Sky Art Portrait Artist of the Year Series 7: Meet the heat winners

by Cass Art

Eight episodes, eight fantastic sitters, and tens of wonderful portraits. Over the weeks and after some difficult debates the judges have selected their favourite works and the contestants of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year Series 7 are one step closer to the £10,000 commission and £500 of art materials from us at Cass Art. We caught up with each of the heat winners to find out a bit more about their experience of the show, their work, and the materials they love to use.  

Heat 1 Winner Kayoon Anderson


Congratulations on winning Heat 1 of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year Series 7! What was the experience like painting in front of the cameras, and capturing such a well-known face?

Thanks! The whole experience was a dream - one I'm so grateful to have had.
The cameras were a bit tricky to ignore and I now have a huge newfound respect for actors who do this all the time! I LOVE Ncuti in 'Sex Education' so it was a such a pleasant surprise to see him walk onto set, and also to discover that he is just as charming and bright in real life! Painting him was an absolute treat.

The background in this sitting that presented itself is slightly different from your usual colour palette which can always be tricky hurdle for an artist. How did you tackle this? Did you find this difficult being presented with this in front of the camera?

Funnily enough, the day before the heat my husband advised me to practice painting bright colours but I stubbornly refused saying I'll stick to what I know... I should have listened to him! On the day, I was definitely nervous to work with such a bold palette but it was an adventure and I had fun with it.

I read that you’re interested in exploring themes in portraiture such as culture and identity. How do you choose your subjects you wish to depict and do you capture this?

As a person of mixed race, I have always been interested in these themes. What I enjoy about portraiture is how it engages on a personal level with the cultural identity and emotions of subjects. Every single person in the world has a unique identity and beauty - it's really special to explore and celebrate this through portraiture.

If I was to delve into your studio what art materials/brands would I find and why are these important to your practice?

I'm not joking when I say that all my art materials are from Cass Art! When I was younger, my grandmother took me to the Cass Art store in Islington and bought me everything I needed to start painting. Since then, it's been my go-to store. This is the same person who introduced me to 'Portrait Artist of the Year' a few years ago - thanks grandma!

 

Heat 2 Winner Curtis Holder


Congratulations on winning Heat 2 of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year Series 7! What was the experience like painting in front of the cameras, and capturing such a well-known face as The Vivienne?

At first it was daunting having the crew and cameras around me. However, as a primary school teacher I’m used to colourful and exciting distractions, so I was able to quickly adapt to the situation and focus. Sitting and drawing on the floor definitely helped me get into my own zone, as did wearing my headphones. The Vivienne was brilliant to draw. I had watched the whole series of Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK, so I knew the effort it takes to create persona of The Vivienne. I really wanted to do her justice. She had a calming presence and was kind, funny and extremely accommodating. The pose she settled into couldn’t have been easy to hold, but she managed it like a superstar.

I really enjoyed your process of sketching prior to executing the final piece, where you were able to capture so much energy in an almost a continuous line drawing. Is this as much a warming up exercise as it is preliminary sketches?

I do a lot of initial drawings to warm up the movement of my pencil and my arm. For me drawing is not only a hand movement, I move my whole body, so I need to get it ready to make marks. I also need to get my brain ready to represent what I can see. To create a successful portrait, I think it’s essential to connect with the person you’re drawing, and that means talking and getting to know them, even for a short time.

Your style is so incredibly distinct and it clearly took the judges by surprise and wonder by the way they spoke about your practice. How did you come to discover this style?

I’ve been drawing this way since I can remember I’ve never really questioned how I do it. I guess it’s just instinctive. At times in the past I’ve felt how I draw is a little odd, but it’s always worked for me. It’s practical way of making marks and it allows me to get down on paper what I can see quickly without taking my pencil of the paper very often.

Materials are clearly key to your practice, if I was to take a wander into your studio environment what would see and why?

My studio has a lot of pencils, pencil sharpeners and pencil shavings in it. I have several easels and large boards of varying shapes and sizes. You’d also see a range of different pencils cases that look like small briefcases holding every type of pencil you can imagine. My whippet Freddie would be asleep on his chair.

Heat 3 Winner Sally Ward


Congratulations on winning Heat 3 of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year Series 7! How did you find painting such a well-known face in front of the cameras?

Thank you very much! I was incredibly nervous before my sitter arrived, but once Melanie Sykes sat down she immediately put me at ease. We chatted about some very normal things throughout the day which helped me relax into the painting. I was already familiar with Melanie’s face which I think also made it much easier to judge how to approach the portrait. Strangely, I didn’t find the cameras as distracting as I had feared. I had read lots of blogs/articles by previous participants, so was prepared for the interruptions.

