Thursday, November 23, 2023

WHY enter The Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery (London)

In this post I'm offering information and advice for those wanting to enter The Portrait Award Competition at the National Portrait Gallery in London (formerly known as the BP Portrait Award).

My audience for this post are all those
  • who have entered in the past and want to have another go - but may have forgotten all the things it's wise to remember
  • who have heard about this Portrait Award and would like to enter for the first time - and need a few tips to help their entry on its way 

What I'm going to say below is based in part on what has gone before.

See also my previous post NEW! Herbert Smith Freehills Portrait Award 2024 REPLACES BP Portrait Award

The Most Successful Portrait Award Artist ever!
Ben Sullivan with Ginnie and 15 month old Edie (at her second BP Awards ceremony!)
Breech! - Winner of the BP Portrait Award 2017
Oil on canvas, 820 x 400mm

The Portrait Award - in the context of other Portrait Competitions

The Portrait Award has been around since 1980 

Its reputation has grown over time and it is now generally recognised as one of the most prestigious portrait awards in the world

What makes it different?

An International Competition

Unlike other leading portrait competitions - such as the Outwin Bouchever Portrait Competition in the USA and the Archibald Prize for Portraiture in Australia - which are limited to artists in the country that hosts the award, the Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery is 

  • one of a very few open to International Artists and 
  • very successful in attracting a huge number of entries by international artists. 

Indeed, in the last 40+ years, artists from over 100 countries have submitted over c.40,000 entries to this Portrait Award - and some of the winners have come from countries as diverse as the USA (2012), Germany (2014), Israel (2015) and Thailand/France (2020).  Prior to 2012, winners were almost always from the UK 

The number of international artists seemed to increase a lot after I started writing about the competition on an annual basis - and showing images of the portraits as photos and videos!

See section near the end of this post with information and tips for all International Artists.

See past blog posts about this award listed at the end - which contain images of portrait paintings selected for past exhibitions.

It's NOT the Portrait Competition with the top prize

There have certainly been Portrait Competitions in the past where the prize to the winner exceeds what is on offer at the National Portrait Gallery.

For example, as I write, the top prize in The 26th International annual competition for portraiture and figurative art run by the Portrait Society of America has a top prize of $50,000 (more than £40,000).

It does however offer 

  • a very generous sum of £35,000 to the winner 
  • PLUS the chance to add a prestigious collectoon to their CVs - by being offered the opportunity to contribute a portrait to the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery. 
This is not the portrait which wins but rather another portrait of somebody who is a significant person in the UK - and is commissioned by the NPG at some stage after the win.  

It should also be noted that ONLY 60% of artists have been awarded a commission in addition to the cash prize. This can be for a variety of reasons - but an obvious one is that an artist needs to be suitable for the person whose portrait needs painting - and sometimes need to be in the same country at a time convenient to the person being painted.

Portrait Award Winners

Oddly, the artists who have won the Portrait Award and have then gone on to complete a commission for a portrait are NOT currently listed on the NPG website

They are however listed on this blog in a post I created in January (because I kept being asked about what's happening to the award!)
TIP: READ Winners of the National Portrait Gallery's Portrait Award + Commissions

A number of the past winners have gone on to become well known contemporary artists eg. Humphrey Ocean(1982); Alison Watt (1987), Tai-Shan Schierenberg (1989), Stuart Pearson Wright (2001) - who subsequently did a portrait of JK Rowling for the NPG,  Paul Emsley (2007) - who subsequently painted the Duchess of Cambridge for the NPG, Miriam Escofet (2018) who has subsequently painted a number of eminent people.


Its sponsors since 1980 have included

  • 1980-1989 - Imperial Tobacco / John Player (a tobacco company / brand name)
  • 1990-2020 - BP (an oil company)
  • from 2023 - Herbert Smith Freehills (a legal firm whose clients include BP and the National Portrait Gallery.

Age Limit

When sponsored by John Player and subsequently through the early years of the BP sponsorship, The Portrait Award was known for being a competition limited to those under the age of 40. 

However in 2007 as I was beginning to write about The Portrait Award (see all my blog posts at the end of this post), the competition was opened up to all international artists aged 18 and over (prior to entry) - and the range of experience and styles increased exponentially.

