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Thursday, 13 July 2017

BP Portraits Awards: What to look for....

The BP Portrait Awards never fails to create a buzz, with lengthy debates on the how the year’s exhibition compares to its predecessor’s, and the inevitable discussion on which style is preferred, who ‘in my opinion’ should have won, what an odd subject matter etc. etc. The list goes on… As you wander around you will hear projected comments dissecting style, subject and helpfully suggesting ways in how the portrait could have been improved, usually by people (like me) who cannot draw a circle but as a viewer have been given the right to critique.

The culprits of these comments should read The Evening Standard’s interview with the Senior Curator of the National Portrait Gallery, Sarah Howgate.  She broadly summarises what the judging panel of the BP Portrait Awards 2017 were looking for when choosing the shortlist of this year’s exhibition. Emphasis was put on the stories surrounding the portrait; what does the work tell us?  Is it about the sitter, the artist or both?  Will it evoke emotion?  What is the style of painting?..  From this interview it seems that narrative plays a significant part in the panel’s decision, as well the style and skill of painting. This then prompted thoughts as to what we, at Fine Art Commissions, look for when perusing the walls of the NPG’s most established exhibition and why they might differ from those of the judging panel…

The BP Portrait Awards competition has been running since 1979 and has been sponsored by BP for the last twenty-eight years.   One of the most impressive accolades of the exhibition is its international reach with this year’s competition seeing 2,580 artists entering portraits from 87 countries.  Only the 50 shortlisted paintings make it through to the annual exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.  The competition pulls in visitors from as many countries as the entrants, in 2015 over 320,000 people walked through the doors to see the array of works on display.  As an artist the chance to display your work at the finest Portrait Gallery in the world, to such a vast audience, does go a long way to explaining the number of submissions.  There is also the added bonus of the £30,000 prize money and a commission from the NPG which will hang in their permanent collection to whet the appetite further. 

Would Fine Art Commissions have been working to the same criteria when judging the entrants?  Yes, in general terms of style and painting skill, but the narrative is where the roads part.  As a commissioning agency we guide and advise clients through the process of choosing an artist for a particular project.  Because of this we need our artists to be accurate in their depiction, consistent with their style and palette, and imaginative in their compositions.  We need to know that the previous portraits which we show to a client clearly represent their current painting style, while also showing that the artist will not just recreate an old composition with a different sitter.   The narrative is important but unlike many BP Portrait entries, it is not chosen by the artist beforehand with a specific audience in mind.  It is developed simultaneously with the portrait, as the artist learns more about the sitter.

Both criterias, for the BP Portrait judging panel and for FAC, have their limitations.  For FAC it can mean we are less gung-ho in taking a chance on an artist who has produced one phenomenal painting but has little else to their name, as we cannot be sure they will deliver to clients.  We focus on technical ability so that we are confident that the artist has all the tools they need to capture the sitter’s physical likeness and create a fantastic portrait.  Creativeness is something we encourage once an artist has the fundamentals.

In contrast, the BP’s judging panel can choose an artist based on just one flair portrait.  No previous works are needed and it gives an artist the confidence to progress further in their career.  However they are dictated by their audience and need to make sure the exhibition will appeal to the public.  This may explain the competition’s interest this year, in the narratives of the portraits.  As you may have noticed the general public are currently fascinated by other people’s life stories (look at the ratings for ITV’s Love Island…).  Narratives do add an additional allure to a portrait, everyone enjoys a story, but it can also mean the painterly elements of a portrait are overlooked.  A technically brilliant painting with a mundane choice of sitter, may mean the artist loses out to a celebrity portrait. This is not saying this has happened at the BP Awards, but more to say that it is important to realise that the final destination of a portrait can determine how a painting, and an artist, are judged both privately and publicly.  If you are lucky enough to go to the BP Portrait Awards this year, keep Sarah Howgate’s guidelines in your mind as you amble through the NPG’s halls, as they might help you learn more about the works, and why they were chosen.  They certainly did for us!


Huge congratulations to the winner of this year’s BP Portrait Awards, Benjamin Sullivan, His winning portrait ‘Breech!’ delivered in all manners (no pun intended).  The painting connects the sitter, the artist and the viewer, altogether, in an incredibly intimate manner.  The portrait depicts his wife, gazing at their eight-month-old daughter while she breastfeeds her.  We (as the viewer) take the position of Sullivan looking on at the scene and immediately become involved.  There is also a rousing story surrounding the painting, not in the least from the suggestive title ‘Breech!’.  The portrait is well painted, the combination of the limited pallet and painting style may not be to everyone’s taste, but it does draws attention to Sullivan’s wonderful handling of light and the detailed skin tones.  After 13 years of being shortlisted (a current record) and third prize last year, Sullivan is a deserved winner.

Image result for ben sullivan breech
Breech!, by Benjamin Sullivan,82cm x 40cm, oil on canvas, 2017

The BP Portrait Awards 2017 will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 24th September 2017.

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