Thursday, June 21, 2012

Review: BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2012 (Part 2)

This post about the BP Portrait Award 2012 follows on from my analysis yesterday of what I saw as the factors which do and do not influence which works gets selected for the BP Portrait Award

In Part 2, I want to comment generally on works in this year's exhibition and highlight in particular some of the non-prizewinning works that I like

First off, to my mind there is absolutely no question that the best portrait in the show won the top prize.  That said, there is still an awful lot of top quality portrait painting in the show.

I highly recommend that anybody seriously contemplating an entry to the BP Portrait Award 2013 should

  1. review the various factors which appear to me to influence which portraits (and artists) get selected for the exhibition - see my Review: BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2012 (Part 1) 
  2. get themselves to the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London before September to see the show! Or catch some of the show when it journeys to Edinburgh and Exeter.
Overview of the Exhibition

Here's some of the things I noticed:
  • Fewer "big heads" - the trend seems to be going back to "normal" portraiture.  However those that were painted are very impressive.  
  • Lots of realism - which means if you want to get in as a painter of realism you need to be very good indeed!
  • Fewer "painterly" works than I'd like to see
  • A lot of smaller works - I'm guessing this might partly be to do with the distances which some works are now travelling to be judged for this exhibition - I see they're now making the journey from Australia!
  • More monochromatic or near monochromatic works than usual - including some large works
  • Fewer people in context - I have an an impression of fewer works with an interesting contextual background which helped to tell the story of the person.  I notice this because I like good backgrounds which add to the story of the person or immediately convey a sense of who this person is.
  • More tattoos than hitherto!
  • Almost all involved painting just one person.
I liked the hang (which you can see something of in my previous post).  Having smaller works punctuate the larger works helped me see then more easily.  

Artwork worthy of a closer look

Here are a few of the pantings which kept me looking at them for longer.  I'm going to try and explain why.

Iain Cumberland - Today You Were Far Away

Today You Were Far Away
by Ian Cumberland, 2012
oil on canvas, 150 x 100 cm (59" x 39")
© Ian Cumberland
I'd have shortlisted Iain Cumberland - as he was last year when he won third prize.

He paints with incredible control over the tones and modulations of the flesh.  This self-portrait is also haunting - I kept being drawn back to it and wondering whether it represented a break-up or a death rather than just time apart from a loved one.  I also liked the Holbein-like subdued blue green background - which works so well with flesh colours.  That said it is a "big head" and I'd like to see a bit more of the individual in his entry next year.  Iain is without doubt a contender for the top prize and I think he needs to paint the "as if" a commission for the NPG painting next time around - to show he can.

If you're in Dublin during the summer you can catch more of his work at the The Royal Hibernian Academy Annual Exhibition, Dublin 29 May - 19 August 2012 where he won "The Ireland – US Council & Irish Arts Review Portrait Prize" (€5,000).

Carl Randall - Mr Kitazawa's Noodle Bar, Tokyo

Mr Kitazawa's Noodle Bar, Tokyo
by Carl Randall, 2012
Oil on canvas, 161.5 x 96.5 cm
© Carl Randall
This group portrait is of the artist’s friends and colleagues in Tokyo and was painted from life. Although the noodle shop brings people together to eat, Randall says: ‘the central theme is urban isolation – anonymous strangers together but separate.’
I'd love to see more portrait painting which involves groups of people.  People don't exist in isolation.  They form part of communities.  Looking at how people behave within their social groups tells you a lot about them and their environment.

I found one painting very impressive - and that's because it portrays a group of people and does that extremely well.  Given the lack of other paintings of groups it also stands out from the crowd.

In Tokyo, it's common for people to live and be in crowded spaces.  When I met Carl Randall he suggested I look at how, despite their proximity, all the people are operating in their own bit of space.  Nobody really connects - it's a group portrait of urban isolation in Tokyo, involving a lot of real people.  He's painting the human condition as well as the portraits of a group of individuals. What I liked about this painting was it has an authenticity about it.  Plus painting in monochrome emphasises the nature of the relationships more - and allows us to see something which we might have missed if we'd been distracted by too much colour.  I wasn't surprised to learn that Carl had lived in Tokyo for eight years and that this was his local noodle bar.  Painting what you know well is always a good recipe for success.  Apparently each of the heads took Carl about 2-3 hours to paint.

Carl studied at the Slade School Of Fine Art in London, where he won several awards, including twice winning a prize in The William Coldstream Painting Competition, a Duveen Travel Scholarship to Italy, and the £15000 1st prize in The Singer & Friedlander/Sunday Times Watercolour Competition.

Carl has also won the BP Travel Award for 2012 and has a splendid proposal for his project which really appealed to me.  More about this next week.

Benjamin Sullivan - Head Porter

This is the painting.  Note the size - it's not big.

