Episode 6 of Portrait Artist of the Year 2022 (Series 9)

. I provide some detail which got left out of some of the bios on television. Links to websites are embedded in names.

The Sitters

The sitters this episode were:

  • Jim Carter – a very experienced actor whose roles have included Mr Carson from Downton Abbey – who brought a cricket bat
  • Benjamin Zephaniah – a British writer, poet and activist – who brought his bright red Tai Chi suit
  • Ellie Simmonds – a former paralympic swimmer with five gold medals, recently seen in Strictly Come Dancing – who brought her diary because she loves being organised.

Size and Content of Self Portrait Submissions

Themes

 

Squarish

I find the format used by artists for their self portraits to be continuously fascinating. For me it explains the extent to which artists have given some thought to what might be the best way to portray their self-portrait.

This heat, for some reason, we seemed to have more square or squarish portraits. One third of them were square.

Square formats always make me think of Instagram and I always end up wondering whether or not the artist is an Instagram devotee.

Objects / Props in the Self Portraits

At the beginning, during the review of the self portraits, comment was passed on the number that had included props in the self portraits

  • Owen had a brass wrench – which made me want the question “Why”. Once I found his Facebook Page I think I got the answer which is that he likes to make portraits of temporary 3D heads using various industrial type tools and materials.
  • Rosie’s head is portrayed looking through a porthole in some indeterminate surface plus a glass, and a glass ‘shade’ for the light from a gas lamp in the foreground. Tai thought it produced a great narrative akin to paintings from a couple of centuries ago
  • Anastasia had”a furry presence” – according to Joan. It appeared to be the skin of some sort of animal but the way it was draped over her just seemed creepy to me.
  • Natalie had a vague flowery background – which didn’t do anything for me

Interestingly all of these portraits were head and shoulders only.

For me, the only reason to add in a prop is if it helps to explain the individual – as opposed to it being a way of filling in either the background or foreground or diverting attention from the fact you’ve been trying to avoid painting hands! Doing this analysis made me think the latter might well be the reason for the most part.

Not painting hands

Five of the nine self portraits contain no hands.

Why? Why not paint hands in your self portrait? Faces are not easy but neither are hands.

Can it be that people don’t appreciate how important the self-portrait is to:

  • getting selected
  • demonstrating that you have the skills to undertake a commission

I’d be very surprised if any of the eventual finalists haven’t demonstrated that they can paint hands at some stage.

Trying something new in this environment 

Very often, while watching the various episodes, we hear somebody telling a judge or presenter that they were about to do something for the very first time. At which point my jaw always dropped.

It was therefore very refreshing this time to hear one of the artists say something eminently sensible!

“It’s pointless trying something new in this environment – because you can fall flat on your face and I don’t want to be doing that” (Owen Lennox)

I couldn’t agree more for the following reasons: 

  • This is a context which gives more than a few artists the heebie jeebies / nerves and it takes time to settle.  
  • what Judges are looking for is somebody who has got a distinct and mature style – not somebody who is producing a “flash in the pan”.
  • when the self-portrait and heat paintings are lined up together, Judges are looking for some consistency
  • if you’ve ever wondered why somebody who produced a great heat painting did not get short listed – look back at their self portrait (and vice versa).

Change of “Art” Backgrounds for Sitters’ Props

I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this before but what used to be a section of each episode which has given somewhat facile and unrelated discussion of the ‘arty farty’ background to each segment painted to “look like” a particular famous artist’s work/motifs has been well and truly dumped.

What we now get instead is bright and contrasting colours behind each sitter.

Plus discussion of the prop brought by each sitter. This is supposed to be something important to them – and can be quite diverse in nature. 

What I like about this is that the portion of the programme given over to discussion of something other than the artists and their paintings is now rooted in something relevant i.e. an object which helps explain the sitter and is available to the artist if they want to use it.

“Own Race Bias for Face Recognition”

Comment was passed during the episode of how different people are on different sides of their face – which got me thinking….

This theme started from the fact a number of the artists seemed to be struggling to paint Benjamin – and I kept pondering on how to explain it.

The answer stems from a podcast episode I was listening to on my long walk this week (see below). It relates to “own-race bias for facial recognition” which apparently is an academic proposition (based on psychological/physiological research) which indicates that people are very much better at recognising the INTERNAL features of people who look like them. It provides one explanation of why eyewitnesses are terrible at recognising people from a different racial heritage at an incident (i.e. which provided some of the context of the podcast)

the notion that different neural mechanisms may be involved in processing own- and other-race faces, with internal features of own-race faces being processed more effectively, whereas external features dominate representations of other-race faces.

It applies to every race and culture i.e. it’s not racist per se. So Chinese people are much better at recognising differences in the internal mapping of faces of Chinese people than those with anglo-saxon features. 

It’s also one of the explanations for why we have had so many artists – and sitters – from an Afro-Caribbean heritage in this year’s competition. It’s because the National Portrait Gallery Commission at the end of this series is of Sir Lenny Henry. Personally I think it an extremely wise move of the organisers.

