The Semi-Final Interview: Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2017

by Cass Art

Returning to The Wallace Collection, the heat winners were in for a surprise this week as the Judges revealed a twist for their Semi-Final painting challenge.

Unlike the heats, the stage for their sitter was bursting with energy; including a vibrant stretch of greenery and an ornate garden bench scattered with pillows at its centre. The artists’ were challenged to encompass the surroundings and build a narrative into their portraits, with the aim of showcasing bold elements of award-winning actress, Imelda Staunton’s personality, amidst her passion for gardening.

Another twist in the semi-final saw the return of Liam Dickinson to the competition as a Wild Card. Impressed by his photo-realist style of painting in the earlier heats, the judges couldn’t deny him a place in the competition, and invited Liam back for a second chance at the title.

Four hours of painting, drawing and sketching later and the judges took Gareth Reid, Kimberly Klauss and Liam Dickinson through to the Final, to paint at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

We caught up with them to find out more about their experience painting Imelda, how their style is developing and how they plan to tackle the final of this year’s competition…


Hi Liam, congratulations on your surprise return to the Semi-Final as a Wild Card! How did it feel painting in the competition again?

Thank you! It was like a whirlwind almost – I’d gone out at the heats and put the competition to the back of my mind, then I got the call at relatively short notice and was straight back in the mix. Part of me was nervous; I felt like an underdog and that I hadn’t earned my place in the same way as the other semi-finalists. But on the other hand I felt very confident and determined to prove a point, and also to justify the judges’ decision to bring me back. I think that confidence showed on the day, everything fell into place at just the right time.

There was an instant likeness which shone through in your portrait of Imelda. What features are most important for you when capturing a sense of personality?

Likeness is very important to me, especially in portraiture. You could have the most beautifully painted piece but if it doesn’t capture the person or their character, it detracts from the overall result. I’d say nail the likeness first and then focus on making a good painting.

Rightly or wrongly I tend to use a grid to map out the portrait. It allows me to focus on my mark making and application of paint without worrying whether the nose is too big or the eyes are too far apart - I know they’re correct because it’s mathematically planned.

That said, capturing personality/character is something you can’t do with a grid or a photo reference - it’s something deeper and more instinctive. My portrait of Imelda had a mischievous quality to it I felt, with the smile (which she held impeccably all day by the way) and a slight twinkle in her eye. Eyes tell a lot about a person so I’d say they’re a key element in a portrait. I try not to overwork them, sometimes a few marks and a well-placed highlight is all it takes.

Where does narrative live for you? How do you translate it?

The great thing about art is that it’s very subjective and personal. I think the best pieces are ones where the artist doesn’t impose the narrative on the viewer, but rather lets them decide for themselves what to take away from it.

I just aim to capture what I see on the day and provide enough information to help the viewer interpret it. In this case we had Imelda sat on a bench in front of a rose bush. Perhaps you could say she was waiting for someone, or she could just be having a break from gardening - who knows?!

Backgrounds are something I always like to incorporate into a portrait. They provide some context and narrative, but they’re fun to paint too! Flipping my canvas and painting on a less conventional landscape orientation helps me get the best of both portrait and background. You also get a cinematic quality to the piece which is something I just find visually satisfying.

With the final only days away, how are you preparing for the final challenge?

Well I’ve got the commission to get done which should be fun! But as far as the final day is concerned, it’s business as usual. I’m comfortable painting in the four hour limit and I’ve settled into the whole gig of being filmed and talking to the judges/hosts - it’s nerve wracking at first but you soon learn that everyone involved is so nice and supportive.

Ultimately I’m just going to make sure I enjoy myself! It sounds cliché but it really is a once in a lifetime opportunity to paint at the National Portrait Gallery. I can’t quite believe I’ve got this far, so win or lose I’m going to go home happy. Ten grand would be even better though… ha!


Hi Gareth, congratulations on making it through to the Semi-Final! How did you find the challenge of instilling a sense of narrative under pressure?

