Thursday, December 09, 2021

Review: Semi Finals of Portrait Artist of the Year (Series 8)

Last night was the semi final of Series 8 of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year - and this is my review.

I’ll writing this on my iPad Pro as my iMac looks like it also need surgery!

To be completely honest, in comparison to previous semi-finals, I was somewhat underwhelmed. 

I’m also amazed that somebody somewhere in the Sky Arts monolith has committed a monumental system fail. The way I access this programme via Now TV means that the first half of the heats can no longer view be viewed online - or on my television screen - because the episode is only available for 28 days NOT for the duration of the series. That just seems to me to be a completely nonsensical given that every episode of every other series of this programme CAN be accessed online and on my television!! If anybody from Sky Arts is reading this review PLEASE get this fixed so that those who come late to the series can watch ALL the episodes all the way through in the correct order.


The sitter was Nick Mason who has been the drummer for Pink Floyd for nearly 50 years - plus he likes driving fast cars 

Nick Mason and Joan Bakewell

The semi-finalists come from the 72 artists selected to participate in the eight heats at the Battersea Arts Centre earlier in 2021. Each won their heat - and are as follows:

Five Professional Artists

  • Episode 3:  Sarah Harvey [Facebook | Instagram) - born in London in 1981. Art education at Chelsea School of Art and Newcastle University, graduating in 2004. Has her studio (Mallard Studio) in Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire - big enough for her usually large scale paintings. However she's recently switched (due to you the big P) to painting in watercolour on her dining room table. You can see her many drawings and paintings of healthcare workers and families that were affected personally by covid19 created during the lockdown. One of her drawings was in the NHS Magazine in 2020
  • Episode 4:  Lucy Threlfall [Facebook | Instagram] - Studio in Royston in north Hertfordshire. Graduated with degree in Art History at UCL. In 1990 she went on to study at Charles Cecil Studios in Florence. From 1997 she worked principally as a portrait painter, undertaking portrait commissions while looking after a young family. Completed an MA in Printmaking at the Anglia Ruskin in Cambridge in 2012. She has painted portraits since 1997.  
  • Episode 5:  Calum Stevenson  [Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | YouTube] - graduated from Duncan of Jordanstone and I’m now studying for a MA in Fine Arts at Glasgow School of Art. He spent 80 hours on his self-portrait and focuses on getting a good likeness from the get go.
  • Episode 6:  Gabriella Cohen [LinkedIn] - from Staines, Middlesex.  Digital Content Creator/ Fine Artist who graduated with a first class degree in Fine Art from Bournemouth - who enjoys creating characters in her work.  Submitted a self-portrait with a futuristic quality - and aimed for a slightly unusual edge to her portrait.
  • Episode 8: Christos Tsimaris [Instagram | Saatchi] Lives in London. Participated in PAOTY 2020 and reached the semi-finals where he had a bit of a meltdown and a bad day - as I stood and watched. (see my review of the semi-finals - which incorporates comments on what I watched - in April 2019 - but did not make the screen)
    • 1996 - 1997 - Masters Degree, European Fine Art, Winchester School of Art, Winchester
    • 1995 - 1996 - Post Graduate Studies, Byam Shaw School of Art, London
    • 1988 - 1993 - B.A. Hons Degree, School of Art of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

Three Amateur Artists

  • Episode 1:  Kat Hughes (Facebook) - Her self-portrait took 40 hours to complete
  • Episode 2:  Ruhkiah Johnston - Medical student from London. No website or social media presence
  • Episode 7: Mark Oliver [Facebook | Instagram | Twitter ] - An award-winning illustrator with a background in graphic design who lives in Worthing, West Sussex.

The Set-Up

Look at the distance between artist and sitter!!!

The set-up is rather different - with all nine artists lined up in an extended semi-circle facing towards the sitter sat in front of a large gong - which apparently isn’t actually a gong - which Mason has been carrying around on all Pink Floyd Tours - surrounded by very many pink panels!
They’ve got to think about what the set says about who they’re painting
Kate Bryan
I can’t believe that it’s taken me to until now to understand why the set background was PINK!!!

The important point from the artists’ perspective is that they are a HUGE distance from the sitter. No reputable portrait artist would ever consider painting a portrait from this distance! The programme makers really have to come up with a better way of doing this because for me while it might work for those who use technology it’s grossly unfair for those who paint from life.


What are the semi-finals actually about?

Tai wants to see consistency AND innovation and apparently has no problem in seeing these in any way as contradictory concepts!

Kathleen wants to see risk 
For me it’s all about the risk, where the excitement, where’s the edge?
I just think that’s very silly. This is a portrait competition not Grand Prix racing! 

Essentially though the semi-finals should be about sorting out who are the best artists who could go forward and deliver a very effective and impressive portrait for the 10k commission.

You get to see what your fellow artists painted in the Heats

I have to confess the last time I went to a semi-finals, I felt quite strongly that it was pretty clear who were the real contenders for the Finals when I saw ALL the Heat Portraits lined up next to one another.

Those who have painted small may well some pressure to step the size of their painting.

It needs to be remembered that those who painted bigger might also be going bigger too!

It also needs to be remembered that doing something outside your comfort zone might be what undermines your effort.

So maybe it does all boil down to the risk/reward equation?

Nerves are important on the day

How well you handle your nerves on the day plays a very big part in how well you do. Getting a good night’s sleep beforehand so you feel fresh can also be very important for some.

Watch the episode again and you begin to understand a lot of the battles on the day are your very own internal ones.

Time to show what you can do

For those who have only painted heads up until now, it’s probably time to step up and demonstrate that you can paint portraits which are not just about a head.  

Being able to paint shoulders, torsos, hands and get shapes and proportions right is a good thing to demonstrate.

