How it all started

It was a journey that began with no great expectations, just the thought that “there is no harm in applying” I saw an advert for the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the year 2014 application on Facebook, of all places, and went for it. I had all the information I needed to send off to hand and a self portrait I had recently completed for a piece of work I had done during my time at Art school, when studying for an M.A. in Fine Art.

I put it together and sent it all off, not giving it a second thought and not even thinking to mention it to anybody but my boyfriend Adam.

Three days later, at the beginning of May I had a call off a strange number. A part of me entertained the idea that it could have something to do with the application, but I quickly quashed the thought as I answered the call. It was Sky and I had been lucky enough to be one of seventy two people accepted through to the heats from nearly two thousand applicants.

I was off to the filmed heats that were taking place in London later that month. There were to be three famous sitters, four painters to each person, four hours to paint and only one winner to go through to the semi finals.

So that’s the big introduction, and here’s what followed…

Sit still Adam

As I hadn’t painted since late last year, a practice was on the cards.  As a painter that can spend at least a week on one portrait, the time limit of four hours given
on the day was somewhat of a concern.  I did a run through so that I could know what to expect from myself after each hour in order to have a completed piece.

I usually work from photographs and hadn’t done life drawing since studying at college. I wanted to simplify every part of the process that I had control over and decided to take a picture of the sitter, in this case Adam, display it on my laptop and work from both life and the image.

During the practice I made the decision to focus mainly on the facial features, as I feel my strength as a painter lies in powerfully capturing the character of the person I am studying. This meant that not necessarily would the hair and body hold importance to be completed on the day, I would let the detail fall away at the edges.

The heats in London

My Mum and Dad were so pleased I was through to the competition they paid for me

to stay in the Ibis hotel the night before, right next to Euston Station. They even sorted out my train tickets. Coincidentally they were already booked in to stay in London that night after returning from a road trip to see my brother James in Utrecht, it was almost kismet.

After a night of unrest, and a bit of Come dine with me on the hotel TV, I awoke on the big day at 6am in anticipation for promptly arriving at the Wallace collection, to start filming at 7:30. This was the gallery in which the 12 artists successful self portraits were to be displayed and the event was to take place. I had no idea what to expect as my Parents hustled me into a London black cab and waved me off. I got dropped at the side door to the gallery and taken down a set of stairs that lead inside. It was really strange to have so many unknown, but kind faces know me and my name (without my costa name badge).  The team involved in making the programme is huge, it really struck me just  how lovely every single person was. It was refreshing to be around, and definitely aided to put me at ease in a highly unusual and slightly surreal experience.

There was an Artist green room, where the other 11 painters sat eating breakfast together, I quickly made friends with three around my age, it just so happened that they were the three to be in my team, painting the same famous sitter.

The next two hours involved a lot of introductory filming, setting the scene, the pre amble.

I’m really not big on the whole, lights, camera, action stuff, it took me ages to get a grasp of the fact that I wasn’t supposed to acknowledge the camera man, it felt strangely rude. I don’t even like having my photograph taken, so it is a mystery to me how I coped with all those camera’s in my face. I imagine I was very awkward and fidgety, but that is pretty standard behavior for me.

After a bit of filming outside we were lead into the centre of the gallery where everything was set up for the main event. Easels, Canvas’ and paints were all laid out ready for each artist, it was a lovely but daunting sight. The room was segmented into three and each third of the room had its own style and set, to match the sitter that would be using the space. As we walked in our portraits were displayed on the Gallery wall, even at first glance I spotted some extremely talented artists, I must admit a creeping doubt entered my mind that these works were painted with a skill I could not match. It wasn’t a thought, thankfully, that I lingered on.

Getting started

I’ve covered the behind the scenes team, but not yet mentioned the amazing people who would be running the show in front of the cameras. Joan Bakewell and Frank Skinner were the programmes presenters, I was very intrigued to meet Frank especially, I like anyone with a good sense of humour and had big expectations.

There were three judges, all heavily and successfully involved in the Arts, they were to decide on the winning artist. Tai Shan Schierenberg, former Director of Exhibitions at the Royal Academy and the National Portrait Gallery Kathleen Soriano and Kate Bryan, Head of Contemporary at the Fine Art Society. All three of them were warm and kind, I especially liked Tai, and his work. The way he held himself reminded me of male mentors I admire from when I was a student, although I didn’t know him, he represented a figure quite familiar and I noticed I took an instant liking to him and his huge beaming smile, even before he’d said a word.

Frank Skinner stood by me in our section preparing to announce our sitter, whilst the cameras prepped he cracked a few jokes directed straight to me, he definitely was living up to my “big expectations” and the more I laughed the more comfortable I felt in this strange surreal environment, surrounded by cameras and lights, it didn’t feel as serious anymore. In this time my Mum had set up camp on a seat in the public area behind me, it was reassuring to be able to turn around and spot a familiar face in the crowd.

Frank announced our sitter was to be Daniel Roche, the teenage star actor from Outnumbered. He walked onto the stage with a full head of curly hair and enthusiastically shook Franks hand. Daniel is well known for his hair and I questioned whether my tactic to leave this detail out would work. He was positioned on the long sofa, legs up, head phones and Ipad on.

