Exclusive Sky Portrait Artist of the Year member’s insights

June 11, 2019

When you got selected were you nervous? Excited? Did you get a lot of preparation for the show from the production crew?

It is always an excited thrill to be shortlisted for any art competition as we all know how tough and subjective selection can be. A lot of competitions don’t publicise their criteria, which adds to that luck element in being selected. The only difference is that Sky Arts Portrait of the Year has had a long, very public run and you should know what the judges are looking for. You also need to be able to do a decent portrait, similar in style to your self portrait entry, in 4 hours.
You get a long telephone interview with a producer for research, and they are very supportive. You don’t get TV training. In fact most takes are done first time, rarely as a re take. - Catherine

Very excited and not too nervous as didn’t know what to expect. Little preparation from the production crew at the initial selection process from what I can remember. – Samira

I was so excited when I got the call to say I’d made it on to the show! A few frantic days of phone calls, interviews, figuring out dates, signing contracts followed, which was bizarre, but there was almost no time to get nervous! If I remember rightly, there was about 6 weeks to wait until filming so enough time to get in a little bit of practice - I’m not a portrait artist in the traditional sense and had very little experience painting from life, so I invited friends to sit for me to get used to working this way - I think in a way this self imposed challenge provided a good distraction from thinking about the actual day of filming and weirdly I actually didn’t really get nervous until a few days before! The crew provide all the practical information they can, but there’s very little that can prepare you for the unfamiliarity of it all! – Lucy



Did you find getting there easy, with all your kit?

I do live at the other end of the country but it is on a main train-line and is less than 3 hours. Plus I have family in London who I can stay with, so it wasn’t really a problem. - Catherine

For me it was quite easy being London based, so not too much hassle there. – Samira

A whirlwind drive down with the other half from Lancaster to Wimbledon to stay with a friend the night before and then an early doors taxi to the Wallace Collection, getting there was as easy as it could be! Thankfully my kit fits in one small shoulder bag so all I had to worry about on arrival was trying not to look too bleary-eyed after my 5:30am alarm! - Lucy


I understand it’s a long day (7am - 8pm) Why is it so long? And was it very tiring?

They were long days. The semi final was a bit unusual in that our late sitter caused the day to run on till 10pm. Shattering. However during the day you run on Adrenalin, so tiredness doesn’t hit you until afterwards. The crew were fantastic at getting you to eat and drink plenty so that you didn’t flag. – Catherine

There’s a lot of filming and organisation outside of the 4 hour challenge and by the end of the day you are very exhausted! - Samira

It is an extremely long and tiring day but it really flew by! On arrival there was a little time for a breather and a coffee while we were all briefed on the days running times and then suddenly it was time to be mic’d up ready for filming! It takes more time than you would realise to get those “natural” shots of the artists arriving and chatting - shots can be held up by things like waiting for traffic noise to pass or asking people or vehicles to move and often they have to be filmed multiple times to get them just right! It’s a very time consuming process!

Overall there’s a 6 hour slot for the artists to make their portraits, but within this are lots of breaks and interruptions! There’s a lunch break for both the sitters and artists but the artists are also stopped intermittently for interviews with the crew, judges or presenters and also taken out to the front of the building to film their introductions. This all means that in total the artists get 4 hours of actual painting time.

Obviously a large chunk of time is taken up by the judging process and while this is happening, the crew are getting shots of the finished pieces and interviewing each artist outside. There are A LOT of interviews! I lost count of the amount of questions I answered on camera, but in the end only a very mall amount of that footage was used - A good thing because I mainly talked rubbish, especially towards the end of the day!! - Lucy

What are the judges like? To a viewer like me I thought “only Tai actually paints, what do the others know about painting and why are they judges?” Did you feel similarly or did you feel they were well informed? Did you like them!? Did you have a favourite? Or one you wanted to avoid?

