Monday, November 06, 2023

Review: Episode 4 of Portrait Artist of the Year (Series 10)

This is my review of the fourth broadcast episode Series 10 of the art competition known as Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year whuch was filmed in April 2023.

Episode 4: Portrait Artist of the Year 

(series 10 / broadcast 1 November 2023)

It follows the normal pattern of previous posts in this tenth series of this very popular art programme.

Episode 4: The Sitters

Two women and a man were the sitters for this episode. They were
  • Sue Barker - a former tennis player, presenter and BBC legend - as one of the presenters of Wimbledon for 30 years. Her background reflected the Wimbledon colours.
  • Alan Titchmarsh - He worked as a gardener for 40 years but also became a professional gardening journalist, writer, and a radio and television presenter.
  • Philippa Perry (or more correctly Dr Lady Philippa Perry) - a psychotherapist and author who brought her mother's candle stick holder which was bequeathed to her. She hugely enjoyed gaving to sit still and not look at her emails! Interestingly there was absolutely no reference to her very famous artist husband who makes programmes about art for another Channel!
I'm noting that rather having curious background of spurious value in previous series, they're now trying to introduce colours which relate to the sitter - hence the Wimbledon colours background for Sue Barker.

Episode 4: The Artists

The artists in Episode 4 (of Series 10) broadcast on 1 November 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 4 on the steps of Battersea Arts Centre after they finished

    • Aaron Bevan-Bailey (Instagram) - born in Peckham south London, of Jamaican and Scottish heritage. His paintings reflect having to negotiate ever changing boundaries of race, environment, identity and anonymity. 
    • Mark Chen - He has studied art in London, St. Petersburg and Taiwan. He's a former teacher who now lives in London. He painted a very romantic memento mori still life arranged about his person. I cant'd find a working website about him (see last episode's comments about things to fix before the broadcast)
    • Kuangyi Liu (Instagram) - Her family comes from China and she is a pharmaceutical manager who currently lives in Cambridge.
    • Lewis McKenzie (Facebook | Instagram) - a contemporary impressionist painter from Mull who is self-taught and based in Glasgow in Scotland. He was an Art School dropout who then trained as a biologist and worked for several years in a cancer lab as a neuro scientist before becoming a stay at home Dad and rekindling his life-long love of drawing and painting in the early 2010s. His work is in numerous private collections and has appeared in exhibitions by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, The Royal Glasgow Institute and the Paisley Art Institute, as well as in several private art galleries in Glasgow and Edinburgh. He will be teaching at the Edinburgh Drawing School in 2024.
    • David Newens - a portrait painter based in Milton Keynes who has been painting for 35 years. He studied part-time at the Glasgow Academy of Art. After a career in railway engineering management, strategic planning and property development, David now devotes the majority of his time to painting. He likes to paint on linen and has regularly and repeatedly exhibited at major art exhibitions in London (Royal Society of Portrait Painters, Royal Institute of Oil painters and the Rpyal Academy Summer Exhibition). He has paintings in a number of private collections.
    • Maev Kelly (Instagram) - an irish artist based in Dublin Ireland. She recently left teaching to become a full time artist. She has regularly exhibited at the Royal Uster Academy's Annual Exhibition. Her portraits mainly relate to chalk drawings of children - which are very good. This is her self portrait
    • Davide Di Taranto (Instagram) - an Italian artist who comes from the region of Puglia in the South of Italy. He is a miniature portraitist and fresco restorer born in Italy, but has lived in the UK since 2010 and currently lives in Southampton. After graduating at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze (Academy of Fine Art) in Florence, he worked on restorations all over the world. His self-portrait can be seen up close - and was exhibited in the Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition 2018
    • Annette Tranter (Instagram) - a Retired social services worker, based in Tunbridge Wells. Studied at Maidstone & Ravensbourne Art College. Painter in acrylics, watercolour & theatre scenery.
    • Tilly Willis (Facebook | Instagram) - Selected to particiate in the PAOTY Heats in 2014 as well as 2023. Born into a family of artists and other creatives. After a Foundation Course at Somerset College of Art she studied Fine Art at The Byam Shaw in London.  Currently based near Wiveliscombe, Somerset. Travels to paint - to various unusual and exotic destinations

    Self Portrait Submissions

    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.

