Sunday, December 19, 2021

Calum Stevenson wins Portrait Artist of the Year (Series 8 Autumn 2021)

Calum Stevenson with his Finals portrait of Barry Humphries

Last Wednesday, Calum Stevenson was the first Scot and the youngest artist ever to win the Final Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year.

Sky broadcast two programmes back to back on Wednesday:

  • The first related to the Final held at the Battersea Arts Centre in splendid isolation last summer.
  • The second related to the story of the winner and the painting of the commission.
(Meanwhile I was engaged in getting my technophobe other half up to speed first buying and then getting up to speed with his new acquisitions from Apple - and trying to get a remedy from my hard disc on my iMac which decided to disappear - hence the delay in posting)

Below you can find out more about

  • The Competition
  • The Final
  • The Commission
  • Calum Stevenson
  • How to enter Portrait Artist of the Year 2022
  • How to find out more about past finals of Portrait Artist of the Year.

Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year - Series 8

The eighth series of this very popular art competition makes for great television viewing as the nights begin to draw in. It was filmed in the late spring / early summer last year in Covid secure conditions - meaning no audience - at the Battersea Arts Centre.

This year there was no transfer to the National Portrait Gallery as has happened in the past partly because it was closed and partly because it meant people did not have to love kit and travel to a different place.

The series has seen 72 artists compete across eight heats to select heat winners for the semi final and then three artists for the final. Each artist got four hours to try and paint the likeness and essence of the sitter they were allocated.

I've felt there's generally been a better standard of artist in this series - as in relatively few who really were not up to snuff.

You can read the reviews of the show by viewers on Google. One such expressed herself thus
Watching paint dry has never felt so good! An hour of joyful pleasure, the antidote to a stressful day or any kind of miserableness. While the show format is similar to other shows of this type, it is on another planet in terms of excellence, the talented artists, the delightful judges, the gently humorous presenters.

The Final

The sitter for the Final was brilliant Barry Humphries. He turned up as Barry Humphries - rather than Dame Edna Everage or Sir Les Patterson. He dressed for the part in an outstanding colourful suit and then  proceeded to start sketching the artists as they painted him.

(he) has appeared in more Archibald exhibitions than any other Australian celebrity, a seven-time finalist in various guises during the controversial portrait prize’s 100 years.

There are also 12 portraits of Barry Humprhies in the National Portrait Gallery - although all are photographs except for the pencil drawing of Dame Edna Everage by Cecil Beaton.

The artists who made it though to the Final were an interesting lot in the sense that none were a conventional portrait artist

They were, in the order they were called at the semi-finals:

Issues which confronted the artists in the final
  • easels were set up at a big distance from the sitter - and hence it's essential to have some way of taking a digital image so you can get in close
  • great sitter in terms of experience, face and clothing - but a bit fidgety. That said, I think he knew they were mostly working from the digital images - and I'd be fidgeting in those circumstances!
  • a background which provided a variety of colour - in terms of feather boas. The issue is always should you focus on getting your sitter right or adding in an interesting background. The winner did the former.
At the end of the four hours, Barry Humphries chose the painting by Calum Stevenson. For me it was the best painting of him.  Both the other painters went bigger - but actually lost something in the process.

Barry Humphries by Calum Stevenson - chosen by Barry Humprhries

"I'm going to choose Calum's expert fastidious portrait of this genial old comic"
As always, the paintings produced by the painters in-between the semi-finals and the final are absolutely critical to the end result

This is where the real competition takes place - as this is the best indication of what can be created when undertaking the commission - and the Judges need to be really confident of the calibre of the artist they entrust with that commission - because it is a reflection on them (as they doubtless learned the year when very many of us thought they'd made the wrong decision!).

The challenge - given the restrictions - was to paint somebody they were close to i.e. no restrictions about being indoors no matter where they lived.

Portraits in the Final and of the person they were close to by the Finalists

Portraits by Christos Tsimaris of the sitter and his son

Tai commented at one point that Christos had painted the smallest head he'd ever seen (in a final). Kate thought he had a 'risky approach' to painting portraits. 

My personal view is that Christos is a better studio painter than competition painter. His studio portrait of his son captures his age and personality but lacks a background which could have offered added value.

portraits by Calum Stevenson of the sitter and his girlfriend

Calum's double painting of his girlfriend is VERY impressive. He not only creates a double aspect portrait but also creates a background which while abstract also adds interest but does not distract from the subject of the painting. Plus it has a foreground which grounds while not being distracting.

His painting of Barry Humphries also provides an excellent likeness and great brushwork.
Portraits by Mark Oliver of Barry Humpries and his son

I think Mark made the fatal mistake of actually painting what he saw - and when this is unflattering to the sitter this is not a wise move.

Or as Barry summarised it, he confirmed that his efforts at dieting had failed!!

His portrait of his son was very good but lacked context and any sort of narrative to explain the rather odd pose.

