Thursday, June 12, 2008

BP Portrait Prize 2008 - exhibition opens

'K' by Craig Wylie
2100 x 1650mm (82" x 65"), oil on canvas
copyright Craig Wylie

The 29th exhibition for the BP Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery opens to the public today. I visited yesterday and have to say this is the best BP Portrait exhibition I've ever seen. I thought the standard of entries were a marked improvement on last year. It seems to me that the change of rules in 2007 has really injected new life into this annual competition and exhibition.

Out of 1,727 entrants, 55 portraits (compared to 60 in 2007) have been selected for the exhibition. 38 are from the UK and 17 (31%) are from abroad - and well over a third of the portraits being exhibited are by artists over the age of 40.

Whoever hung this exhibition has done a splendid job as one of the reasons there are fewer paintings is that there seem to a number of larger paintings than usual. Some of these have been hung on walls imported to the Wolfson Gallery especially for the occasion.

The prizewinners

I wrote about the four candidates for the prizes at the end of April in BP Portrait Award shortlist announced - a woman will win! This post also includes images of all four portraits. You can also see larger images of all the shortlisted candidates on the website - just click the image in the link.
The media and size are from the catalogue - the millimetres are precise and the inches are rounded.

Having now seen them all in reality, I have to say the finalist portrait which impressed me the most by far is K by Craig Wylie - possibly because apart from the fact that it is immaculately painted it's also absolutely HUGE (it's very nearly 7 feet in height and three times bigger than the next largest finalist). It also faces you as you enter the exhibition which suggests to me that whoever hung the exhibition also decided it needed a prominent position. Of the two younger candidates, again after seeing the portraits, my guess is that the BP Young Artist Award for artists aged 18-30 will go to Peiyuan Jiang. I still don't believe those trees but he's done a wonderful job of painting the skin of his subject. Plus he's done what many artists who paint to commission have to do - he's painted somebody he doesn't know very well.

The finalists and exhibition images

The website now has images of all the portraits which made it to the exhibition stage. It's a pity that details about the portrait are not available on the website for all would-be future entrants. It would great to see online all the explanations about the genesis of the portraits which are posted next to each one in the exhibition - as well as the dimensions. Some are enormous and some are very small - and this fact simply can't be appreciated due to the information which is currently available. I've found one error in the website links so far but haven't yet tried to view all the images at a larger size so there may be more.

As the actual prizewinners will be announced on Monday evening (and I'll be psoting about prizewinners again on Tuesday), I'm going to talk about some of the features of portraits in the exhibition and some of the other portraits which impressed me below.
  • my absolute favourite was Seraph (which means an angel of the highest rank) by Celia Bennett. It's a relatively small work but it's luminous and really lovely. I really believe in this individual.
Seraph by Celia Bennett
oil on canvas on board
380mm x 300mm/15" x 12"

copyright the artist
  • A number of artists paint members of their family.
    • Jose Luis Corella Garcia - painted his daughter playing with face paints in Metamorphosis (oil on wooden board, 1000mm x 1000mm 39" x 39"). This is stunning in terms of both size and composition. I think it might also be the first time I've seen the fingerprint ridges on fingers painted!
    • Alejandro Domingo painted Dad and his newspaper. This is a realistic but sympathetic painting of an older man. I also knew what he was doing without the newspaper even being in the picture. Alejandro has a blog called Eclectic Art (in Spanish)
  • Some self portraits don't attempt to flatter the artist. Andrew Hunt's Self Portrait with Winnie (his five day old daughter) achieved his objective of marking an important event in both their lives and also emphasising the difference between the size of his hands and hers while at the same time showing the reality of what you look like after a few disturbed nights sleep!
  • Technique and presentation sometimes varies from 'the norm' - for example
    • the digital image of Flavia Maria Pitis's portrait Buti does not reveal the super smooth glass like high gloss finish of this portrait.
    • Benjamin Sullivan - winner of the Lynn Painter Stainers Prize in 2007 has produced another triptych in a series of paintings that portray his family and the house he lives in On Duddery Road in Suffolk. I'm now more convinced than ever that Benjamin Sullivan must love painting fabric and pattern as he has done yet another wonderful job on his wife's smock. Compared to last year's Lynn Painter Stainer's portrait this one is a lot more restrained and muted in colour terms. You can see more of his excellent portrait work on his website.
  • Women artists, for some reason, seem to mainly paint
    • or themselves - such as Angela Reilly - who was a finalist and won 3rd prize in 2006 has produced another fine Portrait of herself (this is the faulty link). She says she's absorbed with the impact of ageing on her face.
    • or people where you can't actually see the face very well - such as Harriet White's Boots No 7 or Joanna Yates's Meral. These are both very large and 'in your face' portraits which also partially obscure the subject's features.
The BP Portrait exhibition also has a first this year as it includes a portrait by a 71 year old Royal Academician who already has work hanging in the National Portrait Gallery!

