Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Review: BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2012 (Part 1)

The BP Portrait Award is a challenging art competition for any portrait artist.  This year a twenty five year old American woman entered the competition for the very first time and won the top prize.

Her work was one of four shortlisted for prizes out of the 55 selected for the exhibition - and the 2,187 entries received from artists in 74 different countries.

To get selected you need to produce good artwork and get noticed.  So how does that happen?

This year the judges have identified WHY they selected the shortlisted works - and you can see their reasons on the narrative next to each painting (but not on the website - as yet - but I'm going to lobby for this to be included).

This year, as well as commenting on the exhibition, I'm going to offer my perspective on what it takes to get selected and to win.  Hence, this first part of my review is going to focus on the patterns I observe in relation to artwork which gets selected.  It also includes views of the exhibition.

[UPDATE: I've now also uploaded a handheld video of the BP Portrait Exhibition 2012 to YouTube]

BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2012
all photos copyright Katherine Tyrrell
So what makes a winning work?  How is work selected?
All artwork for the exhibition is selected by a panel of judges (for details see BP Portrait Award 2012 - The Shortlist). Some selectors are members of the judging panel - and provide continuity - while others serve for just one year.

The entire competition is judged, on an equal and anonymous basis, from original paintings. There is no segregated judging by region or country. So in principle, anybody can win if their work is good enough. Occasionally somebody enters for the first time and wins the top prize - as Aleah Chapin has done this year. Which in a way is a bit of a pity as it means we won't see any more of her work in this competition in future years!

This is emphatically not a UK only art competition - it's a global art competition. You certainly don't have to come from the UK to win this Award. I wasn't surprised that two international artists, one an American and the other Spanish, should receive the two top prizes this year. This follows a distinct trend for more and more international artists to send their work to London to be judged - over 25% of the entries now come from outside the UK (see BP Portrait Award 2012 - 55 Selected Artists). In recent years there has been a distinct emphasis on Spanish artists both entering and getting selected for the exhibition. This year we've seen the second American artist and the first ever female American artist win the award.

Those who have been selected before tend to get selected again. I went round the exhibition today and noted that a high proportion of the artists have had their work selected for this exhibition before. Remember that the artwork is judged anonymously - which means that there has to be something about the technical skill and artistry displayed in the artwork which makes the difference.  I would argue that the technical skills levels on display are extremely high - irrespective of the style of painting.

To prove my point, below you can find links to all the artwork by artists who have been selected for more than one BP Portrait Award competition, including artists who have entered work under the old rules (artists must be under 40) and the new rules (artists must be aged over 18)  It's well worth coming to the exhibition just to study the artwork by artists who are selected again and again. You can also see their work online - click the link in their names to see their portraits
  1. 3rd prizewinner Alan Coulson (2010 and 2011 ) an interesting subject
  2. Rupert Alexander (2007) an unusual context and a top real tennis player (the type of person who might have a portrait in the National Portrait Galleries)
  3. Mary Jane Ansell (2004, 2009 and 2010) heavy emphasis on the monochromatic
  4. Nathalie Beauvillain Scott (2004 and 2010) note this work tells a story
  5. Ian Cumberland (2009, 3rd prize 2011) extremely adept in producing realism on a largish scale
  6. Colin Davidson (2011)
  7. Tom Dewhurst (1981, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1989, 2008 and 2010) amazing number of times he has been selected
  8. David Eichenberg (3rd prize 2010 and 2011) American artist who paints with a high degree of realism and quality finish
  9. Miriam Escofet (2007, 2009 and 2010) high degree of realism and a very accomplished painter of fabric 
  10. Nathan Ford (2000, 2010 and 2011) specialises in small paintings which are apparently sketchy but are actually very skilled and don't cover all the canvas
  11. Alex Hanna (1998 and 2010) deceptively simple
  12. Eileen Hogan (2007 and 2009) updates a portrait by Thomas Lawrence - who was the subject of a recent NPG exhibition
  13. Leo Holloway (2006) good egg tempera painting - although I'm sure other painters in egg tempera will be puzzled by the notion that it takes years to complete a painting! 
  14. Tony Noble (2008, 2010 and 2011) 
  15. Anastasia Pollard (2007) very characteristic of her style of painting 
  16. Louise Pragnell (2011) 
  17. Carl Randall (2002) Fascinating painting of a large group of people. Winner of the Travel Award 2012 
  18. James Stewart (2004) I rather suspect he enjoyed painting the horse more! Considering how besotted the British are by animals I'm always somewhat surprised there aren't more animals getting into portraits. (Plus remember Freud and his dogs!) 
  19. Benjamin Sullivan (2002, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011) A very fine painter with a very consistent track record! I'd like to see him paint bigger again. 
  20. Edward Sutcliffe (2000, 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011) a high degree of realism - and in interesting choice of subject
  21. Jean-Paul Tibbles (1985 and 1986) a very intense cropped self-portrait
  22. Emma Wesley (2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2008) An interesting example of an artist who has not won the Award but who has been commissioned by the Gallery to paint a portrait
22 out of 55 artists = 40% of the selected artists have been selected for BP Portrait Exhibitions in previous years.  You can also see the images of selected artwork by people who were exhibitors in previous years via this link to past exhibitions

Education can make a difference. This year a number of the ex students of the Charles H Cecil Studios in Florence were successful in getting into the show and one of them, Jamie Routley won the £5,000 Young Artist Award. (The others are Rupert Alexander, Frances Bell Timothy Gatenby).  The studios adopt an atelier approach and teach sight size techniques and their students work from life models.  I've never before seen so many current or ex-students from one school in the exhibition.  However it should be remembered that this award has always placed an emphasis on working from observation.

BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2012 - your work does not need to be big to get selected

Size is of no consequence in relation to getting selected - however format can get your work noticed.  This exhibition has had a lot of very big paintings in the past.  This year there are just two really big paintings - and interestingly both are monochome - and one won 2nd prize for Spanish artist Ignacio Estudillo. Plus a triptych won the Young Artist of the Year Award for Jamie Routley.

My own view is that all the paintings which are big tend to have an added extra something or other about them which justifies their inclusion given their size.

BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2012 - a monochromatic corner of the exhibition
Artwork winning second prize is on the left and that winning third prize is on the right
Impress the selectors with your art - not your frame! Framing does matter - however note that much of the framing is really very restrained and often totally neutral.  I've known work rejected from other exhibitions because of the framing and I don't suppose this exhibition is any different.

Also - lots of gallery wrapped canvas work is hung without a frame.......

BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2012 - note wrapped canvases without frames
It's not necessary to be a member of a prestigious art society.  Most are not.  That said, there are certainly members of different art societies having work in the show.

It meets a challenge and succeeds.  It's interesting to see how many of the paintings contain a challenge of some sort eg how best to paint using a very limited palette, how to design a group portrait effectively.

Take a look at the commissioned work in the Gallery.  Most portraits are head and torso and some are full figure.   Part of the first prize is a £4,000 commission.  Does your artwork demonstrate that this is what you can do?  All three of the top prize-winners this year were head and torso.
  • The corridor to the exhibition this year has the commissioned works by past winners and others who have been selected for exhibition on multiple occasions.  It's very educational.
  • If you can't get to the gallery you can see the commissions painted by past winners
  • Note there are no "big heads"!
The quality of the artwork is of paramount importance.  At the end of the day it has to be a good painting.  An interesting subject, excellent composition and technically good paintwork are all going to be very important factors in the selection.

Does the portrait look like a real person? Can you feel the character? This for me is what really makes the difference between the selected artists and the shortlisted artists.  There's something about expression in the face and posture which speaks of humanity and personality.  This year's winner is an excellent case in point - there's an enormous sense of warmth of personality and her relationship with the artist.

How to win a top prize in the BP Portrait Award

My own theory is that virtually all the artists who win the top prizes tend to take one of two routes
  • the slow burn (selected, selected again, shortlisted, win)
  • instant success (enter for the first time and win a prize in your first year and/or win top prize.
But you may have another theory!  (see below)

On Thursday: there is the next part of my review of the BP Portrait Award Exhibition.  In it, I'll be looking at the works I liked.

On Friday: I've got an interview with Andrea Chapin - the winner of this year's BP Portrait Award which will include video footage.

Question for Portrait Artists

What's your favourite theory about which artwork (or artists) get selected for the exhibition each year?

Do leave a comment and let me know what you thinks makes for a top award-winning portrait.

Also do leave a comment at the end of this post if you think there are other factors which need to be taken into account.

About the BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2012

This is the 33rd year of the exhibition.  Last year 341,050 visitors came to see the exhibition - which is the largest number of visitors of any exhibition ever held at the National Portrait Gallery.  Which means that the exhibition is going to generally very busy - try visiting early in the week and early in the day.

The exhibition is free and opens to the public on Thursday 21 June 2012 in The Wolfson Gallery, National Portrait Gallery in London - until 23 September after which it will tour the UK - with exhibitions in Edinburgh and Exeter.

The exhibition is supported by BP - as it has been for the last 23 years.

Previous blog posts about the BP Portrait

I know that a lot of people around the world people reference my posts when trying to decide whether or not to enter. Some of them have even gone on to win prizes! It's also especially gratifying to speak to artists at the preview and to know that several know this blog very well indeed!

Anyway - so as you don't miss out - here's the complete list of BP Portrait blog posts on Making A Mark.

BP Portrait Award 2012
Plus my website - which includes other portrait competitions - Portraiture - Resources for Artists

see BP Portrait Award 2012 - 55 Selected Artists

BP Portrait Award 2011
BP Portrait Award 2010
BP Portrait Award 2009
BP Portrait Award 2008
BP Portrait Award 2007
Plus a link to my website about Portraiture - Resources for Artists


  1. This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Picasso:
    "When you start with a portrait and search for a pure form, a clear volume, through successive eliminations, you arrive inevitably at the egg. Likewise, starting with the egg and following the same process in reverse, one finishes with the portrait."

  2. This is an analysis that can never be read any other place but here! Thank God you do this! Loved it with a passion!

  3. Superb review Katherine! It's encouraging to read that the show has diversity and the standards are so high. I'm now itching to go and see the exhibition even more. Thanks for such an excellent post.

  4. Thank you! With your two polar ideas about successful entrants you prove my the point that there is no formula, just that bit of magic that goes with good work.


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