Thursday, October 21, 2021

Review: Episode 2 of Portrait Artist of the Year Series 8 (Autumn 2021)

I'm getting my major whine about this episode out of the way upfront.

I'm wondering if anybody else is as irritated as me by the Director of the current series of Portrait Artist of the Year who appears incapable of providing us with any wide shots of:

  • ALL the self-portraits - without Judges cluttering the view
  • the submission and heat portrait of the three shortlisted artists - lined up across the screen - one of the really pivotal images of the entire programme - if it actually existed. I'm not interested in arty farty camerawork grovelling on the ground looking up at the Judges with all the portraits side on to us and COMPLETELY INVISIBLE!
  • the three short listed artists lined up with their portraits prior to the announcement
These are three really important images which have always been available before and all three have been missing from both of the first two episodes.

The nearest we get to seeing the self-portraits minus judges or participants
is the background of this overview of PAOTY Episode 2

We know what the Judges look like - we want to see ALL the self portraits lined up!

I just don't get it. Did the Director or cameraman not look at any of the previous series?

The obvious solution is to employ a stills photographer who takes photos of the key shots of IMAGES OF PORTRAITS NEXT TO ONE ANOTHER (i.e. No Judges and no presenters getting in the way) and then insert these into the video. It's not difficult if you use 16:9 format.

Right that particular mega-whinge out of the way - on to my review of Episode 2!

The Artists

This episode had an interesting imbalance between amateurs and professionals - with yet more eyebrows raised by me as to which qualified in which category.

I always order the artists in the same way - professionals first, then amateurs with everybody listed alphabetically according to their surname. Links to website are embedded in the name and social media accounts are identified where these can be found.

What's extremely weird is that this week many of the artists have no website. I can't remember the last time there were so few with nothing about them online. 

The artists having a break

The Professionals

  • Rory Draper - a former art teacher born in Dublin who now works in Wexford. (Rory sent me his website URL after this post was published). In October 2022, he will be the artist in residence for the Presentation Arts Centre in Enniscorthy
  • Sally Roberts - graduated from Wimbledon School of Art. Paints people floating in space - including her submission which is a full figure (Self Portrait)

The Amateurs

  • Trudi Atherton (Facebook | Instagram) - from Southport. Studying part-time for a degree in fine art. Uses mixed media, specifically soluble pencils to create both pen and watercolour effects
  • Alice Barker - recently graduated (2020) from the School of Art at Edinburgh University with a degree in Fine Art. This is her degree show. She appears to be a Figurative Artist rather than a Portrait Artist
  • Isabelle Howe (Instagram) - An Estate Agent from Staffordshire. Interestingly there's nothing much 
    on her Instagram to suggest a portrait artist
  • Ruhkiah Johnston - Medical student from London. No website or social media presence
  • Kiel Mitchell (Artfinder | Instagram)- part time food lab manager who also runs his own film production company
  • Robbie Murdoch - born in Birmingham in 1943 and now lives in Milland, West Sussex. He trained as a Dental Surgeon at Guy’s Hospital and has been painting all his life. Since retirement in 2008 he has studied at the Heatherley School of Fine Art and now concentrates on painting both plein air and portraiture. He has frequently exhibited with the ROI and the RSMA.
  • Shaquelle Whyte - a figurative painter studying studying for a BA honours at the Slade school of fine art. He has been awarded a Rome Scholarship. 

The Self Portraits

I'd like to be able to see the self portraits next to one another so I can do an analysis of size, format and nature of the self portrait.

Cameramen need to learn to use Zoom!
The interesting part of the screen is the six of the nine portraits not obscured by the Judges!
The rest is a waste of space....

But we didn't get a good sighting of the self portraits until the halfway point when an assessment is made of how they're getting on.

On this basis I can say that:


  • Landscape format x 2
  • Portrait format x 7


  • Large x 3
  • Medium x 3
  • Small x 3
As I said last week
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 3
  • upper torso (no hands) x 2
  • head and shoulders x 3
  • head x 1

The Sitters

The Sitters for Episode 2 are:

  • Gyles Brandreth - ex MP, writer and broadcaster - dressed in the robes of Chancellor of the University of Chester
  • Karen Gibson - a choir conductor and the Founder of the Kingdom Choir which sang at a certain Royal Wedding!
  • Sophie Cookson - a young actress who recently starred in The Trial of Christine Keeler

Episode 2: Themes

I've got a number of major and minor themes this week.

Making the head too small

In my view, you should only make the head small, IF 
  • you're a very experienced painter of people's heads 
  • AND you can isolate and capture the distinctive features of their head 
  • AND portray it successfully in a small face in your chosen media.
By way of contrast, show me a small head and most of the time I'll show you a painter who was 
  • not experienced
  • and/or not well prepared for this competition 
  • and/or panicked 
  • and/or mistakenly through that paintings a head small might make life easier - when the converse is true. 
Why handicap yourself  by painting a small head? There's so much more scope to FAIL to:
  • portray features at the right size in the right place
  • achieve a likeness.
By way of contrast, why not demonstrate you can paint heads and faces in a convincing manner - rather than devote your time to painting large amounts of background?

Thinking about this made me wonder whether there's a minimum size of head you should be aware of - and paint no smaller than that.  Remember that a head/face can look small when you see an image of a completed portrait - but you need to consider the context of the size of the support.
  • you can go small on a large support
  • but you need to fill the space if you choose to work on a small support
  • AND paint the same size of head on both!
Bottom line, painting very small faces in a convincing way is very, very difficult - unless you've been painting portraits for a long time and have become very good at portraiture

Getting a Likeness - at an Emotional Level

There are appear to be quite a few people watching this programme who think the Judges are not interested in whether or not participants capture a likeness.

