My Work

Sky Portrait Artist of the Year Experience

Well it’s been a busy time round here and lot’s to reflect on in the past few months. Not much new painting at the moment as I’ve been busy on other projects but can’t wait to get back to it now especially after watching Sky Portrait Artist of the Year again. It’s fired me up and reminded me that it’s time to get back to it asap now that the weather for wandering around outside has gone up here. I’d been bracing myself for watching the episode I competed in (series 10, episode 4), I’m a private person by nature so putting myself out there on the TV has been a little out my comfort zone but you have to push that of course. Staying within our comfort zone never benefits us.

The Sky Portrait TV Show Experience

There’s so much to say about this whole experience and it’s difficult to convey what it feels like to be involved but honestly there are simply no negatives. Whether you win or not it’s one of the most affirming experiences I’ve had as an artist. The production team at Storyvault films were fantastic to work with. They were so attentive and supportive.

Live on the set of SKY Arts Portrait Artist of the Year.

The whole experience of being with a bunch of other artists in a high pressure public play-off was great, fantastically inspiring. The presenters were all very genuine and fun to speak to and the venue of Battersea Arts Centre is so iconic and atmospheric. It’s not very easy to get access to celebrity sitters at the best of times this also makes it such a unique opportunity.

The only negative experience I had was nothing to do with the production but on arrival at Inverness airport to fly down I was clearly too honest about the contents of my hold luggage as to my shock and horror, oil based paints are not allowed on the plane. The airport staff were very nice and they even went to the length of asking the pilot if he could make an exception but unfortunately not. So beware if you plan to fly your precious oil paints somewhere or are tempted to bring some home from abroad.

Sky even went to the lengths of sending a delivery driver (hello and thank you Dominic!) round to pick up my self-portrait for hanging during the competition. This was a great service and the poor guy had been driving round the extents of the British Isles collecting work but it made much more feasible to be able to compete.

Another shot live on the set of SKY Arts Portrait Artist of the Year.

My Sky Portrait Preparation

On the run up to show I set about doing a series of three/four hour paintings to try and distil my usual much longer working sessions down to this limited time. I took the view that developing a process specifically for this experience was probably the best chance that I had of getting something done in the time that I was happy with rather than just doing what I usually do and hoping I could get something done in the time.

Examples of my preparation 'training' for SKY Arts Portrait Artist of the Year.
Examples of my practice process

The process I eventually arrived at was to start off doing underpainting with a water based paint.  I tried both acrylic and watercolour but opted for acrylic as it was just a bit ‘meatier’. The plan was to try to work on a white surface, establish some larger tonal shapes first in a brighter colour, likely blue, and then work on top more instinctively with oils. It sort of went to plan on the day but didn’t produce I result I was ultimately very happy with and I think I know why…

On The Day

One thing to be aware of if you ever enter this competition is that the lack of actual painting time is profound. You have a set of four one hour sessions with breaks in between but there are of course interruptions to your painting along the way for filming purposes. This is only to be expected so I’m not griping about it at all. We are all there to make a TV show first and foremost.

There’s no time to waste so my advice would be to go with a game plan, even a compositional plan that has some flexibility.  I had an idea what my composition was going to be before I went and I prepared a surface that suited that option. I don’t like leaving things to chance when it comes to important opportunities like this. There is an argument you can be over-prepared and then are not responsive to the sitter and situation but out of two options I prefer having a plan to not having one.

Rory Stewart with the almost final work on the set of SKY Arts Portrait Artist of the Year.
Rory with the (almost) final work.

My sitter as you no doubt know by now was Rory Stewart who is a really fascinating and interesting individual but again you have very limited opportunity to interact with the sitter or get into any kind of conversation as you might normally do with portraiture so you are relying a wee bit on your previous knowledge of them to bring some depth beyond what you see and are told on the day.

The first half of the day went really well for me and by lunch time I was quietly confident that I would finish ‘something’, the plan held good in terms of establishing a likeness and getting a composition underway on a larger scale (I was working on primed MDF board 95cm x 95cm).  I’d definitely do that again when I paint in a short term situation like this. It started to peel away a little when it came to colour.  One of the elements that is distinctly lacking in my final work is good strong use of colour and I think that is where it came a little unstuck because working on a white ground is not my usual thing, I didn’t give it enough consideration so the end product looked a little too ‘pale’ for my liking.

There’s plenty questions from people about working from a photograph, especially when the sitter is right there but in reality they are so far away from you that it is hard to see details especially under the character of lighting that is required for shooting a TV program like this.  My eyesight isn’t what it used to be so working from a digital image was essential and I hoped to imbue the work with some of the feeling of Rory’s stature which I think I managed.

So a lot was learned from this experience, I met some great people (hi Yvadney and Lucy and Tobi and Ellie from Storyvault) and had a great day being totally immersed in the more glamorous side of being an artist for a change. It was very positive and I’d highly recommend giving it a go if you can muster the courage. Even if you think you can’t, fire an entry in anyway – it will stretch you.

Now the final note is that I don’t actually have a decent photo of my final painting to post, I was too exhausted at the end of the day and forgot to take one! If you’d like to know any more about my experience  then get in touch with any questions you might have,  I’d be happy to answer.