Head Porter
by Benjamin Sullivan, 2012
Oil on canvas
245 x 345 mm (9.6" x 13.6")
© Benjamin Sullivan
This is the face of the Head Porter of All Souls College in Oxford University.  In reality the head is maybe a couple of inches high - which makes the sensitivity of the colouration and the painting all the more remarkable.  This is not a man trying to be a miniaturist - it's a man who's an extremely competent painter and who can paint small heads very well.

Head Porter
by Benjamin Sullivan, 2012
© Benjamin Sullivan
The portrait is an ancillary work to Sullivan’s group portrait of twenty-seven members of staff at All Souls College, Oxford painted as part of a residency the artist undertook there. Colin Tasker worked as Head Porter of the college from 1997 until his retirement last year.
I really like the way Benjamin Sullivan can paint realism in a painterly way.  I also rate artists who produce portraits as a part of a series.  The plainness of the background is explained by the fact that it's part of a series and subsidiary to a group portrait.

This artist is also a favourite of the judges having been selected  for the BP Portrait Prize in 2002, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.  It can surely only be a matter of time before he gets shortlisted again and maybe wins the top prize.

Rupert Alexander - Bob Fahey on Court

Rob Fahey on Court
by Rupert Alexander, 2012
© Rupert Alexander
I've chosen this for two reasons.  First it's a good example of a painting which provides a simple context which doesn't fight with the portrait and yet helps to explain who this person is.  As soon as I saw it I knew this had to be a pretty important person in the world of real tennis.  It turns out that it's the World Champion Rob Fahey - who's won the World Championship 10 times!

So plus points for me are: somebody who merits a portrait portrayed as a full figure within context - which speaks to all those who know the game. Plus it's painted well - there's a terrific sense of control over the light.

The second reason is a very long time ago I used to sit and watch a friend play real tennis on Saturday mornings and the perspective and the light of the background brought it all back to me in an instant - it connected with me!  It seems like a very good reason to me to paint people in context.

Nathalie Beauvillain Scott - Bruised

Entries selected for the exhibition include portraits which tell a story about the individual who is the subject of the portrait.  This is one such portrait - and I wish there were more.
The portrait is of the artist’s teenage son, Olivier, who had recently been involved in a car accident and was also the subject of a violent attack. In the background there is an image of him as a child and the car involved, while the clock records the time of the crash.
by Nathalie Beauvillain Scott, 2012
Oil on canvas, 610 x 610 mm
© Nathalie Beauvillain Scott

What I liked about this portrait was that the items in the background combine to draw you in to try and solve the puzzle.  People like puzzles and they like being asked to use their intelligence to work out what the story is.

I hope you've enjoyed the paintings I picked out - there were a number of others which could have made it into this selectio,

How about you - which are YOUR favourite portraits in the exhibition?

An Index of previous blog posts about the BP Portrait Award

Here's a repeat of yesterday's listing of past posts about this art competition in 2012 and prevous years

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. Thanks for the review. My favourite exhibition. Must get there before the start of the Olympics!!!

  2. Interesting that your choices of worthy artworks are all photorealist paintings.

  3. No they're not!
    1) I guess it depends on your definition of photorealism....
    2) read the comment about not a lot of more painterly portraits in the show

    I'm thinking of adding a couple more in - but ran out of time last night before bedtime called,

  4. Hi Katherine, thanks for your fast reply!
    2) Saw the comment about fewer painterly works. But that isn't really my point (and I'm not knocking the abilities of the painters whose work you've chosen.) And painterly work can certainly be made photographs.
    1)My preferred definition of photorealism is neatly summed up at Wikipedia, 'Photorealism is the genre of painting based on using the camera and photographs to gather information and then from this information creating a painting that appears photographic.' My point is that with the proliferation of photographic and digital visual media, spectators and visual artists are being bombarded with visual material that provides remarkably less information than live observation. With a strongly filtered source of information as source of information, artists that use photos to paint from miss out a lot of things that they could more intelligently filter. Thus, making more 'human' pictures - sorry, I can't think of a better way of putting this.
    BTW, I've studied photography, art history and painting at artschool, and now paint from observation; love both photo and painting. I've no axe to grind I think that it's a bit of a shame that there's less and less paintings made directly from life on show at the NPG.
    Yup, it's a taste thing.

  5. Presumably you're aware that it's a condition of entry that all portraits should involve working via observation from life.

    Plenty of portrait artists start with studies made from life and then work further with the aid of photos. However I think it's wrong to imply - as I think you are - that these painters work solely from photos.

    The most realistic of them all is in fact a self-portrait! Who needs photos?!

  6. I'm only saying that the influence of photography in the NPG's portrait award is so obvious and my tastes, are such that I'd prefer to see less of it.

    'The most realistic of them all is in fact a self-portrait!'
    At 150cm x 100cm - he must be enormous!!!