Kathleen and Kate are both art critics and have a lot of experience looking at art, and Kathleen was an early judge on the BP Portrait Award as Director of the NPG I think. I guess their perspective is a little different from Tai’s, who seemed to focus more on technique. I feel a bit diplomatic in a sense that you don’t have to be able to paint a portrait in order to judge one. It would only give you an incite into how difficult it actually is. But I do think it might have been better to get two artists and one critic judging.
I didn’t really get to know the judges as during the day you chat with the producers who interview you more than the judges. There was very little time to chat with the judges, and most chatting was done on camera. I must say I do like Kathleen. I would have loved to paint her. – Catherine

The judges are all so lovely, there aren’t many moments to talk with them outside the filming but they are very approachable and know their stuff! - Samira

I was so excited to meet Tai! I’m a huge fan of his work and was delighted to find out that he is just as lovely in person as he seems when watching the show! Also, from watching PAOTY since it started, I find I tend to agree with his likes, dislikes and critiques so that made him less scary as a judge! Personally I feel come from a very different world to art historians and curators - I just make the art that I make, I’m no expert on the subject as a whole, so Kate and Kathleen who clearly have vast amounts of knowledge, were just a smidge intimidating!! Actually, the biggest fear of the whole experience for me was the agonising wait for the show to air to find out what Kate and Kathleen had to say about my work! - Lucy



What are the sitters like? I noticed they always say something nice about the work, do you think they’re primed to do so? Do they chat off screen?

All the sitters that I painted were lovely and easy to talk to. Again, there was not much time to chat with any others as I was a bit pre occupied. I did like Mark Gatiss as he came to look at what I’d done and said he liked it. I don’t think they were primed to compliment the artwork but I do think it is an encouraging TV show that prides itself on the support it gives the artists rather than slating their attempts. I think the sitters seemed to know this, so perhaps they were primed a bit, but I honestly don’t know. – Catherine

I guess the sitters are very different but in my experience quite polite, I doubt they’d want to say anything negative about the portraits. – Samira

The sitters all do seem genuinely thrilled to be there and fascinated by the whole process (Although many of them are talented actors!!) so I’d like to think they don’t have to be primed to be polite - even if an artist hasn’t had the best day, the sitters are clearly intrigued by the whole process so there’s a really positive vibe. My sitter, Jamael Westman, was lovely to work with. He sat incredibly well, occasionally chatting just enough to make us feel relaxed. He also took time to stand with each of us and respond in detail to each portrait of him, which was really wonderful! It’s a big shame that most of this couldn’t be squeezed into the edit - Each show could easily be 2 hours long! - Lucy



What do you think of some of the judge’s criticism of using phone cameras and iPads, considering the time constraints.

In 2014 I never used anything other than by eye, and I regretted it. You are placed too far away from the sitter, and you can’t move your easel as they have a time lapse camera on it. You are taken away during painting time for interviews and camera shots. You have numerous interviews with hosts and judges, as well as producers. And while others and sitters are interviewed the crew block your view. You are a fool not to take back up for those times. Really you have to be able to do a decent portrait in 3 hours, not 4. I would encourage working from life as part of your process. The judges seem to be against exclusive use of technology. – Catherine

It’s not great if the sitters may feel like they don’t need to be there sitting so still, so I understand from that perspective. I personally did both, I think a balance is fine. – Samira

Interestingly this seems to be a growing sore point on social media, which I think has led to the judges discussing it more. There was a specific mention of it on my episode as one artist said it was “rude” to not be giving an artist your undivided attention - immediately followed by shots of artists taking photos on phones and tablets (myself included!) and setting them down on their easels. When I saw this, I immediately wanted to speak up (also might have shouted at the telly a teensy bit…) on behalf of us all! Yes, technology can sometimes be used as a crutch, but it is mostly used by artists as they would any other tool, helping with composition, reference points, etc. I feel that it’s perhaps not been explored in enough detail to make this clear to the viewers, which is a real shame if then we are perceived to be rude or even cheating in some way!

There was a good portion of time where Jamael was completely obscured by camera crew and equipment, so I was so glad to have a reference photo to work from to avoid big chunks of time spent twiddling my thumbs! The sitters also take quite a long lunch break, so artists wishing to work during this time might not be able to do so without photo references. Also, I knew that the light at the Wallace Collection is very changeable, so having a photo to revert back to was an important safety net to have just in case the sun decided to come out and completely obliterate the nice soft shadows from the morning. Also, where I was positioned, there was virtually no space behind me to be able to step back for a better view of my work, so taking progress photos to allow me to get some distance from the canvas really helped! - Lucy



What are the crew like? Do the cameras get in the way?

