Appearing on Portrait Artist of the Year 21

I had applied for Portrait Artist of the Year during lockdown and whilst getting treatment for breast cancer at the end of 2020, I painted five or six self-portraits all of which did not feel good enough. I got very sick of looking at my own face and in the end decided to submit the one with the narrative in it, which was a composite image I have put together from a couple of photographs. I had taken a photo of myself after having a hot bath all flushed red -and the evening sun is coming through the window and heating the wardrobes. the detail of a drawn arrow on my chest which is what was drawn on me when I went for my first surgery in October.

So the feeling of the portrait came across as looking rather battleworn and tired and I know that having some story in the paintings are a good idea to catch the judges eyes. But I really didn’t think I had a chance! But I love the programme and appreciate the opportunity to watch artists paint in a myriad of different ways ….so I was up for taking a chance to be involved.

It was February 2021 when I received a phone call telling me that they’d like me to be on the show. I felt rather doomed,  my intention for applying was to grasp any crazy opportunity whilst I could after chasing some dark thoughts about mortality. but I didn’t really want to do it! I wasn’t ready!! 

But I suppose one thing about feeling like seizing opportunity is to say yes to weird stuff like this. And it was a very interesting experience to test my feelings of Imposter syndrome, sense of self, and my confidence as an artist.

You can do this… come on ! Many have trodden  in the path before me and many artists that I know- Brighton artists like Phil Tyler and  Peter James Field and others I know through instagram like Milo Hartnoll and Tommy Gulunski. All great painters who did not have an easy ride, so that comforted me that maybe it was ok even if I didn’t make a great painting….! They have all survived and thrived after the experience of trying to paint on TV so maybe I just need to get over myself and be thankful for the chance.

I had two months to practise and luckily was off work so had time to dedicate to my painting. I continued my series of paintings of my friends, from photos I took as we went for our lockdown walks. These walks were essential for sanity and in the end I had made about 25. These paintings being posted on instagram also helped my other crazy event of 2021 – after painting the Bridgerton actress Nicola Coughlan for the internet programme ‘Portrait Artist of the Week’ and having it reposted by her to her million followers, I was spotted and researched by the Tate Gallery which lead to the Livestream event in March. (My Bridgerton Connection did not end there however!…)

I practiced by trying to do a portrait in under 4 hours and I tried to work from different models with different ages and skin tones as paoty is excellent in being diverse. My one fear was getting someone with loads of makeup on ! Whilst watching Line of Duty on TV one night close to the event, I said to my husband “Kelly MacDonald is my perfect sitter!”………I honestly did. The weirdness of this becomes apparent later.

I also tried to nail down a system that I can rely on on the day. I was prepared to change this plan but I had something that I liked which was a 50 by 50 cm linen Canvas with some blue acrylic paint and then using a grid app on my iPad to grid the central features in. I practiced this a few times and also  had a couple of combinations of colours that I thought might work well if my brain melted. Which it did. There are many other plans I could have gone with but ultimately I knew I better just have one system in place.

They asked you not to tell anybody that you are on the programme except your nearest and dearest, so I told a few people and the reactions are almost always one of two things even now,  if you watch the programme you probably love it and you’re very excited, but if you have never heard of the show,  you just look slightly confused and underwhelmed. Sky Arts  was on a paid channel for such a long time most people never saw it or came across it … and they ask is it a reality TV show like Bake Off? Yes, I suppose it is, I say. Becoming a good portrait artist is high on my list of ambitions. Whether going on PAOTY is a help or a hindrance, we are yet to find out. 

SO the day came and I stayed overnight with my folks who live not too far from Battersea Arts Centre in London and could give me a lift there at 7am. I think I had 2 or 3 hours of sleep and counted myself lucky! It was a sunny crisp morning and I had a big bag of excessive amounts of paint and brushes. It was really nice meeting a few of the other contestants. There was quite a lot of one way distanced moving about and masks on everyone but we could sit and have a coffee and I was slightly surprised not to know anyone from the instagram portrait world! 

I was really overly chatty, much more than usual, and tried to talk to everyone and continued to gabble on to anyone with or without a camera on me all day. Weird. I think its a nervous reaction. I also couldn’t bear the tension in the room! It was good to talk to Ruth who was next to me all day and is a fellow breast cancer traveller, and Calum, who had also gone to the Glasgow School of Art.

We did the classic shots of walking around the corner  chatting happily to someone and then were taken for a quick interview on camera. It was 7.30 am. I had 3 hours of sleep. I was incredibly nervous. And they turned on the camera and asked…” What does it mean to you to be here?”. Cue lump rising in my throat. A sudden feeling of total overwhelm that I was not ill , not dying, and in fact was very well and very lucky to be here…it wasn’t quite crying but there were several choking sounds.  I was pretty surprised they didn’t use it in the final edit! But relieved.. I did go on to talk about having breast cancer a few times in the day as it related to my submission portrait, and just hope that it serves as a contribution to the normalisation / awareness / understanding conversation.