    Who needs photos?!
    'Plenty of portrait artists'...

    Would really like to chew the fat with you over this at the NPG actually looking at the works, but I'm just back in DK and won't be around until Autumn.
    Keep up the the great work with the blog,

  7. Not sure I understand the "enormous" quip since there's no requirement when working from observation to work sightsize albeit I appreciate that might well be the conventional approach.

    I also think there's a vast difference between those who copy photos and those who use photos as part of the range of reference material for a portrait. Are you saying you'd like to see ANY use of photos is banned for this competition?

    One way to discourage people from working from photos might be to continually award the portrait to works which are obviously not copying photos - for example see the 2010 and 2009 winners

  8. Darn! miss out seeing this in Edinburgh by a few weeks (live in TX)

    This looks so much better than the last one I saw in 2010. I loved the winning painting that year but I was left the exhibition feeling rather depressed by the number of paintings that looked like photographs. I found them to be rather bland and wondering why painters want a painting to look so much like a photograph. Many of them had no indication of a paint brush or any interaction involved, if they were painted from experience. Some of them I had look at the label to check it was actually a painting! As observer of art and not a practising artist, I was not aware of the photography rule, so I am somewhat surprised it exists as it obvious that many of the painting I saw, relied heavily on photography.

    I have no objections to the use of photography, an artist should use whatever means to get over their ideas and thoughts.The artists above on the whole seem to be in that category which is why I am sad I will miss this year's show.

    Came across this interesting video of the winning artist MFA crit a the New York Academy of Art - She is definitely an artist to watch.

    Brilliant blog Katherine, only discovered it the other week via another website but I have seen your work on the London Urban, sketchers Blog, although I only connected the 2 today!

    1. Jacqui - as I'm sure you're aware trends in painting come and go. Not that long ago you couldn;t move in a BP Portrait exhibition without being confronted by the phenomenon of the "big heads'. This now seems to be on the wane although still present.

      I think there are also some people who are referencing portrait painting in times past. If you go upstairs to the history galleries and review the NPG collection you'll find quite a lot of paintings where there is absolutely no evidence of the painter's brush. You'll also doubtless be aware that many portraits in the past were copied over and over again - without the subject necessarily being present at any point! ;)

      For my part, I look to the panel of judges to highlight those where it's evident that they have been painted from observation - as required by the competition rules - and that they reward accordingly.

      I would agree there maybe needs to be more emphasis on this in the rules of the competition. Particularly since the winner is expected to paint a commission of a subject - in part from observation! :)

  9. I'm only saying that the influence of photography in the NPG's portrait award is so obvious and my tastes, are such that I'd prefer to see less of it.

    1. Have you actually seen the exhibition yet Shaun? For my part, I think it's very difficult to judge from photographs of a portrait what the influence of photography might be.

  10. I guess if you'd said that in your first comment we'd never had this discussion. :)

    I understand your perspective. However I do think it's a really good idea to go and see the exhibition before deciding whether or not too many of the portraits lean too much towards the photorealistic.

    Some final comments from me. I don't know how many exhibitions of portraiture you go to and/or look at online but I've looked at and reviewed a lot. To be honest I don't find the BP to be that much different to the others - although I do find the Australians to be a tad more innovative.

    When all said and done not everybody is Lucian Freud and can demand endless sittings from their sitter. Artists have to work out ways of completing portraits using a range of different studies and support material. The camera is a tool for an artist and it gets used to provide reference material - even by those who don't err towards the photorealistic.

    I'm no defender of the use of the camera as the only means of providing material for a portrait - but I do recognise it gets used as a way of making a record eg of proportions.

    I'd certainly like more people to be painting in a style of their own - I can't tell the difference when they're totally photorealistic. That said, I can spot paintings by artists who paint with a high degree of realism (eg by Benjamin Sullivan or Alan Coulson or David Eichenberg) in a gallery without reading the labels - so maybe those who paint in a very realistic way do so in a style of their own and it's just a question of how much time you need to spend looking before you can see the characteristic traits of each individual artist?

  11. Shaun, I can assure you that Carl Randall's painting for one will not have been taken from a photograph. He would have spent weeks/month observing and drawing freehand. I have never known him to paint from photograph although I'm sure he does like every artist does from time to time. I think you may be being a little purist and pretentious about this. I'm aware every artist has their preferences and although I'm not a painter I am a musician and I get that, I think we can spend too much time critiquing others abilities/styles rather than focussing on our own. The old Woody Allen quote seems to ring true right about now. I think all artists have a tendency of being too precious, should you all go back to painting on cave walls because it is traditional? I think all the winners are worthy ones, especially Carl. I'm his sis so no bias there ;-)

    1. I'd also add that it's also very evident if you look at Carl's website that this is an artist who is not a photorealist and who draws from observation.


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