Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year: Alan McGowan, Second Heat Winner

by Cass Art

It was yet another nail-biting heat as the second episode of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year travlled to Edinburgh, in the National Museum of Scotland. Celebrity sitters this episode included Ronnie Ancona, Downton Abbey writer Lord Julian Fellowes, and Helena Kennedy QC.

This heat sees one artist painting on handmade paper, another imitating da Vinci's centuries-oil painting methods. But after another round of talented painters, someone had to be crowned the winner and given the chance to paint in the semi-final - and this week, it was Scottish-born artist Alan McGowan. Born in Glasgow, he went onto study at The Edinburgh College of Art, and this is his second time on the programme after he was shortlisted for the 2013 Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year.

But he was back this time, and more determined than ever. With a thick impasto and a smiling attitude, Alan's painterly depiction of Julian Fellowes secured him his place in the semi-final. 

We caught up with Alan about what it's like to paint in front of a camera, and to find out about his figurative painting influences.

Alan McGowan Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year

Firstly, a huge well done on winning your heat! How did it feel?

Winning the heat was a mixture of happiness and sheer relief - I had been in the competition last year and, though I was shortlisted, went out at the heat stage and so to go back into the competition again was a bit of a gamble. I didn't want to go out at that stage again. It's never possible to know what the judges or anyone else will make of your work, so you place your fate in their hands a bit. When I was chosen I was very relieved.

Who was your sitter, and were you pleased with your final portrait?

The sitter for my heat was Julian Fellowes who (though I must admit I didn't know who he was!) was a very good sitter. I always think that a life painting is very much a collaboration between the artist and the sitter, and I felt that Julian really got that. He was very focused and committed. Sitting for such a long time is not easy if you're not a professional model and I thought he put in a very good effort, and matched the intensity of the artists trying to paint him. I am actually reasonably pleased with the result.

Was it strange being filmed whilst you painted? 

The process of being filmed definitely changes the painting process. It's not so much the cameras or the idea of television, but the practicalities of making a television programme just change the rhythm and flow of a normal painting - there is a certain amount of stopping and starting to allow for technical stuff - lights, sound, cameras and interviews etc. That has to be accepted and worked with as part of the process. It's challenging but your concentration has to be able to deal with it.

Alan McGowan painterly portrait

Who are your artistic influences? Your painterly style calls the work of Frank Auerbach and Jenny Saville to mind.

Influences would be a lot of artists - Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Giacometti, Rodin, Egon Schiele...Auerbach and Saville, yes, but also classical artists like Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian - anyone who is interested in the interaction between the figure and the materiality of the paint itself. 

What are you favourite art materials and why? 

 I mainly work with oil paints on board. I use board rather than canvas because I enjoy the resistance that it offers to the brush. I don't like the colours to be too stiff in consistency; I mainly use Winsor and Newton Artists oils, Zest-it as a solvent and Robersons glaze medium. I mix these with beeswax, Oilbars and oil pastels - either Sennelier or Daler Rowney.

If you could have one artist to dinner, who would you pick?

I'm not sure artists would necessarily provide the best dinner companions but for me it would have to be Leonardo da Vinci - just such a range of knowledge and such an inquiring mind, an endlessly fascinating genius, and as I also teach anatomy for artists he could give me a few tips I'm sure. 

Feeling inspired?

Check out the highlights from our Q&A with the judges and painters.

Catch Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2015 on Tuesdays, from 8-9pm on Sky Arts 1.

Hear from the judges and some of the heat winners at our Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year panel discussion on Tuesday 25th November - book your place here

Read our interview with the winner of last year’s Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2013, Nick Lord, here.

Stock up on your own painting supplies here to perfect your own portraiture painting, and browse our Oil Painting Mediums that Alan McGowan mentioned here.

Visit Alan McGowan's website here to explore his paintings further.

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