I first heard that Sky Arts were looking for portrait painters last year when an email was forwarded to me by Roger Bishop of Topsham Art Group. A tv show featuring portraiture, it sounded like my kind of thing. I was interested and intrigued. I fired off an email to the producers, and a few weeks later I had a meeting in an Exeter coffee shop. It went well, and I promise you this is true, as I walked to my car, I felt a buzzy kind of feeling in my stomach, and just knew it was going to lead to something.
I duly entered, as I have with many competitions. I put in the self portrait that had been close to selection for the BP Portrait Award. Despite knowing that there would be a lot of entries, I just believed mine would be selected. That kind of ‘smile to yourself because it’s going to happen, (and its going to be great!)’ feeling. It wasn’t arrogance; it was much more fun than that, like having a secret.
A few months later, the email arrived from the producers of Storyvault Films, the production company. I was one of 84 selected and would need to attend a regional final (London, Glasgow, Dublin or Cardiff). I had ticked the London box on the entry form as it felt like the place to be, and Trafalgar Square has a special magic for me (my nine year old self loved feeding the pigeons, at nineteen I discovered the National Gallery, these days its the National Portrait Gallery that does it for me) but Storyvault needed me to be at the Cardiff event, so reluctantly I agreed. The important thing was being in the competition, but there turned out to be a good reason I wished it had been London.
On a warm and sunny morning in July I drove to Cardiff. Barely a car on the road, it was a fantastic day to be alive on. I switched between a state of reverie and full alertness with an anxiety to do well. But all the time a reassuring voice in my mind told me to be calm and enjoy every moment. “Thanks me,” I said out loud as I pulled up to the monumental Cardiff City Hall. An understated name for such a beautiful and grand building!
I grabbed my materials; canvas board, pencils and acrylics. Acrylic paint, on one of the hottest days of the year? It dries REALLY quickly. Was I about to seriously regret this choice, I wondered as I marched toward the entrance. Could be one of the costliest mistakes of my professional life. All of a sudden the stakes rose.
I was impressed. With the building, with the set up, with the way we were welcomed. Coffee and croissants, grand high-ceilinged rooms, splendid pink lanyards around the neck.
There was twenty one artists, and despite nerves and the usual slightly awkward atmosphere you’d expect, people got chatting and a polite camaraderie set in. The production company, Storyvault Films had already done the London event and for the most part seemed very efficient.
The programme for the day was explained, and we were taken into the large space where the studio was ready. It was one of those round set ups, imagine a pie chart divided equally into three slices. Each one would have a guest sitter modelling for seven artists. Positions, and who each artist would paint had all been decided. Now, for reasons that were unclear, the sections were not described as sections, or slices of pie. Someone decided that we were in fact all to be part of a big cheese. To be honest with you, I cant remember whether I was in Cheese A, B or C. Lets face it, its not important.
And to be frank, I wish I hadn’t mentioned it now. You want to know about a portrait competition, not cheese.
We each settled into our workspace, setting out materials and getting ourselves prepared. Before the sitters arrived we were able to view the self portraits that had gotten us all into the regional heat (and heat was the word, the temperature rose all day). I was astounded by some of the work. And it was interesting to see the artists both in real life and on the canvas.
The paintings were all so different in style. Everything about the situation was a little surreal, and with cameras of all sorts everywhere, even before filming really got going it was a million miles from the usual working atmosphere of a portrait artist. We would have four hours actual painting time over the day, with breaks and certain things that had to be filmed taking us up to about 5.30. We marched in and out a couple times and followed other amusing directions now and then.
Then the guest sitters arrived. Lucian Freud’s celebrated muse Sue Tilley, fully clothed, thankfully. Welsh Rugby player Gavin Henson, soon half naked, after judge Kate Bryan uttered the immortal words, ” in the name of art, can I ask you to get your kit off?” And Charity worker and Falklands Veteran Simon Weston. I was in Simon’s cheese. Which was something I never could have imagined I would be able to say.
We shook hands and he chatted with us for a while. As I settled in with a mixture of bemused and cheerful anxiety, that reassuring voice was still there, helping me appreciate the moment.
