Posted by Cass Art on 19th Dec 2021

It’s official, the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year Series 8 has been crowned! The deserving artist won a £10,000 commission to paint celebrated violinist Nicola Benedetti for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and £500 of art supplies from Cass Art. We caught up with them to find out more about their experience on the show and discuss their work.



Hi Calum, firstly congratulations on winning Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year Series 8! You won with a unanimous decision from the judges who admired the clarity, luminosity, emotion and humanity in your work. How do you feel?

Thank you so much, I cannot believe it, I am ecstatic! When I applied to take part in the show I did not expect to hear back, now I sit here as the portrait artist of the year, can somebody tell me how that has happened?

In the final yourself, Christos Tsimaris and Mark Oliver were painting actor, comedian, writer and artist Barry Humphries aka Dame Edna Everage who liked your piece so much he chose it to take home! How did you decide to tackle portraying such a huge character? He said he was previously painted by David Hockney – did you feel the pressure?

As soon as Barry Humphries walked in, I knew I had a massive challenge on my hands. His personality, humour, and character are larger than life, so trying to create a painting that gave a sense of that was daunting. When starting my process for the portrait, I looked to find a photo that reflected some of these qualities and it could not have been easier. In every photo I took, Barry gave me this brilliant look, I don’t think he can come across any other way, he is simply a star. I made a few compositional decisions and began work on the painting in my usual way starting with the eyes. I have mentioned in the past, the eyes are a massively important feature of any portrait, if you don’t get them right it can make or break a painting. Barry has very expressive eyes, and so I spend a good amount of time on them, revisiting them and making sure they captured Barry’s essence.

I noticed you use a ruler for precise measurements when making your initial drawing using mechanical pencils, do you find that’s crucial for capturing an exact likeness?

The beginning of any portrait is very important of course, but I'm not going to say it's crucial to work this way in every case. Working with a ruler and mechanical pencils gives me a very accurate drawing, which is exactly what you need when you're under a time limit. This is a method that works for me and something I developed to help me achieve a higher standard over the four hours. 

You mentioned your favourite portrait painter is Francis Bacon, what is it about his work that you love and are there any other artists who’ve influenced your work?

When I first took an interest in art, I remember learning about Francis Bacon and being fascinated. I was originally drawn to his life, the crowed messy studio, books lying all over the floor, it doesn’t sound like something desirable but it really spoke to me. I would say it was around that time I decided I wanted to be a painter. Looking at his work now, not many people are able to achieve what Bacon could. His works are so powerful and convey that hectic life he lived; it would take a lot to live up to a painter such as him. There are many more artists who have influenced my work, Jenny Saville, Justin Mortimer, Ken Currie, Andrew Salgado, the list goes on.

Artists taking part in the final are asked to make a commission at home, outside of the timed 4 hour sittings, in order to give you more time to produce a work for consideration by the judges. You painted your girlfriend Kelsey for the commission, who appears twice in the same piece, both awake and asleep. Can you talk about your decision making process with this piece?

Kelsey is a very driven and ambitious woman, she is constantly busy with work, studying or other activities, and I'm often left wondering how she does it. Obviously, we are very close and that was part of the challenge for me. I see Kelsey every day and I felt it was important to capture a moment that was real. I wanted this moment to tell a story, pausing as she wakes up, enjoying a second of clarity before the busy day ahead. I’ve used multiple figures in my work before and so the idea came naturally to me. These dual figures create a kind of movement or action that tells the viewer what's going on but also adds to the dream-like scene in the painting. I worked with colours that complimented Kelsey’s skin tones and the other elements in the painting. I hadn’t demonstrated my love for colour in the previous rounds so I felt it was a good opportunity to show the judges another side to my work.

In the show we see you back at your studio in your dad’s house, can you walk us through your studio setup – what’s a typical day in the studio like for you?

My studio is very small but it has everything I need, I have my easel, a big glass palette, and a shaky Wi-Fi connection so what more could I want! I like to get started early in my little studio. I tend to start each painting as a big project, figure out what I'm doing either in a sketchbook or with digital images and then I get cracking. I can sometimes spend months on one painting or sometimes two weeks, but when I'm in that state of mind, I barely stop working. Which means a lot of coffee is necessary over the course of the day.

You do a lot of figurative work in addition to portraiture, tell us about some of your work outside of the show.

The Scottish climate makes a big impact on me physically and mentally, it's something I think about a lot and I'm trying to explore that right now in my new paintings, however, I like to give myself complete freedom and don't limit what might develop. I am focusing on creating a coherent body of work rather than a standalone painting. Typically, I'm working with a lot of figures, but I’m enjoying exploring new experimental positions and getting back to playing around with the body and colour. 

You won the £10,000 Prize commission to paint internationally renowned violinist Nicola Benedetti, for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. You went to see her rehearsing – how much did the experience influence the final painting?

Prior to meeting Nicola, I had never had the privilege of hearing the violin played in person, so you can imagine what a breath-taking moment that was for me. I remember I was trying to draw Nicola as she rehearsed and at the time It was difficult to concentrate. Nicola’s skill and aura were so captivating I just wanted to sit and listen. It is hard to put into words just how impressive and emotional that experience was to me and it had an unquestionable influence on how I would approach my final painting. 

In the previous episodes we’d seen you stay very faithful to the colours in front of you, the commission was very different from the other works we’d seen you create in the show, with dashes of magical colour and light dancing across the figure like music notes, creating something truly beautiful and unique. What influenced you to make the piece in this way?

My experience of Nicola playing the violin was like watching someone on a higher plane, I was experiencing the top level of skill and expression, it truly was magical. To try to capture that in a painting was not easy. Watching Nicola perform had a lasting impression on me and I wanted the painting to do the same for the viewer. The most natural way for me to try and achieve that was through intense colour. I wanted to construct the figure as though she was being assembled by light, as you mentioned dashes of colour dance around the body, just as the music surrounds you. Given that I had not been too daring with colour in the competition phase of the show, I hope that the result of these strong colours creates a painting that is hard to forget.

Do you have any advice for future budding portrait artists, or those looking to enter the competition themselves?

Anyone looking to do well on the show should make sure they are timing themselves. You need to be strict about it, one thing that doesn’t come across on the TV is the number of interruptions. It can be hard to get into the flow of your portrait because of this, not to mention you lose a lot of time. So, the only thing you can do is practice, that and bring a good pair of headphones! I found a way of working that worked for me and that won't be the same for everyone. Try to explore your process and figure out what you need to do to streamline it. Though I did each of these things, I never once went in with the expectation of winning. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, you can only do your best and learn from the experience.

And finally, what’s next for you?

I am currently preparing a new body of work with the aim of having my own solo show next year. I took a small break after filming but I am eager to continue the momentum and have lots of new paintings on the way. I don’t yet have a venue or a date for the solo show but anyone who wishes to be updated on that should join my mailing list which is available at this link: www.calumstevenson.co.uk/contact-subscribe

If you wish to see more of my work and what's available, you can find that at my website or follow me on social media:


Instagram: @Calum_Stevenson_Art

Twitter: @Calum_Art

Thanks Calum! We look forward to seeing what you create in the future. 

Feeling inspired?

Could you be the next Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year? Applications for Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year Series 9 close on 11th February 2022. For more information, and to apply visit skyartsartistoftheyear.tv/portrait. Read our interview with the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year Series 8 heat winners to get some tips before you apply.

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