That time I was on the telly, drawing Dr Who…(part 2)

Continued from part 1… (link to that here)

So a slightly tired and jaded David Tennant is now in the hot seat, the clock has started, and it’s photo time. 

I took my EOS DSLR camera, which meant I got much more control over the way the photo looks than using a phone. If you’re taking a photo to draw from, then using a phone is full of pitfalls. Phones have tiny focal lengths at their default setting and they easily distort a human head into a bulbous,  fisheye-mangled mess, quite likely with a huge nose and no ears. It’s possible on most phones to adjust this by using the maximum optical zoom, and getting a little farther away from your subject. But still, using a DSLR is still a much better option. See the images below - both heads are the same size in the frame. The first pic is taken using the main lens and 2.5x zoom, meaning the camera is a fair way away from my face, so important stuff like the ears are visible and generally the facial proportions are reasonably accurate. The second image is taken using the front facing lens with the phone quite close, which has made everything a bit fisheye - check out the missing ears…So, not all pics taken with a phone, or a short focal length lens on a normal camera, are good to work from.

Camera phone, back camera, 2.5x zoom. Ears visible!
Camera phone, front camera, zero zoom - no ears and a stretched face.

As well as the technical aspect of taking a photo to consider, there is knowing what you want to get out of it. He’d taken up a position which was just about my ideal - facing about 45 degrees away from me (meaning exactly halfway between a head-on and a profile). It’s a high pressure environment so managing as much of the sitting as possible led me to be not-so-relaxed about how our sitter was going to present. So, I asked Mr T for three options - to look straight ahead on his 45’ angle, to keep his head pointing where it was and make eye contact with me, and then look halfway between me and straight on. The last option was the one I chose as the supporting photo for the drawing which I aimed to do mainly from life. Although I didn’t plan to do a full body portrait, his pose was quite interesting with lots of angles emanating from his wiry limbed frame - you can see that below here, and also note the lack of “fizz” I had to work with - no two ways about it, even at the start of the day, this was a tired sitter.

Once the photos were done and the pose agreed and set, which took a little direction about sitting up straighter from yours truly (I was genuinely sorry to ask him to do this, but I’m sure the tired little soldier would have been asleep in moments otherwise) it was onto the meaningful part of the day: Making the portrait. 

Well, I could explain it in great detail, but to be honest there’s a TV show about that which does the job much better (search for Series 4 Episode 1, it’s from the 2018 competition). Let me instead share a few things not shown on the TV that happened that day. If you’re highly strung (I’m not, most of the time) then the process of making a TV programme is going to get on your nerves - it can seem as though barely 10 minutes goes by without a cameraman, producer or presenter stopping your progress as they go about the act of capturing the content, and your progress. I heard that there were 84 people involved in the production at the venue on the day, I can’t substantiate that, and it seems a lot, but also having been there I can tell you it may have been possible - certainly any notion that the artists are passively observed from afar as they make their portrait without hindrance is one that should be rejected immediately! To be honest, I loved the attention from everyone - is that bad? Being an artist is a bloody lonely pursuit, often meaning hours spent alone standing looking at a patch of tone deciding if it’s right or not. Sighs, it’s dull. However, a studio space full of artists, celebs, TV people and a live audience is not dull, it’s exciting, and as someone that used to race motorcycles and fly aeroplanes in pursuit of adrenalin (spoiler alert - learning to fly is only exciting when it’s going wrong, and when it’s going wrong believe me it’s not fun at all, it’s horrible), it felt like a match made in heaven to me!

I did what I did drawing wise and at the time I was happy enough with it. That feeling didn’t last long to be honest, even in the weeks after I felt underwhelmed by my effort, but you know, on the day, after all the pre-filming anxiety had squeezed almost all the joy out of life, just delivering a viable portrait that looked a reasonable amount like the sitter felt like success: A huge success. So, I can see how I decided it was good enough on the day, and how I subsequently retracted that opinion over time. As it stands now, some six years since I made it, I remain ambivalent about it - it’s ok, not great, but also not horribly inept. If I had my time again, I’d push certain things a lot lot harder and I’d also not make some fundamental mistakes with the construction of the drawing that shaped the outcome negatively. And no, I’m not telling you what they are!

I’d watched enough episodes of the programme prior to being on it to know that “overworking” is a real thing. Sometimes a portrait even in a raw state has something good going on, that gradually gets squeezed out of it as it’s worked on too much. I had this in the front of my head as the time expired and started to sit back from making too many changes. I’d decided that it was worthy of putting in front of the judges with about half an hour to go, and so stopped. I went for a walk to have a look at what the others were up to, and overall I was pretty pleased that I thought I was in with a shout. I’d also spotted something that looked a lot like the winner to balance that positive feeling right out.”Oh well, maybe a top three is possible” I mused.

