I was delighted to take part in the first heat of the tenth series of Portrait Artist of the Year. The painting didn’t progress as well as I would have liked, ideally, but at the end of the day I was pretty happy with what I produced in the limited time.
This is a reflection on the day and some tips for you if you are thinking about taking part yourself.
My portrait of Fleur East is not my finest work, but I was happy with what I was able to achieve in the four hours. It had some errors (the asymerty being the most obvious) and the likeness could have been better. A couple of days after the filming I corrected the painting, and it is now much more like the painting I would have liked to have achieved on the day . . . . . (see left/ above)
(BTW, I don’t think this would have made a difference to the heat outcome for me.)
Overall, the whole experience was pretty good. The people at Storyvault films are wonderful and kind to you; and they go out of their way to make you feel like you are the most important person there. Every interaction, every email, every conversation was, without exception, lovely.
I hoped (but didn’t expect) to win and tried to go with intention of having a ‘lovely day’ and to meet the judges.
This is the corrected version of my portrait.
It’s a very long day. You have to arrive at 7am and get wired for sound before you are let into the iconic grand hall at the Battersea Arts centre. You can then set up your stuff; and settle you’re your position . . one of three possible places on ‘the cheese’ as they call it. At the end of the day, I was back on the road at 7pm.
The other sitters, Richard Curtis and his wife Emma Freud arrived and were filmed several times before settling in. Our sitter, Fleur East was delayed a little because of having to do her radio programme first.
But Fleur arrived and we got straight to it . . .
Tip 1: Sort out your tech . .
I paint from an old iPad which has a rubbish camera, so I take pictures with my phone and then transfer them to the iPad. The signal in the room is terrible, and it took me probably 15 minutes to get the pictures onto the iPad, which was a bit of a worry!! I had half expected this, and had tested things out at home, but basically make sure you check out your painting tech, and things will work!
Tip 2: Be prepared to be interrupted . . a lot.
The crew will interrupt what you are doing, get in the way of the sitter and ask you lots of questions. The producers ask you questions on camera, and then, of course you speak to Kate, Tai, Kathleen, Joan and Stephen at stages throughout the day. I knew this was going to happen, but wasn’t quite prepared for how disrupting it actually was.
You do get into the swing of it, but the first couple of times I lost my train of thought, and, struggled to pick up where I left off.
Early on in the process I realised that the symmetry but got interrupted and then when I went back didn’t carry on where I left off. The ‘correction’ wasn’t complete and then when I came to paint it, I assumed it was. I became so focussed on the time and completion that I didn’t just stop and look . . . I was blinded by the stress and the situation.
Stress does weird things to you. As I discovered!!
Tip 3: Just paint a head
I usually paint full length at the scale I used in the show. I like this scale, I was used to it, and I knew I could fit the person well on the board. BUT, of course I was the only person doing this, and I now realise that put me in a worse position.
Remember, this is a speed painting competition AND you have to produce a gem of a portrait. Anna’s winning portrait from the heat was lovely; it was small and she had all that time to concentrate on the face and hair. She was going to get a better and more complete painting of the face that I could ever achieved, even if I was absolutely on it with a full length painting.
Note that although my board was bigger, my head was much smaller than most other people. So, my tip is to go for the head and shoulders, working hard to get that as good as you can get it. If you want to try a full length portrait, save it for the next stage.
Maybe the first round is there to test your mettle? Is the semi-finals where the competition really starts . . .It also helps you to understand how the whole process works. If you get into the semi-finals, which are filmed only a couple of weeks after the heats, then you know what to expect. If I did this again, that’s probably where I would try to do more of a full portrait.
After lunch, I got my head down and painted like a beast, with the intention of getting out a finished portrait. I knew what I was doing with the clothing and the background. I had learned to paint like this during the people of Beeston project. I was on autopilot.
Tip 4: The audience is really close and can be disruptive.
If you are not used to being watched as you paint, then the audience is a problem. They are often inches away from you. I had people coming up and talking to me, interrupting me, looking at and taking photos of me, my work and my palette.
When you see the audience on the TV they are being herded around by the film crew and kept under control. Off camera, some are wild, wandering around and looming over you. I did not like that part of the experience.
I had to put my headphones on, try and focus and just get on with it. I did not anticipate how hard it would be.
Art can be a wonderfully solitary event, and if you like to be alone . . I would not recommend this show especially if your picture starts to go wrong.
Tip 5: Listen to the nudges from the judges
Now, I am not saying I didn’t listen to the judges. I did. But I didn’t understand what they were saying to me. They were challenging me about the symmetry, but I wasn’t seeing it.
What you don't see on the programme is actually how helpful they are trying to be. They are really giving you good advice about the painting and what you can do to make it better.
I missed the helpful nudges from the judges. I could have remedied things (possibly) if I had realised.
Tip 6: The judges are lovely, but they are working.
The crew and the judges are filming solidly for two weeks. Heat after heat . . its full on. The fact that Tai, Joan, Stephen, Kate and Kathleen can turn up day after day and make you feel great is testament to their professionalism.
Some observations –
Tai is really interested in the art, your process and seems genuinely nice. He was asking me questions about my approach after the show had ended. I liked that. And we had a nice selfie picture together.
Kathleen said I reminded her of a kitchen sink artist, which I had never heard of. I didn’t know if I should be offended or not. She was warm and kind. She was surprised I knew she went to Leicester University; the power of Wikipedia!
Kate is busy and professional and that really came across. I had hoped to thank her for liking an earlier submission of mine, a few years ago, on Instagram because it really encouraged me. I said, ‘I wanted to thank you’; she said’ what for?’ I said ‘for liking my painting on Instagram, it really encouraged me’.
‘I like a lot of paintings on Instagram’ she said . . . pop. Bubble burst.
Joan is 90 now. She does go around speaking to the artists, and I did speak to her, but I think she is really more of a figure head for the show.
Stephen is presented a bit like a court jester in the show, but actually he is really good at settling you down and making you feel at ease. I liked him and he did a great job with me.
Tip 7: Take the breaks.
I was so worried about not finishing I just kept on painting. In the end I could have finished a half hour before the end, but I didn’t want to look like I was done.
During the day I got cramp in both my hands and I couldn’t stop my right hand from shaking. I wasn’t nervous, I just think it was from the effort of painting for hours at a stretch.
Tip 8: Are you able to cope with the rejection?
Ultimately, three people get shortlisted and one wins out of nine. No matter how many times you are reminded that you were selected from thousands, it hurt not to at least get shortlisted.
Ultimately, Storyvault films make you feel pretty good, but when the selection is announced it felt hard.
If you don't like rejection, I would prepare yourself . . .