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!

Peaches commission

I had a lovely commission to work on this week. Some peaches for a new born girl. The baby’s parents bought some strawberries from me two years ago when their son was born and so wanted to give their daughter a painting too. The peaches were lovely to paint (and later to eat).

Paris for half term

We visited Paris for a few days at half term which was fantastic. It was the first time my daughters (11 and 9 yrs) had been. We walked for miles and explored most of the central areas. I was negotiated down to two museums (Pompidou and Musee d’Orsay) but they were fabulous. I took my watercolours, here is a sketch of the street we were staying in and a sketch made in the Musee d’Orsay.

Rue de Buci, Paris. Watercolour sketch

Sketch of Narcissus sculpture, Musee d’Orsay

New studio!

We have moved house in the past few weeks which is why I have not been blogging as often as I might. Here is a picture of my new studio – a lovely room that gets afternoon sun. Toastie, the dog is fully acclimatised and snoozing in her bed. The house needs a lot of work – in my studio the posters are strategically placed over the peeling walls! The studio is very low on the pecking order of rooms to be redecorated which suits me fine.


You can just see on the easel, the first painting I’ve made in the new house, an oil sketch of some freesias in a green glass.

freesias in green glass
Freesias in green glass, 20x15cm unframed £95

Yvette’s Gourds

My lovely neighbour, Yvette, lent me her gourds to paint last week.  The patterns and colours of gourds are so vibrant and feel so Autumnal, they were a delight to paint.  I prepared the canvas with a yellow ground and decided to leave some of it showing. I also purposefully composed the still life so that part of the gourds were ‘off canvas’ so that it didn’t look too neat and tidy.

IMG_0192 - Copy
Collection of gourds 40x30cm unframed, £250

The Costa Rican Jungle

We took our first big adventurous family holiday this year to Costa Rica. It was so exciting to take the children somewhere so different from the UK and see such an array of fabulous animals (sloths consistently winning the ‘best animal seen today prize’). I was really inspired by the vibrant colours of the jungle and made several watercolours and took many photographs of the flora. I now plan to work on a series of Jungle paintings. Here is a step by step record of my first one.

Peonies and sweet peas in three glass vases

I’m making the most of peonies being in season and have used three glass vases here to explore the different play of light on different shapes of glass. The painting is not currently framed but I am going to frame it in a moulded pale grey frame with a white slip.

Peonies and sweet peas in three glass vases, 80x60cm framed, £850

Last day of exhibition!

Today is my last day in Sprout Arts. It’s been a fantastic 10 days in this lovely gallery.

Many thanks to all those who have come to the exhibition.

white peonies and blue sweet peas
White peonies with blue Sweet Peas, 80x60cm framed, £850