Fadi Mikhail Wins Heat 1 of Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year 2017

by Cass Art

Brushes at the ready, canvas primed and easels up? Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year is back on our screens for 2017.

Travelling the country to find the most picturesque landscapes, the series returned for its third year with yet another idyllic scene to kick-start the series. Setting up in the luscious green grounds of Knaresborough Castle in Yorkshire, the contestants were presented with a live scene people playing bowls to add some action and figures into their first scene.

After a challenging four hours of painting, Fadi Mikhail was declared the Heat One winner. His decision to focus on the contestants within his composition really impressed the judges, with his bold, figurative brush strokes earning him a place in the quarter final.

Born in Essex, Fadi Mikhail trained as an iconographer in the US, before returning to London to study at the Slade School of Fine Art. His work has always taken two parallel routes – that of Egyptian Christian Iconography and that of figurative painting.

Inspired by European folklore to Roald Dahl’s fictional characters to Walt Disney films, his figurative works relive the images of his youth. Through applying thick, semi-abstracted daubs of oil, he pushes and pulls the paint until a satisfactory balance of shape, colour and structure emerges.

We caught up with Fadi to find out more about his experience on the show and his abstract approach to painting…

Hi Fadi! Congratulations on winning Heat 1 of Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year 2017! What was the experience like painting at Knaresborough Castle?

Hi and thank you. The experience was mind-blowingly exciting, driving into Knaresborough. To know that in an hour or so, dozens of cameras and thousands of people would be watching and judging me; it’s a scary notion.

It didn’t even take 5 minutes and we were set up, ready to go. As I was positioned towards the end of the pods, it was then that I decided the perspective created more dynamic and structural shapes that my style would work with - so I chose to paint with only small reference to the castle itself.

Your composition chose to focus on the other contestants – a competition first – why did you chose this viewpoint?

When I choose to make a painting in my studio or plein air, I look for movement and shapes to inspire me into image-making. Figures always help introduce these things. They also give some sense of time, or story. So sitting in my ‘pod’ on set, I figured that the only way I could make a painting I could be happy with was to look at something that inspired me – the shapes created by the pods and the contestants themselves.

Your work reduces the landscape to abstract shapes – why do you favour this style of painting?

I’ve always favoured some sort of abstraction in image-making. To see the synergy between painter and material; it really resonates with me. I’ve never sympathised much with perfect realism. Why replicate precisely what God and your eye has already perfected?

My aspiration is to celebrate more my emotive experience of it – of a landscape or story - in a gestural, creative way. Even Constable and Turner were concerned with abstraction. To see the crudeness of their brushwork or to see the simplification of the figures – reduced to a single stroke sometimes – that’s what I’m interested in. 

Take it all the way to the extreme and look at painters like Frank Auerbach or his Leon Kossoff, and you’ll see that their use of the landscape, or any subject matter, is almost a means to an end. It seems that their enjoyment of the process, of the material, of gestural mark or shape-making, is more important to them that even the subject

The twist in the first heat was the introduction of figures into the landscape. How do you think this influenced your painting?

At first, I thought it would be a heavy and much-needed influence. But admittedly that was before I had decided to turn to the other contestants and use them in my painting. When I thought the bowlers on the green were all the figurative input I would get, I was relieved. But yes, by the end of the painting, the addition of the bowlers was a big help. It certainly added a sense of animation to the piece – where most other things were quite obviously static. That usually gives an inexplicable life to the piece.

You apply paint with such confidence, no sketches or rough guides. How have you developed this approach to painting?

One of the things I love about certain paintings is a ‘lightness’ of touch. I love when a painting looks underworked and fleeting. I suppose that's why I love impressionism so much. The deftness of each stroke is not laboured. It is simply applied and not touched again.

I do find that when a sketch or drawing in pencil is applied first, or when too much pre-design is put in place, there is a great pressure for the artist to stick to said design, and if one deviates there is a pulling and pushing on one’s nerves that can end up with too much overworking. That kind of thing can really suck the life and vitality out of a painting.

There are of course painters who can do it very successfully. But when you’re hoping to work wet-into-wet with oil, the whole painting process needs to be reasonably fast. Although having said all this, I do usually ‘draw’ the general composition of the painting in paint, on the board or canvas before I start. But since I do it quickly and in paint, in my mind I don’t lose that fleeting feeling.