I had a great side profile and was excited to get started. As soon as we were allowed to begin I took my pictures of him, luckily I managed to snap him when he was smiling and I knew then, that that was the picture to run with. I got it up on my mac screen and started sketching it out on my canvas. I soon realised it was going well for me, despite all the distractions I had managed to capture him accurately in pencil.

There were so many people milling about behind me, the team themselves and now also the public, I took a leaf out of Daniels book and stuck my headphones in, playing the music Adam had downloaded for me, my feet tapping, I was now feeling settled, happy and focused.

When I started painting I had 3.5 hours left, the time quickly slipped away the more immersed I became. Every now and again the camera team would come around and ask me questions about how it was going, it felt as though these became more and more frequent, but perhaps it was just that I had no perception of time at all. I relied heavily upon the runners letting me know how long I had left at regular intervals.

In this time my Mum had made friends with two women, one of which was Daniels mother, the other was an artist who had applied for the competition but
had not been successful. All three of them were letting me know they liked how my painting was going and were encouraging me to keep on, it was good to have that feedback. Every now and again I would turn around to look at Mum and notice the public watching me and taking photographs, it felt as though as time pushed on there were more people gathering behind me, but I didn’t think too much on it.

It was lunch time now, I was hot and full of nervous energy. Although I wanted to eat I didn’t want to stop, so I quickly ate a little something and went back to my painting. That was the perk of working from a photograph, the sitter didn’t need to be there for me to continue.

Finishing up

Time was almost up, Tai had been lurking behind me, when I turned around he said enthusiastically “keep going, keep going” then it was Frank and the camera team. They had noticed I wasn’t painting Daniels hair but had instead chosen to do painted lines in order to demonstrate its form. Frank questioned whether this was a good idea and in the last half an hour attempted to encourage me to paint the hair. Although I have never had an experience like this before I started to notice that they liked the drama of “will she or won’t she finish, will it work or won’t it” but this didn’t shake me, I stood by my technique with confidence.

I was now finished, and proud of what I had accomplished in such a short time.

The final three

As part of the competition the sitters were able to choose their favorite portrait to take home, this however, as reminded by Frank, would not necessarily be the same portrait as the winner of the heat. We did the grand reveal for Daniel, spinning our easels to display our painting to the sitter for the first time. Daniel picked someone else in my group, I was pleased for the person he had chosen, I could see why he would have.

There was more nervous waiting as the judges chose who would go through to the final three. All twelve of us assembled in a line facing the judges awaiting their decision. My Mum and her new friend were in the crowd behind the camera men looking excited.

When I think back my mind was blank I had no expectations I was completely in the moment and enjoying every second. My heart pounded when Joan and Frank announced my name as the final three, along with two other highly talented portrait artists. I can’t remember if it was at this point that my Mum screamed, or maybe it was what happened next. Frank asked if any of us wanted his cue card with our name on it, I jumped at it and still have it on my notice board today!

The Winner

The three finalists of the heat were lined up to discuss both our self portrait and sitter portrait with the judges. I definitely felt that my answers were important to help them confirm the winner between the three of us, I was really nervous now my odds had increased and I was starting to imagine how it would feel to be the winner.

We were taken away again to be interviewed while the judges made their final decision. The other two portrait artists were a little older than myself and I sensed more experienced. The male portrait was of himself naked and portrayed a scar he had procured from his time in cancer treatment, it was really very edgy and ripe with emotion. The other contestants work had fascinated me from the moment I walked in and saw the self portraits hung on the wall. She weaves fibres to build up colour and make marks, I just couldn’t imagine how this was doable in the time frame we had, but she managed it and it was fantastic to look upon.

The judges must have been unanimous in their decision as it wasn’t long before we were called back in. We three finalists stood in a line, yet again awaiting our fate. The cameras were spread around the room and behind them were the public waiting for the big, and now final announcement from Frank and Joan. It had been a long day, it was now 7pm I had been there since 7:30 in the morning and was now purely running on adrenaline.

Joan started reading out the judges final decision, explaining how they came to it and what the Artist in question had achieved, I can’t remember the exact words she used but it sounded an awful lot like she was talking about me… and then she said my name and it was all actually happening. It might have been at this point that my mum screamed, and cried of course, while speaking to Frank about how much I had grown. I left it to my Mother to get all emotional. I don’t know what my face was doing, I am not sure I even said anything other than thank you, a lot, but inside my head I was quietly trying to force it to sink in.

Back to life, back to reality

It had all happened so fast from start to finish I had just gone with the flow, I hadn’t considered winning I had been there for the experience and gone in to enjoy myself, winning was a big fat bonus !

Before I knew it we were leaving the Wallace collection and being helped into a black cab by Mum’s new friend, to Euston Station. I was back on the train with all my memorabilia from the day, my only proof that all that actually took place.

I was in the semi finals now, Sky would be coming to film me at work and at home, could life get any crazier? The next day I would be back at work serving Coffee, how very normal after such an abnormal experience.