Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Can a portrait artist play fast and loose with a commission?

Do you think Nelson Shanks has been rather underhand in his portrayal of Bill Clinton?
Is it ever OK for a portrait artist to undermine your client or subject?

The big art news story today is that a portrait painted by Nelson Shanks of Bill Clinton contains, according to Shanks, a hidden allusion to the Monica Lewinsky affair.

This is the portrait - painted in 2005 - which now forms part of the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in the USA (I'm sure they'll be thinking twice about accepting another portrait by Shanks!)

It's actually impossible to get a link to the page which is a rather odd way for a museum website to behave. However if you want to take a closer look at it go to the National Portrait Gallery's Portal to American Portraits then use the quick search and the search term "Shanks Clinton" to generate the portrait in question.

Once you've got it you can see an enlarged image - although the best images would appear to be in all today's papers!

Here are just some of the 450+ newspaper reports about it.  The various comments make fascinating reading. If Mr Shanks thought that this 'reveal' would enhance his reputation it seems he is sadly mistaken

Monday, March 02, 2015

The Big Painting Challenge - Episode 2

This continues my commentary on The Big Painting Challenge and focuses on the second episode which was about drawing and painting people.

In fairness to the contestants, it also features some of my dodgy drawings of people while working from life!

The reason for including my drawings is because, first, I drew did the drawings in the lecture theatre in the bowels of the National Portrait Gallery on Friday night. I attended a sold out class on Life Drawing: Sargent Style given by artist Andy Pankhurst (the link is to his drawings of people from life)

My second reason for posting them is because I've been reflecting on what I thought about second episode since watching it.

I've really found myself wondering to what extent it's now revealing the differences between those who predominantly work from photos ( as a matter of habit) and those who have developed skills in working from life. I've known workshops where people who have been generally regarded as very good artists revealed that they were rather less accomplished when working from life.  It's often the case that people can present as quite skilled until you take them out of their comfort zone, away from their time lines, and generally "off piste" when it comes to painting.

I think the practice of working from life is a salient point to raise with those aspiring to improve as an artist. It's working from life which gives you the skills to work from a photo.  If you've only ever worked from a photo you're apt to be 'all at sea' when asked to work from life.

The best bit of advice I ever had was to make sure I went back home from my painting holiday and sign up for a life class. That was when I really started to learn how to use my eyes and coordinate what I saw with the marks my hand made. Which is not to say you can do it straight away - as my drawings below will illustrate!

Episode 2: The challenges

I thought the challenges were very fair:
  • painting a self portrait in oils
  • drawing a stranger in black and white chalks
  • painting a 'celebrity' actor
The artists had enough time to do something decent - and yet the time allowed was enough to cause problems for those not used to planning their work or who like painting fast - and then continue and overwork a decent painting.

I was really surprised at just how many demonstrated an inability to draw well from life. I'm thinking maybe it might have been fairer if they'd been given 10 minutes to warm up via some quickies whether we might have seen much better performance by the participating artists.  There again I guess they could have sat around with a sketchbook and drawn one another while waiting for that session to start!

In relation to painting, I was surprised that few also demonstrated an ability to think about the four lines around the portrait - and what the best crop might look like. Some were painting without actually making a decent picture.

The Judges' comments

I know some still think their comments are harsh. However they seem to be around the Paul Hollywood or Simon Cowell scale to me ie very direct and very accurate.

Personally I don't have a problem with them - and quite enjoyed watching on Sunday and mouthing quite a few of them before the judges got a chance to say exactly the same thing. I'm guessing there were quite a few other people doing the same thing.

The conclusion

Jan, the retired police sketch artist went home at the end of this week's episode. Which means the judges agreed with my prediction made last week after the first episode as to who would be next to go.

Oddly, I think the reason he was sent home was because in general he was failing to observe what he saw in front of himself - even when this was a self-portrait. I have no doubt he greatly enjoys painting and will continue to enjoy it in his own unique way.

My prediction for the next episode

Episode 3 is nominally about still life - but actually seems to be about perspective and scale given the diversity of the challenges (see my last blog post for more details - it's everything from personal objects through giant chess pieces to the facade of Blenheim Palace!).

