Sunday, December 03, 2023

Review: Semi Finals of Portrait Artist of the Year 2023

This is about what happened at the Semi Finals of the Portrait Artist of the Year 2023 at the Battersea Arts centre - which took place last April and was broadcast on Sky Arts on the 29th November. It covers

  • The Semi Finalists - covered in Which PAOTY Semi Finalists will be in the PAOTY 2023 Final? - in which I reviewed all the artists and their two paintings to date.
  • The Heat Paintings - also covered in the above post
  • The Wild Card - an eighth painter
  • The Sitter setup and setting
  • Themes - my commentary
  • Decision-making 
  • The Finalists
All the artists in a semi circle around Emma Bunton

Plus it includes my commentary on what happened in the Semi Final. Just to note that 

  • never comment on those who do appalling paintings in the heat - but only reference themes which emerged during the programme.
  • HOWEVER as we get to the final stages of a very public art competition for a big money prize, I tend to become a tad more explicit in my commentary on how artists did - albeit I lean towards describing what happened as opposed to naming the artist.  
  • Bottom line the feedback becomes more direct the closer you get to the prize.

You can also read Gail Read's blog post PAOTY Semi Final - My internal monologue! which is very interesting.

The Semi Finalists

The Semi-Finalists comprised the seven heat winners and one wild card artist. They also included six women and two men!

Four semi-finalists - Wendy, Davide, Ed and Gail

Four more semi-finalists - Anna, Yvadney, Lorena and Sara

The Heat Winners

I listed and profiled all the heat winners in my previous post Portrait Artist of the Year - The Semi-Finalists - with my view of how well they would do. 

They are - in Episode order:
The Artists: 
back row: Anna, Gail, Davide and Ed
front row: Wendy, Sara Lorena and Yvadney

This is the image from last post which reviewed all self portraits and heat paintings by the artists who won the heats and were participating in the Semi Finals.

PAOTY 2023: The self portrait and heat paintings by the seven Heat Winners
PAOTY 2023: The self portrait and heat paintings by the seven Heat Winners

The Wild Card

The Judges chose to bring back a wild card artist
. They've done this before and it's often somebody who impressed in the heats, got shortlisted byt was up against a very good heat winner.

Kathleen Soriano explained their choice as being the artist who "stayed with them" and that she represented somebody who was doing something with her paint which nobody else was. They do like to have "range"

Self portrait and heat painting by Yvadney Davis

The wild card artist was Yvadney Davis (Instagram) - who painted in Heat 3.
Born in the early 80s, she 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.

Sitter and Setting


The sitter was 47 year old Emma Bunton, an English singer, songwriter, actress, and media personality- better known to many of us who were around in the 90s as Baby Spice of the Spice Girls - the best selling girl group of all time.

She's now very much an entrepreneur in her own right and somebody who works with children's charities.

Emma Bunton with her "Baby Spice Buffalo Boots"

As a sitter, she is that well known "trap" for all portrait artists - the beautiful woman with flawless skin and great hair!

Tai predicted she would cause them all problems and she certainly did for more than half the painters!

Her "special object" was her very old Buffalo Boots which she was well known for wearing as a Spice Girl. Apparently they were responsible for a number of broken bones!

Her suit was also pretty challenging as was the amount of red an violet in the background.


The place where the filming took place is the large hall at Battersea Arts Centre i.e. the same as for the Heats minus the pie segments set. (I'm intrigued to see next week as to whether, post pandemic, they've got back into the National Portrait Gallery for the Final)

Instead for the semi finals, they 

  • dress up the back of the room with long red velvet curtains and purple lightboxes 
  • provide a large circular red carpet and 
  • all the easels in a semi-circle around the sitter. 

Plus all the heat paintings go on the back wall - and bear in mind at this stage that 

  • the artists have only just met one another and 
  • have not seen their self portraits or their heat paintings. 
So this is the point - as they walk in - when they get to see some of what the competition can do AND get overwhelmed by the size of the set and the distance from their easel to the sitter! It's jaw dropping even if you are just a spectator walking in.

The view of the dais and chair from the easels

Battersea Arts Centre: the Heat Paintings and the set-up for the Semi Finals

Note that artists don't get to choose where they go
. All their kit and particular requirements are set out in advance.

This is certainly the episode which is most likely to cause issues for the artists in terms of:
  • they're one of eight artists painting the same sitter in a large semi circle around the sitter - and not one of three painting a sitter in a segment
  • they are MUCH further away from the sitter than in the heat - and very much further than any normal portrait painter would be from a sitter in real life. Hence one of the reasons why I'd never ever be critical of anybody who references a photo or digital image during this episode.
  • there's a lot of scope for you to lose sight of the sitter - as the cameras and the team filming the episode tend to get in the way 
  • all the artists can see all the other artists' heat portrait paintings on the back wall of the hall as they come in. It's very easy to see people who are better than you (you think!).


Size and format

I was surprised at how few artists chose to "go up a gear" either in terms of size or scope of the painting.

Oddly, rather than trying to paint more of the sitter, most of the painters opted to paint a head and shoulders only.

The portrait paintings produced can be categorised as follows:
    • 5 x portrait, 
    • 2 x landscape, 
    • 1 x square
  • SIZE: - in general size increased
    • 1 x large
    • 3 x large medium
    • 2 x medium
    • 2 x small
  • SCOPE:
    • Full size or most of body (including hand) x 1
    • upper torso including hand(s) x 0
    • upper torso (no hands) x 1
    • head, shoulder and hand(s) x 0
    • head and shoulders (no hands) x 5
    • head x 1
The one artist who courageously tackled the whole figure (and well done for trying) produced a very good composition - BUT then spent 
  • much too little time on drawing in the figure and face accurately and 
  • far too much time and space and paint application on the background - which is NOT the focus on the portrait!
It's worth noting that the focus of most of your time and effort ALWAYS needs to be on the person and NEVER the background. You can edit as much as you like when it comes to the background - including changing its colour.

