Whisperings from the Wormhole with @talluts

Some Thoughts About Portrait Artist of the Year, a British TV Show

Portrait Artist of the Year 2019 Season 5, Episode 8, Sky Arts; Artist: Rebecca Train, Sitter: Daniel Lismore

One of my guilty pleasures is binge-watching creativity reality shows, especially from the UK. We’ve got the Great Pottery Throw Down, where the judge, a great hulking potter in overalls with a Wallace and Gromit face, bursts into tears every time he sees a beautifully made ceramic. There’s Blown Away, a glass-blowing show with lots of macho folk blowing glass sweatily. And there’s Landscape Artist of the Year. But my all-time favorite is Sky Art’s Portrait Artist of the Year.

For a while, it was difficult to get a hold of the show because it wasn’t officially available in the US. Finally, I was able to sneakily watch it through the help of a Robin Reddit-Hood named “Cherzo,” who would grab the episodes and upload them to a Google Drive to hundreds of grateful cheering Redditors (Pour one out for a true altruist). In the end, he got busted for his sneaky cheekiness, and the videos got taken down. Afterward, we were unhappily plunged into a no-British-TV darkness. Untilit finally got released on Amazon.

A collage of two people

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Portrait Artist of the Year 2019 Season 5, Episode 8, Sky Arts; (Left) Artist: Tom Mead with Host, Joan Bakewell, (Right) Sitter: Daniel Lismore

The show selects nine artists to come onto a sound stage and paint three sitters from life. They each get four hours and are given an easel on which to create their painted “likeness.” Besides the artists and the sitters, there are two sweet-natured, amiable hosts. One of these is Joan Bakewell, who is a journalist, Baroness, and Dame. And, depending on the season, the second host is Stephen Mangan or Frank Skinner: both full of gentle charm and show off Joan to full advantage. Three judges round out the cast: Tai Shan Schierenberg, a portrait painter himself; independent curator, Kathleen Soriano; and art historian, Kate Bryan.

The nine artists are assigned in groups of three to one of three sitters, usually celebrities from UK TV, theater, or sports. We non-Brits usually have no idea who they are. The actors all confess to the camera that they are excited to see what the artists will capture about their real selves. They spend their time pretending to be other characters, and so long to see if the artists can discover to their inner nougaty center, like a truth-finding tootsie roll pop.

A hand holding a paintbrush

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Portrait Artist of the Year 2019 Season 5, Episode 8, Sky Arts; Artist: Rebecca Train, Sitter: Daniel Lismore

The artists are allowed to use iPads or digital tablets and phones and take photos and grid up the images to make their portraits because 4 hours is very short, especially when the hosts keep bugging you for sound bites and the public is chattering and milling about behind you. The hosts, especially Joan, make it crystal clear that they do not approve of the artists using digital tools. You can tell they view technology as the cheating cheater way and continue to rail against the dying of the light. God bless.

Some artists have trained in Florence and, without fail, create a murky stew out of which emerges a sfumato-ed masterpiece. Others apply chunks of colored paint to every plane of the face, creating a faceted, paint-lover’s painting of an almost crystalline head. Some come roaring in with their titillating TV-friendly gimmicks, burning the image into a hunk of wood with a blowtorch, splattering pigments, or banging on a distressed sheet of scrap metal, etc….

Portrait Artist of the Year 2019 Season 5, Episode 8, Sky Arts; (Left) Artist: Tom Mead, (Right) Sitter: Daniel Lismore

We learn quickly that the Ipads are essential for successful fast-paced TV portraiture (sorry, Joan). Doing it the old-fashioned way, by holding up a pencil and eyeballing it, will inevitably fail to produce anything noteworthy. Four hours is too short for such tomfoolery; on the show, efficiency and speed are the name of the game. The judges stroll amidst the sea of easels. With their “resting bitch faces” on so as not to give their early opinions away. Later, like clockwork, they fret to each other about the works that are in danger of getting “overworked,” a fate worse than death on Portrait Artist of the Year.