I'm therefore expecting that those who have been having problems with scale and proportion might well struggle with this one. Looking back over the first two episodes, I'm thinking Anthea might be in the frame. She's produced some good paintings - but for me she has had the worst fail so far in terms of coping with subject matter which is unfamiliar to her in terms of sizing and poor design and placement within the format.  I thought Daphne's description of her last painting as being catastrophic got it about right. Anthea also doesn't seem to be able to stop and start again when she makes mistakes. "Soldier through" seems to be her motto"

This is what her comment is on her profile page
Criticism from the judges was sometimes harder to take than at others. Observe was the main lesson and I learned I was not always accurate. Making sure everything was in proper proportion stuck with me afterwards.

Who do I think will be in the Final

I think I now have two candidates for the final. Paul Bell continues to impress despite his wobble in drawing this week and making his colours muddy in the painting through over-working. (See website http://paulbellart.co.uk and his blog and his post about Episode 2)

However young Claire Parker has very definitely surged forward this week. Both her self-portrait and her painted portrait of an actor were absolutely splendid. (See website/blog of her year abroad - with added painting: http://claire-parker.weebly.com plus her Twitter account @clairesparker)

Top tip from this episode

The bit of advice that all seem to need to remember is know when you need to stop - and start again or walk away.  Some are better than others at this - and I know this is a perennial topic many struggle with! :)

Take a look at this clip from Episode 2 which neatly demonstrates this point.

My drawings from life class

Three x 10 minute drawings

Oddly the class on Friday started with three 10 minute drawings. I'm more used to these coming after the very fast quickies.  I need my quickies to loosen up!

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year 2015 - Call for entries

Yet another art competition on television!  This time it's Sky Arts' Landscape Artist of the Year 2015.

It's very definitely worth a look for the career minded and/or aspiring landscape artist who doesn't mind painting in public or even on television!

Home Page on the competition's website
Here's what you need to do if you fancy painting landscapes on television. The information has been pulled together from a number of sites online. Comments from me about the process are in italics

Deadline for entries 

We'll start with the important fact in their call for entries!

  • 12pm (midday) on Friday 20th March 2015


The prize is a £10,000 commission for The National Trust. This makes this competition definitely worth a second look!

Who can enter

People who are
  • resident in the UK, Republic of Ireland, Isle of Man or Channel Islands for one year or longer on 2nd February 2015?
  • landscape painters - that's because you have to submit two landscape paintings with your application!
  • a minimum of 16 years of age. If you are aged under 18, parental consent is required.

You are NOT eligible to apply if you won a heat or the overall competition for the Portrait Artist of the Year run by Sky Arts.

Note that if you have previously applied for Portrait Artist of the Year I'd guess that it's very likely that they will review what their decision was about you last time you applied.

Note also that this is a competition with a significant prize and I'd expect there to be stiff competition from professional landscape artists. There again, it's potentially high stakes for professional artists if they're not seen to be good enough to progress. I'd expect there to be a lot of entries from those artists making their own breaks into professional art. This one is too good an opportunity to miss.

What sort of landscape art is allowed?

  • any drawing or painting media. All of these media get a tick box on the form - Watercolour, Oil Paints, Pencil, Charcoal, Pastel, Acrylic, Alkyds, Mixed Media (including collage) "Other"
  • digital media is NOT allowed - hence photography, video, sculpture or any form of digital media are NOT eligible for entry

How to enter

  • Read the terms and conditions (LOTS of small print). Then read them again. Then read them again before you upload your entry.  I cannot emphasise too much how easy it is to miss or misunderstand an important point - and you'll be kicking yourself if you do!
  • Read the Frequently Asked Questions about the application process. This is a very helpful document - do read twice!
  • Complete and submit the online application form. Applications by post are not accepted.
  • Upload a passport style photo of yourself (maximum size of 500 kb).
  • Upload photographs of your art. Images should be in a jpeg format and as close to 1MB as possible with a minimum file size of 800KB. My advice would be to find the balance between pixel size and resolution used which provides the best presentation of your landscape art on screen.  Bear in mind the screening is very likely to be done using a digital screen (I'm checking this). I don't expect that they will be printing these out.
    1. A low resolution jpeg image of a complete landscape painting produced in the last five years. The artwork must not exceed 48"x 36" (1220 x 914 mm)
    2. Low resolution jpegs of up to two further works of art by yourself (one photo per artwork). At least one MUST be a landscape. 
    3. You do need to ensure that these are images where you can also provide a high resolution image if asked for one. My recommendation would be to start with the high resolution image in TIFF and then save it into a NEW jpeg FILE and ONLY after that adjust for pixel size and dimensions until you've got the best possible image of the artwork. In other words do not mess with the high res image! Also don't digitally 'enhance' your artwork or you'll find you're one of the ones going home early or marked down as a 'chancer'!
Note that the website provides advice on how to photograph your artwork - although I think I can improve on their advice for how to shrink a photo!

