Exclusive Interview: Meet the Finalists of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2020

by Cass Art

We have our finalists! The three semi-final winners are on their way to the final, and are that one step closer to winning Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2020. The contestants were tasked with capturing the theatrical legend Elaine Page, in front of a spectacular backdrop with a festoon of lights. Read on to see how each of the finalists found the round, and what they've got coming up next. 


Firstly, congratulations on reaching the finals of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2020! How did you find the semi-finals, the brief added another dynamic with the consideration to represent the sitters theatrical background – was this added consideration a challenge?

While I was mindful of the brief, I thought to focus on the background would detract from establishing the structure of the head and I wouldn’t be treating the work as a whole. It was important for me to stick to my way of working and not be too reactive to what the judges were saying.

You worked in quite a small scale for the semi-final, focussing closely on Elaine’s face. Do you think this helped in allowing you to get really into the details of her features and as a character? And was it daunting working so closely being surrounded by full figured paintings?

I knew the scale I was working on a scale that was ideal for painting the size head I was looking to at the start of the day. Compositionally it is good to give your sitter headroom and I also wanted to get in a bit of the blue on the dress Elaine was wearing to offset against the warm flesh tones and red background. "Do not concentrate so much on the features. Paint the head. The features are only like spots on an apple." – this quote from John Singer Sargent was drilled into me by my Instructor Toby M Wright and it is an integral principle to my method. You can have the most wonderfully painted features, but if they don’t sit well within the structure of the head, they’re futile. You will see that when I paint I establish few larger geometric shapes and gradually break them down into many smaller more organic shapes, those smaller shapes are the ones that can really push the expression or character of a face. I didn’t find it daunting working closely to full figure paintings because I was focused on myself and what I was trying to do, if anything it actually put me more at ease because I knew that the others were maybe pushing themselves too far in their attempts to impress the judges.

You quoted John Singer Sargent during the semi-finals, ‘likeness of the sitter with something wrong about the mouth’ do you think you managed to conquer Elaine’s slight smile!?

I’m not too sure I think the mouth sat well within the structure of her head but I’m certain I could have improved it somehow.

And finally, what’s coming up next for you and your work?

I am currently working on a series of single and multi-figure compositions that are somewhat quiet and self-reflective. I believe that there is something universal and archetypal in the figure isolated and insular, especially within the context of others. While we are social animals it is often the case that our interactions are limited by hierarchy and our own anxieties. I am also taking on commissions which is good because it splits the workflow up nicely and allows me to give both projects space to breath.


Firstly, congratulations on reaching the finals of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2019! How did you find the semi-finals, the brief added another dynamic with the consideration to represent the sitters theatrical background – was this added consideration a challenge?

Thank you!  It was wholly unexpected to get that far so I went in with the mentality that, if I went no further, I would still be happy in the knowledge I had reached the semi-finals!  That being said, there was definitely more tension in the air, the stakes were higher and the pressure was on. When we all saw the set for the first time it was quite daunting; the festoon lighting and red drapery made us all a bit nervous as we knew it would be a challenge to paint. It's not my style to include a detailed background so my decision to paint a flat yellow background with a suggestion of the lights was my impression of what I saw. I immediately knew how I was going to tackle it, but the decision was made all the more easy when Elaine Paige walked is as she is a bright and vivacious character, so a dark red background just wouldn't have seemed right.

You discussed honing in on Elaine’s character in your portrait, working towards finding a true intimate depiction. Could you talk about how you navigate a journey like this with your sitter?

In a normal portrait sitting the artist and sitter can talk to one another, so while the artist paints, their character comes through in the portrait. In this situation that was impossible, we were too far away from Elaine (in order to fit 8 artists around her) and there were always crew members moving in front of us. Luckily for me I was familiar with Elaine from her radio show so I already knew a little of her character. But i did find getting the likeness a struggle because of the distance and lack of contact.

We’ve got to talk about that yellow! It went down very well with the judges, what are the challenges of introducing such a bright background colour only from your artist’s eye?

I knew it was going to be a risk, but one thing I've learnt from this competition is you have to stay true to yourself and not paint what you think the judges are going to want to see. I was confident in my choice, i just knew the red curtains wouldn't work.  

And finally, what’s coming up next for you and your work?

