top of page
Portrait Artist of the year 2022.JPG
Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year Anniversary

the days before the DAY

The decision to apply.

I applied to Portrait Artist of the Year 2022 on a whim, half hoping and half aware how hard it is to be selected. I had not applied the year before and I struggled with the thought of applying this year because I thought I had no chance. For years I had been watching the programme on Sky Arts, reading all the “Making a mark “ blogs and a little voice kept telling me to try one last time and so I entered the black and white swimmer.


The self-portrait entry 

The drawing I chose for the contest was completed just before the swimming pools closed because of the pandemic so probably in March/ April 2020 and, apart from showing my profound love of swimming, it is one of my last black and white portraits. 

The pose and context are very important to me. I have been feeling for some time that women over 50 do not have great visual representation in the art world. There are women artists and thankfully the art world is waking up to their importance, even if there is still a lot to be done,  but we are not often represented as subjects. I wanted to create a portrait of a 50+ woman happy in her skin, strong, aware of her strength and enjoying sport, relishing meditative and physical activity.

Stylistically I wanted to draw a heroic head, and my inspiration was Michelangelo’s heads on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, especially the Sybils, with their twisted, strong necks and bodies.I also wanted to refer to the uncompromising heroines on Soviet Revolutionary posters. So after a few studies I finally posed in front of a mirror for a quick series of sketches and took various photos as references.

I will not describe the drawing process in length and detail, suffice to say that I used every pencil in my pencil case, from 6H to 9B, layering and refining every little corner of skin and it took 10 or more long hours just to do the shading.


The phone call

On or around February the 22nd I received a phone call at about 2 pm telling me that provisionally Storyvault wanted to take my application forward. It was during one of my lessons with the Royal Drawing School and I remember closing the mike and the video and going outside the studio to continue the call. I could not believe it, it took me quite a bit to process what was happening. The whole conversation was surreal as my going forward was not definite at all as still so many things had to be defined and checked, including legal requirements, but it seemed promising and I was sworn to secrecy, only the immediate family could know.

Giddy with the news I am not sure I went back to my online session, probably I had a cup of tea to just try to understand what was going on. My drawing had been accepted! OMG! What do I do now? What if I go on television and look like a complete idiot? I decided to lower the bar of expectations to manage the stress, I decided I had already won as my drawing had been - provisionally - selected and that, if I ever got to be on the programme, the most important thing was to have a lovely day and not to break down or embarrass myself. Ok, I decided I could live with th


Soon after the phone call the logistics of taking part in the competition started: I was sent forms to fill, declarations to declare and signatures to authenticate . The team behind the competition really is world class and all the documents were sent on time, emails were responded to immediately and I really felt the process was smooth and professionally organised. I started having fairly regular chats with one of the  researchers who wanted to unpick my story and tease out interesting details, at no time it felt as if they were being too curious or impertinent, I always felt that they really were interested in me having the best possible experience and getting the most out of it. 

Once the hurdles were cleared my drawing was collected by the handling team and I realised it was all becoming very real.



The date for my heat was 6 weeks after the phone call, so there was lots to do but I had plenty of time to prepare for the programme. I had heard and read that the filming of the heat is very demanding: an early start and late finish, 4 net hours for drawing with pauses for lunch and breaks( during which you can keep on working thus  lengthening the drawing time to almost 6 hours). My focus needed sharpening as well. One thing is drawing in a quiet studio with a sleepy dog in the corner, another is being on set where there are people walking around, talking, interviews, the wonderful hosts, the models to converse with and plenty to get distracted by.

I knew I could do at least 4 hours at the drawing board but could I draw anything good in that time? Would I be able to be calm, talk to people and keep my focus? I was not sure and I decided it was time to train physically and mentally. 

Physically was particularly important to me. As a Crohn's disease sufferer and stoma wearer I was well aware I needed to eat, drink in and rest in  such a way to keep myself healthy and ready for the challenge.

With the support of my husband I started a more intense routine than my usual one: I would wake up early , feed my lovely dog (Herbie) and then spend half an hour sketching a head. Initially I sketched the heads of celebrities but I soon decided to go back to the masters and copy all the portraits attributed to Masaccio: that was a wonderful learning experience: the physicality of Masaccio’s drawings well suits my style and my approach to drawing a head.

After breakfast and a 5 kilometres walk I would settle to work in my studio. 

During the last year, three days a week, I have been taking part in a year-long postgraduate online course organised by the Royal Drawing School so those days were busy and  taken by lessons, but the remaining days I could just work on portraits aiming to finish one in 4 hours.

I worked on a mix of life and photographs, luckily the Royal Drawing school lessons helped; we would often have models on zoom and I found those exercises in a time restricted frame very useful, the feedback from the tutors was also extremely helpful and allowed me to refine my method. 

