I won Portrait Artist of the Year (and decade) … here’s what happened next

Winning the popular Sky Arts series launched a stellar career for Belfast-born artist Gareth Reid

“Wow! wow! wow!”

Do people ever not say wow when their portraits are revealed in Portrait Artist of the Year? Gareth Reid laughs. “I saw a funny thing, they had edited the clips. It was about 10 minutes of ‘wow’.”

He enumerates other cliches of the popular Sky Arts series, such as “painterly”, “narrative” and “modern use of red”. Belfast-born, and now Glasgow-based, Reid won the series back in 2017, having drawn actress Imelda Staunton, and presenter Adrian Chiles, to triumph over a field of 54 other artists, and gain the chance to capture the likeness of Graham Norton and a £10,000 (€11,400) commission fee.

“Triumph” isn’t exactly the right word, as Portrait Artist, and its sister show, Landscape Artist, are rare beasts, in that even though there are ultimate winners, the artists appear collegiate rather than competitive.


“People love it, as it’s a nice thing to watch,” Reid agrees. He made friends on the show, with both artists and the production crew, staying in touch with many. “I was talking to Kimberly [Klauss] last night, and I just bumped into Ross McCauley, he was in my heat as well. That has been one of the big upsides,” he says, adding that the process itself, while daunting, is designed to be positive. “It is not easy, but they facilitate the whole thing, and there’s no meanness, no editing to make you look like an eejit.”

While on-screen host Joan Bakewell tells the artists they have four hours to create their portraits, in fact they have the option of a little longer. “You do four one-hour stints,” Reid says, with breaks in between. As these are also filming breaks, artists can get a little quiet time with their work. “It’s a real opportunity to get your head down.” That said, the hours when they are filming are broken up with interruptions, so it all balances out.

Do the artists also use the time to scoot around the set and get insecure looking at what everyone else is up to? Yes and no. “I can’t tell you how pathetically tired I was,” Reid recalls. “If I’m in the studio, I’ll stand and paint, then get distracted, go away and look at something, and then maybe go back to another painting… But to stand in one spot, trying to make something for, you know, six hours or whatever, you just want to get away.” Stretching helps, as does deep breathing, and yes, wandering around looking at other people’s work too. “My daughters were there, so I was talking to them a lot, but I always have a check and see what other people are doing. It’s nice.”

This year, Reid received the ultimate accolade, winning the anniversary Portrait Artist of the Decade for his impressively sensitive charcoal drawing of actress Judi Dench, but his first outing on the show in 2014 had been less successful. Then, he was challenged with painting Sharon Corr at the Irish Museum of Modern Art and didn’t progress any further. It is a paradoxical truth that most artists prefer to deal with older, or more characterful faces, so did Reid regret not being faced with Neil Hannon or Colm Meaney, both of whom were also sitters in the heat?

“I’m not saying anything,” he says with a smile, adding that, “Neil Hannon was just a wonderful sitter.” He also admits to regret for the ones who got away, such as Richard E Grant and Stanley Tucci, who sat for other episodes. “People you’d just love to meet.”

How much, then, do you get to know your sitter? It is after all an oddly intimate relationship: you are focused on one person, but there is also an audience, all the other artists, plus a television crew and the three judges, Kate Bryan, Kathleen Soriano and Tai Shan Schierenberg. Back in 2014, Reid was teaching art, which, he says, prepared him for the audience side of things. “You’re not necessarily trying to convey personality,” he continues. “You’re trying to make something that’s convincing and believable.”

That may be true, but Reid’s portraits bring an intimate sense of the sitter, whether they be his portraits of Dench and Norton, or the subsequent commissions that stemmed both from his success on the show, and his undoubtedly strong talent. These include portraits of the, then Prince of Wales, now King Charles in 2019, and the first female Lord Mayor of Dublin, Kathleen Clarke in 2022. The Clarke portrait was commissioned on the 50th anniversary of her death and was also the first portrait to have been commissioned by Dublin City Council in more than 100 years.

Now greatly in demand, with commissions on both sides of the Atlantic, Reid finds he has less time for the other strand of his practice: deliciously painted glimpses of landscapes and people, which are delicate and haunting, and which he hopes to carve out time to return to. He has also left his regular teaching, although he does still do occasional stints at Co Wicklow’s Schoolhouse for Art, and at Ashbrooke House in Fermanagh. “After the award, portraiture took over,” he admits.

But wait, what? King Charles? What was the future king like? And how different is it to paint establishment royalty than, say, talk show king Graham Norton? “I was going to talk about that,” says Reid, self-deprecatingly, “but I didn’t want to be, you know, dropping names”.

Initially reserved and relatively guarded, Reid soon proves to be charming, engaging, honest and, frequently, very funny in his softly spoken and measured way. “They were very similar, in fact. They were both very hands-off and didn’t want to interfere with the process at all.”

Reid had three sittings with the future King, who, he says, didn’t want to see the work in progress until the final unveiling, something which caused the artist considerable anxiety. “I was thinking: ‘I’m going to have to reveal it at some point, and what if I’ve got somebody who looks like Bruce Forsyth and not Prince Charles at all?’ But the chat between us was easy, it was interesting and flowing. That’s not surprising, because he’s a trained diplomat. His job is to talk to strangers.” Reid says that it can be easier to work with famous people, as they are used to being looked at. Otherwise, he says, self-consciousness takes over. “There’s definitely a period where you’ve got to get them used to it. You almost have to bore them with the process so that they forget they’re doing it.”

If the job of royalty, or indeed a chat show host is to talk to strangers, the job of a portrait artist is to see beneath the veneer, and Reid clearly has this skill. That initial period of reservation is more likely Reid spending time assessing you, getting to grips with what makes you tick, something he does instinctively rather than deliberately; a tool of the trade. King Charles, he says, has his professional side, “but he is not closed off either, there is a warmth there you can tap into”. Reid described the unveiling of the finished portrait at Hillsborough Castle as a “career highlight”, while his subject confessed to a “slight worry”, before the reveal, but professed himself happy with the result.

If the then prince was worried about how he might be made to look, it must be equally daunting for the artists who have been extensively filmed before the show goes on air. “I was petrified, sick to my stomach. I couldn’t remember what I’d said and, you know, you’re kind of tormented by how you’re going to come across.” The crew and production team are, he says, very reassuring, but Reid was concerned that he was going to look ridiculous through the edits. The reverse is true. “Their aim is to actually try make you look good, which is pretty powerful.” This leads to the question of whether that long pause before the winner is announced is real, or edited in. “It’s real,” Reid says. “It feels like years.”