Friday, December 02, 2022

Morag Caister wins Portrait Artist of the Year 2022 (Series 9)

Morag Caister won the Final of  Series 9 of Portrait Artist of the Year 2022 on Wedensday night this week! 

This is a slightly different review this week. One which seeks to explain what we saw, what the Judges opined and why we arrived at the eventual result.

It covers

  • The Artists in the Final;
  • The Judges' Perspective
  • The Portraits - all 5 - and my comments
  • Why (I think) Megan won.
  • READ: How to enter the competition in 2023

Waiting to hear the Final PAOTY 2022 decision

The Three Finalists - and the sitter

The three finalists were, in alphabetical order
The Artists in the PAOTY 2022 Final
(left to right: Morag Caister; Binny Mathews and Nina Ruminska)

You can find profiles of the first two in Portrait Artist of the Year - The Semi-Finalists

The Day Science Met Art
An overview of the Final with the three artists, the sitter and all the cameras and film crew

The sitter for the Final is a very clever man and articulate communicator who we first encountered - as a nation - during the Pandemic Briefings at No. 10. 

The sitter was the former Deputy Chief Medical Officer Sir Jonathan Stafford Nguyen-Van-Tam MBE FRCPath FRSB FMedSci. His speciality is influenza, including its epidemiology, transmission, vaccinology, antiviral drugs and pandemic preparedness which provided an excellent basis for his support during Covid-19 Pandemic.

He also has a very strong head - and stare!

The Sitter - Sir Jonathan van Tam

The Judges' Perspective

The Judges recognised that they had intentionally selected three very different ways of creating portraits - with different approaches to line, colour, tone and likeness.

What they were looking for on the day was:
  • somebody who doesn't project their own feelings - but rather somebody who picks up on the 'vibes' of the sitter and responds to those
  • something new and refreshing

The Final Portraits - and my comments

The Final Portrait and Commission Paintings
(Left to right: Nina Ruminska, Binny Mathews and Morag Caister)

For me, as one of my readers has already pointed out, I have said repeatedly that the most important paintings you do in this competition are the ones done without the cameras.
  • The Self Portrait submission - painted in your own time - and submitted as part of your entry to the competition
  • The Commission Portrait - done within a limited time period as part of the final
Both of these show the judges what you can do when not in artificial situation surrounded by cameras and not being interrupted by people. These paintings are evidence of whether you are competent to do the £10,000 Commission

The Commission Painting

The Judges emphasise that the Commission Painting can make a major difference to initial thinking and preferences as to the winner. 
"the commission always throws us every time"
They said that they were impressed by them - but for me, they weren't a patch on the commission paintings produced in 2019

The Artists have four days to develop and complete their Commission Painting.  In my opinion, if you want to be the winner, that's four days which need to have been blocked out to do nothing but painting! That commission painting needs to generate a "wow".

The Heat Painting and the Semi Finals Paintings

These paintings tell the Judges that:
  • you actually painted what you submitted
  • you can find a way to paint a decent portrait in less than four hours
  • you know your way around design and composition, a different perspective on a sitter and tones and colours
However - in my book - when it's a close decision with respect to the Final Portrait painted in 4 hours, the Commission Painting can completely upend the Judges decision.

Below are five paintings produced by each of the three artists
  • the three images of Self Portrait, Heat Painting and Semi-Final Painting, 
  • followed by the Final painting and the Commission
What was very refreshing to see was ALL THREE PAINTERS PAINTED FROM LIFE. That's not to say mobile devices were not used to do detail - given the distance from the sitter, but for the most part, all three painters were looking very carefully at the sitter. However that means the position they've been given determines what their painting looks like.

Morag Caister

Morag Caister - (Facebook | Instagram) BA. Painting, University of Brighton (2019). Brighton Metropolitan College, Foundation, Art & Design (2014). Heat winner and PAOTY semi-finalist in 2020. Has exhibited her art internationally. Has her work in Brighton Beach House, Soho House, 2022 (i.e. known to Kate Bryan)

What I think

When summarising the semifinalists I said
She paints big (most of the person on large canvases); has got a strong consistent contemporary style and doesn't faff around with backgrounds - which saves a lot of time.
Morag has a very particular way of painting. She starts by sketching and feeling her way into how to present the figure on the support. She then spends a very long time on line and outlines - drawing the figure using paint and a brush. The colour goes on fairly fast at the end but tends to be flattish while at the same time respecting the key lines which indicate how the figure is fixed in space.

The background never provides any context. The chair is never shown. Her approach was amazingly consistent from the very first painting to the very last.

