This is the second post about my experience as a contestant on Sky Portrait Artist of the Year 2018; the previous one describes the background and preparation. The episode has now been broadcast, so here are a few more comments about the experience…if you haven’t seen it and want to watch without knowing what happens, then don’t read any further.
I had planned from the start to do some extended sketching before starting my ‘main’ painting in watercolour. In fact, I thought a good way to get into the zone would be to roughly replicate the process from the ‘Tuesday group’ led by portrait painter Aine Divine (a former finalist on the show) for the Edinburgh Drawing School. That meant doing some quick sketches to get eye and hand working, then completing a longer sketch in charcoal and/or pastels, and then moving on to painting a portrait (without underdrawing) in watercolour. Although it is not obvious from the edited show, I had fully intended the painting to be the final submission, and spent much more time on it – the pastel was done in the first hour, apart from some minor touches when I changed back to it at the end. I’m still not sure which I prefer – both are shown below, so others can decide. But the sketch seemed more alive, even though (or perhaps because?) it was done when Anita was still moving around a lot!
Actually, Anita was a lovely sitter, with fantastic features, poise, presence…but it was tricky to deal with the amount of movement. Not so much that she wasn’t sitting still – and she got much better at that as the day went along – but that she often wasn’t resuming quite the same pose. Particularly from my position, a very slight alteration in the direction of her head made a substantial difference. Normally that can be partly dealt with by moving yourself and your easel a little to compensate, but that was difficult to do, given that each easel had a specific camera pointing at it from the rigging above (for the time-lapse shots). I don’t know that I agree with the final critique given by the judges that I went wrong by “putting in the other eye” despite having a profile view. I could see that eye! But I suppose I should take “almost Picasso-esque” as a compliment!
Apart from this, I found the whole experience really enjoyable. I found it much less distracting than I expected to have people watching from behind, in fact I hardly noticed they were there; possibly I was lucky in the position I had as there was more space behind me than for some of the others, who probably couldn’t help hearing passing comments. There were decent breaks (only fair on the sitters); we were allowed to work through these if we wanted, so in principle there is actually around 6 hours to complete the work. I didn’t want to alter the painting without the sitter present so took the breaks. I know it remains a thorny question for some whether it is really appropriate that many of the artists on the show take a photo of the sitter and work mostly from that, rather than direct from life. I have my own strong opinion which you can probably guess…
In the end, I was fairly happy with both works I produced, but also could see there were some fantastic paintings emerging from the other artists, and did not rate my chances too highly. Samira’s really stood out for me, so I was very glad that she won. Actually one of the most pleasant parts of the day was the waiting around during the judging and set up for filming the announcement (n.b. this took quite a while). It was the first real chance to talk with the others, find out a bit about their background, compare notes etc. All of us were quite hyped up from the day but also tired out from the concentration required, which somehow made for a good camaraderie. In short, I’d recommend anyone to give it a go.