I disagree. I think they consider it to be a given. Most of the comments relate to when somebody does NOT capture a likeness.

However there's also scope to create a portrait of a person even when the portrait is not accurate on the dimensions of the features.

This week was very interesting because two heat paintings did very well because they captured a likeness of the interior being of the sitter - an emotional likeness if you like. In one instance the physical likeness was very good and in another it was OK - but clearly not quite right. However the artists for both made the shortlist.


There's a question about how much drawing to do - which, in my opinion, contestants must consider before they start the Heat.

How much time you spend on drawing - for a portrait you have to do in four hours - depends on:
  • how fast you can draw accurately
  • whether you've learned how to draw with a brush - in which case you can skip the pencil / charcoal on canvas stage
  • whether drawing is how you learn how the head works and work out the proportions - so painting becomes easier
What drawing is not - is copying a digital image and creating an outline to fill in.

The advantage of also being a plein air painter

I think quite a few artists who paint both portraits and landscapes tend to apply for both artist of the year competitions. 

Interestingly I've spotted a theme after two episodes - which is that those who are practising plein air painters know how to scope a subject quickly and paint it fast. It happened last week - and it happened again this week with Robbie Murdoch. Plein air painters are not challenged by the four hour time allowance - indeed it often seems like a luxury to have that much time!

I've noticed that the plein air painters seem to be half finished by the time some of the less experienced artists have finally decided what to do and have done some drawing - but the paint brush has yet to hit the canvas.

Maybe more portrait painters should make sure they take up plein air painting before applying to this competition? ;)

Sizes of Brushes

One of the things I do when looking at the artists painting in each episode is I watch out for two things:
  • Are they using the right size of brush for the particular part of the portrait they're painting?
  • Where do they hold their brush - and is this appropriate for what they're doing?
It tells me an awful lot about whether they've had good training or not in painting generally, never mind portrait painting. By way of contrast, when I see somebody using very big brushes very well, I know I'm looking at somebody who is a very experienced artist.

I don't think I've ever seen a Heat Winner who's been a bad user of brushes.

For me it's also one of the primary indicators of who to take seriously as a contender.....

Check out the brush use and holds next episode - and see what you think......

The importance of narrative

The word "narrative" kept popping up in this episode. I couldn't;t quite decide - without watching it again for a third time, whether this was generated by the artists or the Judges or came out of artists mouths as a result of particular questions posed by Judges. I'm leaning to the latter.

This might be because Tai for certain, and I think other Judges too, spotted that a number of the artists were not portrait artists so much as figurative artists - who paint concepts or stories which include figures.

The classic example was Shaquelle who submitted a work in which you could see his body but not his face.

Speaking personally, I like really good portraits which tell a story. I think good portrait artists tell the story of their sitter.

Being incredibly nervous

There's lots edited out of what took place to get to what you see on screen. I'm pretty sure there were a "lot of nerves" getting the better of more than one artist in this episode.

I don't think it influenced the outcome.

However you can have a better time painting in a heat in front of Judges and cameras if you've first practiced painting in front of other people with distractions and other things going on. 

Decision Time

Sitters choose portrait to take home

Gyles Brandreth had a strong group of portraits to choose from - and chose the painting by Kiel Mitchell. He knew it didn't look exactly like him - but it was the one which made him feel the most emotional and the one which was of a person he recognised. It's an emotional portrait!

Karen Gibson, perhaps predictably, chose the painting by Rukhiah Johnstone. The two had engaged in conversation during the heat.

Sophie Cookson had the weakest set of portraits to choose from and chose the one drawn by Rory Draper.

Judges choose shortlist of three

The three artists shortlisted for the further review were:
  • Ruhkiah Johnston 
  • Robbie Murdoch
  • Kiel Mitchell
I'm pleased to say I predicted two and hope the third might get shortlisted ! :)  That wasn't just because over the course of watching the programme you begin to realise who is getting attention and who is not. That's because the editing takes place after the decision-making!

The Judges thought there were issues with all the Heat Paintings. This, of course, what makes the self-portrait submissions all the more important.

These are their paintings - submission and heat painting - from which they select the winner.

Ruhkiah Johnston's self portrait and her painting of Karen Gibson

There was consensus that her self-portrait was very impressive - in particular for the treatment of painting the skin. While it doesn't include the feet it does cover the major part of the torso and at least one hand.

Judges thought that Rukhiah was a formidable painter who engaged with her tier and really captured a very good likeness of her face. They thought it a compelling portrait which complemented her self portrait.  They did however think she need to refine her use of material in her paintings. 

Robbie Murdoch's self portrait and his painting of Karen Gibson

Judges felt that Robbie really understands tonal values.  Kathleen loved his self-portrait and in particular Robbie's nose! I loved his self portrait - very traditional and very effective.

Kiel Mitchell's self portrait and his painting of Gyles Brandreth

Kiel's paintings were much liked by both Tai and Kate. They recognised that Gyles's face was too narrow but also that it was a very beautiful portrait. I think Kiel really knows how to handle paint.

The Judges then had to decide on a winner

I so want that camera at ground level to disappear very soon!

The Heat Winner was Ruhkiah Johnston for her very good likeness of Karen Gibson. The Judges all thought that she was a painter with a lot of potential and they wanted to see what she would do next.

Rukhiah with her heat winning portrait painting of Karen Gibson

Yet again, the heat winner has produced at least one artwork which includes hands. 

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Episode 3

The Sitters in the next episode are Alexa Chung, Nish Kumar and Philip Glenister

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