Episode 2 of Portrait Artist of the Year (Series 9)

Episode 2 of Portrait Artist of the Year (Series 9)

Two musical artists and a comedian featured as sitter in this week’s
second episode of Portrait Artist of the Year (Series 9).

Lulu, Phil Manzanera (guitarist with Roxy Music) and Alex Brooker were
the sitters.

I need to say upfront, that I thought this episode was less impressive than last weeks in terms of the calibre of the art produced – as both submissions and in the heat. 

  • Last week, there were more than three who were in with a shout of being shortlisted last week – but, in my view, not so much this week. 
  • In part this was because the self portraits were a lot less adventurous in terms of the painting of anything below the head and shoulders. 

Never ever underestimate the importance of the submission and what it says about you and your skills as an artist.

Episode 2 - the self portrait submissions wall
Episode 2 – the self portrait submissions wall

The artists

The Artists – after they had finished their paintings

The artists are listed below – and are ordered alphabetically by surname. 

You can also see the top down videos of what they painted on
this link

  • Muna Aghamelu
    (Instagram) – a computer science graduate
    from Manchester, currently studying (at the time of the Heat) for a Masters Degree in Computer Science (with a Minor in Mandarin) at UCL. She graduated this summer and has since become a Software Engineer. She’s got a very impressive Linked In profile!
  • Ara Badiya (Instagram | Twitter) – Originally from the Ukraine and studied at the Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture, in Kyiv. Now a graphic designer and art director based in Bedforshire.
  • Michael J Browne (Facebook | Twitter) – b.1963 He has drawn and painted footballers in the past and has an artwork called The Art of The Game 1997 in the National Football Museum
  • Cristina Celestini (Facebook | Instagram | Twitter) – b. Rome 1962. A retired linguistics teacher living in Birmingham. Studied Rome University, Modern Languages MA, 1986 and a Part time Foundation degree, Birmingham School of Art, Bournville Campus (unfinished)1999. 
  • Neil Cunning (Instagram | Twitter) – an architect and painter based in Edinburgh, Scotland. In 2022, he exhibited in Royal Society of Portrait Painters Exhibition and was a Scottish Portrait Awards Finalist 2022. (his self portrait)
  • Thomas Golunski (Instagram | Twitter) | YouTube) – an artist and art teacher based in the West Sussex, working in primarily in Oils and Charcoal.

  • Victoria Horsfall
    | Instagram) – a fine artist living and working in South London. She has a Ceramic Design degree from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. However she is a self taught figurative artist. Judging by her website she’s good at portraying children and families. Her self-portrait submission was her first ever self portrait
  • Noah Rush (Instagram) – youngest participant aged 19. He’s an art student at Goldsmith’s College in London. (his self portrait)
  • Olivia Valentine (Instagram) – a portrait, figurative and landscape painter. She studied traditional portraiture in Florence for four years at Charles Cecil Studios in Florence. She paints commissions from her studio in Brixton. She had a portrait in the annual exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 2021. (This is her lockdown self portrait)

Size and Content of Self Portrait Submission

The self portrait wall – which I found underwhelming.

My overall assessment of the self-portraits – in terms of content – was unexciting The only one that was interesting was Cristina’s swimming head.


  • Portrait format x 7
  • Landscape x 2
  • Square x 1


  • Large x 1
  • Large/Medium x 3
  • Medium x 1
  • Small x 3
  • Tiny x 1


It’s very disappointing to see no larger self portraits in terms of full size or most of the body – and ONLY ONE HAND from NINE artists!

  • full size or most of body (including hand) x 0
  • upper torso + hand(s) x 1
  • upper torso (no hands) x 1
  • head and shoulders x 4
  • head x 3


How people see very differently

As always, it’s really interesting to see how different artists see a sitter differently – and how this is then reflected in the portrait they produce as a result.

How well artists represent what they see that is different is also reflected in the skills of the artist to represent what they see. I like those who capture the essence of the person – and don’t get carried away trying to make a bit of brushwork or colouration look good irrespective of whether or not it adds to the portrait of the person.

