That time I was on the telly, drawing Dr Who…(part 1)

I can almost blame Portrait Artist of the Year  (PAOTY) for where I am now. Not because of my very brief appearance on it in 2018, but because in 2013 when it started, it quickly became my favourite programme on TV. I had always drawn, but I never really thought I could do faces…of course, watching the show made me want to try.

I’ve loved to draw my entire life, I genuinely can not remember a time that a piece of paper and a drawing implement weren’t a happy place for me. But, it wasn’t portraits or people in the early years, it was almost exclusively aeroplanes, which is one of my other true loves in life. 

Crashed Me109 drawing from 2005

By my late thirties me making art was really occasional - I was only making one or two drawings a year, which were usually of an aeroplane. As much as I always loved making those drawings, life just got in the way of doing more. Ho hum. But then in 2013, PAOTY came along and started flirting with the part of my brain that needs continual growth - and it seemed that making portraits would be a good thing to try. So, I did just that. I shocked myself, because I’d always told myself I couldn’t draw faces…

I took a selfie using just a candle for light, and picked up a white pencil and black paper for reasons that I still can’t explain, but that started me off in a very clear direction, one that I still travel today - reduction and darkness. About three hours later, I had the image you see above. Now, I have the benefit of knowing what the source image looked like, and I promise you, it’s not that similar, but that said -  I didn’t care, because this already felt a lot like the best drawing I ever did. This drawing is THE reason I threw myself into portraiture with such vigour.

Roll onto 2017 after several years of endeavour in making portraits from life, and I take a phone call whilst shopping. Someone from the production company tells me that my application for this years show has been successful, and filming will be in April, if I’d like to come along? Erm, letmethinkaboutthatyes.

First up, let me say that the people at Storyvault films that produce the show are brilliant. They make sure you feel entirely at home and comfortable - they’re so good at making the fast-paced day feel less like work and more like a fun day out. It’s a really long day (around 13 hours start to finish) but it’s fun, and rewarding.

There’s some preamble to deal with, intro filming and stuff like that, before you get to the good bit being allocated a sitter… I’ll confess to something I never shared before - I knew who my sitter was before it was announced. One of the hosts (remaining nameless because they’re lovely) had been wafting a card around with all three sitters names on as we chatted before the show. Is it bad I couldn’t help but read all the names as they walked away? 

Anyway, my grubby charcoal style and desire for a heavyweight name meant I knew I wanted David Tennant from the list I’d seen (the other sitters were genius young scriptwriter/actress Michaela Coel and musician James Morrison). Boom! The other sections were allocated the other sitters and so it was just up to me to do some acting and feign surprise/delight that I was getting David Tennant when he was announced. 

The use of technology by artists on the show is an increasingly sticky subject, and one that has grown exponentially since I was on in 2017. Even back then my “draw from life” mantra meant that I knew my first job of the day, taking a photo reference, was something I would do begrudgingly rather than without thought. But you know “it’s a once in a lifetime experience and if you have a fidgety or sleepy sitter, you’ll thank yourself later” is how I made peace with it. How do I feel about the use of technology as it is now? Well, the high-tide mark for leaning on tech was undoubtedly the 2022 series episode where an artist took a camera AND a printer onto the set, printed out their photo and traced it onto their canvas. I nearly needed an ambulance. I frown upon gridding, so tracing? Haha! nope, that’s crossing a line for me, big time. I’d really welcome an open debate about the limits of tech on the show because in my humble opinion as it stands, it’s starting to slide down a slippery slope unchecked by sensible intervention. When Kathleen Soriano asked the same artist “Oh my, how do you work so quickly?!” I found myself screaming at the telly “They traced it!!”… I am guessing it wasn’t just me? My ideal, and this would possibly kill the show stone dead, is for it to be entirely from life. Imagine that - what a bump to the format that would be! No photos, no grids, no iPads, definitely no printers, no phones, no tracing. Just pure artistic talent in the traditional sense and loads of artists telling their sitters off for moving - ha! They’d also need to rethink the set, especially for the semi-final, as up to eight artists around a single sitter is not conducive to doing anything other than working from a photograph.

Anyway, David Tennant was introduced and sat down by Frank Skinner (it was Frank’s last series) and asked how we’d like him to pose. He was playing the lead in a theatre run of Don Juan in London, and I believe had done the matinee day with two performances the day before. As he slumped into the chair, in the manner of someone ready to enjoy a day’s rest perhaps a little too much, I gathered up the balls to suggest he stay a little more upright - “Honestly Dave, this is my day, and you’re not sleeping on it” is what I thought, “Perhaps sit up a little more” is how it came out. He wasn’t hugely impressed, we didn’t talk much after that…

continued in part 2, soon.

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