Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Review: BP Portrait Award Exhibition 2018

This post about the BP Portrait Award 2018 exhibition includes:
  • my overall impression of the exhibition
  • my commentary on my analysis of what I've noticed has changed in this year's exhibition - in terms of number of portraits, size and type, composition and colour and who are the subjects - with some number crunching for comparison with last year
The exhibition is at the National Portrait Gallery until 24 September 2017 - admission is free. It tours to Wolverhampton and Edinburgh later in the year (details below)

Posting about the BP Portrait Award Exhibition this year was interrupted by the fire at the Glasgow School of Art - which was a huge distraction - so apologies for the delay.

For the record, I think this might be my favourite portrait - because it's extremely well designed and painted, shows a complete person - with hands - tells a story and has context of which more later....

The Oolographer (in his study) © JJ (Jeremy) Delvine

Overall Impression

The main difference this year is that the exhibition is in a completely different gallery - The Porter Gallery - having been "bounced" by the exhibition about Michael Jackson which is located in its usual gallery.

In the video (below) I'm walking around a completely different space than in previous years. I'm not a fan of this gallery as I always find it claustrophobic. In effect it's a collection of small rooms and it's impossible to get any real distance from the portrait.

The overall effect for me was that it somehow doesn't feel like the BP Portrait Award exhibition.  I'm guessing quite a few other people, particularly the portrait artists who visit, have had the same sensation.

This exhibition has lots of walls which prevent a view of the whole exhibition
Certainly other BP Portrait Award fans who have been to see this exhibition have also been unimpressed with the different gallery.
My first thought about the exhibition though is that it's a shame it been moved to the (wrong name) Galleries (ground floor on the right) - it all feels a bit more disjointed than it normally does. terms of curation and display, this is the worst BP Exhibition I’ve seen in years. Such a diverse selection of paintings should not be crammed and hung so close to each other.
Hence it felt very weird while walking around taking videos of this year's exhibition.

To me it felt a much less imposing exhibition compared to normal.  It certainly lacked a "WOW" factor and colour for the most part - with the notable exception of Felicia Forte's painting!

Maybe unsurprisingly, this was also reflected in the reviews of the exhibition. I checked to see which newspapers and magazines had reviewed the exhibition and found much less than normal.
Other focused on the prizewinners only (i.e. read the press release and reviewed these portraits)
Those who did provide reviews  of the exhibition included some I'd not heard of before.
I found just one good review of the exhibition by somebody who had obviously not relied on the press release for the majority of their content, had obviously seen it and then thought about it for more than a minute or two. Worth a read.
It left me wondering who all the people at the Press Review represented (other than foreign press) given the dire coverage of the exhibition online.

I guess my conclusion about the press reviews is that if you downgrade an exhibition in terms of the space used for its display, you shouldn't be too surprised if the press react accordingly.

However is the change in gallery the whole story?

Overall, while I liked some of the paintings a lot, I generally found it a less than inspiring exhibition. It lacks something. I can't work out whether this is because scanning the exhibition as a whole is much more difficult or whether the calibre of the work is somehow less.

Rather than blaming the actual portraiture, I keep coming back to how the discontinuity and "chunked" up nature of the exhibition just fails to create an exhibition which impresses. An impressive exhibition needs an exhibition space which measures up to it.

There again it might be because the NUMBER and TYPE of portraits this year are very different. Or the composition or colour

What's Different? An analysis of the Portraits

Every year I do an analysis of the portraits selected for the exhibition in terms of size and type - and you can see the results below. This year's exhibition prompted me to think about a wider-ranging analysis and to think about doing more analysis of the exhibits over time....

The factors I consider below are:
  • number
  • size and media
  • type
  • composition
  • colour
  • subject

What's different? NUMBER

The number of portraits exhibited continues to decrease. This year only 48 portraits were selected.  This exhibition has been getting smaller and small and needs to get back up to the 53-55 level which is where it was for many years

Did the size of the gallery available for display constrain the number of paintings that could be exhibited? It's certainly a question that's relevant....