However the theory does highlight for me the very much increased challenge presented by creating portraits of people who have a different ethnic / racial heritage to yourself. It’s basically portrait painting at a very advanced level – because unless you belong to the same background your eyes are typically NOT attuned to recognising differences in the features. Unless, I guess, you are a professional portrait painter who has painted very many different faces from life and has learned how to detect what is unique and different in every single face they paint (and makes no assumptions as to facial ratios, colour of skin etc etc). 

I’d argue the same principle applies to painting skin tones – whether people can see clearly what is really there and what they paint – and whether they fall back on what they know, rather than exploring what they don’t know.

Thanks to the podcast Bad People Episode 79: Unmasked: Could someone steal your face?

The Judging

First the sitters choose – and then the Judges do.

Sitters Choices

  • Jim Carter chose Leanne’s large head study 
  • Benjamin Zephaniah chose the painting by Anastasia Russa because it represented how felt about the state of the world at the present time
  • Ellie Simmonds chose the rather flattering portrait by Rosie O’Mahoney

Critique by the Judges

Things the judges liked:

  • rendering of different textures and materials – with particular reference to props
  • artists who recognise what they need to do – and pull it back in the afternoon

Things the judges were less keen on

  • not achieving a good likeness
  • artists not managing their time well
  • failing to take time out to reassess what they’ve done so far

The Shortlist

Waiting to hear who has been shortlisted


The Shortlisted artists were:

  • Rosie O’Mahony
  • Leanne Pearce
  • Owen Lennox

Normally the shortlisted portraits are lined up – in a LINE and ordered in the order they were called. Not so this week. This time they were on a curve for no obvious reason. Other than maybe the person arranging them had never done it before? As a result we have less of a good view of what they look like next to one another.

Arranged on a curve too far apart – which does no favours to those on either end

Self portrait and portrait painting of Benjamin Zephaniah
by Owen Lennox

This is only the second time we see Owen’s self portrait – since a brief look during the discussion of the self portraits – when it had a completely different colour palette (i.e. the background was much more greenish on my new OLED TV). Incidentally it’s a much better view at the beginning! That’s because 

  • the bottom (and the wrench) gets cut off in the artist’s profile moment (static AND video) and 
  • it’s missed out of the line up (see above)
  • the colour profile is wrong in this image – probably because some adjustment has been made to the photograph 

If you go to Owen’s Facebook Page you’ll see how much he likes makes faces out of tools and industrial materials.

Kate commented in the review of the self portraits how much she liked the colours used to build both face and wrench which provided a distinctly metallic view.

I thought Kathleen’s comment was the most illuminating i.e. that the two paintings reveal Owen’s approach to constructing faces out of colour – not so much that the skin colour is real but the colour provides shape, form and depth.

I think the Judges probably also found his calm, relaxed and mature approach to painting to recommend him as somebody who could cope with a semi-final.

Self Portrait and portrait painting of Ellie Simmonds
by Roise O’Mahony

I think Rosie got through on the strength of her self-portrait despite the fact it reveals a profile of her head only. 

Judges commented that her painting of Ellie Simmonds was ‘romantic’ – which is euphemism (I think) for a portrait which has tried to improve on what a person looks like – but not a particularly good likeness (what did I say?)

I liked the fact she got the diary in – but I thought two of the artists missed a trick. In my opinion, they should have asked her to open her diary up and have it resting on her knee to avoid it looking like a black leather rectangle – as in this painting.

(Kudos to Marcia who did just that and showed it on her knee)

Self portrait – with iPhone and mirrors and portrait of Jim Carter 
by Leanne Pearce

Leanne has her head (x3), upper torso and both hands in her self-portrait and provided a very interesting perspective of three views of her head in 2D.

For her painting of Jim Carter, she decided to work large and produce a macro portrait which has, as one of the Judges described it, “presence”. I’m not in the least bit surprised that he chose it.

Her two paintings – although composed in very different ways – show a clear consistency of approach, albeit one is much more considered and the other was completed in less than 4 hours!

I thought the heat painting was superficially simple but strong and uncompromising and I think spoke well of the northern man which the sitter is. I also thought it was going to be good from the get go.

Leanne was my choice of heat winner and I thought she was very unlucky not to get selected.

Episode 6 Winner

waiting to hear who has won

The winner of Episode 6 was Owen Lennox

The winner produced a convincing portrait with a distinctive style

Episode 7

The sitters for Episode 7 are

  • Henning Wehn – a German stand-up comedian based in London.
  • Lemar – an English singer, songwriter and record producer who emerged from Fame Academy and has had considerable chart success with his music
  • Candice Carty-Williams – a British writer, best known for her 2019 debut novel, Queenie – which won ‘Book of the Year’

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Sky Arts Artist of the Year – REFERENCE

If you want to look back at reviews of previous series you can find links to them in
This year’s heats are:

Angelia S. Rico

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