Sunday, October 29, 2023

Review: Episode 3 Portrait Artist of the Year (Series 10)

The Portrait Artist of the Year Heat which featured in Episode 3

The third broadcast episode of the art competition known as Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year was filmed in April 2023 and first broadcast on Wednesday 25th October 2023 - and this is my review of it!

I am reiterating that my numbering of episodes starts from the beginning of the series proper (i.e. the REAL art competition). I don't count a Celebrity Special as part of the series (it never has before).

Episode 3: The Sitters

The sitters for this episode were all men. They are:
  • Ainsley Harriot - an English chef of Jamaican heritage and television presenter of cookery programmes. He brought his late Mum's cooking pot (which had a special name but I'm not sure I heard it properly).
  • Rory Stewart - a British academic, diplomat, author, broadcaster, former soldier, former Conservative politician and famous walker (he walked across much of Asia and across Afghanistan) - who does "The Rest is Politics" podcast with Alastair Campbell which I often listen too on my daily walks. He brought his Afghan hiking boots as his special object
  • Rob Delaney - an American comedian, actor, writer, and activist who I've never heard of before. He brought his son's painting.

Episode 3: The Artists

The artists in Episode 3 broadcast on 25th October 2023 are listed below in alphabetical order of the surname.

You can see all the profiles on the Sky Arts site plus speeded up videos of their paintings

The artists in Episode 3 on the steps of Battersea Arts Centre after they finished
  • James Crowther (Instagram) - a British figurative painter, now living and working in rural Oxfordshire with his family after a long period working in London. One of those artists who has not yet caught up with the essential need for a security certificate for their website to give it an https:// prefix (i.e. I can't view http on Chrome and his website now comes up with an Asian script on Safari - but no images. No security = no website!)
  • Yvadney Davis (Instagram) -  born in the early 80s, lives in South London. She pursued a career in fashion after studying at Central Saint Martins. She returned to her love of painting during the pandemic and recently has developed her art from a lockdown hobby to an award winning practice. She celebrates Caribbean heritage and the Windrush generation and uses old wallpaper for her support. She created her self portrait submission with a broken wrist.
  • Matt Graysmith (Instagram) - Born in Stafford, and lives in Guernsey as a child. Now living iand working in London. He was awarded a First Class Honours BA degree in Fine Art (Painting) by UAL Camberwell College of Arts and participated in the Camberwell College of Arts Degree Show this summer. I think he may be the first artist I've come arcross recently to employ the ".art" suffix for his website. His Instagram site suggests that he enjoys painting people as if from the cornice of the room, looking down on them and the floor. He also likes painting wood floorboards.
  • Olive Haigh (Instagram) Studied drawing at University and is currently working as an assistant gallery curator in Bristol. She is interested in storytelling and creating imaginary people and places. She has worked as an illustrator for children’s books, and an artist for musicians.
my submission was one of my larger painting but look how tiny it is on the artist of the year wall!
  • David Herd (Instagram | ) Born in Glasgow, he lives and works in coastal Aberdeenshire in Scotland. He's "a Scottish painter of people and places and the spaces inbetween". No bio on his website or blog but the programme announced he's also an art teacher and curriculum manager.
  • Lorena Levi (Instagram) - she graduated Edinburgh University with an MA in Fine art 2021 where she won awarded the Astaire Prize at the end of her course. She was the overall winner of the 2022 Jackson’s Painting Prize. If the Judges knew those credentials, they'd be taking her seriously from the off... Her self portrait submission is below.
  • Lucy Milne - a professional pastel artist from Gloucestershire who submitted a charcoal portrait with a very engaging stare - looking straight out at us. She has worked as a portrait artist specialising in people, horses and dogs and working on commission. She is currently studying oil painting at the Heatherley School of Art
  • JR Root (Instagram) - a professional artist from rural Leicestershire now living in Nottingham who is also a part-time postal worker. He is a graduate of the University of Sheffield
  • Neena Sartain (no internet presence) - a junior doctor working as an aneathetist in NewCastle. Her self portrait looked down at the viewer.

Self Portrait Submissions

Self Portrait Submissions being reviewed by the Judges

Size, content and calibre of submissions

I've analysed all the portraits - of artists looking at themselves - and allocated them to the various categories below.


Portrait format x 7
Landscape x 1
Square x 1

  • Large x 2
  • Medium x 4
  • Small x 3
  • Tiny x 0
  • full size or most of body (including hand) x 3
  • upper torso including hand(s) x 0
  • upper torso (no hands) x 2
  • head, shoulder and hand(s) x 1
  • head and shoulders (no hands) x 3
  • head x 0
Most were painted - there was just one drawing. However supports were interesting. There were also at least three really interesting compositions in terms of the total painting.