What's different?  SIZE & MEDIA

One of the things I find very unhelpful is that the images produced by the selected exhibitors on the website have NO DETAILS attached to the portrait in terms of media, support or SIZE!

To me this is a cardinal sin. You cannot list an exhibit online without the basics of any explanation and accreditation.

Last year we had the medium and the support - this time it's missing from the website. Since this is very much an international exhibition and very many people cannot get to see it in person, I personally think it's absolutely essential that this information is reintroduced.

It's also not too late to reintroduce the information in relation to this year's exhibition.

Large, medium and small paintings in the exhibition
Typically representing the full body, upper torso and heads
In terms of numbers these are this is how the entries split across the different size ranges. This a totally non-scientific exercise as I don't measure (and the dimensions are not specified on the website!)

2018 2018 2017
SIZE No. %
Large 11 23% 31%
Medium 19 40% 31%
Small 11 23% 23%
Tiny 7 15% 15%
48 100% 100%


  • the percentage of small and tiny portraits are the same as last year
  • overall just under two thirds of portraits are medium/large sizes and just over one third are small or tiny portraits. The latter acts as spacers or punctuation between the larger sized paintings
  • however there has been a change of emphasis with more medium sized paintings and fewer really large paintings
  • Obviously the change in space and reduction in size of gallery display space has had most impact on the number of large paintings displayed in the exhibition. 

What's different?  TYPE

Large, medium and small paintings can contain a whole figure
The big story for me of this year's exhibition is how people have learned to paint hands!  

TYPE 2018 2018 2017
Group 6 13% 8%
Whole Body 11 23% 17%
Upper Torso inc. Hands 13 27% 35%
Head & shoulders 14 29% 35%
Head 4 8% 6%
48 100% 100%


  • Around two thirds of the portraits this year (63%) include either the whole figure and/or the upper torso, including the hands
  • the number of head and shoulder paintings are reducing as a result
  • over 20% of this years selected portraits involve a whole body
As I keep saying, year after year, any serious portrait painter must be able to demonstrate to their prospective client that they have an ability to paint more than just a head and shoulders painting. 

For me that means, if you are going to enter a portrait competition, you will always give yourself a better chance of being selected if you include hands. In the case of the BP Portrait Exhibition, entrants really need to keep in mind that part of the First Prize is a commission to paint a prominent person for the National Portrait Gallery.

Which is not to say that a head and shoulders will not get selected for a prize - but I would argue it's often less likely. (and might well provide the topic for another post!)

I'm very tempted to compare both the size and type to previous years, while remembering that last year was "the year of the small portrait". I may just do some more analysis of this using my videos of the exhibition for reference.

What's different? COMPOSITION

Oddly, it took me while to spot the main difference in relation to composition.

The biologist by Miguel Ángel Moya

There seem to be fewer portraits which provide context for the person being painted. You can count it various ways (and I have), however (for me) of the 48 portraits, between 12-18 portraits have a significant amount of contextual information within the portrait i.e. something that speaks to the viewer.

That's at least 25-30 portraits without a background which adds value to the portrait. So more than half the paintings lack context of any value.  Maybe that's because a lot of them (but by no means all) are just paintings of heads.

I LIKE the portraits which add context. It does two things.
  • It tells me this artist can paint more than just a face and 
  • it also tells me that the artist is in some way sensitive to the objects that tell a story about an individual.
A self-portrait and a painting of a centenarian and both have backgrounds relevant to the individual
For the record, although we have one painting which is quite large in terms of scale relative to head, for the most part "the big head" painting has died a death - and about time too!

What's different? COLOUR

Other than Felicia Forte's outstanding use of colour, the remainder of the exhibition comes across as remarkably "neutral". One might even use the word bland.

I don't ever remember an exhibition which lacks colour like this one does.  There's a phenomenal amount of greys, taupes, creams, browns and neutral/muted versions of just about any colour you care to mention. Plus quite a bit of BLACK!

So much so that if you removed Felicia Forte's painting and maybe a couple of the others - this would be an exhibition with an exceedingly neutral colour palette.