In the evenings I would read about the masters' techniques and look at their work: my beloved Leonardo, Michelangelo, the maths and measuring of Piero della Francesca, all things I had read and learnt before but which reinforced my approach to drawing a head.

Progress and (difficult ) decisions.

The first decision to take was the size of the portrait I was going to do. My entry was an A1 and I thought I should go smaller given the time restrictions so I started with portraits in A2 in black and white as I wanted to be consistent with my entry. 

I soon found both the size and the medium really unsatisfactory. I hated the small size ( I have always loved big drawings, my dream is to have a whole wall/room to draw!) and because of the time restrictions the black and white finish looked sketchy, unpolished, unloved : the portraits looked done by numbers, just accomplished pencil drawings which were trying to imitate the entry. Luckily, thanks to my approach, I was not finding likeness too much of a problem but the big question was: on the day, do I want to present an accomplished, boring portrait that vaguely resembles my entry or do I want to draw a head I would be proud of even if it is a bit different from the entry? I went for the second choice and started using colour pencils. If I was unable to layer the black pencils as much as I needed I would use colours to replicate the layers of tone. And I would go big! A1  is my favourite size so I just needed to work as fast as I could to finish the drawing!


The day before 

The day of filming starts at 7am so, as I live in Birmingham, I decided to spend the night before at my daughter’s who lives 10 minutes away by car from the Battersea Arts Centre, where the filming takes place. 

The day before the filming was spent packing, repacking and then packing again: making sure I had all my colour pencils, and the black ones just in case, my sheets of Fabriano paper safely stored in my portfolio and my drawing board,yes, my heavy drawing board: I like to be prepared! 

We arrived in London in the late afternoon and had a lovely relaxing (as much as possible) evening and a fairly restful night and then at 5.30 am the alarm went off: the day had come, I felt ready, excited and obviously a bit nervous.

Scroll to read about the Day!

  • Facebook
  • Instagram


Days at the Royal Drawing School

When last year I started my online postgraduate drawing course with the Royal Drawing School (Online Drawing Development Year, ODDY among friends)I was not entirely sure what to expect. I was looking to improve my drawing skills, have interesting and challenging feedback and widen my horizons. As it was an online course, I never seriously thought it could be a way to get to know people.
A year and a bit later, I can definitely say that all my academic expectations were fulfilled and, on top of that, I have met a wonderful bunch of fellow artists.
ODDY 22. Is a cooperative, a group of diverse artists thrown together by the Royal Drawing School one year online course. Little by little in virtual lessons we started recognising and smiling at each other and before long we started plotting world domination … well not quite, just a show in a prestigious London art Gallery (more about this later).
So, as part of our course, the Royal Drawing School organised two in person days in their site in Shoreditch for the 12th and 13th of January, where we would finally meet the other students and the two tutors who followed us most closely: artists Rachel Mercher and Paul Fenner. 
I arrived in London on the 11th of January, eager to spend the afternoon with my daughter, who was kindly putting me up, and wanting to go to Tate Britain to see Lynette Yadom-Boakye’s stunning exhibition. 
As we arrived at the Tate, we met three ODDY artists who had made the same plan as me! It was amazing and surprising to be able to immediately recognise people I had only seen in tiny squares! Great start! 
The morning after I had the full London experience: got onto the tube, the Northern Line, with a heavy bag and a large portfolio and re-emerged at Old street, where I got lost for about 20 minutes trying to get out of the road works and find the right direction for Charlotte Road, where the school is….while it was raining.
Finally, I was there! As I got in the building other people whose faces were incredibly familiar started coming in, it was such an excellent feeling to get to meet people I already felt I knew. 
Our first task of the day was to do some urban sketching with Paul and so off we went, with our drawing paper and pencils wandering about Shoreditch and trying to capture some urban landscape with Paul’s kind help. After the streets we moved on to Spitalfield market and here we wandered about with some of us sketching the people and stalls and some producing some brilliant drawings of the Christ Church in Spitalfield.
After a quick lunch we started the afternoon sessions in one of the beautiful studios. As I mentioned at the beginning The ODDY 22 group have planned an end of year exhibition at The Gallery at Green and Stone in Chelsea starting on the 6th of March 2023 and during this session our tutors would have supported in selecting the pieces to exhibit. We all stuck our work on the walls and slowly we looked at all the drawings and, expertly guided by Rachel and Paul, we selected some pieces. It was a really interesting learning experience and it was wonderful to see the high quality work everyone had produced during the past year.  It was also incredibly tiring and by the end of the afternoon we were all ready to crash somewhere with a drink and something to eat. The pub was super busy but it was so nice to finally just chat with the group and get to show each other photos of our pets and families (not necessarily in that order). 
The second day started nice and early, but I still managed to get lost at Old Street… The morning was dedicated to life drawing, which I haven’t done for a while, and it was enormous fun. Another quick lunch and coffee and the afternoon started. Three of us had volunteered to lead the sessions so we had drawing to dance, devised by William, a great kinetic activity where we drew on large sheets of paper with different colour inks to capture the movement of our model. The results were two stunning Pollock look alike paintings everyone had contributed to. The second session was led by Sarah and we all had 40 seconds to make 5 marks on a piece of paper to contribute to a portrait of our model. After 40 seconds we had to move on to the next easel and continue that portrait with a further 5 marks and so on until we had done a full circle and got back to our original easel. It was really interesting seeing all the portraits taking shapes and we all finished with 3 poses on the same piece of paper. Some were better than others but the activity showed how important collaboration and everybody’s input is in the creation of an artwork. The last session was led by me and it was meant to be a quick demo and practice in the use of colour pencils which at the moment are my favourite medium. I was exhausted and I am sure many others were as well so I decided to lead a really low key session. Everybody sat around the model, who was lit up to resemble a Caravaggio canvas, and we quietly sketched him. Ahhhh, quiet bliss. After two full on, busy, exciting days it was lovely to observe, draw and reflect on what a great thing we had created: a community of artists, a tribe. Thank you everyone and thank you Royal Drawing School.