For me, seeing starts with eyeballing – and learning how to draw and get shapes and proportions correct. Drawing with paint is fine IF you can learned how to draw first. No amount of playing with tones and colours is going to remedy portraits where “there’s something not quite right about the size of shape”.

For those participating in future, you can see a sitter differently – but you need to produce a good likeness

Bottom line – seeing different should still produce a good likeness

Taking risks vs playing safe

If you feel that you need to play it safe during the heat, then the time to take risks is with the self portrait submission.

However what we got with this heat was 

  • some very , very ‘safe’ self-portrait submissions and 
  • some very safe heat portraits. 

Overall the artwork in this heat lacked excitement and interest. 

I don’t agree with the Judges. For me, the one person who I felt took risks was Cristina – both in terms of her design and content of her self-portrait and her decision to use coloured pencils on a large scale for her heat portrait. However it was a trifle pale – despite continuing to layer through lunch.

However it was the only portrait which produced a strong emotional response from the sitter – and he, of course took it home!

Phil Manzanera by Cristina Celestini
coloured pencils

Scope of the Portrait

One of the major questions which every artist needs to address is how much of the sitter they should try and portray.

  • Should they go for the whole body, just the head or somewhere inbetween?
  • Then there’s the matter of hands. 

I’m a great believer in the notion that you can’t be a good portrait painter if you can’t paint hands. If you’ve not painted them in your submission, you need to demonstrate at some point that you can.

Bear in mind that whoever wins this competition should have – at some stage – demonstrated that they can portray people who have hands and bodies!

What we got in this heat was:

  • Head and upper torso, hands, thighs and significant item x 1 (did not make shortlist despite the ambition)
  • Head and upper torso and hands x 3
  • Head and upper torso x 1
  • Head and shoulders x 4
  • Head only x 1

Bravo to Tommy who had a really go at getting in the chair and the guitar as well as upper torso, thighs and both hands. It was a brave decision to go with that composition and I think he ran short on time in terms of finishing it off properly.

Size of the Canvas / Support 

Is it a better idea to go small or big?

My own view is that a lot of people seem to stick to smaller supports thinking that it will be easier / quicker to cover the surface. On the whole I think these are very probably people who never think too much about changing the size of the brush they work with. How fast you can get paint on a canvas is to do with the size of the brush you use – and I watched more than one artist working with rather small brushes.

By way of contrast, working on a bigger support means that you can get your whole arm working and loosen up rather than tighten up – always a good thing in a tense situation. It’s also easier to see when you’ve got a feature wrong in terms of size or shape – and actually it’s a LOT easier to make corrections when working big rather than working small. 

Working big also means you can get more ambitious about the size of your sitter on your support – and avoids the “head only” approach.

One of these days I’m going to count up how many “more than just a head” people get through to the Final and win different series of this competition…..

Paint versus pencil when getting started

People elect to use different media when getting started. Some go straight for paint, while others carefully grid their supports and then draw an outline in graphite.

There is no right way of doing this, The best way is whatever works best for the artist in that context. 

I would say however that painting heads is a lot easier once you’ve done some eyeballing and drawing beforehand – in terms of finding out the bits about shape and proportion of your sitter which surprise you!

Use of social media

One of the things I’m always amazed by is that people would put themselves for an art competition on television – which fundamentally has got to be about promoting their art and possibly their art careers – who do not get their online presence sorted well in advance of the broadcasting of their episode.

I’m also bemused by the number of people who just have an instagram account – but no website. 

Personally I can always tell who is serious about their art and their career by how they market themselves and their art online. Plus what sort of website they have.

Cristina Celestini gets my vote for being the most organised and the best presented artist online in this heat. 

Dame Joan Blackwell (sic), Stephen Mangan and the ‘judgmentals” Kate Bryan, Kathleen Soriano and Tai Shan Schierenberg are amazing, they were patient, friendly, unobtrusive and full of encouragement, I could not thank them enough for asking pertinent questions, laughing and joking with me and altogether making the day so much more memorable.

