Sky portrait artist – the ‘amateur’ perspective

So, next week (Tuesday 27 Feb) is the broadcast date for my heat of Sky Portrait Artist of the Year. The picture here is not the one I entered (I’ll post that next week, after the episode has aired) but rather it is my first ever self-portrait, done as a school art class assignment.

In this post I want to describe a little of the experience of participating, without giving anything away about the episode. If you have not already been watching (and don’t want to sign up to Sky just for this) a relatively inexpensive option is to get a NowTV entertainment pass (in fact, this is very inexpensive if you take advantage of their two week free trial!). There’s also a very good set of reviews of the episodes to date available at the ‘Making a Mark‘ blog. Briefly, for those who haven’t seen it, the format is for 9 artists (chosen on the basis of a submitted self-portrait) to do a live, 4-hour, painting of one of 3 celebrities; a winner is picked by the three judges to go through to the next round. I really like the show because it is very much about how people create a picture, and the huge variety of approaches and outcomes that can encompass, without any undue distraction on back stories or false building of tension.

As an aside, I find it interesting to note how the show always makes a clear ‘professional/amateur’ distinction in the selected artists. To be honest this seems a rather false boundary. A large proportion of the ‘amateurs’ are  full time students on art degrees (so not yet professional, but clearly hoping to be). Or they work in graphic design or similar fields that involve day-to-day practice of artistic skills. Or they have retired and have art as their main current occupation. Or they are just very young (and precociously talented!) so their profession is as yet unknown.  I feel like quite an outlier, as someone who tries to pursue art alongside a demanding full time career in a completely different field. At the same time, I try to approach it as ‘professionally’ as I can.

Anyway, I was delighted to be selected and excited to prepare for the filming of my episode.  I watched all the previous series back-to-back; and tried to use this to inform some practice sessions. As it happens, I’ve rarely spent more than 4 hours on a portrait, so that was not my main concern. What I did attempt was to paint friends rather than professional models, partly to deal with the issue that sometimes already ‘knowing’ the face can make it more difficult to capture, and also on the assumption that they might be more likely to get restless, fail to maintain a consistent pose, and maybe not be easy to advise on what they should be doing! I also made sure I attempted paintings of: people wearing glasses; children; a variety of complexions…I’m sure all this helped, but in retrospect I should also have tried to practice dealing with a changing light source. The filming is in the beautiful courtyard of the Wallace collection, but the glass roof means the light is changing all the way through. I was determined to paint from life throughout, so this changing light was definitely a issue.

So onto the day itself. We had to arrive very early (breakfast provided) and got briefed on procedure, mic’ed up, etc. as well as having a chance to meet our fellow competitors. We then had to go outside to be filmed walking in, then back outside again for short interviews. Throughout the day they filmed a lot of interview footage. Obviously only a fraction makes it through to the final edit, but it is something any potential competitor should be aware of. That is, you can’t count on being left alone to get on with the painting – even in some crucial final stages we were being asked to go outside for another filming segment, or one of the hosts or judges would pop up beside you to exchange a few words on camera. On the other hand, I should say that it did feel like a very supportive atmosphere, with due appreciation that doing the painting was important, and not just an adjunct to making entertaining television. This included having a good amount of time (an hour or so) to set up. In this also the support crew were great, completely accommodating how everyone wanted to work (sitting, standing, angle of easel, preferred way to distribute materials around themselves). And then finally we were introduced to our sitters (to be continued…).



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