two portrait drawings in pencil on paper. One of the portrait was completed in 4 hours in the television programme Sky Portrait Artist of the year.


The day 
On the 30th of March, a rather cold and dull day, my husband and I arrived perfectly on time at Battersea Art Centre. Guests could not join the artists until 10 am so I walked in and left him at the door.
Once in, I was immediately taken care of, ushered into the dining room and offered some tea and breakfast. Slowly all the artists arrived and it was lovely to see that everybody was just as excited as me to be finally here. 
I started having some niggling thoughts: all the other artists had some reasonably small canvases or papers to work on, had I been just too ambitious? Too late to change, I decided to follow my plan and hope for the best.
I have already mentioned the excellent staff at StoryVault and really they were amazing throughout the day from the filming crew to the minders keeping the hot cups of tea coming, they made a difference and we all had a much better experience because of their kindness and helpfulness.
Although we started early everything seemed to happen very fast and before long we were wearing a microphone and we were  at our positions in the circular room waiting for the models to arrive. 
The waiting was nerve racking and I started to sketch the people around me to steady my hand. I also started to consider the composition and the direction I wanted to portray the model and sketched the chair to give me a more precise direction of the model’s gaze I wanted to draw. 
As well as waiting we started having “chats”on and off camera with the hosts and the judges. Dame Joan Blackwell, 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. 
At about 10.00 the models started to arrive, gosh that was a very exciting moment! My group was the last one to see their model and what a treat we were in for: we had none other than Phil Manzanera, the original guitarist of the band Roxy Music! Epic. As a teenager in Italy in the late 70s and very early 80s I used to listen to their music and I felt it was such an honour to draw Phil. As we started chatting Phil and I realised we shared a common heritage: his grandfather was Italian, an opera singer from Naples and, being born and brought up in central and South America, Phil speaks perfect Spanish. As in my previous life I lived in South America for a short while and taught Spanish in schools, I loved being able to converse with Phil in that language during the day. His heritage also suggested the colours I wanted to use for my drawing: Pompeian red, ocre, Neapolitan yellow, burnt umber, all colours resonant with meaning and heritage. 
This year PAOTY introduced a new challenge for the artists: all the models took a particular meaningful object with them and we were given the choice to include that in our Portrait. Phil took with him his signature cardinal red guitar, it was beautiful and daunting. Initially I decided to include it in the portrait but I soon realised that the composition would suffer by taking the focus away from Phil’s head. I would have to find a way to hint at it, but I did not know how to yet.
While all these decisions and choices were shaping up in my head I realised I needed to start! I had planned to spend the first hour measuring up and creating the basic line drawing but I had not taken into account the cameras and the ‘chats’. I am generally a slow, careful worker and so decided not to peep at the other artists’ work in order not to increase my anxiety; in spite of this I could not help realising that people were busy painting (I was the only non-painter on the day) while I was still focusing on measuring up! 
In building up a portrait I do the measuring and find the landmarks of a head With the paper horizontal on my desk and only when I am ready to layer on colour I use my drawing board which allows me to look directly at the model and notice nuances of colour I would not detect from a photo on the iPad.
We soon had the first pause and some filming in the corridor, time was going very quickly and I felt I was drawing too slowly and missing my planned milestones. I think people around me were starting to get anxious and even Kathleen Soriano (a fluent speaker of Spanish ) asked me if I was soon starting to flesh out the line drawing! I gave myself half an hour and breathed in deeply. I can remember my husband quietly whispering “you are doing all right” and finally I found my stride and even the camera could not distract me. 
Soon I flamboyantly put my drawing board on the table, started using colours and had fascinating conversations with Dame Joan and Tai about the meaning of the colours I was using and renaissance/ baroque art in Rome and the depiction of ‘heroic heads’. 
During the programme we artists were asked to put on our headphones while the judges were reviewing our efforts in one area of the hall. Although curious I was relieved I could not hear their conversations, it would have been depressing to feel I should change plans in case they did not like my drawing. Ignorance really was bliss.