TIPS about entering The Portrait Award

My past Call for Entries Posts (see the end) contain LOTS of tips about entering.

Here's a round-up of aspects worth thinking about

Do you want to change your life?

This is the sort of art competition / exhibition that changes people's careers and lives. 
Just getting selected can be enough to get taken seriously and after that it's up to you. If you are or aspire to be a serious portrait artist you need to think very seriously about entering the competition that in the past has been characterised as "the Oscars of Portraiture"

Winner of the BP Portrait Award 2018
Miriam Escofet with her mother and Miriam's portrait "An Angel at my Table"

2018 Winner Miriam Escofet's subsequent portrait of HM Queen Elizabeth II now hangs in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London. See my blog post Portrait of the Queen by Miriam Escofet and the video below
2018 Winner – Miriam Escofet b.1967 in Barcelona (website) - Moved to UK in 1979. Elected to membership of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 2020. See my VIDEO Interview with Miriam Escofet, BP Portrait Award Winner 2018

What's your chance of getting selected?

You need to understand that this competition has very serious international standing.

Every year, when I reviewed this competition I included the stats to indicate what the trends were and what the realistic chances are of getting selected in future years.  

In broad terms it regularly attracts
  • over 2.5k entries annually from some 80+ countries all over the world
  • about half the entries are from outside the UK
  • c.50 portraits are selected for the exhibition
  • it also regularly has prizewinners from all over the world!
Hence your chance of getting selected are about 50/2500 i.e. 
  • 2% of artists who enter are selected for the exhibition.  A number of these artists are ones who have previously won a prize.
...and to win a prize you 
  • first need to be in the 2% who are selected - and 
  • then in the 8% (of that 2%) who win a serious prize (4 people out of c.2,500)
So for 98% it's an awful lot of effort and, for some, significant expense just to get the chance to be part of the 2% - but then fail.  Realistically 
  • it's not a competition for those who realistically do not have a chance.
  • it is a competition for those who know when their work is good enough and also believe in themselves. 
TIP: Finally do not underestimate the influence of the Judges
I'd wait until they announce who the Judges are - because then you can take a close look at what they like and make a judgement about whether they are likely to value your style.
They need to do this soon. Judges are normally announced at the same time as the Call for Entries so it's surprising we don't know who they as yet.

Do you want to win OR Do just want to say you've been selected?

If you want to win, I'd recommend having a very good long look at all those paintings which have won in recent years.

TIP: I've got images of ALL THE WINNERS - in photographs I took myself at the Awards Ceremonies going back to 2008 - see the list of blog posts at the end of this one. 

From this you will see that 
  • small paintings do not generally win (but may get recognised and win a lesser prize)
  • medium size to large medium size are frequent winners and 
  • every now and again we get a big one.
Aleah Chapin and "Auntie"
Winner of the BP Portrait Award 2012

© Aleah Chapin
If you just want to get into the exhibition
, then you need a portrait which doesn't look like any other portrait. You need to bring something fresh and different to the competition.

(I've been lobbying for years for a prize for those who can do a group portrait - and we don't often see these. I think it's important as so many families commission family portraits.)

However do bear in mind that 
When I finally got to interview her, I find out she already knew all about me and my blog!
I was also tickled pink to find out that Aleah had already sent my blog post about the shortlist - in which I predicted she would win the First Prize to all her relatives!


Think about the marketing potential of being selected

Being selected for this Portrait Award is a very MAJOR credit on your CV - particularly if you aspire to becoming a serious portrait artist.

For one thing, it helps a lot when you apply to become a member of a national portrait society.

If you want to make the most of this potential credit factor, then I recommend you enter every year and do well!

I'm not saying don't try to win - but being recognised as an artist who is emphatically good enough and worth another selection is certainly something to be very much valued - and has the potential to deliver a major ripple effect to your career and the commissions you might get in future.

The portrait artist who has exceeded every other artist's performance in this respect is Ben Sullivan 

More reasons to enter this portrait competition

Get your artwork exhibited in a Major International Art Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery is in the centre of London - right next to the National Gallery and Trafalgar Square. This Prize is one of the main reasons why the National Portrait Gallery in London is in the top 20 art galleries and museums in the world

Being able to see you have exhibited at the NPG is a great line to have on your CV!

