To celebrate the tenth Series of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year, previous Series winners were invited to Battersea Arts Centre to capture a celebrity sitter in just four hours and compete to win the title of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Decade. Their resulting works were carefully considered by a panel of expert judges - award-winning artist Tai Shan Schierenberg, independent curator Kathleen Soriano, and art historian Kate Bryan, and the final decision was made by Sarah Howgate, Senior Curator of Contemporary Collections at the National Portrait Gallery where the winning piece will be exhibited.
Working with Winsor & Newton, Cass Art has supported the show since the first series in 2013. We caught up with newly crowned Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Decade Gareth Reid to find out what it was like to be back on set and what he’s been up to since winning the Series back in 2017…
Hi Gareth! Firstly congratulations on being crowned Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Decade! How did it feel being back on set?
Thank you very much. It was a pleasure to be back on set, I love the crew and I’m good friends with many of the artists so the atmosphere is very collegiate and easy. And two of my daughters were there with me so that made it one of the best days. The difference to 2016 was that I had been teaching portraiture regularly then. In the 2 hour classes I would often demonstrate, drawing the sitter from life and talking the students through what I was doing i.e. a very similar set up to PAOTY. So I never really felt that much out of my comfort zone back then. But I hadn’t really taught since then so going into this year I was very much out of that kind of critical observational practice. All I’d done in the lead up was a couple of very quick drawings of my daughters which weren’t great so I was a tad daunted. But I soon got into it and really enjoyed the whole thing.
Back in 2017 you won Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year and were tasked with painting comedian Graham Norton for the National Gallery of Ireland. You also had a solo show in The Art Space in Cass Art Glasgow shortly afterwards. What have you been up to since and how has your work developed?
I’ve basically been doing commissioned portraits ever since winning in 2017. There’s been a steady stream of them, but I’ve been trying to intersperse all of that with getting back to painting for myself, the exhibition work, which was my main focus before I won. I had a solo show in 2022, which was the first major body of work that I’d exhibited in Northern Ireland for a decade. Since then, I’ve made a couple of paintings for Sotheby’s to show at their sales in Paris and more recently in London. So what I’m focusing on at the moment is trying to regain a balance between the commissioned portraiture and my own work.
Outside the show, you were commissioned to paint King Charles! How did that come about, and can you tell us about the process of that commission?
I was contacted to say that I was on a shortlist to paint a portrait of “somebody prominent” for Hillsborough Castle. Then in Christmas 2017, I was informed that I’d got the job and that the subject was Prince Charles, which was a bit of a shock. We had three sittings in total, two in Aberdeenshire and one in Clarence House in London. The first sitting was just informal chatting and drawing, the second was mostly photography where I established what I was going to do and the third one was really just an opportunity to chat in a much more relaxed way and make sure I hadn’t forgotten something vital. The painting was then unveiled in 2018 in Hillsborough Castle in Northern Ireland, where it hangs today.
The surprise celebrity sitter for Portrait Artist of the Decade was none other than national treasure, actress Dame Judi Dench! How did you find her as a sitter?
I found Judi to be delightful as a sitter, she’s warm and she has a great face. I would have loved to be able to really study her close up and draw her from life but the issue was that, as there were so many of us, we were quite far away from her. And like many people I know, my eyesight has utterly nosedived in my late forties, so apart from a few squints into the distance, I had to rely almost purely on photography.
It took you a while to get started, taking time to make compositional decisions. You took a lot of reference photographs but mentioned it’s difficult to choose which one to work from, what is it you look for in the image to achieve a great portrait?
Yes, I think it was vitally important for me not to rush into what I was doing because when relying on photography, choosing the right reference is the be-all and end-all. Once that decision is made, I’m quite fast when I get going, so I was fairly relaxed. I look for some kind of animation in the expression but not too much so that it doesn’t resemble a snapshot. I want something happening behind the eyes of the sitter, that shows some engagement or personality. It’s mostly about feeling so it’s hard to quantify.
You created a monolithic charcoal drawing and worked on the piece in every direction – turning it upside down and on its side, how does this method help you?
Yes, I’m constantly turning whatever I’m working on upside down and sideways just to remove myself from a little bit and hopefully see the shapes afresh in a more abstract way. Especially within a process like PAOTY where it’s so intense and you’re working flat out, it’s easy to become too engrossed for any objectivity. It just really helps make any tonal imbalance, lack of proportion or general mistakes jump out, like standing back or looking at your work in a mirror. Doing it is second nature and such a part of my process now, I’m not sure I could do much without it.
You sketched facets of different values and directional marks that were so sculptural - you seem to carve the head from the white paper like chipping away at a slab of marble.
Thank you. Yes, I try to make my drawings as solid as possible, so I look at planes of the head and the face and try and make it exist within space; a temple receding, forehead going across, lip straight up and down and the bridge of the nose back diagonally, like a 3D jigsaw puzzle of interlocking directional shapes. You can obviously do that tonally in a very subtle way but it takes time. I suppose you can describe it a bit quicker via this kind of hatching and mark-making shorthand.
What are your preferred materials to work with and why?
When I’m painting, I use Michael Harding oil paints and really any kind of brushes but usually hog hair and finer acrylic brushes for more linear marks. I go through them pretty quickly as I don’t take care of them very well. When I draw, I tend to use Nitram charcoal, because it’s hard and sharpenable and I draw on primed canvas, and an ancient, putty rubber from my days in Florence, that I can’t find any replacement for. Also I use one of those fine retractable rubbers for intricate erased parts.
And finally, what’s next for you?
I’m working on a few public projects, for example, the National Trust and one under wraps so far in Belfast as well as my list of private commissions. I’m also producing a body of work to show in 2024 and another painting for Sotheby’s in Paris in the Spring.
Entries for Portrait Artist of the Year Series 11 and Landscape Artist of the Year Series 10 are now open! Submit your portraits or landscapes for a chance to win a £10,000 commission and art materials from Cass Art.
Read our exclusive interviews with all the Series Winners on the Cass Art Blog.