Thank you! I just wanted the background to be a prominent part of the drawing and to clash a bit with Imelda's dress. Sometimes what surrounds the sitter gets forgotten about and that tends to take away from a sense of solidity, making the figure look cut-out.

I like areas of pattern e.g. in the work of Vuillard, so the solid hedge gave me an excuse to cover the canvas in abstract interlocking shapes. But in the end I felt I had bitten off more than I could chew - I didn't really get the chance to make it work as I would have wanted. 

The Judges commented that they loved how you were “brave enough to argue, that pencil and charcoal should be pushed up in the hierarchy of media.” – What are your thoughts regarding your choice of media?

I love drawing, always have, and for most observational work it's fundamental. It really can't be overstated. Sometimes paintings have great colour and vibrancy but they fall down because the drawing isn't quite there. And I don't mean in a tight, exact way either.

Drawing can be anything you want and convey as much as painting, but sometimes all you need is a single pencil and a little notebook. The Conté drawings of Seurat, my all-time hero, are some of the best things in art full stop. One of the reasons I mostly draw on canvas and not on paper (apart from for the texture) is that I wanted to make them feel as robust as paintings. 

You added a subtle amount of colour, drawing back from the boldness of the roses and leafy background with a softer pink shade. Do you see colour becoming more prominent in your piece in the final?

I'm not sure if it will become more prominent - I have to see what's put in front of us on the day. But I think it adds something so I'll definitely continue to add a hint of colour at some point.

What are your thoughts going into the Final of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year? How will you prepare?

I'm very excited indeed. I didn't really consider the reality or even the possibility of this but here we are and I'm going to enjoy it whatever happens. In the lead up I'll just keep practising, doing my two hour sittings with friends or models in the studio, and I'll try a few things out with paint and pastel. I feel like I need to keep progressing but I don't really want to be attempting something for the first time in the final. No that would be madness...

Read more about Gareth's experience on Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year in his Heat Winning Interview


Hi Kimberly, congratulations on winning a place in the Semi Final! What was the experience like capturing the narrative of a sitter and background with such vibrancy?

Thank you so much, I still can’t believe it! I absolutely loved the setting. It was bulging-eyeballs beautiful. Clasp-your-chest beautiful. Combined with Imelda Staunton at its centre? It was a painting I would’ve loved to paint a thousand times over.

You were the only artist to tackle the whole body. How did you decide on such an ambitious composition?

Did you see Imelda’s boots?! I knew immediately when she crossed her legs to that I wanted those wellies in my painting. And then her gown, and the roses, and those lavender cushions and that bench? She, her clothing, and the scene all referenced each other – everything had both glamour and grit – that I didn’t want to leave any of it out. It all made sense together.

Imelda talked about the scene’s meaning to her as well; I thought I would only be portraying half of what she was showing us if I couldn’t convey what the wellies were doing in that setting.

And then it was also a practical decision. We weren’t all that close, so I knew I’d struggle capturing the details of Imelda’s face. Even though it was surely too much to take on in the 4 hours, it was the best way for me to attempt a good painting, and to capture my excitement about the scene.

You chose to paint in rose and dusky purple tones on the day. How have you developed this instinctive approach to painting?

I think it comes from my practice with drawing. I’ve always drawn, but I haven’t been painting for that long. There’s so much else that’s hard to control, that keeping it down to just a few colours means I can concentrate on the whole slew of other things that can make or break a painting: light, likeness, composition, contrast, brushwork, and so on.

I also like when a painting has something fictional about it, and leaves some things untold. It’s exciting to look at a painting that tells you just enough. We’ll see. For now using colour this way feels right, but you want to be careful that you’re not being chicken.

How will you prepare for the final?

More practice! I was still trying to settle on key features like Imelda’s eyes until the very end! That is way too much excitement.

Read more about Kimberly's experience on Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year in her Heat Winning Interview.  


Feeling Inspired?

Explore more work by the heat winning artists of Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year with our series of exclusive interviews on the Cass Art Blog

Don't miss who will be crowned Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2017 in the Final, Tuesday 14th March 2017 at 8pm, on Sky Arts.

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