Every episode I look for themes I can draw out related to what I'm observing.
Here's the ones I spotted for this episode

Painting on unconventional surfaces

This will always get you noticed and is one way to stand out from the pack and enable you to catch the Judges' eyes.

In this instance they were wood and wallpaper:
  • the wood has some rational as for a long time in art history paintings were mostly done on wood. However this did tend to be seasoned wood which was also primed, rather than something which looks uncannily like unseasoned and unprimed wood (I must rerun the programme again to find out what it actually is).
  • the 1960s wallpaper had a lovely story behind it - and I completely understand the rationale - however it will be, as the artist noted, very "thirsty".
TIP Never work on an unconventional surface unless this is part of your normal practice and you are well used to how it behaves. 

In other words don't do it as a gimmick, do it for a jolly good reason - which you can explain.

Incorporating the motifs

Given the motifs are a fairly new aspect of the challenge for the heat painter, it's interesting to see how artists are responding to them.

In the first series (last year) of "the artist has brought along an object which is meaningful to them" a lot of artists ignored them. There's a fair few still ignoring them this year - but I'm getting an impression that more are making an effort to incorporate them somehow.

This year, two artists did something clever with a motif which was important to the artist.

TIP: There are two benefits to taking the "motif" seriously:
  • the sitter certainly notices - and every one of the sitters chose a painting which incorporated either the motif or some aspect of their story.  (see below to find out who chose which artist and what was included and how)
  • the Judges also notice that an effort has been made to incorporate the motif - but they'll still shortlist people who've not included it.

Painting the person vs projecting yourself

There's no question about it - when the Judges choose you for your submission, they're hoping to see more of what you can do and most likely hoping for more of "who you are and how you like to make art".

However, at the end of the day, you are still painting an individual and things like getting form, shapes and a likeness right count for an awful lot.

TIP: It can't be ALL about you and what you like doing. The prize for this competition is a commission for a client and somebody is paying you £10,000 for it - so it's always best to keep this at the back of your mind. I'd suggest erring on the side of making sure you have demonstrated either with the commission or the heat painting that you look like somebody who can do a jolly good job of executing a commission.

I think I might also be picking up indications that there are MORE people this year who are used to working on commission. 

Big Heads versus Tiny Heads

When I first started writing about art exhibitions / competitions, we were in the era of "the big head". Tai confesses that he was a man who likes doing "a big head" - but he is showing his age when he does because we have mostly left the era of big heads behind.
For the record, although we have one painting which is quite large in terms of scale relative to head, for the most part "the big head" painting has died a death - and about time too!
Review: BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2018 - my analysis of the exhibition and what has changed over time
That said, a big head can be a monumental impressive thing to behold - but it better be very good!

However I really don't get WHY anybody would enter a competition like this and then paint the person with a tiny head. I just don't get it - period. This is a portrait exhibition. If I'm a Judge I want to see how good you are at painting people and in particular heads and faces (and hands). (ref. Painting the person vs projecting yourself above)

TIP: Most people who do well in this competition can do more than just paint heads - and when they paint a head they tend to do it a decent size and very often include more too, especially hands.

The Judges look at the artists artwork online BEFORE the judging

I've never been sure about this. However it became self evident that they do look at their presence on the internet as Kathleen made a very clear statement about the style of Mat Graysmith and whether he always painted like the submission and the heat painting. She can only have known that if she had seen his work previously or looks at his website and/or social media.

I've always suspected this was the case - and indeed I think they may well spot potential candidates for participants via their own social media travels. 

To my mind it makes complete sense that any assessment of an artist's potential participation in the heats involves looking at how they represent themselves online. If this is done it also has the potential to rule out some of the "not really ready for this" artists who have certainly existed in heats in the past 

I'm also getting the impression that there has been a more careful sifting of candidates for this year's show....

TIP: Make sure your website and social media accounts are:
  • up to date in terms of achievements - or just plain 'up to date'. There's nothing worse than looking like an artist who is obviously not interested in promoting their art, career and sales. It does not spell "commitment" or "winner". 
  • up to date in terms of technology requirements. As indicated above - not having upgraded your website to a https:// prefix by securing a security certificate for your website is rather like giving up on your website. It can be hacked any time - and one contestant's website apparently had been. Plus I simply cannot see them on the two browsers I use Chrome and Safari - where I use the settings to keep my security threshold high.
In addition, if you had scope to improve your presence online, do make sure if you get selected for a heat that you sort everything out before your episode is broadcast as it's some of the best marketing some artists will ever achieve. 