The time came. Four hours of competition painting began.
Looking back I can say that with an art competition, it seems that because everyone is SO totally different in their approach and style, you’re not competing against them, but yourself.
No one expects the same level of finish as your self portrait of course, but just how good your picture can be in four hours is a curious mix of discipline, skill and luck. All manner of things can go wrong at the best of times, but under these conditions… The saving grace for me was all the breaks. We were allowed to work through them if we wanted, but the models chair would be empty.
Many people were surprised by the prevalent use of cameras and photography. Some artists, used only to working from photos, took a photo and worked almost entirely from that. Shocking to some with the man himself sat right there. But remember the time frame and the conditions. Having been in it I would say that with the stakes as high as they were, anything that an artist can do to improve their chances of winning is understandable.
I sat and looked for the first fifteen minutes, something that was later mentioned by the judges as slightly worrying. While Toby next to me charged ahead and quickly filled his canvas, my modest board remained untouched.
My grandfather was an artist, though not exactly prolific, and he taught my mother to observe the things worth seeing. And its oh so tempting to start frenetically. I told myself to go steady, measured, so that you build your certainty as you go, increasing your confidence later as you move from the underlying structure and anatomy of the subject into a more creative space and a ‘letting go’. That was the plan anyway, and by lunch I felt that I was about where I wanted to be with it.
Interviews also punctuated work, and I was interviewed by the Royal Academy’s director of exhibitions Kathleen Soriano. I thought I did well with those, and there was interest in my use of an iPad, which I used to record the day, and to view my work (the usual mirrors and my computer being in short supply).
Then there was a realisation that we’d been mentioning a brand name throughout. We did it all again but I think a little bit of Kathleen had lost the will to live, as had I. We put on brave faces but our eyes had died.
At lunchtime I chatted with Presenter Frank Skinner about the work. Lunch was nice. Their was a young man in the grand foyer doing portraits in Marmite. On toast. Unusual. He explained that reactions were typically quite divided. I noticed some artists filling up on carbs and desserts and thought, ” you’ll regret that come hour four.”
Then I realised I wasn’t David Mitchell in Peepshow and focused on my own food choices. I can genuinely say by the way, how polite and encouraging the artists were in conversation and conduct.
We resumed painting. I played it safe. I resisted the idea of getting reckless and throwing in some curve ball late in the process, lest I should mess it up at the final hurdle and then have to throw myself in Cardiff Bay. We pushed on through, and suddenly, it was all coming to an end.
Joan Bakewell gave the command to put down our brushes, and frankly, no one was going to argue with her. We had done everything we could do. Lap of the Gods time. I was pretty pleased, but what would the judges think? Was I in with a chance? What would they say about my work on camera? Should I have been bolder, taken more chances?
Conclusion to my day in the Cardiff heat…
So, the paintings and brushes were still wet, and it was time for the moment of truth. There was still more I really wanted to do to my work, but I was reasonably happy considering it was only four hours. And I hadn’t fiddled about with it and ruined what I had achieved thus far. That’s SO easy to do. Artists stood by their easels and cameramen, crane cams and producers gathered as the day was reaching it’s climax.
The room was hushed to record the verdict on each painting, and in due course the presenters and judges made their way round the entire cheese. Kate Bryan stepped forward to comment on mine. In those moments there’s a real tension, suddenly every moment becomes more important, it was clear that comments exchanged wouldn’t get a second take.
I listened intently, in case an answer was required, think short, sharp and professional just in case. She mentioned the colour of my background being hard to make work or something, but I had pulled it off well. “Well done”. They moved on to Toby.
Two thoughts at that point passed through my head, the first one about how hard it must be to say something constructive to everyone under the lights with everyone watching. The other thought was (in a nice way), “Well that was .......”. By which I meant, ‘flannel’. A bit like complimenting a painter at the private view of their first solo exhibition with the words, “your framing is very effective.”
The sitters could choose their favourite painting and take it home. A Take Away painting!
Who’d have thought! Simon chose Margaret-next-to-me’s piece, a lovely light and colourful impression which he felt best represented his cheerful, forward-looking outlook on life.