In your work you’ve said you aim to capture the emotional intimacy of your sitters/subjects which was clear to see in the way you portrayed Melanie Sykes. How do you go about capturing this in your work?

This is a big and interesting question! In my portraits I am most interested in getting beneath the surface of physical characteristics, and communicating something about the sitter’s inner world in an honest and subtle way. I find portraiture can reveal and make tangible something about the sitter which may have been hidden. I think I am always searching for an emotional truth. The process of doing this is difficult to explain, as it is quite intuitive. However, it’s really about responding sensitively to the sitter in front of you, capturing an expression which is honest and not forced and reflecting an aspect of personality or emotion which interests you. I found Melanie a fascinating sitter given the tension between her outwardly bubbly persona, and her very touching emotional response to being painted.

Kate Bryan said when referring to you that they’re always looking for someone who knows who they are an artist and makes interesting choices based on their stylistic concerns and what interests them. When she saw yours she said ‘There it is, there’s the artist’. What was it like hearing that once you saw it when the show aired?

It was absolutely amazing to hear what the judges thought about my painting and about me as an artist. Their feedback throughout the series has been so helpful and gratefully received. As a self-taught artist, I find that I spend most of my time judging my own work (often harshly!), so to get critical feedback like this from people I hugely respect was incredible and quite profound. I still have to pinch myself to remind myself they are talking about me!

What are your go to art materials and why are they integral to your practice?

I paint with a combination of Michael Harding oil paints and Winsor & Newton oil paints – it’s trial and error working out which particular pigments and brands work best for my practice, and I’m still learning. I often use a limited palette of quite subtle tones – my most used colours are Olive Green, Naples Yellow, Cadmium Red, Cerulean Blue, Indigo, and a lovely clay-like colour called Unbleached Titanium Dioxide. I never use black and rarely brown from a tube as I prefer to mix them from other colours. I also couldn’t be without my Mahl stick, which many have asked me about, which stops me smudging paint with my hand.

Heat 4 Winner Eugenie Vronskaya


Congratulations on winning Heat 4 of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2020! What was the experience like painting in front of the cameras, and capturing such a well-known face?

Thank you. The thought of painting in front of cameras did not worry me as much, - I knew once I get into it I’ll be fine (when you really focusing and concentrating on a painting, everything else falls away) but the reality of painting in front of the cameras was much worse then I could ever imagine. And the reasons are not what you think: I had the brightest of lights shining from all directions into my face and everywhere, it is very difficult to see. Hard to see colour or form, forget about half tone. I have asked for a cap to wear so to stop the light going straight into my eyes but it was not consistent with the filming and therefore not possible.

Regarding “capturing the face” I guess I was lucky - Pam is an amazing character, I almost felt it was half done for me. The way she looked .. 

You have a fascinating relationship with self-portraiture, revealing on the show that since the age of 13 you have painted a self-portrait of yourself every birthday. What is it like to look at this body of work? How has your approach to self-portraiture changed over the years? 

Yes, I have painted my self portrait every year on my birthday since I was thirteen. I don’t make it complicated - it is quite straight forward, - I just give myself anything between two and a half to three hours in the morning and allow whatever there is there to come through .. sitting in front of a mirror, painting what I see.. sometimes I use two mirrors, I highly recommend, it’s really makes you look at yourself as if you are looking at a stranger.

I have not yet managed to line all of them up to compare to truly examine what have happened in this process, but I guess and hope it might reflect some of my improvement and development as an artist in my overall practice. 

You also teach Abstract Art at a Fine Art college in London. Have you found that your engagement with abstraction as a genre crosses over into your work as a portrait artist - and vice-versa?

To Answer this question, I would like to define what is abstraction means - I think there is a wider misunderstanding of this term. First of all it means to abstract from something. To abstract, to reduce, to simplify. So one has to have this something in view to start with. And that where we begin. I try to teach my students to see first of all. To look. Really look at the real form, space. And only through understanding and observation of the real then one can begin to move to “reduced” abstracted interpretation. 

Although I have gone through the period in my practice in my early twentieth’s when I painted “abstract” paintings when Sir Anthony Caro invited me to participate into International Artist’s Triangle workshop in New York State, I can hardly call myself an abstract painter. But this is a different story from a different live, it is an interesting discussion but I guess not for this interview 

If I ventured into your studio, what materials would I find? Do you have any particular brands that you always turn you?

I love using pigments, so you will see raw pigment in my studio. I use Old Holland, they are my favourites by far, then some of Michael Harding. But apart from that everything else, from coloured pencils, inks, watercolours, etching tools, all get used in different ways to express and explore visual language of one’s practice. 