The view of the Judges was unanimous that Calum was a very special portrait painter. They recognised that while he used technology to help him create his portrait - as frankly many portrait painters need to do because few can ask for or get the sitter sat in front of them for the time it takes to paint a portrait - but that his painting technique rose above this. His drawing skills are excellent - and he always started with the eyes and made sure these were right before moving on. His likenesses manage to capture the reality and the humanity of the individual - they're 'real' without being in any way hyperrealistic as many painters who work from photos tend to be.

For my part, Calum never took a wrong step at any point during the competition. 
  • He arrived with an interesting self portrait
  • He then adjusted his technique so he could paint his heat portrait in the time available and achieve a good likeness and interesting mark-making - and created a portrait that the sitter wanted to take home (see my review of Heat 5)
  • created another sound grounded recognisable likeness and portrait - of Nick Mason - in the semi-finals
  • repeated the process in the Final
  • PLUS produced the most impressive 'commissioned' portrait by far of somebody he was close to.
I think given we might still be under constraints this next summer, those entering might do well to identify who would sit for them if they reach the finals!

The Commission

I always forget that at the end of the day, the credibility of this programme depends on picking an artist who goes on to produce a credible - and preferable impressive - portrait of a celebrity for the institution which has commissioned the artwork.

(Note: it remains a mystery as to whether the £10,000 first prize is paid by Sky Arts or the institution. However it's a not untypical artist's fee for a decent size portrait by a portrait artist of repute.)

Sometimes I think the Judges do too - until it comes to the Final! Which is why I was pretty sure after the Finals that Calum Stevenson would win if he kept a cool head on the day of the final. (See Review: Semi Finals of Portrait Artist of the Year (Series 8) )

So in a way, the "prize" is not so much the £10,000 cash prize as the opportunity to:
  • raise your profile by having a complete programme devoted to you, your background and journey - and your approach to creating the commissioned painting.
  • get a commission
  • receive a respectable fee for a commissioned portrait - as if you are a well known, reputable portrait artist
  • have your portrait hang in a notable place
  • enhance your CV!

Calum Stevenson and Nicola Benedetti - at the Scottish Portrait Gallery
on the occasion of the unveiling of Calum's portrait of Nicola
as the commission prize of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2021

Nicola Benedetti was truly bowled over by the portrait - which was both unexpected and impressive at the same time.

"It has been a true joy to sit for Calum and to get to know him. He is a unique artist and person, and I count myself hugely fortunate to be a small part of his early artistic life.
The portrait has surpassed all my expectations." Nicola Benedetti

The Judges were also very impressed by the step forward that Calum had taken with his portraiture - and use of colour.

I very much recommend that anybody aspiring to enter this competition watches the commission episode in full.

Calum Stevenson

Calum Stevenson has an excellent visual account of his experience of the competition on his website in the page devoted to Sky Portrait Artist of the Year where you can see images of his heat, the semi final and his commission.

Calum Stevenson's website - and the page about Sky Portrait Artist of the Year 2021

This was Calum's view of the sitter at the Final

Both the Scottish Portrait Awards and Dundee University were keen to highlight their connection with Calum. 

Below is the contribution from the Scottish Portrait Awards.

This - Portrait Artist of the Year accolade for graduate - is the contribution from Dundee University - where he studied Fine Arts from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design before going on to Glasgow School of Art where he graduated with an MA in Fine Art Practice in 2020.
The Sky Arts show challenges artists from across the UK to paint celebrity sitters in order to win a place in the final. Calum Stevenson (23), from Bonnybridge, had wowed judges and TV audiences alike with his stunning portraits of actress Kelly Macdonald and musician Nick Mason as he passed through the show’s rounds.

Last night’s double bill saw Calum hold off stiff competition to take the title after his painting of entertainer Barry Humphries was judged to be the best portrait produced by the finalists. For his prize, Calum received a £10,000 commission to paint violinist Nicola Benedetti. The second instalment showed him meeting Nicola before producing the painting, which will now go on exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

Calum studied at the University’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design and graduated with a Fine Art degree in 2019. He says that taking part in the show was a nerve-wracking experience but one that has given him the best possible start to his career as an artist.

How to enter Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2022

If you're interested in featuring in the heats of the competition for next year, then I recommend you check out my blog posts about:
  • Sky Arts Artist of the Year Competitions: Call for Entries - re. the 2022 competitions for Portrait Artist of the Year and Landscape Artist of the Year
  • my reviews of the various heats in which I highlight learning points (see end of this post re the 2021 heats). Many people - including finalists and a winners have told me how helpful they've found my post

....and finally

There is a final episode to the series being broadcast next Wednesday 22nd December at 8pm (and repeated on Thirsdya 23rd at 7pm)This focuses on looking back at some of the best moments of the eight series of this very popular art competition.

Other Finals of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year

Here are my posts about finals of this competition - in the order I wrote them
You can also watch episodes from past series of Portrait Artist of the Year via Sky or Now TV - starting with the first series in 2013

Here's my reviews of Series 8....

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