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Preparing to Take Part in a Televised Art Competition

In February 2023, I got the call to take part in the tenth series of the fantastic Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year. A huge fan of the show, I was so happy to have been selected by judges Kate Bryan, Kathleen Soriano, and Tai-Shan Schierenberg, but once the initial excitement had passed the reality set in — I would soon be creating a portrait of a celebrity sitter in just four hours in front of an audience, and it would be televised!

So, how do you prepare for something like that?

I'm sure every artist has their own way, but one crucial thing is to know yourself. I knew I could create a portrait in the space of a day, but I didn't know what size I could achieve in four hours, if anything. I also knew two important things about myself as a person — my skin is extremely uncomfortable when wearing makeup, and I like to know I'm well-stocked for any day out of the house, so I'd need to make sure I didn't try to be someone I wasn't just because I'd be on TV (no heavy makeup) and that I had plenty of spare pastels just in case.

After a trip to buy more art supplies, I set some aside for taking with me and then I set to work practising. I needed to know three things:

  • Can I (and should I) work purely from life?

  • Can I create a portrait in four hours?

  • What size and composition can I best create in that time?

To find the answers as quickly as possible, I looked to my immediate surroundings. My husband was sat in the chair next to me, so he was asked to stay still and I grabbed a 40x30cm Pastelmat and began marking out a composition. Lesson one was learnt within minutes — I like my sitter to be still and, having watched every show, there would be a good chance my sitter would move as much my husband. A quick visit to the Contemporary British Portrait Painters website to read what their PAOTY members had to say confirmed what my gut was telling me: take reference photos!

I also learnt that, in rushing to achieve a full-length portrait on that size Pastelmat, I was making mistakes and not producing strong enough work. I'd need to go bigger or choose a composition that wasn't full-length.

Next, I tried working on a smaller Pastelmat. I liked creating these small portraits, but, working in chunky pastels and trying to do facial features true to my style on such a small scale strained my eyes so much it hurt, so I knew after just a few of these that a smaller work wouldn't be an option for a timed and televised portrait.

I searched through my photo album on my phone and through my box of old family photos. I made sure I was drawing at every opportunity, some familiar faces, some unknown to me, as I wouldn't know who I'd be drawing until the day of the competition; I needed to be ready for anything and anyone. If I were to get Sean Bean, I could draw him with my eyes closed! But a sports personality? There was a good chance I wouldn't be familiar with the sitter's face and I wouldn't have time to get to know them.

I practised and practised and then realised I was practising too much and putting too much pressure on myself. I decided to give myself a break in the week before filming and I'm glad I did.

I loved every minute of my experience.

My episode airs on Wednesday, 11th October 2023, on Sky Arts.

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