You have also trained as an iconographer, which appears to be a very different style of painting to what we saw on the show. How has this influenced your work and do you approach this style of painting differently?

Yes iconography is a very different style and requires a different time-frame, different materials, and different approach.

Iconography by nature is heavily considered. The paintings are pre-planned. The oil paintings I make are almost the opposite to that. The only plan with those is to execute the paintings quickly and in a fleeting way, with as much flexibility as is possible and is needed. In the case of the icons, one needs to plan extensively before applying any paint to the board and cannot make much change once this is done. 

Has icon-painting influenced my oil painting? Yes absolutely, and vice versa. In fact more the latter, since I was creating aggressively-painted oils before I began learning about icons. So in many ways my love of abstract shape-making - which came from my oil painting - transferred very nicely into the creation of icons, since icons themselves employ a very heavily stylised, shape-heavy aesthetic. My love of traditional structured compositions fed very well into the need for architectural-like compositions in my icons. 

I enjoy both fields equally and each one is a relief from the other's frustrations. 

What materials can you simply not live without?

I suppose the first thing I can’t do without is a board of wood – MDF or plywood. Years ago I used to paint quite aggressively. If I didn’t like the look of a particular stroke I would forcibly scrape it off the painting. I much prefer the strength and ‘push-back’ of a solid piece of wood than a floppy canvas for that sort of process.

Recently, I’ve taken to painting on gessoed wood. The absorbency of the gesso causes the oil to dry much more quickly and so it forces me to paint more quickly (in order to keep the wet-in-wet feeling of the paint).

I’ve also taken to using Winsor & Newton water-mixable oil colours. Frankly the smell of the paint is much more tolerable for my wife when I come home, when compared with turpentine, and of course cleaning up with water and soap is a handy bonus. When it comes to brushes I have to admit that because of the crudeness of my strokes, I don’t look for particular brands. Sometimes it’s just a relatively cheap brush.

What did you learn from the experience and what advice would you give to anyone entering the competition next year?

I learnt that life in the art world today is full of opportunities – if you push for them. If you want to succeed in this field, you cannot simply paint every day – however hard – and hope to be noticed, sitting silently in your studio.

Artists need to push to be noticed, to advertise themselves. Of course, I’m not advocating making the kind of work that ‘sells’ easily, or to make ‘noticeable’ art simply to be noticed. It’s far from it. I firmly believe the work must be genuine and have come from a deeply genuine interest in one’s subject matter and process.  But an artist in this day cannot do the one thing and leave the other undone.

I also learnt that I so greatly admire the art of documentary and film-making. The work it takes for a production studio to bring together writers, editors, photographers, and lighting-experts and to make a show – it’s mind-boggling and amazing.

Feeling Inspired?

Discover more of Fadi’s work on his website www.fadimikhail.com and www.ukcopticicons.com

Follow Fadi’s lead and experiment with bold brush strokes and oil painting with our range of materials online and in-store. Stock up on your own painting and drawing supplies, and share your landscapes via our social channels. Use the hashtag #LOATY2017 and don't forget to tag @CASSART


Meet Fadi Mikhail at Highgate Contemporary Art

See more of Fadi’s work at his debut solo exhibition at Highgate Contemporary Art from Wednesday 13th December 2017 – Sunday 7th January 2018.

Join Fadi at the Private View on Wednesday 13th December from 6:30pm – 8pm and find out more about his work in person.

His online exhibition is now live, for a preview click here: Fadi Mikhail Online Exhibition


Don’t miss Heat 2 of Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year 2017 on Wednesday 25th October at 8pm, on Sky Arts. We’ll be bringing you another heat winner’s interview, live on the blog and across our social media channels from 9pm.

Explore more work by the heat winning artists of Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year, past and present, with our series of exclusive interviews on the Cass Art Blog


Inspired by this year's heats? Sky Arts is once again on the hunt for the next Artist of the Year. Whether you're a master of portraiture or a pro at plein air, submit your works for a chance to win a £10,000 commission and £500 worth of art materials from us here at Cass Art. Both competitions are now open for submissions. Find out more by following the links below:

Enter Portrait Artist of the Year 2019 or Enter Landscape Artist of the Year 2018

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