Morag Caister: Self Portrait, Heat painting and Semi Final Painting

Her self-portrait has a strong gaze at the viewer and demands you look at it. The heat painting was an almost full length rendition of Elizabeth Day. The Semi Final painting was 
Interestingly, Morag tackled the question of how to present the colour and tones associated with flesh in her commission painting - and I think that might be what swung the balance in her favour.

Morag Caister: Final Portrait and Commission Painting (of her fiance)

I thought her commission painting was by far the most impressive. It was also 
  • the only one which was the whole person - minus one foot
  • included a good amount of flesh - which was relevant given the entire series has been dominated (in an under-stated way) by "the big search" for the person who can paint the skin of somebody with an Afro-Caribbean heritage

What the Judges thought

  • "Morag is a phenomenal draughtsperson - who knows what line can do"
  • she takes an explorative approach to work out best to paint her sitter
  • she understands the way people hold themselves and occupy their space
  • her unconventional approach is very impactful
  • she uses the 'wrong colours' for flesh - but they work
  • her paintings were described as being 'undone' - but that they in turn produce a strong sense of the person
  • she takes forever to make a decision about what she's going to do!

Binny Mathews

Binny Mathews (Instagram) - a professional artist who trained at Bournemouth College of Art and at Farnham School of Art (1978-80) and is currently based in Chelsea Studios, London. She's an Associate Member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Her work has been exhibited in exhibitions at various prominent art galleries including the Summer Exhibition at the The Royal Academy of Arts. She is qualified to teach and provided one on one tuition.
Binny was labelled "the safe pair of hands" by Kathleen and, on the strength of her heat painting appeared to be the favourite for the title of Portrait Artist of the Year.

What I think

I thought the best painting Binny did was the one of Dame Stella Rimington. I wasn't a fan of the bright blue background to Rebecca Ferguson - which was a bit too "look at the background" for me. Looking at her self-portrait I think she was lucky to get into the competition. It was OK but didn't make me notice it much.

Binny Mathews: Self Portrait, Heat painting and Semi Final Painting

That said she's very clearly an experienced and very competent portrait painter who can both paint fast and achieve a good likeness of her sitters.

Binny Mathews - Final Portrait Painting and Commission (of her two sons)

I have to say I was very disappointed by Binny's Final Portrait and her commission. That's not to say they are bad paintings - far from it.

I agree with her - she got the awkward "straight on" slot not commonly used for portrait painting. That said our memories of Sir Jonathan are of straight talking from a straight on view. So scope to make something of that maybe.....

AND Sir Jonathan van Tam chose her painting for himself - and it was definitely the best likeness of his head and 'look'. I can well understand why she is a professional painter of portraits - because most of those commissioning a portrait are only interested in whether it's a good likeness of the sitter.

However, Binny seemed to me to be 'bright but on edge' during the Final - which I'd not seen before. It was a bit like watching Morag in the semi-finals when she clearly had a wobble.

I also have to say that while I do very much like Jonathan's head, I absolutely HATE - with some very  considerable conviction - the very flat non-existent wodge of sludge brown behind him. It adds absolutely nothing to the painting - indeed it detracts from it in my view as there's no tie-in to any of the other colours. If she'd portrayed the white cupboards in a pale grey - which could have picked up hints of the other colours - and made the background less flat it would, in my opinion, have looked much better. When I rewatched the episode (before my technical problems!) I saw she actually started painting that section in a neutral gray. So what happened? 

I say this because when I look at the portrait all I can see is the horrible dead brown. I think maybe in her effort to balance up the two different sides of the centre line she lost the very necessary credibility. 

More or less a case of "More is Less". 

What I also found amazing was that in the edited version of the Final the Judges did not comment on the awful brown.

Tai also commented on the hands. Jonathan's hands looked too small to me (look at the photo at the top to see what I mean. I always use the notion that a man's hand is generally the same size as his face (i.e. if put in front of a man's face it generally measures from wrist to tip of the longest finger). Even with foreshortening they still needed to be bigger.

That said, I really didn't expect to be feeling quite so picky about Binny's Final Portrait.

The commission portrait was also a big disappointment. As in I gasped when I saw it. The painting as a whole is very flat, most of the colours are very bland and the figures of her two sons offer no weight or substance - on the contrary they seemed insubstantial compared to how they seem in real life. For me, it just lacked (or underplayed) both tonal contrast and colour variation. That's not necessarily a bad thing - but in the context of an art competition it tends NOT to produce a painting which looks like a game changer - and that is the "mission for the commission". Always. Every single year. It's almost as if Binny had not watched previous series or read my blog posts!

I also think think she missed a big opportunity with the image presented when we saw her sons in the studio working back to back on their sculpture and painting. I thought that was a really great visual and gave them both context of something relevant to their interests.