The crew are fantastic. Friendly, professional, supportive, genuine......I could go on. Yes re the cameras. - Catherine

Crew are amazing! Camera’s do get in the way from time to time but it’s not for a prolonged period. - Samira

The crew were all so friendly and do as much to help you as they can! Set up is tricky as once you choose a working position, that’s it, you can’t change it or move your easel because it could ruin the time-lapse or mess with the continuity during the edit! Of course, where you sit and where you put your kit is something you would usually do without thinking and I found it quite hard to get comfortable at first!

The space is way smaller than it looks on screen! The crew do warn you that they will be interrupting you and getting in the way quite a bit and they try their hardest to be as fast as possible, but it’s surprising at how long my view was blocked! I was inexplicably calm during painting, but I can imagine, had I not found my zen that day, I might have found it all a little claustrophobic and difficult to stay patient. - Lucy


What was your favourite part of the process?

Being special for the day. – Catherine

In hindsight it was definitely the actual challenge of putting myself in the situation. – Samira

Painting! I was so nervous right up until I got my brushes out and started work - I was honestly expecting the worst! Art isn’t an exact science, we have good days and bad days, so I had done my best to mentally prepare myself for this. I definitely wasn’t expecting to feel so at ease! I remember a really clear feeling of being right where I was supposed to be, which isn’t something I feel very often! I loved every moment! - Lucy



What was your least favourite part?

I don’t think I have one. – Catherine

The suspense at the judging stage. – Samira

Trying (and mostly failing!) to engage my brain in order to answer questions concisely (or sensibly - especially sensibly!). The day was such a whirlwind, my brain was trying to focus on so many different things and new experiences so I’m pretty sure I mostly talked complete rubbish in each interview that was sprung on me! I found myself later on that week thinking of how I would have responded without the pressure of the day and sounding far more intelligent in my head! Anyone who’s seen my episode will see that my default setting is idiot (I’ve been rumbled!) and the editors quite rightly thought it was far more entertaining to see me clowning about than whatever drivel I came out with about what I was actually doing! - Lucy



Do they supply any materials? I always thought it would be a great opportunity for subtle sponsorship and to provide the contestants with materials. Did they cover your costs? If not, was it expensive in terms of travel, loss of income etc.

Yes, they supplied art materials as they had sponsorship from Cass Arts. I got as much as I could, said I needed everything. I considered it an extra perk as the £50 flat fee didn’t cover my train fair or expenses. However they did cover all costs, travel, hotel and food for the semi final. – Catherine

All required materials are supplied if you choose not to bring your own, so it doesn’t work out to be expensive. – Samira

They offer to supply materials if you want, but I took my own. They don’t cover any other costs, but luckily my husband was able to take a day off work to drive us down there and we were able to stay the night before with a very kind friend so it wasn’t too costly! - Lucy




Would you do it again and was it fun?

I did do it again. In fact three times in total - 2014, 2018 and 2019. It was a great experience, very different from how life/work is normally. The crew made you feel special, and it was fun to meet everyone. – Catherine

It was fun and a great opportunity, but I wouldn’t rush to do it again, it’s a huge challenge! – Samira

I would definitely do it again! One aspect I thought might be nerve-racking but turned out to be really fun was the public audience who were so lovely and made it even more enjoyable! As well as the small group of family and friends I was able to bring, a little gathering of folks started to grow around me who were really willing me on which was such a nice confidence boost! Everyone just wants you to do well - it’s a lovely (if a little chaotic) environment! Having said that, the semi-final and beyond looks pretty scary and stressful, but I’d still love to give it a bash one day! - Lucy




Is there anything else interesting that’s not obvious to the viewers? i.e. Do you have any funny anecdotes from the show?

I walked in on Joan Bakewell having an afternoon nap in a grotty room on a mattress on the floor with her jacket over her (this was in Hackney Roundhouse during the semi final). We were waiting around for our very late sitter and I was looking for my jacket. I just crept back out and closed the door quietly. That will stay a wonderful memory for me. - Catherine

What may not be obvious is that you only hear feedback on your work once it’s been aired. – Samira

I’m ashamed to say that that wasn’t the first time I told Stephen Mangan I loved him that day. That is all. - Lucy