I was encouraged to go back to the easel for the last few minutes of the sitting where at the “5 minutes left” call a cameraman pokes a piece of equipment right in your face, and you are broadly encouraged to make a reaction to the announcement. I did my best to feign dismay at the lack of time, but truthfully I didn’t give a toss. I’d been finished for ages!

The spoiler paragraph>>> If you plan to watch it and don’t want to know what happened at the judging phase, look away now.

I can’t recall the order in which the sections turned their easels to the sitter, I think ours was last, definitely not first anyway. Everything takes ages, as the entire crew focus on just on of the three sections as the work gets presented to the sitter. TV is not a quick thing, and the nervous energy of waiting to reveal built as others took their turn. 

Eventually the crew and audience made their way to my section and we were teed up to do the reveal. I believe Mr Tennant hadn’t peeped at the work at break times or as we’d gone along, so his reaction to the easel turn was I suspect entirely genuine. Our section had gone three very different ways, a small drawing in colour, a big drawing in charcoal (me) and a big painting in colours that were dialled up to 11. Frank walked him along the line starting at mine, he professed I’d made him look butch - I couldn’t work out if that was something he liked or not, but Frank Skinner had given the eyes I’d drawn a fairly robust accolade, so overall I was happy. 

They looked at the other two pieces of work and then it was time for the first piece of judgement of the day - will the sitter pick your work?

Well, no. As it turns out, he didn’t - but I genuinely believe from the body language I saw that it was a really really close thing and people who I had along with me said exactly the same! He picked the small drawing, which is the piece of work in the room that I already marked down as the winner, so there was some comfort in knowing that, and even more comfort that I was proven right a little later when it did. Hetty Lawler was just 16 when she made that drawing, and honestly it was never in question that it was the best piece of work in the room that day. She eventually got to the final and so I can’t gripe about being unfairly beaten for even a moment - she’s a fabulous artist as well as being annoyingly young for someone with so much talent!

That just left the judges choice of the top three, and I’ll not hang about in telling you I didn’t make that either! The other two artists from my section of three were picked in slots one and two when the top three were called out, and so I pretty much knew I wouldn’t be going anywhere good after that - I’ve never seen all three artists picked from the same third. Ho hum.

So for me the day which had started at around 7:30, was finished about 13 hours later. I’d had a ball, I’d not disgraced myself which was the primary objective, and I’d made a lifetime memory. What happens next is having to shut up about being on the show, or the result, for nine months until it’s shown - it’s a tight contract you have to sign before you’re allowed to participate, which is expected and entirely professional, but staying quiet waiting for the showing of the programme is plain bloody purgatory! 

The nine months came and went and on the night that it was shown I was actually hosting an art gig that I couldn’t cancel, so I had to record it to watch later! I remember working on a portrait from life and thinking “It started a minute and 30 seconds ago” and then “It’s been on for 5 minutes” and then every few minutes thereafter!

Watching the show was finally vindication that it had actually happened and wasn’t just some figment of a corrupted memory! Believe me when I say nine months is a loooong time to mull over something as exciting as this and have to stay quiet about it! 

I enjoyed the show, I thought I came across ok, although way chubbier than expected! But as usual it lasts an hour, and then it’s over. A wrap. Finished. Experience complete. 

Once the show was aired I could at least talk about it, and stick some social media up around it, but then the cold cold hand of anti-climax visits and you realise it’s been and gone. Humph.

The unexpected benefit of being on the show is twofold I think - firstly, for me at the time wanting to plot a path towards being a professional artist it couldn’t have been a better credential - I genuinely think it helped to open doors for me to get a position as associate artist at MK Gallery and also gallery representation to sell my work commercially. The viewing figures that year were 400k per episode, and I think it’s likely much bigger than that now - it’s seriously good exposure, and has a currency amongst not just artists but many of the general population too. Secondly is much less about what it’s done for me on the outside, but what it’s done for me on the inside. I made quick work of analysing where I’d been good and bad on the day, and how the work had included problems which I simply didn’t see because I hadn’t worked hard enough to understand how to avoid them. I embarked on a programme of development in working from life that made me much stronger, and more able to be effectively critical of my own work - on my day I can produce work that I adore and that is just right. On other days, not so much this! But now I have a much better handle on what I’m doing, how good it is, and where I need to keep developing. I genuinely think being put under the spotlight of Portrait Artist of the Year has made me a much better artist, and it’s certainly helped me make the switch from amateur to professional. 

In conclusion I think I really need to thank PAOTY for having such an effect on my life, every single day. Along with the fact that watching the original programme in 2013 was what turned me onto portraiture, the benefits from my brief appearance on the show in 2018 mean I’m now a professional artist. Although that in itself is in no way easy, IT IS a dream come true. To be honest (whisper it) when it goes well, it’s not really work!

Thanks for reading!


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