Portrait Artist of the Year 2020: My experience and tips for future artists

Having been ‘reserve artist’ last year I was absolutely thrilled to be picked as a contestant this year on Portrait Artist of the Year.

I am not at all experienced in TV, however, so the night before I was so nervous that I did not managed to not sleep at all. I knew I would have to rely on adrenaline and caffeine (but not too much, don’t want the jitters!) to get me through.

We had to arrive at Battersea Arts Centre by 7.30am that morning and met the other artists. For those who haven’t seen the programme, there are 9 artists per heat and 3 celebrity sitters. The sitters get to choose one of the portraits to take home and the judges chose three shortlisted painters and one winner to go through to the semi-final.

Fortunately most of the other artists seemed quite nervous as well and we soon fell into a camerarderie of the terrifying day before us. We kicked off with the ‘arrival shots’. I certainly couldn’t walk in a straight line and had a grimace on my face but thankfully that didn’t make the cut!

We were then all interviewed separately about what we were hoping for in the day. My main goal was not to screw it up. Simple.

Then we were taken into the studio inside the beautiful Battersea Arts Centre and shown our ‘cheese’ (studio section). I was with two lovely artists, Daisy and Rob  and we stuck together most of the day. We were then filmed setting up our equipment, squeezing out paint etc. Quite unnerving  with a camera only centimetres away but the crew are all so friendly and kind that they do a great job of putting the artists at ease. Top tip for anyone else going into the show, I was very hot in my jeans, I would maybe wear something looser. I also found that the studio lights shone through my canvas so I doubled up and used my emergency canvas behind it which worked well. You can see this here in a photo I took before we started.

The big reveal of who your sitter is was quite a build up. The first sitter to be revealed was Paul Mescal (from Normal People). Most of the crew were swooning and as he’s so hot right now, I was frankly relieved he wasn’t who I was painting. The next to be announced was Eddie Marsan , a fabulous and very recognisable actor, so I would have been happy with him. Our cheese was last to be revealed and we had Sian Clifford, a wonderful actress from Fleabag and Quiz. Sian was very gracious and put us at ease by saying how she can only draw stickmen so would be happy with whatever we turned out.

I think we were all desperate to get painting by this point so it was a relief when the start was announced. I knew that we would not be very close to the sitters so I took photos for reference points, also for when cameras and crew were between Sian and me. The painting time is officially 4 hours but it definitely ended up being more like 3 once you have been interviewed by various people. My longest interview was with Stephen Mangan, the presenter who was charming. In fact the whole day turned from terror into great fun as soon as we were able to start painting. I took a bit of a risk by ignoring the background which I don’t think the judges appreciated. In fact, I’m pretty sure they weren’t very keen on my self-portrait which wouldn’t surprise me as I can’t bear it. (The sooner I paint myself out of it, the better!) So another tip for artists hoping to get through to the programme is to enter a portrait of yourself that you actually like!

Self-portrait aside, I really enjoyed painting Sian. She has beautiful skin and very shiny hair. In order to make a theme with my self-portrait, I had decided to ask whoever was sitting what their favourite flower/plant/tree was and put it into the background. Sian said her favourite flower was an Avalanche rose (dusky pink) so at lunch time I did some research on Avalanche roses and spent the remainder of the time working on the background.

I definitely could have done with more time and, in retrospect, should probably have spent more time on Sian’s face. However, I was happy with my overall painting. I hadn’t screwed up, phew!

Once the 4 hours is up, you have to put down your brushes and then there is the reveal of  the paintings to the celebrity sitters.

I am delighted to say that Sian chose my painting to take home (or give to her mum), she liked the colours and the roses in the background. Even if the judges didn’t!

I was not shortlisted but no matter, I felt very happy with the overall outcome.

It was such a fantastic day, a dream come true for any artist and I would recommend people apply. Just try and get some sleep the night before!

4 thoughts on “Portrait Artist of the Year 2020: My experience and tips for future artists

  1. I am soooooooo impressed Katharine. I cannot bear anyone watching me paint and I am totally useless under the pressure of time. Yes, I dont think I could have concentrtaed painting Paul Mescal either! Far too distracting! Your portrait of Sian is really good. The flower background was inspired. A great compliment that she choose your painting. Well done!!

    1. Ah thank you Emma, it was quite terrifying but also really fun. And it was great to have something to occupy me that wasn’t Covid related during this ridiculous year!

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