Exclusive Interview: Meet the finalists Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year Series 7

Exclusive Interview: Meet the finalists Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year Series 7

Posted by Cass Art on 16th Dec 2020

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. Read on to see how each of the finalists found the round, and what they've got coming up next. 

Kofi Ferriss 

Firstly, congratulations on reaching the finals of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2020! How did you find the semi-finals, how did the introduction of the ‘books set’ influence the way you approached your painting?

The semi-final was very different to the previous round, as I could sense that each of the candidates were much more focused in their intentions so it created a little tension in the air. I felt the books help to create the narrative and, although I decided to leave them out in my final painting, the background did help set the mood and influence the environment in which the artists worked.

You were concerned about the colour at one point in the process, how do you work through moments of doubt like that during a painting? Is it your method of projecting the finished painting in your mind that helps you through?

The colour was a concern because working on a wood surface it often takes time to build up layers, four hours is a challenge for me. So before starting, to visualize the image in my mind first helped me get a sense of Bernardine’s personality.  It helped me decide on the composition and colour palette. In a way it was a shortcut because I had no time to physically play around with different approaches and experiment with the composition as I would normally do in a sketchbook. 

The judges described your act of painting as almost like a romance, how do you find this reading of your methods?

My process is very meditative as I try to make each mark or brush placement considered and deliberate. I can’t lie, I do love painting.  It’s where I am most at ease, and I enjoy the process even though it can be absolutely challenging the hell out of me. So I guess “a romance” is an apt description: sweet but bitter at times, but always enjoyable. 

Your stark white background was a tool to let Bernadine jump off the surface, do you often use techniques such as this?

The background for me is always considered once I have enough of the figure in place. In my studio I tend to play around with different approaches to the back ground when I am doing a portrait as it can help to give the viewer gain more insight about the sitter’s character. In this case, because Bernardine’s clothing had very complex patterns and colour tones and the mood in the painting was quite serious - as she is as a person - I felt I needed a flat, bright tone to bring her forward and not clash with what she was wearing.

What’s coming up next for you and your work?

The competition has helped me rediscover my love of painting and re-examine my process.  Portrait painting has always been one of the areas in my career I have wanted to focus on more. So now I’m a little braver I intend to enter a few more open calls for artists. At the moment I am in the middle of producing a portrait for the arts TV presenter, Brenda Emmanus, whom I have admired for years. So I am very excited about creating a portrait that somehow documents her journey as one the very few Black presenters in the arts.  We had a photo shoot that went well, and I have some great reference images to work with and just decided on the size of the portrait.



Firstly, congratulations on reaching the finals of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year Series 7! How did you find the semi-finals?

Thank you! I can honestly say that I have never concentrated so hard for so long! It was such an intense day. I didn’t really come up for air from the moment we started until we were told to put our paintbrushes down. I was keen to include a lot of elements in the painting, and this required every second of the time available. It was also amazing working alongside seven other equally focused artists – the concentration and tension in the room was palpable! It was such an exciting experience. 

How did the introduction of the ‘books set’ influence the way you approached your painting? Your introduction of the strong vertical column of the books framing Bernadine’s face, the hard vertical contrasting so nicely with the softness of her face.

Having watched many-a semi-final before, I felt I needed to up my game. I thought I could do this either by including more of the figure, or more of the background. I was really pleased when I saw the stacks of books because they created a bold compositional and structural backdrop, and I felt there was scope to use this either in a literal or abstract way. I knew I wanted to work within a square again, so the challenge was to get all the key challenging elements in – the books, hairband and shirt – without detracting from Bernadine’s face or making the background seem cursory.

Could you talk about your use of multiple palettes when you’re working? You mentioned you’d found it quite a challenge during the process!

This was me in panic-mode! Most of my practice portraits at home had been fairly simple, but with this painting there was a lot more information to cram in. Half-way through it was touch-and-go as to whether I would finish in time. As a way of cutting the time I found using three palettes helped me not get into a muddy mess. The palettes related to different parts of the painting (background/shirt/ skin tones) and they enabled me to keep coming back to different elements on the canvas without having to remix or confuse colours. I also kept the brushes separate so that I didn’t waste time cleaning them. It’s not something I had ever done before that moment, but it is something I now find quite helpful in more complex paintings.

The judges found your work very successful, and were impressed with the likeness of the sitter in this round. You spent a while deciding on the expression of the sitter, do you think spending that time at the beginning helped you achieve that likeness?

Yes definitely. I spent quite a bit of time working this out at the beginning, waiting for Bernadine to rest into an expression which I felt reflected her determined personality. I also spent a bit more time on the under-drawing than I had done in the heat. There is definitely pressure to rush in, but I felt more confident once I had done a bit of preparation and felt happy with how to approach the painting. The likeness came quite quickly with this painting, but that said, it doesn’t always work out like that! 

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

I am still very early into my painting career, so I will be continuing to establish myself next year. I have a lot of commissions on the go at the moment, but I would also like to carve out the time to focus on some sitters of my choosing so that I can continue to develop and explore my practice.

Curtis Holder

Firstly, congratulations on reaching the finals of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2020! How did you find the semi-finals, how did the introduction of the ‘books set’ influence the way you approached your painting?

Thank you so much! The atmosphere at the semi-finals was more intense than the heats. It was also more intimidating because you got to see what all the artists had produced to reach the semi-finals and they were all outstanding. I was determined to be myself and enjoy it. I also took it as an opportunity to practice being the artist I wanted to be, if only for the next four hours. The colourful set of cascading books gave us a narrative to help describe Bernadine. I decided to use it in a more abstract way by playing with the shapes and colours to frame her. Bernadine was wearing brightly coloured clothes and jewellery with strong geometric shapes and I wanted the viewer to question where the background ended, and she began.

Do you find that your closer proximity to the sitter means that you have the chance to develop a more personable relationship with them – and do you think it gave you an edge against the other artists?

I’m used to working from life so for me it’s key that I can get close enough to the sitter for the initial drawings to get a sense of who they are and what they really look like. That initial conversation is also important for forming ideas of how I will represent them. I think each artist has their own way of getting started; some people like taking photos, some like directing the sitter’s pose and others find it distracting to interact with the sitter at all. I don’t think it gave me an edge; I think everyone was doing what they needed to do in order to get a good portrait.

I found it particularly interesting how you were holding your pencil to make your initial marks on the page. Could you talk us through a bit more about your techniques here?

For the initial marks I tend to hold the pencil further up the shaft. I imagine it’s a bit like holding a conductor’s baton or a wand. As I’m usually stood up to draw, it means that the energy comes from my whole body, not just my fingers. It allows me to make much freer lines when doing the under drawing.

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

I’m open minded about what comes next. My plan is to build on the momentum and excitement of the competition. It has accelerated my experimental process and I’m already creating new works to push my drawing further. The competition has also allowed me to meet other artists who use drawing at the heart of their practice, so as well as doing my own projects, I’d like to continue sharing ideas and explore collaborations. 

See more of Curtis' work on his website, or follow him on Instagram

Feeling Inspired?

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