Lunch time arrived but my stomach was clutched close and I realised this was a good time to keep on working. Most people and artists would be out of the room and I could really get a lot done in relative quiet, only the ever present cameraman was with me. I kept drawing and it was a great feeling: I had found Phil on my paper.
When the rest of the artists, the hosts and the models came back from their lunch break I felt I had caught up, Phil’s face was smiling at me and the colours were layering up to define his bone structure and complexion.
The afternoon really went very quickly and all of a sudden the crew started asking us what we still had to do and if we were going to finish. 
I felt I was close to finishing, I had layered the colours and tone and I felt I had achieved a good likeness. Initially I had thought I would keep the clothes just as a line drawing but since I felt I had some time to make the drawing feel more complete, I decided to depict Phil’s shirt in an abstract and suggestive manner, the details would have taken away from the main focus, Phil’s face. 
Furthermore the shirt was various tones of purple, a colour I love and, on top of that, it picked up the shades I had used on Phil’s face (caput mortem violet) and the background wall. So I quickly completed the shirt and then only one thing was left: how was I going to depict the guitar?
During the day I had noticed that the guitar reflected on Phil’s right cheek so I decided to pick up cardinal red and permanent red and, as a final flourish, layer these two colours gently to create a slightly redder tone on that side of Phil’s face: cardinal is the colour of the guitar and permanent because even if it is not always visible the guitar is always part of Phil.
I was done and with a couple of minutes to go to countdown I decided to resist the temptation to fiddle with the drawing as it is very easy for me to mess something up: I was still full of adrenaline but feeling fairly exhausted and I could not trust myself to take the right decisions,  better to stop there and tidy up my station while waiting for the whistle to blow.
And it did. That was it.
We all had a break at this point and I was given an easel to put my drawing on. This was my first opportunity to have a look at the painting of my fellow artists in my group: they were stunning! Both Tommy Golunski and Olivia Valentine are  very accomplished and talented painters and their portraits of Phil were beautiful! 
Now the model was to choose the portrait to take home and that was nerve racking. 
Phil and Dame Joan were incredibly nice and complimentary with all of us and after much soul searching Phil decided to take home my portrait! Yes! Amazing! I really was and still am absolutely over the moon. All of a sudden I could not see the cameras, the flashes, all the people around me. I was just trying to breathe in and out when, all of a sudden, I realised Phil was really touched by my drawing of him. A portrait artist’s dream is to reveal something of the sitter that the sitter has not realised themselves, to show a bit of their soul and partecipare in the emotion that this causes. I felt this is what happened in that magical moment and it was a struggle not to start crying in the middle of it all.
As far as I was concerned I had achieved well above what I was expecting of myself - I know my bar was pretty low - I had followed my plan, avoided breaking down and collapse and I had completed a portrait I was proud of AND Phil Manzanera was going to take it home! My job was done, the judges would judge but I felt very very happy.
After a day spent on the PAOTY set I realised what an incredibly hard  job the judges and the hosts have and the harder bit was now coming, they were going to choose the three heat finalists. We were sent out to have some refreshments and do some filming. It was really the first time I started chatting with the other artists, the loveliest bunch I could hope for!  The adrenaline was flowing out of my body, I started feeling cold and in dire need of a sugary drink. After what seemed a very long time we were called back and lined up in front of the cameras to hear the first judgement. 
The amazing Stephen Mangan called out three names and it took just a split second to realise the last name he called was mine!
I am not sure what I did at that point but well, whatever, hope it does not look too bad when you watch the episode. 
So out again we went, this time for the semi finalist decision. This time the wait was very long but finally Neil Cumming, Noah Rush and myself were ushered in for the final judgment: we were ready, the friends and family were ready, the cameras were ready, the wonderful director prepared us but… it was not to be! In a spectacular, never before moment the judges sent us all out again! Finally we went back in and… well, it was not my name Stephen Mangan called. Noah went on to paint another model and the rest of us went home. Not yet though, the judges were extremely kind and had a good word for everybody and our portraits. Kate Bryan said how much she had loved my self portrait which I will always be grateful for, Tai Shan Schierenbergh and Kathleen Soriano were extraordinarily supportive. 
So, that was it. We packed, got in the car and travelled back to Birmingham. Life was going to go on as normal but what an adventure!!

Learn More
bottom of page