Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2013: We meet Ewan McClure

by Cass Art

Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year has graced our television screens for over 5 weeks, and the grand final airs this evening, where the winner will receive a £10,000 commission to paint Hilary Mantel and a year’s supply of art materials from Cass Art.

We caught up with winner of the Glasgow heat, Ewan McClure in store at our Islington flagship to talk paint and portraiture in the lead up to the big day.

How does it feel to be the winner of the Glasgow heat?

It feels good. I'm generally ambivalent about art competitions, but I took it seriously and was pleased that it went like clockwork on the day. Of course I was lucky with many factors outside of my control - I had a great subject in Michael Kerr, and an interesting angle to paint him from. Being deemed the winner by the distinguished judges was the icing on the cake. 

We loved your portrait of Michael Kerr. Tell us how you approached it.

The Michael Kerr portrait was an authentic example of my usual practice - direct painting from life without any underdrawing. I attempt to capture large structure, later narrowing-in on smaller forms. 

What have you been up to since then?

Since then my life has been pleasantly dominated by the show, first with the filming and now with a lively flurry of portrait requests. It's been a shot in the arm, and I really hope all the other contenders have benefitted in the same way. 

Tell us a little bit about how you mix your paint.

At the moment I premix my oils half-and-half with a stiff paste of chalk powder (whiting) ground in stand oil. This gives the paint a stickiness and translucency which works well for wet-in-wet painting. It also makes the paint go much further so I can whack it on liberally. I avoid all solvents and wash my brushes with a bar of soap and water. 

Did it feel like you had to raise the bar even further when competing directly with the three other heat winners in last week’s Paris episode?

There were some equally formidable contenders in my heat, but a certain detachment from the competitive aspect was necessary to produce a decent painting. It was about riding out the distractions and keeping focused. The same strategy applied in Paris. And I think we'd all attest to a feeling of camaraderie rather than bitter rivalry. It was all quite surreal, and we were in it together, being whisked around Paris with camera crews and equipment, around cafés, parks and galleries. The Sophie portrait was the main focus, and she was a delight. I'm pleasantly surprised by her response to the paintings which of course we didn't see at the time. But the painting element was only six intense hours out of a week's sightseeing and carousing. 

We had a fantastic painting session at our Islington flagship last week with Ewan who painted Pat Sharp for a feature in The Sun. Watch Ewan and all the other heat winners compete in the grand final tonight, Tuesday 10th December, at 8pm on Sky Arts 1 HD.

With thanks to Ewan McClure, find out more about his work on his website. We have also been talking to Luis Morris (London heat winner) and Nick Lord (Cardiff heat winner) this week. You can also shop the products featured in the programme, sponsored by Cass Art. We have also written an introduction to portrait painting in a How To for Sky Arts

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