Strangely, it was my first time ever in London when I travelled to take part in the heat stage of Portrait Artist of the Year Season 9. Few days later I was back in Dublin, buzzing from the great experience. Eventually we got together with some close friends for dinner. We’re having some pizza and chats, when a phone call comes in “Hi Nina, the judges liked your work, would you consider coming back for the semi-final?” It was Friday, I was moving houses on Saturday and the semi-final was on Tuesday. I said “Sure, why not”.
I was convinced that one of the heat winners must have dropped out and I was filling in an empty spot. Until I found out it was a wild card. From all the people that were shortlisted but didn’t win they picked me! Unreal!
On one hand, it was amazing - surely there can be a case when there is more than one artist performing really well in one heat, and the judges struggle to make the final decision. But as an "extra" semi-finalist, and then, finalist, could I really have a chance of winning the whole program? Would they let a person that didn’t win the heat, to win the whole show? Would feel a little unfair for other participants maybe? Maybe they brought me back, things got out of control and they didn't quite expect for me to move to the final. Who knows!
All in all, I feel like it’s a risky game overall to rate artists in this show. How can you tell someone is better than anyone else? I don’t think you can. Every artist operates according to their own criteria. Is likeness a criterion? Clearly not in my case! Haha Okay, let’s talk about likeness. One rather unfortunate thing about my experience was that I got a label of painter who doesn’t care about likeness. Of course I do care, but it’s not the no.1 I care about, or at least not in the first stage of painting.
Before you get to likeness there are millions of things to solve. I’m speaking for myself and my own approach now. For me, good portraits are paintings that meet all the standards of any good painting – good composition, good colours, good overall mood/atmosphere. I suppose with my own personal work, I want to produce paintings where the figure is merely an actor playing a role in the painting, in order to tell a story. That means the actor can still look like themselves but who is the actor is not the primary matter. Story matters, and the general atmosphere matters.
Painting is not magic that just happens. A painter is calculating, planning, simplifying. A painting has to be solved. Every mark you’re making literally changes the context for everything else. Therefore, especially when painting from life and for me at least, it’s about gradually building up the large context – big colour masses, big shapes and details come in at the end - if the context is right the details will sit on top no problem. Ideally, you want to leave a painting to dry and then go back and solve the details then.
I 100% agree with Nicolas Uribe who recently, in his conversation with Thomas Golunski (who was actually a PAOTY participant this year too) said:
“My big BUT with this show is that there’s so much weight put on (...) likeness and I think that’s where the show stumbles a little bit. It just makes people immediately take out their iPad or a camera or have their computer right next to them and then immediately grid it in Photoshop or whatever app you’re using and then grid your canvas. I totally understand that that’s how we work, that’s fine, (...) I understand it and it has to be a valid way to work, but when so much weight is put on [likeness], there’s a lost opportunity (...) for people taking more chances, and doing far more expressive paintings (...) That would be cool because it (...) it’s almost like every artist becoming their own little story.”
You can listen to the full conversation here
What Nicolas is basically saying is, it's perfectly valid to use technology. I use technology myself and it’s great. But what the program is missing it’s the opportunity, or rather the artists themselves are missing the opportunity to show energy, take risks, just paint for the joy of it and see what happens, because they’re so stressed out about getting the photographic likeness.
I could definitely feel the pressure to produce likeness but I chose to paint away and enjoy the process. And perhaps this was the exact thing that got me through the subsequent stages. As I previously wrote in my instagram post, I was feeling so humbled and grateful to hear all the lovely words from the judges - they saw in my paintings what I’ve always been trying to express. To emotionally connect with another human via image is one of the most rewarding things about being a painter.
We were given 4 days to complete the commission of the “loved-one. It may seem like a lot of time – definitely more than 4 hours. But one must remember, even if you have a loved one around, what are the chances that person will be available for 4 days to sit for you. Everybody has work and responsibilities. I was extremely lucky that my dear friend Alan Clarke did me an enormous favour and dedicated a lot of his precious time not only to sit for me, but also participate in the interviews in Inniskeen, and then flew over to London for the actual final day. He’s been extremely generous with his time and was willing to participate in the struggle. I was also genuinely happy to paint him, as I hugely admire and respect what he does and how he is evolving as an artist. https://www.instagram.com/mralanclarke/
Also, a timelapse of the painting process needed to be produced, which means there was a camera pointed at you and making a click every 5 seconds – not exactly your typical working environment. And if, like me, you have just moved to a new space, and trying to figure out what could work light-wise, and you have absolutely no props to use, and only have one ikea couch at your disposal AND during that time you also get Covid, that really doesn’t help.
I think the program reveals about less than 10% of the actual process of making art. My usual process involves weeks of thinking about composition, making sketches and colour studies until I finally start working on a large canvas. This doesn’t really compare with a 4 hour or even 4 day timeframe. This is not to say that the whole idea of the program is missed. It’s actually fantastic that it does exist and the general public gets a glimpse into the process. And that portraiture becomes a thing again, and that in the digital age, there is a very slowly growing demand for getting your face interpreted by another human being. That is quite amazing to me.
Throughout the program I was definitely in a “another day, another free model” mindset. A lot of time, in my own practice I’m a “library mode” ie. always searching, analysing, trying new things. My work is constantly evolving and I never really knew exactly what kind of painting is a Nina painting. In a way PAOTY revealed to me what my kind of painting that is. Loose brushwork, painting from life, emphasis on colour harmony. That’s the painter I want to be.
In a way I’m glad I didn’t win. The final prize is very generous and also means an enormous amount of work and pressure – I feel like in my particular case I would be forced to define myself. I don’t think I would be ready for this. I think I’d prefer to live and paint for another 20-30 years (or generally, hopefully sometime during my lifetime) until a prestigious museum acquires my work.
Saying that, I think Morag was a perfect winner for this program and it’s totally deserved in her case. Morag is pure goodness. She is our Egon Shiele of the show. Her work has a perfect balance between being solid and distinct enough to say “this is Morag Caister” while there’s still room for constant evolvement and experimentation, something I find, is the essence of being an artist. I was genuinely happy when Morag won, and sort of, relieved for myself. [wink]
I thought Binny could totally be a winner too. Binny is a professional. It’s like she possesses the sixth sense when it comes to painting. That sufficient amount of mark making - enough to tell a story, but without using too many words. I find her painting so lightweight. She is a fantastic woman, we had so many great chats, and I love her.
Overall, PAOTY was a great experience. Either way, I think every artist who’s on this show wins. It’s really a battle against yourself. Whatever type of art you’re making, it's always a battle. Strangely, a one you think it’s worth fighting for. For what sake? That’s a good question.