Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2018

My experience – Part 1: The set-up

Alastair Faulkner, Competitor, Series 4 Episode 8

10 April 2017 – filming day

I wrote this reflective piece a couple of days after filming and now that the episode has been broadcast I can share with you my experiences on what was a truly memorable day…

It’s been 4 days since the day of my heat in the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2018 and it’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t just a dim and distant dream. The day began at 05:50am when I got up and my Dad kindly drove me to Rochester Railway Station. With my large red bag containing my materials in one hand, and a canvas in the other, I navigated through the busy commuters and took a taxi from St. Pancras (whilst wishing my brother a Happy 30th Birthday!) and arrived at the Wallace Collection. The Sun was shining, and the building looked superb against the early morning sky. At this point it was 07:30am and bleary eyed I walked through the delivery entrance.

Here I saw a gentleman in front of me called Tom who was also competing who had this enormous black plastic box that required two people to help bring into the gallery. “I just brought my whole studio with me today,” he said with an enormous grin and I couldn’t help but smile. Needless to say, I was already feeling the pressure. We were ushered to the “green room” – essentially a small room a floor below the area we were painting in that had many easels on the wall and a small kitchen in the corner. Here I met the other artists who would be competing. A sickeningly talented and wonderful bunch called: Christabel, Frances, Michelle (who incidentally had competed in Landscape Artist of the Year already!), Beverley, Pal, Jonathan, Tom and Rebecca.

Selfie with my painted selfie This photo was taken halfway through the day and fatigue was starting to creep in.

The Set-up

Almost immediately, now that we had all assembled, Fiona the director gave us a briefing on the day and how it would unfold. Still tired from the journey I confess I didn’t take all of it in but all of us were soon ushered outside to film our “Arriving at the Wallace Collection” shot. Christabel, Frances and myself were up first and we had only just met each other and I felt rather self-conscious at the artifice of this setting that I think the directors picked up on and we were asked to “walk to the entrance completely naturally” several times. I was carrying the art box that my brother had given me for Christmas and a set of pencils I’ve had since primary school as my “tools for the day”. During the second take I think we felt a lot more relaxed and found it fairly easy to tune out this camera shoved in our faces after our first attempt.

Following this we had our “pre-competition interviews” and despite the sunshine, the cold morning breeze meant that it felt colder than anticipated. I don’t remember much of what I said and I just suppressed all memory of embarrassment but the general consensus as a group was that we didn’t enjoy them.

After this we were then ushered into the area that we were going to be painting and it was just like I had seen it on TV. Having been a fan of the show since the first series, it only just hit me that I would be participating in this competition and seeing the studio caused the nerves to accelerate even more. For those that haven’t seen the programme essentially 9 artists are positioned in a circle divided into thirds (each third of cheese as the show’s director put it) with 3 artists painting each sitter. My third was positioned right at the entrance so could be seen by all the guests on entry. Our background consisted of a a deep blue with a large draped curtain position in a lazy W shape behind a black chair with grey cushions. It was a richly coloured and textured background and I was thinking in my head how I’d love to attempt to paint at least part of that curtain.


The magnificent 9. Photograph by Richard Faulkner.

In our third were the artists Jonathan, Christabel and myself positioned from left to right. We started setting up and the camera crew came round and asked us about various materials and supplies we have brought with us. Tom had this incredibly impressive palette with almost stalactite proportions that looked incredible. I loved Frances’ palette as it was huge and reminded me of the old masters and Christabel brought several blocks to paint on.

In my head I was trying to be organised and I had started mixing paints of the background but the crew wanted to film me doing that so I had to wait and get everything else organised. I checked my brushes were intact, sharpened my pencils, set up the canvas in position (so that the time lapse camera could record my painting), checked my media were okay and started blocking out paint onto palettes. We were positioned with our backs right at the entrance of the room so all guests coming in would see us and our art work first. At this point I channelled this pressure into being constructive and organised for the day.

“Having been a fan of the show since the first series, it only just hit me that I would be participating in this competition and seeing the studio caused the nerves to accelerate even more”

The Sitter

Before I knew it we were filming the entrance of the sitters and looking at the watch I was surprised to learn that it was already 09:30am and I felt I hadn’t set up at all! I had barely started mixing colours which can be very time consuming and I had no desire for that to eat into my painting time. I was told that they wanted to film me mixing my colours and I was aware that the schedule of the day would be rigidly guided by the production team so I held off and had to adapt. Our sitter came first and I was absolutely delighted that it was the comedienne, actress, writer, broadcaster and generally fabulous Meera Syal who was to be our sitter. She was wearing this beautiful turquoise pashmina with yellow and pink pattern adorned across and Indian Pearl Earrings. I initially thought the pashmina may clash with the background but the colours brought out her vibrant skin tones. She joked that she was going to learn lines whilst sitting for a Horror Film featuring nuns in Romania. She had a warm and friendly manner about her and really put us at ease. She was also very receptive to us as artists and keen to insure that she was positioned optimally for us.

Christabel, Jonathan and I with the wonderful Meera Syal

Photograph by Richard Faulkner

When she was positioned, we learned that the other two sitters would be Shakespearean actor Derek Jacobi and Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark.

Continue on and read Part 2: The Painting