The Judging

The SITTERS chose portraits as follows

  • Lulu chose Neil (and was shortlisted)
  • Phil chose Cristina (who was shortlisted)
  • Alex chose Michael’s painting – who did not get shortlisted – but I can well understand why Alex preferred the painting.
The three Judges

The Judges liked

  • capturing the personality and temperament of the sitter
  • intelligent choice of composition
  • there is a very real sense of the sitter being alive
  • a real sense of the physicality of the sitter – and how they sat in the chair
  • delicate drawing
  • moving on from what’s presented in the submission

The Judges were less impressed by

  • likeness which is not great / not strong enough

Spme of their comments were incomprehensible – I can only assume they were being polite. 

The Shortlist

Those shortlisted were:

  • Neil Cunning
  • Noah Rush
  • Cristina Celestini
Look no hands!

Very oddly, those who made a big effort to include more of the sitter were totally ignored by the Judges when it came to shortlisting – and they chose three head and shoulders portraits – albeit one nodded in the direction of the significant item.

I guess I come back – yet AGAIN – to the significance of the self-portrait submission in terms of showing what you can do…..

Neil Cunning: Self Portrait and portrait of Lulu

Neil seem to paint sad people. Nice painting – once he eliminated the large quantities of mud he had on the face at one point – but, for me, his portrait lacks ‘life and soul’. 

The Judges thought he got a great likeness – in the end.

Lulu thought it a great likeness. Tai thought it was a real person. Joan challenged whether the portrait suggested that Lulu was a petite person – and the Judges agreed.

(Joan occasionally makes very incisive comments about aspects the Judges appear to have failed to spot. I think she’s a wonderful contributor to this show!)

Cristina Celestini: self portrait and drawing of Phil Manzanera

I like drawing and I REALLY LIKED both of Cristina’s drawings. The pity is that it’s very difficult for coloured pencil to compete with oil or acrylic painting – because it lacks oomph on screen.

These are both drawings you’d love to look at in a gallery

I also very much liked the way she offset the heads on her landscape format paper – and that se worked large.

By way of contrast with Neil’s portrait of Lulu, the Judges thought Cristina’s drawing of Phil’\s head also suggested his physique. They particularly liked the fact the drawing was very believable – as if he was about to step off the page. 

Noah Rush – self portrait and painting of Alex Brooker

Noah’s portraits have “presence” – by which I mean, they seem to get under the skin of the sitter and there seems to be some sense of who the person is within the portrait.

His portrait of Alex is a ‘grower’. Not one I took to initially – but it’s looked better the more I looked at the stills,

Stephen commented that Noah was a sweet quiet guy who produces scary/moody paintings.

The Judges considered that at the moment Noah was more concerned with creating mood. Tai suggested he was not occupied with emotional content of the sitter but rather that “his heads occupy space” (what else would they do?).

Episode 2 Winner

The winner of Episode 2 was Noah Rush – the art student and the youngest participant in this heat.

His portrait was described by Judges as a really intense and powerful painting. The Judges decided that although he was young, he wanted to take risks and they can’t wait to see what he does next.

To be absolutely honest I couldn’t spot the risks they thought he had taken. I could only see two paintings of heads. That’s not unusual in painters of his age. I’ve often observed artists who have started off by specialising in heads and work out to do more over time!

Noah was really not expecting to win!

Speaking personally, I would have chosen Cristina. She draws well and she works on colour and tone carefully. I have a sneaky feeling that maybe she didn’t make it through to the semi-finals because she struggled to get her work finished – until she made the decision to work through lunch (which you can do). It’s a decision only for those with stamina who don’t need feeding at regular intervals – you can always eat later! Snacks in your pocket seem like a good idea……

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Episode 3

The sitters next week will be Suggs, Miquita Oliver, Eve Muirhead. Before you
ask – me too.

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

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