Plus some of us come looking for the links.....

and want to keep up with my reviews + get an email to your inbox every time I publish

The Judging

Who the Sitters chose

Three portraits of Rory Stewart
by (left to right) Lorena Levi, David Herd and Lucy Milne

The SITTERS chose portraits as follows
  • Ainsley Herriot chose the portrait by Yvadney Davis. I was not surprised. It was the best of the paintings and really demonstrated how much colour can be found in the skin of people of an Afro-Caribbean heritage. Plus she would also be very used to painting people of that heritage given her particular interests in developing her art.
  • Rory Stewart faced a hard choice as all the portraits were good. He chose "the big head" produced by David Herd. He seemed to have worked in the mountains of Asia into the shirt crumples of his shoulder line. Personally I liked the standing portrait by Lucy Milne and the one by Lorena Levi was very distinctive - but maybe an acquired taste.
  • Rob Delaney chose the painting by Neena Sartain. It included his son's painting which maybe helped him to make a choice.
Note for the aspiring heat painters - DO NOT IGNORE the sitter's meaningful object.

What the Judges thought

The Shortlist

Episode 3: Waiting to hear who's made it to the shortlist

Those shortlisted were
  • Yvadney Davis
  • Mat Graysmith
  • Lorena Levi
Below you can see their heat paintings and self portrait submissions lined up together - always an interesting way of working out who has won.

PAOTY Episode 3: Self portraits and Heat Paintings by shortlisted artists

Below you can see the paintings in the order they're presented above - left to right.

Lorena Levi: submission and heat painting of Rory Stewart

I think the lack of painting in the heat painting is more a reflection of the time constraints as she has demonstrated she can quite clearly paint skin and form in the submission. Again, one of the advantages of painting a portrait which involves more limbs and skin than in the heat.

The head in the heat painting looks rather too small to me. It's out of proportion to the length of the arms.

The elongation reminds me of very much of Stuart Pearson Wright who, like Portrait Artist of the Decade Gareth Reid is a winner of the BP Travel Award, which bump started his career. He is a very well regarded artist but has an eye condition (who which distorts how he sees faces - and causes him to elongate them).

She got the hiking boots in - albeit in outline only.

The Judges were rather concerned her style she might be illustrative. This is "a bad thing" in portraiture for some reason - although I can't think why. Rather a lot of illustrators have a much more solid grounding in composition than many artists with an art education!

Lorena looked like a contender from the beginning. Having taken a look at her background, I'd say she's a pretty solid contender in the semi-finals.

Yvadney Davis: submission and heat portrait of Ainsley Herriot

As the heat progressed, it became clearer to me that Yvadney's was coming through strongly and I was pretty certain she's be selected for the shortlist.

I wasn't hugely enamoured with the submission - but it was large and she's got both hands in - plus a very large plant in the background. There was a teeny hint of Lucian Freud.

Her portrait of Ainslet Herriot nailed it on a number of points. 
  • She got the shape and size of the head - and all the features in the right place
  • Her painting of his skin was admirable
  • She incorporated the motif on the side of the Dutch pot into his collar - and he had said he was a man who liked flowers!
  • Ainsley had no hesitation in picking her - although it was way out in front compared to the portraits by the two other painters in the Ainsley segment.

Mat Graysmith: Submission and heat portrait of Rob Delaney

There's a bit of John Bratby about Mat Graysmith's style. The Judges mentioned he seemed to back with the "the kitchen sink" realism style of art. I think Mat's preference for creating paintings with a top down perspective - with the floorboards showing - was also reminiscent of Bratby - who incorporated it in a lot of his paintings.

The chopping people in two 'thing' is entirely down to Mat. It doesn't do anything for me. The fact he repeated this stylistic/compositional device in both paintings meant I did not have him on my shortlist. The purpose of the heat painting is to show continuity with the self portrait submission - but NOT to copy what you did last time!

For the record, I had Lucy Milne down as a possible contender for the shortlist. I thought her charcoal drawing was very good, and she was the only one to attempt a standing Rory and I thought did a pretty good job of it.

I also thought Neena was in with a shout - but I think the failure to get the size of the head and the likeness quite right was her downfall.

Episode 3 Winner

Lorena Levi was chosen as the winner of the third heat.

The winner is announced!

The winner was definitely not expecting to win - although she's already won prizes so it should maybe not come as so much of a prize!

Do you want to paint in a heat next year?

This is my post about the Call for Entries: Series 11 of Portrait Artist of the Year (next year). Essential reading for all those who want to do well - it's got links to all my past reviews and all the themes and tips identified in the last five years.

Plus if you want to find out more.....

Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year - REFERENCE

Previous Finals

Here are my posts about previous finals 

Reviews of PAOTY Series 10

Dates after the listed reviews below relate to the date of the first broadcast
This year's heats are:

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