We were led into our ‘pods’ where three artists paint their sitter, and I was with Ruth and Kwesi. We listened as we heard the first sitter being introduced to the other pod..”Star of Line of Duty and Trainspotting… Kelly Macdonald!”. YOU ARE KIDDING ME. This was ridiculous. The odds were not in my favour for these hunger games! 

We were introduced to “Star of Line of Duty (they get everywhere) and Bridgerton (very topical) , Polly Walker.” I have to admit I didn’t recognise her name but I did recognise her face and was relieved to have a strong, middle aged woman. My Favourite! She admitted to being very nervous and not having slept well. I did think “what have you got to be worried about!!?I’ve got to paint a portrait!”. But she was a good sitter with great wavy dark hair and blue-green eyes to complement the blue background

Its always a bit annoying when folk on the twitterverse complain about people using technology on the show. Firstly, the model is sat too far away from you and you cannot see the features properly. Secondly, they twitch, move and shuffle. Thirdly, camera people and interviewers are constantly either wheeling around you or interrupting you . You need the phone/ipad to have a constant, reliable source. Yes its a security blanket but I forgive all who need it! 

I began my painting with a background splash of blue paint – There was a certain degree of acting involved in the day – and I thought it would be a nice dramatic start and a good way to get started on the blank canvas. I then did draw a grid and used a grid app on my ipad to transfer the features roughly over. (this needed a lot of practise beforehand!). Grids are amazing sometimes – I needed to have that help because I suspected I would not be seeing very clearly and this was definitely true. I felt like I was drawing and painting blind, in a state of panic and unable to make good choices. A grid helped me feel that maybe the features were in the right place for a foundation beginning  – as I couldn’t make reasonable judgements!

Mixing colours was equally tricky – the lighting was not great, neither bright nor with good shadows, and I went in pretty bright and over-saturated in retrospect. Painting over the next four hours was a blur of activity, and all of the presenters/judges came to speak to me at some point. After half way, I did feel that they were talking to me quite a lot and thought this was probably a good sign. 

Joan Bakewell talked to me about breast cancer and how it affected my art. Katherine Soriano was interesting and seemed to get the passion for faces that I have, and Tai was thoughtful, telling me he saw that I was interested in emotion, and light….It was a real treat to get to speak to them all. Stephen Mangan was also very lovely and worked hard to bring a kindness and levity to the stressful situation.

It was interesting to see all the different styles in the room. It’s obvious that they are not looking for just decent painters but like to have a selection of approaches. I also found out that many of the people had been selected from the year before which had been covid-cancelled – and had waited an entire year to come on the show! Now that’s a tense build up. I clocked Callums picture of Kelly Macdonald and immediately thought “he’s got it!”. Bloody Kelly Macdonald.

I made a decision to paint out the background of the portrait and this was apparently a bad decision according to Tai. I guess he’s right but nothing I could do about it then. Over all I could see that I had put too many colours in the face and the whole effect was a bit cartoony-mermaidy. Im struggling to be kind to myself about that painting and hate looking at it even now!

Polly kindly chose the painting to take with her and I was selected for the final three. I was still in an out-of-body state, where I was almost not at all nervous but sort of removed?! I was pretty sure Callum would win as his painting was very beautiful,so it was all ok. Kate Bryan said “ I love your work’ and Tai tried to talk to me in the hassle of the closing shots, he told me I shouldn’t have painted the white background and I was left with rather a bad taste of having been told off! He didn’t mean that. But did he mean I might have won if I didn’t do that?!! I don’t think so, I wish we had had time to talk further, he also told me he’d loved my self portrait which was high praise from him.

Anyway, I left thinking I’d painted a horrible painting and cried on TV !….and started to plan my change of identity and possibly moving to New Zealand. So began the slow dread of waiting to see it on TV! However I did come to an acceptance of what will be will be – and by the time it was shown, I felt ok about just being lucky enough to have the opportunity to take part,  I hoped that  it wouldn’t negatively affect what had been an excellent year of art for me.

The final cut of the show was kind. I had quite a lot of air time and wasn’t shown having a melt down so that was good. I racked up a few hundred instagram followers from it and sold a painting but nothing major has happened apart from that. I have also been booked for a couple of good workshop venues so that’s an interesting new move for 2022. I’m glad I did it…  and its a good laugh and conversation piece. Life is short. Do the things.