Then the judges announced the three shortlisted artists, to stand in purgatory, I mean, so the judges could focus and agonise over their favourite piece and send one artist to the final, and to ramp up the tension for the end of the episode.
I was disappointed not to make the final three, for by then you have imagined winning just a little bit, and possibly being in the top three a bit more than a little bit.
But I was still really enjoying myself! I watched the rest being filmed. Seeing the frame on camera monitors gave you a hint of what televised show would be like. And it did look great. I liked the winning painting, but I thought there were stronger pieces in the room. Everyone thanked everyone, then busied themselves with leaving.
What a day! Painting in a fabulous building, being looked after by a fantastic production company (I couldn’t fault them, from runner to Producer), the challenge of the portrait itself, meeting Simon, hanging out with Frank…
My aim to just enjoy the process, make the most of it all, and just do the best I could on the day was fulfilled.
A hot and golden day…
Oh, and Andy Murray was winning Wimbledon all the while!
Footnotes: Now, one of the highlights of my day was meeting Tai Shan Schierenberg, an excellent portrait artist whose work hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. His soberly toned and muscular painting style is one of my all time favourites. Love it, and loved meeting him. He came round and we chatted. Acknowledging of course in my own mind, that his is the superior talent we never the less talked as artists, portrait artists. On the level.
That felt good.
The following didn’t.
I have really made the effort in the last three years to market myself more, to take photos of whatever art activities I get up to and get those out there. I ensured I had a picture taken with the presenters, Frank Skinner and Joan Bakewell. And I had it fixed in my mind, get a photo with Tai.
The opportunities got slimmer and slimmer, and come the end I lost him in the crowd and got my self portrait, the new work and all my gear down to the car. Then clutching my iPad I tracked down my quarry who by now was somewhat stressed and feeling late leaving for the next train. I ignored the polite thing to do. I asked if I could quickly get a photo. He actually kind of refused in the circumstances, I said it wont take long and thrust my ipad at a stranger.
Then Tai was told there was not such a hurry for the train, he quickly put his arm round me for the picture. It was taken and I thanked him. Tai, not the man who took the shot, I think I ignored him. And walked away with my picture. And smashed forever the idea of us as two portrait painters talking as professionals about the process of an age old craft, replacing it with a hot and bothered exchange in which an ignorant and pushy fan insisted he get his cheeky snap for his facebook page.
Just as I was heading for my car, coming to terms with what I had temporarily turned into, Kathleen Soriano stopped me. Kate was sorry for the comment about the background colour, it wasn’t what she had intended to say but that's what came out in the moment, then it was time to move on (fair play, apology accepted, second hand or not). And also, in case I was disappointed she kindly told me that there had been quite a disagreement amongst the judges about whether myself or Toby should be in the top three. That was good to hear. I thanked her, and as the warm evening sun still shone, I got in my car, with mixed feelings but general contentment that I had done my best (excepting the dreadful photograph incident of course) and headed into the sunset.
I felt amazing, and wished I could do it again. For about a week I yearned to be back in that amazing fishbowl. Still, more warm summer lay ahead and the series wasn’t due out till later in the year. Sky Portrait Artist of the Year 2013, Cardiff event, done.
Oh yes, I almost forgot…
I mentioned earlier that there was a reason I was disappointed not to have gone to the London. Well three reasons. Alison Steadman, Robert Lindsay and Juliet Stevenson. I would love to have had the chance to paint them. Not that I didn’t enjoy painting Simon Weston. But I had written to JS twice before, and assistants had said she was too busy. She was once given a small portrait I did of her (as Grusha in Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle), by my partner Shirley Beth who kept meeting her on the train one year. I like to think it hangs at a jaunty angle in Juliet’s downstairs loo. Or somewhere. Anywhere. It’s Juliet Stevenson.
Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year, on Sky Arts 1HD, and on Sky One. November-December 2013, 6 episodes. 84 Artists in four UK regional heats, four in the final, and the winner receives a £10,000 portrait commission from the National Portrait Gallery of prize winning author, Hilary Mantel, which will hang in the British Museum. Nice.
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