The portrait of Sir Jeremy Isaacs by Tom Phillips CBE RA was commissioned by the Royal Opera House where Sir Jeremy was Director General until 1996. It's being displayed in public for the first time. It made me wonder whether other 'top notch' portrait artists had entered the competition and not been hung!

You can read Tom Phillips's fascinating blog online. In one of the posts he announces that he's officially retired from portrait painting - so I guess it's nice to go out on a first! I'm also intrigued by the fact he's the only RA I know who has a blog (actually he has two - he has another which is dedicated to exhibitions!) and suspect this might because members of his family are also active bloggers - one of whom features in my blogroll!

The process of producing a commissioned portrait

You can also read about Tom Phillip's portrait of Dame Iris Murdoch on his website. I visited a fascinating exhibition elsewhere in the NPG yesterday which deals with the background to and process adopted by artists who have been commissioned to produce a portrait for the NPG. This includes two huge drawings which he did in the middle of this commission when he'd got stuck. They are fabulous! Unfortunately the NPG website has decided to ignore this exhibition despite the fact this it is well worth a visit! The sketchbooks and preliminary work of a couple of artists were absolutely fascinating - and I wish I could reference them but didn't make a note of their names thinking I could link to the website - big mistake!

Women artists and the BP Portrait Prize

This competition - like the portrait world generally - tends to be dominated by male artists. If this post is being read by anybody who is considering entering the competition in 2009, can I suggest that if you are a woman that you actually fill in an entry form!

There's a fairly well known phenomenon in recruitment which I suspect carries over to prestigious competitions. Men will submit a CV if they think they have a remote chance of being taken seriously whereas women will often only submit one if they know they have a good chance of being appointed. If that is the case with competitions also, can I take this opportunity to remind female artists that the percentage of women getting selected for the final exhibition (34%) never mind actually winning this prize - will always remain low so long as women hold back from entering.

So have a go in 2009 - just remember the work entered MUST be predominantly painted in oil, tempera or acrylic. Watercolours, works on paper or pastels will unfortunately NOT be considered (which I think is a very great pity). It should also be a painting based on a sitting or study from life; the human figure must predominate. This post BP Portrait Award 2008 (call for entries) and BP Travel Award gives more details of the requirements in 2008.

Finally, I'm listing previous blog posts about this competition below. I'm also going to be doing two more posts next week about
[Update: This is a link to my blog post about who won which of the BP Portrait Award prizes - Craig Wylie wins BP Portrait Award 2008]



  1. Katherine I am sooooo salivating at the portraits! Man I WISH WISH wish I could see them in real life! Really real realism seems to be very big and there are some really interesting ideas in them.

    What size were the bulk of the things that got in the show? Any pastels or mostly oils? How about acrylics or watercolor. I seriously doubt there were any colored pencil ones???

  2. I am dismayed that painting portraits is now considered masterful if the images are based on photographs. Why bother taking that extra step of repainting a harrowingly detailed photo? Sad! GEM

  3. Oils and acrylics are the mediums most artists use. Egg tempera paintings get in from time to time.

    Pastels, watercolours and all works on paper are not eligible.

    The size of paintings cover a complete range of sizes. I might try and do an analysis of the size of the paintings being exhibited if enough people are interested.

  4. I've discovered that the NPG does not collect or keep any statistics on the gender of entrants to the BP portrait competition.

    This seems a bit odd given its formal policy and legislative duties - see NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY COMBINED EQUALITY SCHEME which is a pdf file.

  5. I love love love all the portraits...some just a bit more than others. :) The sizes really blow me away! 7 feet!!!!

    Portrait painting, while done so well by women, often seems the bastion of male painters by tradition. Well about time to knock that tradition off its pedestal I think. Come on ladies, dust off the paint brushes and see what you can come up with in 2009.