Since my heat aired I've had quite a few enquiries for portrait commissions, so I'll be keeping busy doing those for the foreseeable future with a view to having an exhibition next year. I have a two month old baby and a 3 and a half year old so they are keeping me pretty busy at the moment! 


Firstly, congratulations on reaching the finals of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2019! How did you find the semi-finals, the brief added another dynamic with the consideration to represent the sitters theatrical background – was this added consideration a challenge? 

Thank you Cass Art - what a thrill to get into the semi-finals of PAOTY! My first response is that the semi-finals were absolute fun. It just felt like an unexpected bonus and I was determined to enjoy every minute of it, and duly did. The hall, with only 8 of us, instead of the big, round stage with 9 artists, was exquisite to be and work in and the dramatic and the cavernous space for the sitter, revealed to be the delicate and poised Dame Elaine Paige, was definitely inspiring and dramatic.

The tricky aspect was how much of the backdrop, which included a swathe of deep red curtain; what seemed like miles of twinkly stage lights as well as some darkly beautiful background, to include in the final composition. I opted for a mix of the wonderful red, a hint at lights and the figure slightly lower down. Thank goodness I brought a large canvas. It was a bit of a challenge - mainly to decide what to focus on, but then, the challenge is part of the constant puzzle-solving joy of painting.

You described Elaine Page as having a gentle and kindness in her face. Is it important for you to pick up on a characteristic such as this while you’re painting?

Painting a portrait on PAOTY is a very different experience from the conventional portrait commission, as you do not have much of an opportunity to talk with the sitter and get to know them, nor do you have time to research the sitter and find out more about their background and anything pertinent you may have missed in conversation. For this reason, it helps to find something of a characteristic or familiar expression to include in the portrait. 

Elaine Paige was magnificent - so petite and dainty, yet exuding massive confidence and presence - and astoundingly, she kept a little Mona Lisa smile throughout the 4 hours. This gave her a kindness which I hope I captured in my portrait. The greatest challenge was seeing her clearly: with 8 of us painting her instead of 3 artists, as we did in the heats, it meant that the sitter was much further away to incorporate the wide arc of artists. It also meant the presence of cameras, lights and the people behind them were in front of the sitter far more often. The lighting on Ms Paige was quite bright, and with her pale blonde hair, I did feel on occasion, that all I could see was a lovely spot of brightness in the distance. I did not want to paint from a screen - as a personal challenge and also because of the luxury of painting from life, so was not set up with a tablet or clamp, but eventually had to resort to holding my phone in one hand while painting, just to be able to get all the details I was after.

You struggled a bit with keeping yourself from over doing it in your painting! Do you have any advice on how to walk that fine line between just enough and too much?

I do wish I had some advice about when to walk away or sit on your hands instead of faffing with a fresh, completed painting. I think that with experience and years of painting, it becomes an instinct which usually surfaces. I tend to work very fast when painting from life and I still had a bit of time left before “Artists, step away from your easels” was announced, so I almost felt a bit guilty Not painting. I am glad I stopped when I did though. I briefly considered, for instance, finishing the embroidered floral detail on Ms Paige’s garment, but I love the simple hint at it instead.

I think it is a case of allowing oneself enough time to just Look, assess and do nothing - not necessarily feeling that you should be painting all the time in order to produce good art.

And finally, what’s coming up next for you and your work?

I am on the committee for a local Arts Trail / Open Studio event in September (the Cookham and Maidenhead Arts Trail), so am working towards that, as well as painting consistently towards a strong body of painting (figurative paintings that tell stories or allegories and make use of much personal iconography) and will hopefully one day convince an independent gallery to take a chance on me.

The absolute joy of painting from life has inspired me to start a once-a-week life/portrait painting group with some local artists. We find models on social media and once a week we have an absolute blast, painting a lovely sitter for 3 speedy hours. I am using these paintings to create a separate body of loose, ’sketched’ portraits.

Feeling Inspired?

Dust off those paintbrushes and wipe off those palettes and get painting! If you need to top up your materials before you get going you can shop with us in-store or online, we have everything you need.  

Entries for Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year Series 7 close on 17th April 2020. Find out more here

Image credits: Photography © Sky Arts, paintings © StoryVault.

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