    The main thing I noticed about the submissions in this episode was how much content was included in terms of context.  Most were a lot more than just a head.


    Portrait format x 6
    Landscape x 2
    Round (tondo) x 1


    • Large x 1
    • Medium x 3
    • Small x 4
    • Tiny x 1


    • full size or most of body (including hand) x 2
    • upper torso including hand(s) x 2
    • upper torso (no hands) x 3
    • head, shoulder and hand(s) x 0
    • head and shoulders (no hands) x 0
    • head x 2


    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

    The object of importance to the sitter (aka "the importance of the object")

    I'm more and more convinced that the introduction of an object of importance to the sitter last season was a "heads up" for artists ti.e. hat they NOW need to THINK about portraying objects which represent the sitter as well as the sitter. Ducking out of representing it looks like a recipe for being less likely to get selected to get shortlisted / win the heat / move forward.

    That's because those doing well - and those winning a heat - are typically incorporating the chosen personal object which is meaningful to the sitter, into the artwork in some way or other.

    This in turn has implications for what shape and size of support(s) you bring with you.

    • Don't let your chosen support eliminate the object (one artist chose a fairly narrow support and instantly removed all scope to incorporate te object
    • Think about other ways you can incorporate the object into a portrait (For example, an outline of the motif on the wall in the background, repeated as necessary).
    • Remember you background cann be anything you choose it to be.

    Where artists put the head on the paper

    I find it interesting to see where each artist chooses to put the head on the support - in terms of size and position.  Conventionally, I'd be looking to get the eyes on an intersection of thirds. 

    I've got a lot of respect for those who 
    • either take lots of photos and then work out which one and how to crop it
    • or those who get out a sketchbook and work out which angle and how much of the torso to include in a sketchbook - rather than getting stuck into painting (in the wrong place from the wrong angle) and then have to work it out later
    • AND relate their decisions correctly to the shape and size of the most appropriate format!
    What I'm surprised about is how many:
    • get the size of the head wrong relative to the body i.e. draw the head in first and then proceed to try and squash the rest of the body in as well. Never ever a good look!
    • Draw the size of the head out of proportion to the hands. (One of the lessons I remember receiving very early on in a drawing class by an experienced tutor was that the front of the face is approximately the same size as the flat of a hand i.e. put the base of your hand where it connects to the wrist on the chin and see whether the tips of your fingers reach your hairline. It's very often a good shortcut to getting proportions right for either face or hands and preferably both!
    • Draw the size of the head very small relative to the support - THIS IS A PORTRAIT COMPETITION not an exercise in contemporary figurative painting.

    Herding Sheep (aka Creating Paintings)

    A nice story - which is quite memorable - came up in this episode and it relates to how herding sheep is very similar to painting a portrait.

    The notion is that when herding sheep you have to pay attention to ALL the sheep ALL the time. Instead if you just focus on one sheep which has strayed (akin to an part of a painting which has gone 'out of whack') then you'll never ever succeed in bringing all the sheep home and putting them in the pen i.e. bringing all the portrait to the desired level of finish. 

    It's akin to saying don't get too distracted by one part which is not quite working at the moment. Instead focus on 
    • Move across the painting slowly and deliberately and don't panic! 
    • Don't allow one aspect to dominate your thoughts
    • working ALL the painting ALL the time - and you'll deliver a better portrait. 

    The Resting Face #2

    A variation on The Resting Face mentioned in Episode 2

    It was highlighted in this episode how two of the sitters (Sue and Alan) are known to be very animated when broadcasting and hence having them sit still and keep their heads and faces still was probably going to be
    •  a "big ask"
    • produce a rather different looking sitter when compared to the person who "comes alive" while broadcasting.
    As it happened they both did well - but I can well see how this would have presented an extra challenge to the artists.

    Transfer of Images

    Lewis Mackenzie lost time at the beginning because of a problem transferring his photos from his camera to his iPad. 

    TIP: Bottom line: Work out what you would do and how you would transfer images if there was no connection!

    It's worth thinking through all the "what ifs" related to being able to paint. Two obvious weakspots are: 
    • ANY use of technology and moreover - so practice / write down the instructions of what to do
    • ANYTHING which involves the use of somebody else's wifi connection indoors.  (Try going outside and doing the transfer there using your mobile broadband)
    To be honest I'd take an iPad rather than a camera.