Heat 5 Winner Kofi Ferriss 


Congratulations on winning Heat 5 of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2020! What was the experience like painting in front of the cameras, and capturing such a well-known face?

From time to time in the past, when teaching I would do a demo drawing or painting for the students. There is still a little pressure even in that type of session. Now add in a few cameras, in a live TV studio, and people around asking you questions - then on a scale of 1 to 10 the pressure is about 8, leaving you only the remaining 2 to get on with the painting.  I am much more of a solitary painter.

On the show, you mentioned that your work often includes cultural references. For example, your self-portrait featured two heads representing the deities, Creation and Creativity. Do you find that there are certain themes and motifs that reoccur in your paintings?

Much of my work draws from traditional African and West Indian culture.  And because much of its art is abstracted and the use of motifs is so embedded in its expression then they become a main visual resource I often use to present my narrative.  For sure, I find myself revisiting particular themes and models I’ve worked with. Maybe I revisit the theme again because I wasn’t satisfied with the answer, I gave at the time in the work that was created.

I was interested in your decision to paint directly onto a wooden board, allowing the grain of the wood to show through in the final painting. In your painting practice generally, what informs your decision to use a particular material – be it a certain type of paint, a pencil, or a particular surface?

Surface for me is important because the material you work with reacts differently on different surfaces. Wood panels I work with always come with a particular grain, and the direction of it often dictates the way I work on the surface or even the composition.

In my self-portrait submission I used different tools to manipulate the paint on the surface and to add textures because I’m often working with earthy tones. So wood becomes the obvious choice and is robust enough to take the process.

You really thought about capturing the essence of Don Letts’s personality, and said in the show that he has ‘a lot of drama’. Do you find that ‘personality’ is something that reveals itself over the course of the painting process, or are there decisions made at the beginning to capture it?

I find that your sitter often comes with a certain amount of information, based on how they present themselves, and that may dictate the colours I choose in my pallet. But whenever I start a painting, for me it’s much more of an organic, spontaneous process because the character of the individual can dictate the strength or subtleness of the mark-making and hopefully that allows me to capture the spirit of the person. 

Heat 6 Winner Sarah Cowley


Congratulations on winning Heat 6 of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2020! What was the experience like painting in front of the cameras, and capturing such a well-known face?

The experience was amazing! I have watched the show so many times, it was like being in a dream where I get to be on one of my favourite TV shows and I can talk to all the Judges and Steven. I knew the cameras were going to be there so I decided just to enjoy myself and just get on with painting. Our group was very lucky to have Eddie Marsan as a sitter, he has such great character.

You mentioned in the show that you always paint on a miniature scale. What is it that attracts you to this particular style of working?

My love of miniatures started many years ago when we made a trip to the V&A. I saw the miniatures there and was so amazed at how much detail the artists were able to achieve on such a small scale. I love that these little pictures, sometimes even quite risque paintings, made to keep loved ones warm at night, were meant to be carried in a bag or a pocket just like we do now with our pictures on our phones.

It was such a joy to watch you paint on the show and even the sitter, Eddie Marsan said that you seemed to be really enjoying yourself. You even finished half an hour early! Do you always enjoy the painting process this much?

I was enjoying myself!. I was so nervous before I did the filming, scared that all I would be able to draw on the day was a stickman, but as soon as I started I began to just enjoy the whole experience. I usually get lost in my painting, losing hours of time in the process, so I did a lot of practice in painting 3 hour portraits in the weeks before the show and tried to stay disciplined.

You were praised by the judges for capturing Eddie’s ‘cheeky knowing look’ - something they described as a ‘complicit understanding between the sitter and the artist’. Do you have any tips for aspiring portrait artists on how to build up a rapport between the artist and sitter?

When you paint someone's portrait you need them to feel comfortable with you. My time as a nurse helped me a great deal with learning to put people at ease in a short space of time. When you are building up a rapport with a sitter, I would try not to be too serious with them, pretending you are old friends helps me. I think the first thing I had said to Eddie, after we had started painting, was that it was the first time I had worn shoes in 4 months (a lockdown reference) that made him laugh.

Heat 7 Winner Si Sapsford


 

Congratulations on winning Heat 6 of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2020! What was the experience like painting in front of the cameras, and capturing such a well-known face?

Painting in front of cameras was actually fine, I quickly forgot about them. There were lots of interruptions to answer questions, but sometimes the pause gave me time to step back and re access my painting, to check that I was getting a good likeness. The camera crew were really friendly and tried their best not to distract me for any longer than necessary. Jordan Stephens was a very relaxed and charming sitter, he brought his dog with him and I have never seen a dog more well behaved, I think that set the tone and put all of us at our ease.