I suspect that this has got to be something to do with whoever was having a major influence on the judging this year as a liking or not for colour is something very personal. I also suspect that it's entirely possible they never noticed what they've done i.e. if you like a particular colour palette you naturally think that it looks great!

If any of you who entered portraits painted using one or more strong colours, you might just have the explanation for why your work was not selected this year.

Can we please have a Judge who likes colour next year? :)

What's different? SUBJECTS/MODELS

The main thing I noticed that was different is that we seem to have lost "the bling factor" i.e. portraits of famous people which have been a constant within this exhibition for quite a while.

The reality is that there are a couple of famous people in the exhibition - but they're very low key ones not known for having their faces all over the papers and in no way instantly recognisable.

I must say I really welcome this change in direction for the exhibition. One always had the sneaking suspicion that the reason somebody's portrait had got in was because it was of somebody famous rather than because it was a seriously good portrait.

The other low key change - highlighted nowhere that I've found to date - is that this exhibition has truly become diverse. When one uses the "diversity" word I often find people instantly think of gender or sexuality or skin colour. You'd be wrong!

It's very noticeable that the majority of portraits are either self-portraits or portraits of family members and friends or colleagues.  This fact is much more persuasive of the notion that these portraits actually involved real studies from life.

Tony Albert on the extreme left

This exhibition has THREE portraits of people with learning disabilities which I find quite remarkable and a major step forward for this exhibition in terms of portraying real people.  They are:
all of which were painted by artists who also work as their support workers or art teachers

Mr and Mrs Cooper, separated
© Mark Lawrence

A further portrait An Existential Crisis by Megan Roodenrys (a former Archibald Prize finalist) portrays another individual who has has experienced depression.

Given that WHO estimate that one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives, it's surprising that an exhibition of c.50 portraits has not previously highlighted portraits of people for whom the challenges of disabilities or disorders are a constant in their lives. If it was a conscious decision on the part of one or more of the jurors, well done whoever!

I hope you find the analysis interesting. I hate it when I can't work out what's different each year and this year it kept niggling until I started to work out that it was very definitely more than just size and type of portrait which I've examined in previous years.

If you'd like to enter a portrait for the BP Portrait Award 2019, the Call for Entries will open in December 2018 - and will be covered by an extensive post on this blog. You can sign up to be notified of the 2019 Call for Entries

VIDEO: 2018 BP Portrait Exhibition

I was going to post the video with this review - but now realise I don't have time so will try and get it done at the weekend (I'm taking a week off from Making A Mark next week).

If you're unable to visit the exhibition, my 2018 video is particularly relevant to:
  • getting a much better understanding of the relative size of the individual paintings
  • appreciating more about the choice of subject, size, style, palette and approach to painting a portrait for this exhibition.
  • understanding what is different about this exhibition
Hence it's an Appendix if you like to this post

BP Portrait Award 2018 – Events / Gallery Tour

You can review the events associated with the exhibition on the website.

On 6th July at 7.30pm, the winner of the BP Portrait Award 2018, Miriam Escofet is leading a tour of the exhibition and speaking about her portrait and one or two other favourites
They also include BP Portrait Award Next Generation workshops for younger people who the NPG wants to encourage to develop their skills in portraiture. I've seen one of these in action and they're very worthwhile.

About the Awards and the Exhibition

The BP Portrait Award Exhibition is on display during 2018/19 at the following venues:

Previous posts about the BP Portrait Award 2018


Blogs Posts about Previous BP Portrait Exhibitions

BP Portrait Award 2017


BP Portrait Award 2016

BP Portrait Award 2015

    BP Portrait Award 2014

      BP Portrait Award 2013

        BP Portrait Award 2012

          BP Portrait Award 2011

          BP Portrait Award 2010

            BP Portrait Award 2009

            BP Portrait Award 2008 

              BP Portrait Award 2007

              More information

              No comments:

              Post a comment

              COMMENTS HAVE BEEN SUSPENDED AGAIN due to very silly ignorant people who leave spam comments without realising they have no benefit for them.

              Please feel free to comment on my Facebook Page as my blog posts are always posted there (but please note anonymous comments are not published and I block and report spammers to Google and on Facebook)

              Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.