However I ALSO say all of this in the context of the commission paintings which have been submitted in previous years of the competition. I don't know if the limited time period was any different but, for me, the thinking, effort and refinement I've seen in previous years commission portraits was missing from this one. I'm guessing that maybe her sitters were less available than one might imagine.

I had Binny down as the likely winner. She had consistently produced the best likeness - but likeness while a pre-requisite is not of itself enough. What I hadn't factored in was the extent to which how she painted the background might make or break her efforts in the Final.

There also needs to be a "Wow" and, for me, Binny's paintings lacked "Wow".

What the Judges thought

  • a confident and experienced portrait artist
  • an artist who paints big and who paints fast
  • an artist who executes with flair - but whose compositions may be too traditional
  • an artist who knows how to look at a sitter and make arrangements around them
  • an artist who can be relied on to produce a very good likeness
  • she tries to do intuitive psychological portraits
  • an artist with less of a risk - but also less of an edge when compared to the attributes of her competitors

Nina Ruminska

Nina Ruminska (Instagram) - Born in 1989 ToruĊ„, Poland. Currently based in Dublin, Ireland. Likes to paint people from life during a time of quiet sitting and reflection.
Nina was the wild card.

What I think

Nina surprised me in the Final. Apart from anything else she was calm personified. She certainly justified the Judges decision to bring her back. It was also fascinating to hear more about her own approach to portraiture where likeness is less important than creating the right atmosphere for the person.

That said, it seemed to me that she produced two good portraits at the last knocking....

Up until this stage the Judges had consistently liked her paintings - a lot. However, there was a question mark over likeness - and whether she could achieve a good likeness. As a result she did not win her heat - but was brought back effectively as a wild card

She very clearly did not achieve a likeness at the semi-final - but the Judges still liked her painting - a lot. Hence why she got through to the final
"It's a great painting and one I want to take home" (Tai)
Self portrait submission, heat painting and semifinal portrait by Nina Ruminska

What we found out in the final is that Nina does not regard a likeness as a particularly important part of a portrait. 
"The face is just one of the elements"
She wants to achieve a sense of the person and an atmosphere that is appropriate to the individual.
"A portrait is about atmosphere" (Nina)

Nina Ruminska:
Final painting of Sir Jonathan van Tam and commission portrait of a sculptor friend

Her aim is to get the paint on in the first two hours and then refine, tighten and chill!

She has an amazing ability using smudging and wiping to get an incredible range of tonal variation and hence depth into her portraits. I thought her portrait of Sir Jonathan was very impressive. I particularly liked the way she created a unity in terms of the colour palette.

Plus - although likeness has not been a standout feature of her work previously both the Final Portrait and Commission included good likenesses.

What the Judges thought

  • an artist who always produces great atmospheric paintings - almost magical
  • ...although they don't always look like the sitter
  • a painter who knows how to handle and control paint extremely well
  • an artist who always achieves great depth and volume

Why Morag Caister won

Genti ( fiance and  commission sitter) and Morag - on hearing the result

I think the first reason - and one maybe underestimated in the past is what happens when you look at all the paintings together. 
  • i.e. this is NOT a competition decided on the Final Painting made in front of the cameras (a point many viewers often get wrong)
  • Who stands out from the rest?

Morag Caister - Portrait Artist of the Year 2022

Other reasons include the following - which is just my opinion.
  • her self-portrait was different and interesting
  • she NEVER ever painted small. She started big and got bigger
  • she ALWAYS painted nearly the entire person - in contrast to almost all other painters - and certainly both of the other painters in the final.
  • she watched and studied her sitter and never ever rushed
  • her approach is unique and provides something new 
  • she was the best artist in the Final.

If you want to enter the next Portrait Artist of the Year.....

First you need to be aware that c.2,000 artists submitted an entry last year - but only 63 competed in the heats. I'm assuming they ran out of suitable candidates for the heats as they did one less heat than last year. 

That said, those who've competed in previous series of Portrait Artist of the Year can apply again. Whether they get asked back rather depends on how well they did first time around.

So my bottom line recommendation would be:
  • don't enter if you're not ready
  • don't enter unless you've watched previous series AND
  • READ my reviews - which are listed below. They include learning points and tips and I've had more than one winner tell me how useful they are!


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Sky Arts Artist of the Year - REFERENCE

Previous Finals

Reviews of Previous 9

This year's heats are:

Reviews of Previous Series

My reviews of previous episodes of the Portrait Artist of the Year competition can be found below:

Learning Point re Series 8 of PORTRAIT ARTIST OF THE YEAR

Learning Points re the 2020 competition (Autumn 2020)

Learning Points re the 2019 competition

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