Whereas previous reviews here have focused on documentaries of one established artist, the eight seasons of Portrait Artist of the Year and three seasons of Landscape Artist of the Year are reality TV shows that start with a public call for submissions and then feature a number of painting heats. Thousands enter, dozens are selected for the heats. The winners of the heats proceed to a semi-final and then finalists are chosen with a winner crowned and offered a very well-paying commission.
The competitors skew towards artists who have jobs other than their art to sustain themselves. They are talented, highly committed and have a strong voice that shines through their work. It is wonderful for them to get public profile. Given this is a reality TV show, there are ground rules that need to be accepted before being able to accept the experience. In my case, I had to get over my discomfort with a competition for artists on display for the world to see. Once accepted, I came to appreciate the opening seasons of both versions that I watched (hopefully more seasons to come over time).
Another item to accept is that the main driver shaping the competition is time. The heats are four hour timed sessions for contestants to create a work of art - short for most of them and a major source of stress.
Another factor is the three judges provide feedback to the heat winners and give them points to consider as they progress in the competition. The artists are usually open to change, but those changes are often subtle over the competition.
What is most fascinating is watching the development of the artworks in real time, in some cases with time lapse recordings of several hours. The artists are interviewed at various times during the four hours, but these usually deal with their insecurities and stress about the crunched timeline to produce quality work. While some can speak about their approach and interpretation they seek to bring, those are the minority of the interviews. The interviews and profiles of some of the artists at times feel like a distraction from their challenge to create a high quality work in four hours.
The originality of the show lies in showing side by side a multitude of personal artistic approaches - be it materials used, or how they come at the task at hand. The time lapse images of the development of their work is also compelling. Even the regular check-ins with the artists over the four hours of their work can be engaging - for the few who can speak effectively of how they are coming at the painting of the day and time constraint.
The overall fascination lies in watching hard-working artists who are not famous work as they develop side-by-side with others in a fishbowl environment. Watching many rather than one artist at work on the same model or landscape is a welcome twist on the artist documentary genre.