Only one entry can be submitted per person - by the individual artist. Entries on behalf of another person will NOT be accepted. (It just wastes their time if entries come on behalf of people who simply don't want to be televised.)

What does it cost to enter?

There is no entry fee - however....

In the event you are selected, you will be expected to pay for getting yourself and your landscapes to and from the location of your heat, and for any hotel and subsistence costs. The semi-finalists and finalists will have necessary travel, hotel and subsistence costs paid during their subsequent landscape tasks and at the final.

Locations and dates for painting heats

The locations and dates for this painting competition are listed below. The Links in the dates are to the Facebook Pages for these events. Looks like the artists are going to have an audience!

There is no guarantee which heat you will be allocated to.

Artists invited to a heat will be asked to produce an artwork depicting a landscape view within six hours.
you will be given up to six hours to complete your work of art, and all landscapes will be judged at the end of one day, whether they are considered complete or not by the artist. However, the landscape you submitted in the application process will also be taken into consideration during the judging process at the end of the day.
I've been talking to the producers and I'm going to try and get to one of the heats to report on the process.

The current plan is that:
  • The semi-final will be held on Wednesday 10th June
  • the second artwork to be produced for the Final will be created and filmed at the world famous landscape garden at Stourhead, near Mere, Wiltshire, BA12 6QF on Sunday 12th July 2015


The expert judges returning for this series are:
  • Tai Shan Schierenberg painter. I'd always thought of Tai Shan as being a portrait artist but his website indicates he's painted more than a few landscapes too.
  • Kathleen Soriano, former Director of Exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts and now an Independent Curator and Art Historian Twitter @KclSoriano
  • Kate Bryan, a former Director of The Fine Art Society and now Director of the London art fair Art15 Twitter @KateJBryan
Personally speaking I think I prefer the bias of the BBC Painting Challenge towards having judges who are primarily well known for being painters as well as curators and teachers.

How does the judging process work?

Landscapes will be judged on technical ability, originality and potential.

The shortlist of artists for the heats works as follows
The judges view the digital images on a screen on a high res screen by number - so they have no knowledge of whom the entry is from. To date we have filmed the process so it is completely transparent.
You'll find out whether or joy made the shortlist by or shortly after Thursday 2nd April.

At the end of each heat the Judges listed above will choose who goes forward into the next round as a semi-finalist. The semi-finalists will then compete for one of three places in the final.

Those reaching the final will produce two artworks and have 6 hours to produce one of their final landscapes.

One overall winner, the Landscape Artist of the Year, will be announced at a date and location to be confirmed in September.
If You are chosen as the Winner, You must be available between the Final Date and 30th September 2015 to produce the Winner's Prize Artwork on exact dates to be determined by the Producer.


Joan Bakewell and Frank Skinner continue to be the presenters.

Joan appears to be a tad bothered by the new competition from the BBC! I didn't have her down as somebody who would mind a bit of healthy competition. :)

Links to relevant websites

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

So what did you think of The Big Painting Challenge?

So who watched the BBC's The Big Painting Challenge and what did you think? 

Did you guess who would be going home?  I must confess I did!

This post provides
  • a few comments on the Landscape episode shown last Sunday 
  • PLUS more information about what is coming up in future weeks - and what the challenges are each week
  • PLUS a link to the "How to guide" for each week's episode
  • images from the programme

Also just to let you know I've been invited by WH Smith to write a supportive tips post for their blog as they intend to support the series by posting helpful articles for those inspired to draw, sketch and paint by the programme!

The group of painters lined up to paint Alnwick Castle 'plein air

What do we think of the challenges?

Each of the challenges was exactly that - a very real challenge. Each had a strict time limit and some imposed the art medium which had to be used. In my opinion, they very definitely need to be a challenge otherwise you might as well have a routine art competition and choose the best artist to give a prize to on the basis of the artwork presented for scrutiny - with the artist having total control over media, style and time used for the artwork.