    Or perhaps Katherine can run the 'All Female Artist Portrait Competition'... :)

  6. Done! I'll run a best portrait by a female artist as my Making A Mark end of year competition this year!

    I feel quite strongly about this and did think that in this day and age we were well past the stage at which 'special measures' have to be taken to ensure appropriate representation by women. But if only 6% of the members of the RSPP are women then perhaps I'm wrong.

    Maybe the BP Portrait Award should also have a prize for best portrait by a female artist? Maybe this should be awarded until we get to the point where entrants, finalists and winner represent a better reflection of gender ratios.

    I'm thinking of drafting a post about this. Plus I'm currently thinking about doing a Freedom of Information Act request for information from the NPG - watch this space!

  7. I spent almost as long viewing the portraits here as I will in the gallery. Beautifully put together post, Katherine.

    A highlight for me was the Tom Phillips link to his portrait of that Wonderful Dame.

  8. Sorry about asking about other media - I read the end of the article after I posted a comment!

    I really think that discrepancies in gender for things like this is because a lot of women take a break from their careers to take care of their children right in the critical years of recognition etc. :(

  9. Interesting to hear that you liked the exhibition. The review in this morning’s Metro newspaper only gave it 2 stars (out of 5). The reviewer (Steve Pill) said “… There is little variation among the 55 selections, with no space for abstract styles or more subtle studies of character. … Too many works strive for photorealism, even borrowing techniques from photography. In doing so, you are forced to admire the craft rather than celebrating the subjects themselves. …”

    That put me off but after reading your review I think I'll definitely go and have a look!

  10. I think maybe Mr Pill hasn't been to too many BP Portrait exhibitions before! ;) For example, IMO there's less photorealism than last year.

    I absolutely agree with him that there's scope to improve the range of styles on offer - but at the end of the day that's really down the choice and quality of what's presented. I wouldn't criticise an exhibition for the selection made on the basis of don't knock the judges until you've seen what they had to choose from!

    I could make some other very specific criticisms of some of the works selected for the exhibition - but that would be very much on the grounds that they don't apparently meet the competition's criteria. For example - and here I do agree with Steve Pill - some of the portraits have very clearly been done solely from photographs - and the criteria states that "should be a painting based on a sitting or study from life; the human figure must predominate." That for me means not done wholly from a photograph. It also seems to me that the judges need to justify those works in the context of that criteria. If they think it means something different then maybe the criteria needs to be clearer.

    That particular criteria also means that some forms of abstracted presentations would not fulfil this criteria - or at least it would be difficult to see that they did.

    I'd really like to see a BP exhibition in which there were no portraits which absolutely depended upon photographs. That would be a real first!

  11. As one of the selected Artists who is actually female -Sue Burns (portrait is called 'Sunny Jim') I would like to bring to your attention that Elie Shamir is in fact a man! I had a nice chat with him at the Private View. So even fewer women than you thought!

  12. Thanks Sue - oh, the embarrassment! I'm going to alter the post - it's not fair on him!

  13. I should also add that Sue's portrait was one of the few portraits where there was every justification for use of a photo for one specific part of the portrait.

    "Shiners" like the one she painted don't last that long in their full glorious technicolour even if they do linger long in their horrible greenish phase!

    Truly a portrait that made you mentally say 'ouch' as you smiled back at him!

  14. That's funny because I had a good long look through the portraits (thanks Katherine for the links) and Sunny Jim is the one that really struck me. There seems to be a fashion for hyperrealistic portraits, which are interesting, however they all appear rather similar with their posed look (serious, 'straight to camera') and overhead lighting. Sunny Jim looked like a real person, like someone who could be one of your friends. I wanted to know more about him and I imagine the answers will reveal a lot about him and his life and character. Many of the hyper realistic portraits looked amazing (although the positioning of those sunglasses in the viewers choice, I found distracting!) but didn't provoke anything other than admiration for the technique. Sunny Jim succeeded for me because the viewer is more interested in the person rather than the artist and the method.

  15. Hi Katherine, I'm Alex (Alejandro Domingo) and I just want to thank you for yours words about my work, Dad and his newspaper, and to mention my blog.


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