Your process was described as ‘conducting’ – could you expand more on your sculptural influence in your work?

I can see what they meant by conducting, I hadn’t realised until I saw the footage of how I paint that in fact I move around the canvas all the time, using both my hands at the same time, not focusing on one particular area for very long before moving on. I have modelled busts in clay before (my favourite being of John Singer Sargents nephew, Richard Ormond) and the technique there is the same, moving around the whole head, almost feeling your way. Having said that most of my sculpture involves mechanising old furniture, chairs and tables to make current political and social commentary. At the moment I have an installation showing at Elysium Gallery in Swansea, called ‘Civil Unrest’, here I have filled a platform with chairs rocking and banging against each other. It’s a piece I have done before, in Rio, where it focused on poverty and London where it focused on migration.

Your painting was described in the judging as heroic but also down to earth, Tai enjoyed your capture of that balance of being. They also found that it really told a story, do their comments marry with what you were trying to achieve in the work?

Tai is spot on, even in my mechanical pieces I try to get that balance of being, of trying to hold on to ones humanity in the face of adversity, both in my paintings and large scale pen drawings. I am looking for that feeling of the heroic in the everyday. For some people in some parts of the world or maybe not even far from home the struggle to survive is very real especially in times of covid. I do try to tell those personal stories, not just the big events, but quieter moments like the painting of my friend Faisal Abdu’Allah, where I am imagining his moment of conversion to Islam and what that must have felt like.

If I ventured into your studio, what materials would I find? Do you have any particular brands that you always turn you?

My studio is very eclectic, a mad mixture of motors, furniture, bronze drawings, and canvases, waiting to be painted on. I have always combined making sculpture with drawing, one informing the other. So, a lot of the time I’m collecting thrown away furniture, or getting motors from car recycling centres, but for painting I will get my small linen canvases from Cass art, or make my own if I’m going larger scale. I don’t use a large variety of colours, and tend to limit myself to only 6, usually Michael Harding oil colours and Spectrum oils, I use bristle hair brushes, and try to keep one set for applying dark oils and another set for paint mixed with white. The key thing in painting is to paint regularly, it’s a memory muscle that needs exercising.

 

Heat 8 Winner Morag Caister


Congratulations on winning Heat 8 of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year Series 7! What was the experience like painting in front of the cameras, and capturing such a well-known face?

Thank you so much! I still feel quite dizzy from it. Everything about the cameras was extremely strange but I had prepared myself to expect that, the way I coped with it was to go very much inside, and I was using immense amounts of energy to keep calm and focused, which is a weird paradox. If I had let any acknowledgement of what was actually going on surface then it would have really inhibited the portrait so I was really conscious of that. I think that’s what caused me to have such a slow start, trying to stay cool. Fred being famous just became a fact that went into the portrait, everything I knew about him added up to the image I was getting that day and it all goes in. When it came down to it, the process itself wasn’t any different.

You started the session by drawing a number of sketches before moving on to the main piece, do you often work in this preparatory manner?

Yes, this is how I usually settle my own nerves when doing a portrait, but also it gives the sitter time to relax into their pose and start to get that far away ‘them’ look. The sketches help me get to know them before I feel confident to begin the real piece.

You mentioned that a person’s expression is often held within their hair, was it challenging for you to depict Fred and his very short crop! You mentioned he holds this expression in his beard, how did you find searching for his character?

Oh god, I knew that was going to come up on the show! What I meant by that was I feel the hair can make someone’s profile quite distinctive, so this is helpful for catching a likeness – especially for the way I work, which is fast and sketchy. When someone has much shorter hair, I have to be a bit more controlled because the shape of the head becomes sensitive like the profile of the face, so it can be more easily missed. Different to quickly getting down an arm! I found catching Fred’s character challenging, I was constantly second guessing myself which is not an ideal way to work, but you can’t help it in that environment

If I was to delve into your studio what art materials/brands would I find and why are these important to your practice?

You’d find rolls of calico which I like to re-stretch canvases with and work on unprimed, boxes of Sennelier soft pastels, Daler & Rowney and Michael Harding oil paint, with lots of prussian blue and burnt umber tubes. I use them a lot for base colours, or to sketch in. I actually do get most of my materials from Cass Art, and the Cass Art brand fixative spray is the best one I’ve used! It doesn’t change the colour of the pastels.

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 online, we have everything you need.  

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

 

 

 

 

 

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