They're following the classic format:
  • "Signature Challenge - show us what you can do" (3 hours painting time) - painting in acrylics using reference photos and sketches). I felt sorry for those who had never painted in acrylics before. Although I think if I was selected for a programme like this I think I might have given the media I wasn't familiar with a whirl before the cameras started!
  • "Quick draw technical challenge" (drawing a spire of delphiniums in 30 minutes using coloured pencils). I was surprised how many people had never drawn a flower. Here the "tips" clip about "how to draw flowers". It was an exercise which rapidly revealed who could draw and who couldn't.  Some participants didn't rate coloured pencils however my personal take on it was that the exercise revealed just how versatile they are in terms of people having different styles. 
Let's not mince words, this is horrendous! (Anthea - contestant)
  • "the showstopper" - all the artists had 3 hours to paint 'Hogwarts' (Alnwick Castle in Northumberland) from across the river. Again I found it surprising how many people had never ever been outside to paint a view before.  I was half expecting a repeat of 'Watercolour Challenge' and in some ways it was very similar.
Lining up for the big picture challenge

What do we think of the contestants?

I admire any amateur artist prepared to put themselves in front of several million armchair critics - good luck to all of them Facebook commentator
Probably one of the things that most people felt when watching the episode is how brave the participants must be to put their painting up for scrutiny. In particular, when it became very clear that some of the subjects, media and settings were very unfamiliar to at least some of the contestants.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

116th Annual Exhibition of The Pastel Society

The 2015 Annual Exhibition of The Pastel Society opens to the public today at the Mall Galleries where it continues - with demonstrations, events and workshops - on a daily basis (10am -5pm) until 7 March (closes 3pm on the final day)

President Cheryl Culver and a strong wall of pastels 
by Sarah Bee, Norma Stephenson. Cheryl Culver and Roger Dellar
You can view an online catalogue - which includes work by members of the society.

Below you will find:
  • a record of the prizewinners
  • my commentary on the exhibition - and the hang
  • a note of the various events - demonstrations, workshops and an art event evening - taking place in the Galleries during the exhibition.


The Pastel Society are to be congratulated on having so many sponsors of their exhibition and their prizes.

You can see a list of the prizewinners on the website. However that will disappear in time and I'm reproducing the names of prizewinners - with links to their websites (in their names) - below together with photos of the artwork and the artists taken at yesterday's Private View.

I was particularly struck by how many of the prizes went to people coming through the Open Entry rather than by senior members of the Society. I don't think it was a reflection on the differences in the work between those who are established members and those who are aspiring artists. However if it was a strategic decision by the PA Council then I welcome it. Prizes are so much more important for those starting out and trying to become more established as an artist.

Alfred Teddy Smith and Zsuzsi Roboz Award for a Young Artist

Oh to be under 35 again!

The £5,000 Zsuzsi Roboz Prize - for artists aged 35 and under - is new for 2015. The award is a bequest in memory of Zsuzsi Roboz, who was a distinguished member of the Pastel Society and is in the name of her and husband.

The size of the Prize attracted a number of entries which were selected for the exhibition. In general these entries were much more diverse than work submitted by members - which is a point which members might want to ponder on....

The inaugural prize of £5,000 was won by a portrait - unsurprising given the practice of Zsuzsi Roboz. Mike Clapton specialises in charcoal photo-realistic large scale portraiture (see his winning portrait below). This was his very first exhibition!  (His day job involves working in marketing). You can see from studying his other charcoal drawings on his website that this charcoal drawing is far from being a 'one-off'.  I'm not a huge fan of "big heads" drawings but this is a very good one - I noticed it straight away when entering the North Gallery.

Winner of the Inaugural £5,000 Alfred Teddy Smith and Zsuzsi Roboz Award for Young Artists
Mike Clapton with his compressed charcoal drawing 'Take Care'

Another "Young Artist" who did well was Jenny Smith who won the £1,000 Arts Club Charitable Trust Award  with her charcoal drawing of Sequoia

Winner of the £1,000 Arts Club Charitable Trust Award
Sequioa by Jenny Smith charcoal £890

The Caran d'Ache Award

Caran d'Ache are sponsors of the exhibition and this year celebrate their 100th Anniversary.
Michael Norman won their award for Dusk at Turf Locks. My personal preference was for the artwork top left which captures the greens associated with heathland and conifers very well.

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