Exclusive Interview with the Winner of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year Series 6

Exclusive Interview with the Winner of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year Series 6

Posted by Cass Art on 25th Mar 2020

We caught up with Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year Series 6 winner Christabel Blackburn to find out all about her experience of being on the show.

Congratulations on winning Sky Arts Portrait  Artist of the Year Series 6! How did it feel to be painting in the National Portrait Gallery for the final? Was the pressure intensified by your surroundings?

Thank you so much. I still can't believe I won up against such tough competition, Toby and Inge are both fantastic artists. Being in the Weldon galleries surrounded by some of history's greatest portraits was very inspiring, but oppressive at the same time. I think we all found the pressure almost too much to handle in the final, the stakes were that much higher.

Lemn was consumed with his poetry whilst he sat for you, and his face didn’t stop moving! You decided to take a photo to tackle the situation. How did you manage working from both the ipad reference image and directly from life?

When I have a sitter in front of me I don't like to use technology, for me there is nothing I can get from a photo that I'm not getting from life. However, with a sitter who moves and talks as much as Lemn, and with cameras and crew often between us, I was left with no choice but to use my phone as a reference. I wasn't planning to work from photos so unfortunately I didn't bring anything bigger than my phone!

You were very concerned about finding the likeness and struggled with it for a while until you realised the features were a little too high in the face. Was this easy to rectify and were you confident it could be done in time?

I was struggling until lunchtime but getting some space from the room and the painting meant when I came back with fresh eyes I was able to correct the mistakes I'd made. The painting wasn't as resolved as I would have liked but in the end I was happy I'd captured Lemn. He had so much charisma it wasn't difficult to get a sense of his character in the short amount of time. 

Hands are notoriously difficult for painters to portray, and yet they say so much about a person. The way you painted Lemn’s hands was beautifully simple, yet worked perfectly. Do you have any tips for other artists who struggle with this aspect of portraiture? 

I wanted to include Lemn's hands to add some narrative to the painting and to show the judges I wasn't playing safe by omitting them. He's such an expressive person it would have been a shame not to include a person's most expressive part of their body. The trick with hands is not to see them as hands, but break them down into shapes, beginning with simple blocks and getting increasingly more detailed.   

For your commission you were asked to paint micro sculptor Willard Wigan MBE. How did you decide on the final, dynamic, composition for this piece? And what was it about him that you really wanted to capture?

For me, a full length portrait is generally more informative than a simple head and shoulders, as so much of a person's character comes through in their body language. I wanted to show his confidence through the way his is sitting and direct gaze. He's a quiet person, but extremely tenacious, his work is fascinating. 


The judges had a really tough decision choosing between three very different styles of work but yours shone out with Kathleen describing it as sharp, focussed and modern, with a freshness to it. How did it feel to win and what will this mean for your future career?

I am touched by what Kathleen said, this is how I would like others to see my work. I can imagine it must have been a tough decision deciding between the three of us. I couldn't have called it but when I saw Inge and Toby's commissions I thought one of them would win. Lacking a degree of self-confidence, the win has given me a huge boost and I have learnt through doing it to believe in myself. It will make it easier to trust in my decision making going forward and give me the confidence to try new things and paint as much as I possibly can. I can't wait to see what commissions come my way and look forward to what the future holds! I'm just incredibly grateful for the opportunity it has given me. 

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