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    The Judging

    Who the Sitters chose

    The SITTERS chose portraits as follows - and I wasn't in the least bit surprised!
    There's this thing where they all say "it's very difficult to choose" - but really it isn't.

    Sue Barker chose the portrait of her by David Nevens. He had the 'look' on her face at the beginning but then lost it but did get her posture and hands right. However it was very clearly the best of the three despite the fact it was the only one which excluded her BBC trophhy for 30 years as a broadcaster.

    Sue Barker by David Nevens

    Alan Titchmarsh chose the portrait by Lewis McKenzie.  This was the best of two good renditions that looked very like him - and the other was full size and included his spade!

    Alan Titchmarsh and Lewis McKenzie and his portrait of Alan

    Philippa Perry chose the portrait by Davide di Taranto.  This was the only one to include her candle stick and candle.

    Philippa choose Davide's portrait of her and her mother's candle

    What the Judges thought

    The Judges talk in code - to be polite - quite a lot of the time. I try and interpret and put it a bit more plainly. Hence the words below are mine.

    Judges LIKED artists who:

    • achieved a good likeness
    • demonstrated good brushwork
    • provided a narrative between sitter and object
    • delivered a complete top to toe + object portrait

    Judges were less enthusiastic about those who:

    • had problems with the likeness: failed to capture the nature of the sitter's face / got shapes and sizes incorrect
    • failed to recognise how the shape and size of their support would impact on their 
    • didn't get the mouth right - at least one artist failed to be shortlisted for this reason (IMO)
    • "tricksy techniques"
    • created an illustration rather than a portrait
    • very striking colours which take the attention away from the portrait of the person
    • use of supports which make the brushwork look more crude than it is

    The Shortlist in week 4

    Those shortlisted were:

    • Davide Di Taranto
    • Lewis McKenzie
    • Annette Tranter
    The first two were a foregone conclusion for me based on the quality of their submissions and heat paintings.

    Below you can see the paintings lined up next to one another - and then one by one.

    The comments are my own but may incorporate some of the Judge's words on this topic of "which one should win this heat?"

    The Shortlisted Artwork
    Left: self portrait; Right: Heat Portrait
    by Annette Tranter Davide Di Taranto and Lewis McKenzie

    Davide Di Taranto - self portrait and heat painting

    The self portrait is tiny but exquisite. The Judges thought he would struggle in the heat - but he very clearly has a way of painting fast when he needs to and brought appropriately sixed supports for what he wanted to do.

    The most important thing about the Heat Painting is that he took his time working out how to do it and how to incoporate the candle. I thought the solution with the diverse backgrounds was an absolute genius. It looks like two paintings - but it could just be one!

    Both paintings are very small and both are just of the head. However what his paintings lack in bodily parts they make up for in terms of accomplished painting in the submission and narrative and good likeness in the heat.

    Lewis McKenzie -  self portrait and heat painting

    I thought this was possibly the best portrait of any of the sitters.
    • it was a very good likeness 
    • he's used sketchy brushstrokes for both "textiles" as he called it and the background - which means nothing is solid - so nothing to complete with the face in terms of weight of paint or level of refinement plus the brush work adds interest 
    • the background is 'suggestive' i.e. that he's in a garden.
    The only thing that's missing, given the options, is the It would have been interesting to see if her could have worked the spade into the background in some way.

    Look no hands in either of them! That for me is a mistake. It makes you wonder whether he might have won if there had been competent hands in both.

    Annette Tranter -  self portrait and heat painting

    I was surprised. I thought the third person was going to be David Nevens. 

    I think maybe Annette's self portrait which contained lots of painted objects probably worked in her favour - and David's losing the likeness of Sue probably worked against him.

    I also thought Kate's description of the heat painting as having a quiet energy was a tad overegged - but I can see what she's saying. The sense of detachment from real life is there.

    For me, there is no demonstration as to whether or not she can paint hands - and it looks as if she's dodging that query.

    Episode 4 Winner

    The heat finalists - Annette, Davide and Lewis

    Davide is pleased - and bounces!

    Davide di Taranto won this heat

    He won because of his masterly response to both the sitter and the object. Now go back to my themes and reread what I had to say.

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

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