The sitters come to their chairs, worried about fidgeting. Some come humbly dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. Some are eccentric and come dressed in a goth carapace or have tattooed eyeballs. Some arrive overly sexy, with bedroom hair and bare feet. Most of the time, these British celebrities and athletes are unknown to us, and it’s funny/uncanny when a seemingly nondescript middle-aged person shuffles out to gasps and raised eyebrows from the crowd.

But back to the show. The artists are painting away from their iPads, receiving resting bitch face from the judges. And finally, when the brushes down command bellows forth from Joan, they all simultaneously turn their easels on wheels around so that the celebrity sitter can see. The posers are allowed to take one home and then commences the dramatic scene where the actor pretends to love all three paintings so much that they could never decide. But they must, and we all know there’s only one half-decent one (an obvious choice). Still, surprises happen. But I think most of the time, they pick the one they’d be least embarrassed to hang in their home. All the melodrama aside, likeness is really the alchemy of the show. Watching someone simply block in some planes and shadows and then arrive at the undefinable substance of a living being – is thrilling.

Some artists remain on the surface, but a few descend (like the actors all hope they will) to that inner center of self. And I think, unglamorously, that maybe the secret to a good likeness is simply making sure the proportions are right. At least that’s what the How-to drawing books say. And I guess if that’s the case, the grids and the photos are super helpful for measuring a nose to an eye and a cheek to a chin. But Tai Shan Schierenberg himself warns against pursuing likeness as a sole aim. He says artists shouldn’t pursue likeness to the exclusion of all else because they risk forgetting to also create a living, breathing work of art. That painting might look exactly like the model, but is it memorable as a standalone work? In an article in the Financial Times, Schierenberg says, “Sometimes, when the likeness is amazing, but there’s no soul, no one ever talks about the piece again. You need an artist that can capture the spirit.”

Portrait Artist of the Year 2019 Season 5, Episode 8, Sky Arts; (Left) Artist: Martin Ireland, Sitter: Daniel Lismore, (Right) Artists Tom Mead and Rebecca Train

Artist Alice Neal, who mostly worked in portraiture, self-styled herself a “soul collector,” and her own psychological feelings about her models (Harlem neighbors or artists and writers in her circle) fused to her subjects through her wiggly lines of paint, distilled into an essential paste of the person.

Another artist I thought of when considering the elusive quest for finding a soul is painter and sculptor Frederick Hayes. Recently I was watching an Art as Forum interview with artist Frederick Hayes, who works both in contemporary portraiture and in abstract sculpture, and I noted how he described his goals for his work. He hoped that the way he painted or drew his sitters would encourage viewers to “look beyond the surface of that person and see a sort of humanity” (vs. preconceived notions about his models: mostly from the African American community). In contrast, he uses his abstract sculptures—assemblages of painted wood pieces, junkyard detritus, frames, washbasins—all stacked to offer another way to know a person: emotionally, from the inside out.

A collage of a person and a painting

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Portrait Artist of the Year 2019 Season 5, Episode 8, Sky Arts; Artist: Rebecca Train, Sitter: Daniel Lismore

But if you’ve had a bad day, I recommend popping on Portrait and watching the likenesses of three who-knows-who British celebs emerge from the splodgy mock and splatter-y smears slathered on in four hours of cold panic. Each artist is terrified of overworking the work and losing the magic —that breathless razor’s edge of bringing a person to life in paint.

It’s very relaxing.

A painting of a person

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Portrait Artist of the Year 2019 Season 5, Episode 8, Sky Arts; Artist: Rebecca Train, Sitter: Daniel Lismore

About the writer: Amy Talluto is a mixed-media artist working in painting, sculpture and collage who lives in Upstate NY and hosts a podcast called “Pep Talks for Artists.” This written piece can be listened to as an audio essay in podcast form, as well as many others on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or anywhere you get your podcasts. Amy Talluto’s monthly column “Whisperings from the Wormhole” will bring you artist-to-artist pep talks with topics ranging from self-doubt to artists who make work in their kitchens.