The face painter

Portraiture work by Jack Banister
Portraiture work by Jack Banister
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He turned his back on art college to go it alone. Now Jack Banister talks to Sarah Freeman about his burgeoning reputation in the world of portraiture.

When Jack Banister was selected to slug it out on Sky Arts’ Portrait Artist of the Year, some things were a given. In the opening round the 21-year-old knew that he would be going head to head with 20 or so other artists, most of whom were vastly more experienced. He also knew that he would have just four hours to complete a celebrity portrait which was both faithful to the subject and eye-catching. What he didn’t know was who that mystery person would be and whether he would be able to cope with the pressure of painting in public.

Portrait painter Jack Bannister

Portrait painter Jack Bannister

Most artists prefer to work without distraction, but anyone who saw the first series will know that’s not an option on Portrait Artist of the Year. For a start, there are regular interruptions from the show’s presenters, Frank Skinner and Joan Bakewell. Worse, there are members of the public milling around who generally aren’t good at pulling poker faces when confronted by an artistic dog’s dinner.

“It’s obviously not the usual way you’d work, but I was surprisingly calm. In fact, I really enjoyed it,” says Jack, who grew up in Keighley. His subject was the comedian Greg Davies and while he’s sworn to secrecy about the final result, what he will say is that the Mock the Week regular liked the painting, which was seal of approval enough for Jack.

“Portrait painting isn’t like any other genre and there is always a slight heart in the mouth moment when you turn the canvas round,” he says. “People often see themselves in a certain way and that might be at odds with what you see as an artist. It’s not just about painting a likeness of an individual, it’s about capturing their character.

“If I’m honest I’m not quite sure why I was drawn to portrait painting. Like most young boys I always liked cartoons and when I was at school I used to draw my own comics and caricatures. I suspect that’s probably where it all started.” Even as a teenager, Jack, who now mainly works out of a studio in Oxford, says he was drawn to older faces and the first portrait he ever completed was from a photograph of Manchester United legend Sir Alex Ferguson.

Portrait painter Jack Bannister

Portrait painter Jack Bannister

“I’m a Leeds United fan, so perhaps it wasn’t the most obvious choice, but he has a really interesting face, one where every line really does tell a thousand stories. Once I’d finished it I decided to upload it to Facebook just so friends could see it. I wasn’t expecting much of a response, but when a couple of people got in touch asking to buy it, I thought: ‘Maybe I’m onto something here’.”

While Jack did an art foundation course in Leeds after leaving school, after looking at various prospectuses he decided against applying to art college.

“There just wasn’t a course, which suited what I wanted to do, so I thought I’d try going it alone. I guess it did require a leap of faith, but I’m so glad I did it. I think in the last year or so I have really found my own style.”

Jack, who earlier this year had four paintings selected for the Royal Society of British Artists’ annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London, has found a like mind in established portrait artist Andrew James.

“I’ll never forget when I saw his portraits for the first time. I could really relate to his style and just thought: 
‘That’s exactly the kind of work I want to do’. When I was later introduced to him, he couldn’t have been more encouraging.

“He’s also self-taught and that was a real confidence boost. He told me that you have to go with your instinct and do what you love rather than thinking about what you ought to paint or what you think will sell.”

As well as portraiture, Jack also specialises in rural scenes and recently won a £3,000 scholarship run by the Royal Bath and West Show aimed at helping artists between the ages of 21 and 30 to further their careers.

“It also means that I get an exhibition of my work at next year’s show, which is great and hopefully it will introduce me to a different audience. Making a living from being an artist is notoriously difficult, but at the moment I seem to be doing OK. I’ve had a fair few commissions to paint not just people, but pets and as long as I’ve got a brush in my hand, I’m happy.”

• Sky Arts’ Portrait Artist of the Year 2014 begins on November 4.