Get your artwork seen by a huge number of people. 

The Portrait Award Exhibition is typically seen by well in excess of 250,000 people in London. Typically people who all like portraits. I've known people get commissions off the back of being seen in this exhibition.

Note: In the past, the exhibition had typically toured to two other places around the UK. It's unclear whether this will happen in 2024 - but if it does something nearer half a million people will see the exhibition before the end of the tour.

Be acclaimed by the public and win the People's Choice Award. 

Even if you don't win a prize you might win the prize where the public get to second guess the judges. The prize goes to the portrait which receives the most votes from visitors to the exhibition.

Network and make lots of friends. 

David Kassan (Third Prizewinner 2014) suggested that the networking and friendships you will make with fellow artists in the show are "unbeatable".

For International Artists


If submitting artwork to this competition, the first part is easy. You send a digital image. However if your entry gets longlisted you need ship your artwork to London.

VERY BIG TIP:  You need to know the real costs of entering this competition
  • Find out the cost of shipping your art BEFORE you decide what size of support to use
  • when calculating costs don't forget to allow for the thickness of the external package and the internal packing 
  • remember to make an estimate of the weight as quite a lot of couriers use weight rather than size to calculate cost
  • Once you've got the approximate costs, you need to factor in insurance and also how you are going to get it to where it needs to go - including how to get it out of the studio and maybe what size vehicle will be required to move it.
I do not jest. A lot of people forget this in their enthusiasm to get on and paint their best ever portrait. Costs can then come as a nasty shock.

This page International Art Shipping: How to ship / export art to other countries on my Art Business Info for Artists website is very helpful to all those who have never exported art before.

Value Added Tax (VAT) / Customs

Interestingly, the Rules of the Competition do not mention VAT - which, in my opinion, is a mistake. Although you are not selling your portrait, you still need to get it through customs.

All they say is
If works are being shipped by courier, artists must take full responsibility for all costs, including any import customs charges and duties. When sending works from abroad the artist should not tick the box advising the courier company to bill the recipient. Equally on the return of any work from the UK the artist should not tick the box indicating that the transport will be paid by the sender. The Gallery will not cover these costs and will instruct the shipper to contact the artist directly for payment. Para 7.2 of Competition Rules

I suspect they may well tell people more when asked to send their artwork if they make the longlist. (Or somebody can tell me what they said last time - my copies of long list letters now being on an old computer - which means digging out my back-up!) 

TIP: You MUST avoid your portrait getting stuck in Customs and missing the deadline for getting to the NPG. Which means you MUST:
  • EITHER know how to present your work for Customs Checks in such a way that it will not cause problems (eg correct tariff code, correct statement as to value - which is debateable - and that it is being imported to the UK for EXHIBITION ONLY status.
  • OR use a courier service who are well used to sending artwork internationally and know how to speed it through Customs - as an EXHIBITION ONLY piece.
I'd ALSO recommend you READ my page about VAT for Artists and the section on exhibitions and competitions.

Making A Mark Blog Posts:  BP Portrait Award / Previous BP Portrait Exhibitions at the National Portrait Gallery

I've been covering the BP Portrait Award since 2007 and consequently have an extensive archive of posts relating to previous competitions which I know are much studied by those contemplating an entry!

BP Portrait Award - General

BP Portrait Award 2019 (the LAST TIME we had a proper exhibition including artwork)

Charlie Shaffer was the last artist to win First Prize (in 2019)
and have a normal' Portrait Award presentation at the National Portrait Gallery
Imara in her Winter Coat
(1200mm x 900mm, oil on canvas)

2,538 artists submitted a portrait as a digital image to the BP Portrait Award 2018. (2,667 artists in 2018) from 84 countries (minus 4 countries compared to 2018). Of these

BP Portrait Award 2018

The BP Portrait Award 2018 received 2,667 entries from 88 countries. Judged anonymously, 48 portraits were selected for the exhibition.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment

COMMENTS HAVE BEEN CLOSED AGAIN because of too much spam.
My blog posts are always posted to my Making A Mark Facebook Page and you can comment there if you wish.

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