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  • Emma Hill

Portrait Artist of the Year

Saturday 22nd April

Yesterday was surreal, exciting, petrifying, emotionally charged. I took part in a documentary called Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year, a competition to win a commission for the National Portrait Gallery. Here is what happened.

Friday 21st April 2023

Filming Day


I find myself front of line as we enter the big, big studio down in the depths of Battersea Arts Centre, the location for the competition. My painting position is the first right at the entrance, not sure if this is a good or bad thing. Glad I am placed to the right of where the sitter will be, not centre. Should get an angled rather than front-facing pose: better, more nuanced.

Begin to set my things up. Brought far too many paintbrushes.

First thing that makes me laugh: the background. It’s a mix of red and blue, mainly red, cadmium red my least favourite colour to work with. Acrid, unyielding. The red I have always veered away from.

Nicole comes over and introduces herself. Nicole is running our cheese - a cheese is one of the three segments or set-ups in which three of the painters and their sitter work. Three cheeses, three artists in each, nine artists making up the heat’s contestants. Heck, this is a competition. Nicole is a wonder throughout, thoughtful, present, encouraging, there to make sure we don’t lose our nerve or pass out or freak out.

Enter our sitter, who is Susanna Reid, the Good Morning Britain presenter and Crystal Palace supporter, there: the red and blue. She is warm, beautiful.


Then it starts. Shaking like a leaf, hands trembling with the nerves I have so long fought to fight, but never, ever succeeded. Cameras roll, tons of them, big ones on booms, handheld ones, ones on sliders, by you, behind you, in front of you. Constant interviewing (this is a TV show, this is the deal), lovely Ellie another hero in my cheese is directing the interviews and gently, kindly, encouragingly cajoling words out of each of we three artists. Eleanor Dunn drawing, Drew Thompson painting and me.

Begin with very rough, very bad sketch of my sitter. It had been part of the plan but becomes more to try and steady my trembling nerves than do anything useful in prep for the piece. I had decided to be kind to myself and do head and shoulders only. With hindsight, wish I’d included Susanna’s hands.

Become so absorbed that I am scarcely aware of the audience, which fills the room but I don’t find them in the least distracting, am just aware of a soft hum.


Tai-Shan Schierenberg (one of the judges, alongside Kathleen Soriano and Kate Bryan) comes over during the morning break and stands looking at the painting and asks me, how do you do that? Earlier on you didn’t have it, but look at what you have done now, how do you do it?


Think I overhear the judges from behind, will she just add more Cezanne-y touches. Tai comes over, asks: ‘what is your process, how did you do that with the marks? What is your system? What is your strategy?’ I talk about mapping, finding anchor points, eyes, base of nose, mouth. In reality, I don’t think I’ve been doing any of this. I go against all my careful early stages of the process for fear of not making it.

Kate Bryan is a quiet yet powerful presence, observing, watching from behind. She comes over to talk to me - what does she say? Earlier on when we had the intro line-up and shook hands she said I loved your self-portrait. Later at the end for the farewell line up she says I love your painting - I want to take your self-portrait home. But on camera, during the interview she asks about my process. Think I’m stuck for what to say. ‘A moment, a fleeting moment, that feeling of Impressionism,’ she proffers and is this what I want to capture.

Steve Mangan is brilliant, kind, he seems captivated, baffled or entranced - I think he is standing watching for a while genuinely intrigued. He teases me a bit about the nerves, he’s a brilliant presence to have there, the joker, cajoling, kind, helping us chill. As he was there Susanna chips in (she was so invested in it, part of the process, feeling our pain, our concentration). Shares a tip with me on how to deal with nerves. ‘Look at them and put them into a box, then forget about them, leave them behind.’ Wonder if that will make the final cut.

‘Emotionally charged’, says Stephen as he watches my painting. Did I agree that it was a battle he asks. ‘Why do I do it if it’s so emotionally wrought?’ I ask myself this, often.

Steve asks whether my experience and being a beauty editor plays into my painting. I directed beauty shoots that were like portraits, I say, and the light, mood and composition were part of the process, like painting portraits.

Joan Bakewell is incisive and cuts to the chase, areas that need work. Time is ticking. The legend asks questions, I answer, but I am unable to remember.


Time’s up. The rest is a blur until our farewell line up.


I remember Kathleen Soriano as we shake hands to say goodbye comment on how she loved my painting style and found my way of painting fascinating. She mentions Bonnard and Vuillard. I take this thought home.

Sometime after

I hope the idea of ‘battle’ which both Tai-Shan and Stephen homed in on when interviewing me (did I look that pained) won’t make my clips.

Did I achieve a likeness? Maybe. But it was difficult. The harsh overhead lighting took away both contrast and the subtleties of light falling on skin and facial contours. I had taken a photo, but it was fuzzy. I am interested in movement, light play, the living, breathing human. I’m not used to devices.

At the very end, someone in the audience comes up to me to say, I loved your painting and how you paint, I would want you to paint my portrait. I take this thought home, too and prepare my diary for commissions.

Thank you…

…to Storyvault Films and Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year for giving me the opportunity to take part. Thank you to Kathleen Soriano, Tai-Shan Schierenberg, Kate Bryan, Stephen Mangan and Joan Bakewell for being so fantastically supportive, and for making this iconic show what it is.

Portrait Artist of the Year continues apace on Sky Arts Freeview channel 11 and catch up on Now TV.

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