You can also trail - in conversations with Judges - what you’d like to do if you had the time. ;) 

A Face which is entirely in shade

Nick Mason was lit almost entirely from behind - more or less as he would be when he’s playing a concert as a drummer. 

It was almost as if this was a ‘trick’ challenge of the semi-finals - to see who spotted the issues with respect to the lighting lighting and then whether they responded to the challenge well. 

You can see for yourself below.


Here are the eight portraits - with their artists. (I learned a few things about using Affinity Photo with an iPad Pro while producing this blog post!)

I’ve added my comments about each portrait along with my view of their prospects as a finalist.

Overall, most have captured some aspect of likeness - and some did better than others.

Sarah Harvey

I really liked this portrait. My view from the heat was that Sarah was a very strong contender for the Final. I was amazed when she wasn’t chosen. Particularly since I’m pretty sure she just missed out on being selected by Nick Mason.

Calum Stevenson

Calum’s contemporary take on a traditional approach to portraiture achieved a very good likeness - typical but not flattering. I was worried for quite a long while that he was painting too slowly and might not finish. He very wisely decided to ignore the background.

Lucy Threlfall

Lucy Threlfall very unfortunately had a bad painting day.  I’m left wondering whether it was the tension and/or nerves associated with the semi-final because it was almost as if she’d sent another painter to the semi-finals. 

Lucy’s portrait was a major disappointment to both me and her. It’s nowhere near as good as her absolutely wonderful heat painting - which very clearly demonstrated that she understand how to use colour and that she can paint well. 

I had her mentally tagged as a shoe-in for the Final. Instead, for me, she’s the only painter who didn’t achieve a good likeness - although it improved from the quite awful head she was working on for a long time. Plus it’s a very dirty murky painting. Not nice. I was gutted.
Is it a muddy painting? Is it overworked?
Steven Mangan

Lucy just had too much wrestling with the likeness
Kate Bryan 

 Christos Tsimaris

It’s a good sketch. However I don’t rate it as a portrait painting. Yet AGAIN, his proportions were off with respect to what he had planned to paint. Christos demonstrated that he either can’t measure accurately or posses no quick ways of checking relative proportions.
I’m going to take some risks but calculated risks. I don’t want a repeat of what happened in the semi-finals last time.
Christos Tsimiris
However it was creditable that he tackled the upper torso - even if he messed up on the (absent) hands.

Gabriella Cohen

Gabriella is slowly growing on me. I think she’s got an excellent future as a portrait painter as she is really good at painting really weird portraits which always look like the sitter.

In fact her very simplistic monochrome head was one of the better likenesses,

Mark Oliver

Not the best portrait I’ve seen him do. I think it would have worked much better if he’d excluded the pink (I.e. just because it’s there doesn’t mean you have to paint it!). I also think that darkening the suit down so that it was more like the dark area around there gong would have helped the head ‘pop’ more. Whereas at the moment it’s in shadow and having to compete with a lot of dissonant colours.

That said, it’s got the makings of a good portrait, but I don’t think that’s where it would have ended up if Mark had more time.

Ruhkiah Johnston

Ruhkiah achieved a good likeness - but it was just far too pale. I also found the textile top right unnecessary and distracting. Cropped and on a different format - with more work on skin tones - I think this could have been a very successful portrait.

Kat Hughes

Kat had a dreadful place to work from. She had just one option - the profile. However she did a very good job and also did a great job in maintaining a clear distinction between the head and the background while typing the colours of both together, which for me made it work much better as a painting.

She also achieved a very good likeness grounded in good proportions.


At the end of the semi-finals, the Judges review the three paintings and determine which three artists are going through to the Final.

EXCEPT is that what’s really going on?

Just as in the Heats, the previous paintings count - otherwise there would be no sense to some of the decisions taken.

HOWEVER unlike in the Heats we don’t see the portraits by artists to date lined up in a group. For me it’s when you do this that you can easily see who are those that should go through. After all the £10,000 commission which is the First Prize is not a time-limited exercise and you need to know that an artist can rise to the occasion.

The three artists selected to go through to the Final were
  • Calum Stevenson
  • Christos Tsimaros
  • Mark Oliver
I could make a case for both Calum and Mark - but not for Christos. 

I think Christos won the heat and got through because he does what Tai can’t do and on the basis that he was the only looser impressionistic painter. To me, a look at his portraits elsewhere only serves to reinforce my initial impression which is he’s somebody who is trying to paint like Francis Bacon - for all the obvious reasons.

Does Nicola Benedetto need to be painted a la Francis Bacon? I don’t think so.

Calum Stevenson on the other hand is a straightford contemporary portrait painter who uses a traditional approach with contemporary tweaks. He has already achieved a good track record for such a young painter  in terms of being selected for the Scottish Portrait Awards in 2020 - which in turn have a great selection of very impressive portraits each year. This is the standard that the winner of this competition is going to be measured against - and I’ve already seen what Calum is capable of. I’m expecting a great commission painting from Calum in the Final.

Scottish Portrait Awards 2020 - Calum Stevenson

Mark Oliver for me is the unknown quantity. I think he could be a strong contender - but at the same time I’m not sure his style - which works well with angular men - suits the female sitter for the £10k commission. Does that get taken into account I wonder?

My three for the final would have been
  • Sarah Harvey
  • Gabriella Cohen
  • Either Calum or Mark

and get an email to your inbox every time I publish

Previous Episodes

These are the previous episodes in this series.


My previous reviews of the semi-finals in 2019 and 2020 are below 

No comments:

Post a Comment

COMMENTS HAVE BEEN CLOSED AGAIN because of too much spam.
My blog posts are always posted to my Making A Mark Facebook Page and you can comment there if you wish.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.