Shane Berkery
  • Grace chose Araminta Lawrie
  • Jacob chose Kat Fisher
Looks on faces suggested we had some fairly disappointed contestants in the group who obviously thought they were in with a shot on doing well.  However sitters like very different things and not being chosen does not mean you're not a good artist - just that the site liked somebody else's portrait better.

Judges choose shortlist of three

Waiting to hear who has been shortlisted
(why so up high? / why are all the artist turned away from the camera?)

For the record, the pattern I've observed in the past is the Judges tend to choose three different types of portrait - so if you and another artists paint in a similar way and you're good, the Judges will choose the one they consider better.

The general feeling was that it had been a strong day. That was my impression also - this bunch of artists were better than most - and I have a feeling this is why they were chosen to be the first episode. (i.e. the Heats do not get shown in order - they get shown according to what makes for good television!)

Judges liked

  • good likeness
  • controlled colour palette
  • no tricks / no artifice
  • portraits which demonstrated development and work
  • detail that is not photographic
  • good rendering of posture and depth
  • good depiction of volume
  • fun, surreal and serious - clever
  • the inclusion of hands
  • catching the spirit and personality
  • storytelling

Judges were less enthusiastic about

  • failure to achieve a likeness
  • artists who don't demonstrate a good use of limited time in the heat
  • unconvincing / flat hands 

The Shortlist

Those shortlisted were:
  • Tony Robinson
  • Araminta Lawrie
  • Kat Hughes
I think there were two other artists who stood a good chance of going through at the beginning of the day - but who lost it by not delivering what their self portraits promised. 

Episode 1 Winner

In deciding the winner the Judges ALWAYS take BOTH portraits into account. 

As I've always said, never ever underestimate the importance of the self portrait for 
  • getting selected to participate in the competition as a Heat Artist
  • getting shortlisted 
  • winning the Heat!
What was DEEPLY DISAPPOINTING was that there wasn't a single shot in the entire programme which showed all six paintings by the three shortlisted artists next to one another - so you could see what the Judges were looking at i.e. the comparative impact and not just portraits in isolation.

I do very much hope that this will be remedied in future episodes. I'm not in the least bit interested in where the other artists stood when the winner was announced or a side-one view which eliminate one of the portraits. I want to see all the paintings in contention next to one another! Otherwise we lose one of the key learning pics from the entire series  - in every episode!

Here's the pics of the self-portrait and the heat painting for each of the shortlisted artists.

[I'm going to come back and add some more comments about the shortlisted pics later - but I'm participating in an international online conference for the next four days and need to run! Metaphorically speaking!]

Tony Robinson

Araminta Lawrie

Kat Hughes

The winner of Episode 1 of Sky Artist Portrait Artist of the Year 2021 (Series 8) was Kat Hughes

The Heat Winner was Kat Hughes for her very distinctive portrait of Jacob Fortune-Lloyd AND her self-portrait - both of which the Judges were very complimentary about. 
The artist which the judges have selected showed a confident range and a narrative depth across their submission and portrait today
When you look at the pairs of paintings above, I personally think this was a foregone conclusion!

My only reservation about the chances of her success going forward is her tendency to focus just on the head. It'll be interesting to see whether hands get into the picture in the semi-final....

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Next Week's Sitters

...are: Gyles Brandreth, Karen Gibson, Sophie Cookson - and only one of those sparks instant name recognition by me. Thinking about it, I'm very surprised Gyles has not been on before.

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