I’ve always been interested in painting people, mainly because I’ve always been awe-struck by the capabilities of so many portrait artists I’ve come across over the years. My initial attempts at portraits (reaching back some twenty years or so), were what I harshly regard as second-rate; but over the years I’ve gradually improved and this is mainly due to researching a myriad of techniques until I found one that suited. So with gradual improvements I find myself entering the BP Portrait Awards for the third consecutive year (all previous submissions rejected).
On previous occasions I’d submitted quite conventional portraits, usually female, looking quite classical, and tightly cropped to the head. I noticed what I took to be a difference between my paintings and those being selected. It was by no means something which appeared across the board, but certainly in many instances: a) many portraits had a narrative element, sometimes subtle, sometimes prominent, and b) the portraits were usually three-quarter length or full length.
The setup for the narrative was the environment, usually a living room, a work place, an outdoor backdrop. It could be the way the sitter was seated or standing, the clothes they were wearing. In some way these aspects added to the understanding of the sitter, offered a gateway into that person’s life. Of course this gateway can be found by many other means too, through the features (though I don’t believe mine ever did), something about the way the paint is handled, the colour, the line, in fact the list is endless. But those two aspects mentioned above, for me at least, stood out.
Of course there are always exceptions to the rule (and this may not even be the rule!): notably Michael Gaskell’s tempera portraits which are free of any narrative element. One could hardly say that anything in his exceptional portraits offered an overt insight into the sitter’s psyche; there is no narrative at play. However the majority of submissions seem to me to both carry a narrative and be three-quarter or full length.
This is not an exact science, and nor should it be. But considering these aspects at least allowed me to come up with what I now regard as my most successful portrait. (Am I allowed to say that?)
This years portrait of my brother James is by no means a choreographed painting solely designed to cynically meet some covert criteria of the BP Awards. No doubt many artists to some degree tailor their work to try and ‘fit’ the awards. And why not. I simply felt a narrative context and three-quarter size pose would allow me a greater prospect of selection. This is of course an international stage for portrait artists, and commissions can come off the back of exhibiting here.
I knew a portrait of James would generate an image which would be striking, which would have that narrative element; and of course, I wanted to ensure it would be three-quarter length. I also wanted it to be a painting which represented the journey I’m currently on as a painter, which is one of not limiting myself. And having completed this submission I feel my painterly toolkit is far broader than it was prior to the submission.
My submission this year is of my brother, James. Now James was diagnosed with a severe mental illness at the ridiculously young age of fourteen. He is now 51. Suffering from Schizophrenia for that length of time, all the various drugs that have been pumped through his system, takes a toll, and that history becomes evident and etched into the features. His face stands out as being the face that belongs to a life that has been less than ordinary. But I guess it’s not enough to paint a face that is different. It’s about painting that person’s life, sensing their life through their features and posture and physical context – and in doing so striving to come closer to capturing a fairer, more rounded representation that person.
Whether the portrait gets in this year is perhaps not the important thing. Perhaps the real award for this year’s submission has been stepping outside of a very comfortable way of painting portraits, and exploring something a little more provocative. It’s essentially the difference between paintings done for commission, and paintings which I may choose to do for myself. I now have a clearer understanding of what I might like to paint for myself. Which is a small reward in itself.