The need to see progression

A number of the artists recognised that "more of the same" won't deliver a finals place.
  Each artist needed to demonstrate that they can do better than they did in the heat.

However, not only did most fail to progress, some actually went backwards.

"Today has got to be more than a likeness"

So said Kathleen Soriano at the beginning of the episode.

She might have added, the minimum threshold for getting selected for the final SHOULD be that you have achieved a minimum of a likeness
Several of them have really struggled to get the likeness right Stephen Mangan
What was absolutely amazing was how many artists simply failed to get a likeness - as in COMPLETELY FAILED. I counted five of the seven portraits did not achieve a likeness. By which I mean,  if they had been hung in a gallery and people asked to suggest who the sitter is, I would argue very few would have come up with the right name.
They really needed to raise their game and some of them did and some of them didn't 

Nerves and apprehension - and the impact on the head

I felt there were some artists who delivered their own particular response to "rabbit in the headlights".

I wondered if they thought it was going to just be another version of the heats - with different people. If they did, thwy were were wrong. ALL but one were heat winners and the evidence of what they could do in four hours was on the back wall!

The ones who failed to deliver what they are capable of included:
  • artists who could not get going properly or quickly
  • artists who lacked ambition relative to the context
  • artists who had ambition but got distracted by aspects which really did not matter
  • artists who seemed to be painting somebody else.
The most obvious way to illustrate this was how many of them completely failed to record the very distinctive structure of Emma Bunton's head and face. She has a very distinctive jawline and very pronounced cheek bones plus wonderful skin and baby blue eyes.

All of this despite the fact, most had photographic images to work from as well as working from like. Realistically at the distance from the sitter that they are required to work, the features and detail of the face and hair come from a photograph.

One artist in particular - who was very slow to get started - just totally failed to deliver the basics of the structure of any head. The structure of the eye on the far side of the artist was just so wrong it made me and Kathleen wince!
The rest of the mistakes are unforgiveable at this level Kathleen Soriano

Scaling up - go big or go home

I felt Sara had a very good chance of being in the Final. However she went for "a very big head" (and we're no longer in "the big head" era) and a VERY tight crop.

Working on a larger support was a good idea. Scaling up the head was IMO less of a good idea. I think if she'd done what she accomplished but did it with shoulders and hands and a special object she would have been a shoe-in.

As Kate observed, her colouration and handling of colour is very good - but it needed more space to breathe. 

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Decision Making

The Sitters' Choice

Emma Bunton was very kind and found something nice - or neutral - to say about everybody's painting.

However I knew she was going to choose Wendy's painting - which she did. It was inevitable. She was the only person to deliver Emma's very distinctive facial structure and colouration. I'm very sure that portrait will be now hanging in her home!

Wendy Barrett with her semi-final portrait of Emma Bunton (4 hours)

Selection for the Final

The three artists selected for the Final are:
  • Wendy Barratt
  • Davide di Tarantino
  • Lorena Levi
You can see their portraits below.

Emma Bunton by Wendy Barrett

I had predicted Wendy would be selected. Once she started painting, I knew for definite that Wendy was going to get selected. She 
  • made LOTS of very thoughtful and sensible choices 
  • did not mess up her painting - and 
  • also achieved by far the best likeness from an angle that some artists find very challenging.
I particularly liked the way she portrayed the hair through colour and tonal shapes.
A nice honest bit of painting Tai-shan Shierenberg
Emma Bunton by Davide di Taranto 
(a very small painting)

The choice of Davide surprised me. I think he maybe fell into the Judge's (very odd) criteria of "we need something different". So would somebody like to explain to me WHY we need something different?

It was very clear that Kathleen lamented the fact he didn't produce another painting like his self portrait - and I rather think he's going forward in the hope that he will in the Final.

What he did do - as did the next painter - was INCLUDE THE SPECIAL OBJECT OF THE SITTER. (They were two of only three who did). I've included that in caps as I think those going forward in future series need to think a bit more carefully about how best to include "the special object".

Emma Buntion by Lorena Levi

Lorena Levi also surprised me as a choice. Overall the painting was interesting and good - so long as you didn't know that Emma Bunton was the model as the distortions she employed - which seem to be habitual - certainly did Emma absolutely no favours. There is no likeness due to the elongation when Emma's face is characterised by horizontals (eg jawline and cheekbones) rather than verticals.

However what Lorena did do is focus entirely on other aspects that mattered and she included
  • head and upper torso
  • pattern on the suit
  • the buffalo boots in outline
  • suggested the outlines of the lightboxes and the colouration behind - in a very simple and undistracting way
  • kept the focus on the head and face - although for me there was far too little space between the top of the head and the edge of the support.
So - my conclusion from this semi-final is that I'm going to be VERY, VERY surprised if Wendy does not win this series next Wednesday.

I think she's an excellent draughtsman when it comes to drawing in - she gets size, shapes, volumes and tonal patterns absolutely spot on - and yet at the same time she paints well and produces an interesting painting of itself.

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:
Very oddly, the link to the artists and videos in the Heats does NOT have an episode for the videos of the paintings made in the Semi Final.

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