When Wendy Barratt decided to follow her heart and pursue a life-long love of life drawing and portraiture, little did she realise it would bring her face-to-face with world-famous names - including Dr Jane Goodall - and result in a prestigious prize and painting hanging in the National Portrait Gallery.

‘I’d been thinking about becoming a full-time artist for many years, it was a bit of a dream but difficult when I enjoyed my work and it paid the bills,’ explains the former graphic designer. ‘As I neared 60, I began to realise that if I didn’t do it now when was I going to do it?’

Wendy’s decision to dip her toe into the professional art world turned out to be a metaphorical high dive straight into the deep end when she entered - and won - Sky Arts’ 2023 Portrait Artist of the Year award.

‘Winning is a dream come true and means so much to me,’ she says. ‘I’m still not sure I quite believe it.’

Artists are selected to take part after submitting a self-portrait. The contest involves nine artists in each heat having four hours to paint portraits of a surprise celebrity sitter. For Wendy, they included journalist and broadcaster Joan Bakewell and former Spice Girl Emma Bunton.

Great British Life: The former graphic designer won Portrait Artist of the Year just two years after taking up art full timeThe former graphic designer won Portrait Artist of the Year just two years after taking up art full time (Image: Sky Arts Portrait of the year)

‘It sounds like an artist’s nightmare when trying to paint a portrait,’ she says. ‘However, the production team and everyone were so supportive, kind and very nurturing. It was almost like we were painting among friends and family, which made it a lot better than it sounds.’

In the weeks leading up to the filming at the Battersea Arts Centre, London, Wendy got up to speed by using a familiar face for preparation: her husband Fred.

‘I practiced producing an acceptable portrait in three hours,’ says Wendy who works from the studio at the Worthing home where they have lived since 2006. ‘Fred is a very willing muse and has just the sort of face I love to draw and paint. My portraiture is led by the shapes I see in my subjects. A lot of my painting style depends heavily on feeling and connection, and that is an important part of my process.’

Judges praised Wendy for bringing out the ‘heart and soul’ of her sitters. After a nail-biting paint off with three other artists she was announced winner of the £10,000 prize and a commission to paint 90-year-old Jane Goodall, the world’s leading expert on chimpanzees, for London’s National Portrait Gallery.

Great British Life: Wendy with her self portraitWendy with her self portrait (Image: Sky Arts Portrait of the year)

‘The pressure was enormous,’ Wendy admits. ‘But I knew that if I let that feeling in too much I couldn’t do Jane justice. The pressure usually comes from the sitter but for this portrait it also came from wanting to bring the work of Jane and her cause into the limelight. As soon as I understood and empathised with Jane’s thoughts and feelings about the portrait, an all-important connection was made.’

In fact, Wendy’s first brush with a famous name and the initial stirrings of her captivation with people and portraiture go back to her childhood.

‘I remember painting a picture of Henry VIII in primary school when I was about eight,’ she recollects. ‘I copied it from the Holbein painting and I realised that his head wasn’t round, it was more like a square, and his calves had a particular shape, not just two parallel lines. I was fascinated that by just copying the actual shapes I got to create something which looked like the original. I was hooked.

‘My mum always told me to never think about the job I’d end up doing, just work hard and study what you love and things will happen. What wise words they were.’

After completing an art foundation course in Chester, Wendy felt drawn to design, photography and illustration. She graduated from Manchester Polytechnic with a BA (Hons) in Design for Communication Media and started work at a design agency.

Great British Life: Wendy found a connection with her subject Dr Jane GoodallWendy found a connection with her subject Dr Jane Goodall (Image: Sky Arts Portrait of the year)

‘After 10 years in the industry I was aware there wasn’t much room for me to progress and I was getting more and more interested in drawing and started doing more sessions and courses,’ she says. ‘I was feeling a real pull and was looking for an opportunity to give more time to my art practice and have more time to study.’

That opening came when Wendy’s sister got a job in the south of France and needed a nanny.

‘The next thing I knew I had handed in my notice, sold my house and was careering down to Montpellier with a car full of all my worldly possessions to look after two small children,’ she says. ‘I was on minimum wage but had a good roof over my head, all my art supplies, a language to learn, plus more free time than I’d been used to. I joined a couple of local art groups, both of which were pivotal in my development as an artist.’

Within a year both of them asked Wendy if she’d like to stand on the other side of the easel and teach some classes. When she moved back to the UK in 2000, firstly to Brighton and then to Worthing, she combined working as a freelance graphic designer with teaching art as well as continuing to hone her own skills, working mostly in oils.

‘When I moved to Worthing there was a distinct lack of regular weekly life drawing sessions and so I spent a lot of time travelling to Brighton, and sometimes to London, to draw and paint,’ she continues. ‘In 2016 I decided to set up my own life drawing sessions, both tutored and untutored, and the Drawing Room been a real success in terms of creating a wonderful supportive life drawing community.’

Great British Life: Wendy's winning commission of Dr Jane Goodall for the National Portrait GalleryWendy's winning commission of Dr Jane Goodall for the National Portrait Gallery (Image: Sky Arts Portrait of the year)

She was helped by Jake Spicer, who started the Brighton Life Drawing Sessions in 2009, which became Draw in 2011.

‘The life models we have in Sussex are truly exceptional and more than happy to travel to Worthing although more of our models are now living in Worthing, which is great,’ adds Wendy. ‘Sussex is also a very inspirational county in terms of artists living here and those who have lived and worked here. We have the downs and the coast just a short distance away and so it’s easy to find inspiration for plein air painting outside.

‘My life studies are all done from life, either in the life drawing sessions that I have set up or attend. The portraiture comes from varying sources. I run regular long pose sessions with a small group of fellow artists and work from the same pose for three hours. Sometimes the model allows photography and I can take the painting further back at home in my studio if I feel I need to. I find that because of the knowledge I have learnt in the life room, I have a good understanding of how to get life into a portrait made from a photo.’

Wendy’s originals and limited edition prints, the latter priced from £125, are available through her website (wendybarratt.com) and commissioned portraits start at £1,750.

‘Up until now I haven’t really exhibited, but I have sold my work as far away as Canada and I also have a collector in France who buys some of my pastel drawings,’ she says.

Great British Life: Sky Arts Portrait of the yearSky Arts Portrait of the year (Image: Sky Arts Portrait of the year)

One of her most unusual commissions involved a portrait for 2021 ITVX crime drama series The Long Call based on the novel by Ann Cleeves.

‘I had to do a portrait of the victim who was a young man found dead on the beach,’ explains Wendy. ‘One of the characters was a young female artist who had been in the process of painting his portrait. I had to create a finished portrait which could be scanned and recreated as a canvas so the actor could paint over the top of it in one of the scenes. I also had to create another painting of the same portrait as if it was only half finished, and I also supplied more paintings and drawings that were used as part of the background scenery.’

On a typical day Wendy will be in her studio by 9am, often after a morning walk, to work on projects or simply draw.

‘In times when I’m not sure what I want to do, I have found that the mere act of drawing anything can start off a creative dialogue,’ she says. ‘I’m searching for a hook to draw me into something.’

Despite being the current holder of the Portrait Artist of the Year award, Wendy has no plans to rest on her laurels.

‘What drives me is constant looking and learning,’ she concludes. ‘It’s about experimentation.’