BP Portrait Award 2016 • Exclusive Artist Interviews Part 1

by Cass Art

The BP Portrait Award is the most prestigious painting competition in the world, and with over 2,557 entries by artists from over 80 countries around the world, it is far from slowing down in 2016.

Marking the thirty-seventh year at the National Portrait Gallery and twenty-seventh year of sponsorship by BP, the BP Portrait Award encourages artists of all backgrounds to develop their portraiture work.

Representing the very best in contemporary portrait painting for nearly four decades, this year’s entries showcase a breadth of international talent. From parents to posers, figurative nudes to famous faces, the variety and vitality in the exhibition continues to make it an unmissable highlight in the annual art calendar.

This year’s top prize of £30,000 was awarded to Clara Drummond, who also won a place in the annual exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, alongside a selection of shortlisted artists who impressed the panel this year.

We caught up with the finalists of 2016, to bring you a series of exclusive interviews about their practice, processes and inspiration behind their works...

Eilis Otway 

Eilís Otway graduated from Manchester School of Art in 2013 and she currently lives and works in Manchester. She will begin studying an MA in painting at the Royal College of Art in London this September. 

You have recently graduated from art school, what challenges have you found in the shift from student to professional artist?

The shift has been an enjoyable one, I am fortunate to have a space in a big studio building so I’m working in this atmosphere of driven creative people. The challenge is to divide my time between working and painting, though my degree had a culture of self-sufficiency and taught me a huge amount about discipline and graft. That being said I am going to be starting an MA in September and I am excited to be surrounded by knowledgeable and experienced practitioners, technicians and other students again. 

How has your work and process evolved?

My work and process is evolving all the time. Paint is an inherently versatile medium and there is a great deal I’m yet to discover about the ways in which it can be used. I intend to try to explore that as much as I can. 

Your painting style is quite dark and abstracted, what themes are you trying to convey in your portraiture by painting in this way?

There is a balance between representation and chaos and paint is an ideal medium to play with that. Painting can open up those in-between spaces where something doesn’t necessarily make sense, where a mark can appear accidental or anomalous and where the autonomy of a gesture is compromised. 

Dark colours often feature heavily in Victorian portraiture, or in the Western tradition of aristocratic portraits, take Goya’s court portraits for example. I am always being informed by painting’s histories and I will continually reassess and re-evaluate historical influences in whatever I am working on. There is a great deal I’m yet to learn from the past.

Samantha Fellows

Samantha Fellows worked as a scenic artist in London, painting sets for theatre, TV and retail for many years. She has focussed on portraiture more recently. Samantha’s work has also been on display at the Summer Exhibition 2016 at the Royal Academy in London. 

Your series of portraits focus on your daughters, through a combination of sketches and photographs. How do you translate their different personalities through your work?

I would like to say that when I work from photographs, it’s in order to be able to work on the paintings without requiring my daughters or other subjects to continually sit for me. I never print the photos; I keep them as images on my iPad and work from them, building up the painting just as when I’m painting directly from life. Printing photos and then copying them by gridding or projecting them, produces a different kind of painting that’s not really my thing. I do often grid and project when painting theatre scenery and so don’t really associate it with my portrait painting.

While painting my daughters, I do have a strong sense of them in my head, as well as an idea of what I am trying to capture for the final painting. I start loosely, trying to get the shadows in, and then sneaking in the features, checking over and over as I try to get everything in the right place. Once I’m happy with the under-painting, I start to introduce colour and it’s just a process of trying to get everything in without getting too attached to anything or too upset if something’s not quite right. I keep coming back, passing over everything, checking and adjusting, adding more and more detail, until I start to recognise them and what I’m trying to portray. There is a point when it does become quite intuitive and exciting, and I think this must be because I know their faces and their personalities and expressions so very well. It can be very rewarding seeing them appear and I do find it much easier than painting the commissioned portraits of children that I also paint and who I don’t know so well. 

What do you think about before deciding to start a portrait?

It all just starts with a quirky thought of what might make an interesting painting.  People often say, “How can you sell a picture of your daughter?” but I never start just wanting to paint an image of my daughter.  Something triggers me into imagining what might make an interesting painting, and then I get them to sit for me so I can create it. 

What painting materials and colours do you use?

I use water-mixable oils such as Talens Cobra or Winsor & Newton Artisan. My studio is a very small room in my house and I have quite bad psoriasis, which makes me overly paranoid about using solvent-based products. They are oil paints that have had one molecule altered so that they can be cleaned up with water, and I use their similarly adapted oil mediums too. 

I like to paint on birch plywood panels, which I seal and prime myself. This is because they are sturdy enough for me to rub back a lot, while I’m under-painting, and also so that I can leave them around the house in order to stand back and check their progress.

My first layer of painting is always raw umber, which I mix with ultramarine blue for my darkest shadows and also anything needing to appear black in colour. For painting skin tones, ranging from very pale to dark-skinned, I like to have a full range of earth colours: burnt umber, burnt sienna, raw sienna and yellow ochre as well as red and yellow cadmiums, alizarin crimson and titanium white. Other favourites for clothes and backgrounds include cerulean and Prussian blue, pathalo green and a blue violet.

Eileen Hogan

Eileen Hogan is an artist and Professor in Fine Art in the CCW Graduate School, University of the Arts London. Recent solo exhibitions include Browse & Darby London, the NewArtCentre, Roche Court, Wiltshire and the Yale Center for British Art, USA. In 2015 the film Tate Masterclass: Life Drawing with Eileen Hogan was part of the display Reception, Rupture and Return: The Model and the Life Room in Tate Britain. Her portrait of a D-Day veteran was included in the exhibition The Last of The Tide at the Queen’s Gallery, London and at the Palace of Holyrood House, Edinburgh. Self-portrait, Pembroke Studios can be seen in the forthcoming show at the Usher Gallery in Lincoln. She is currently Artist-in-Residence at The Garden Museum, London.

I understand that this is a self-portrait of you in your studio. Can you tell me how you achieved this?

This self-portrait caught me by surprise. Since 2013 I have been lucky enough to have use of a studio that for nearly 50 years belonged to Leonard Rosoman, one of my former Royal College of Art tutors. He used a mirror on a hinge to gain a different perspective on his paintings, and I kept getting glimpses of myself at work as I passed it. I am not primarily a painter of portraits but since 2006 I have made a series of portrait heads, usually created whilst observing the changes in a sitter’s posture and expressions whilst making recordings with an oral historian. In some ways I came upon this image of myself by a similar gradual, stealthy approach.

Leonard still has a strong presence in Pembroke Studios as his archive is still there, representing his life as a painter, muralist and illustrator who never threw anything away. My archive surrounds me - the traces of previous work, the paraphernalia of painting and its documentation. All these intertwined narratives are part of my self- portrait.

What do you feel defines a portrait today and makes it successful?

In 2015 as part of my work at the University of the Arts London I set up a 'community of practice' around portraiture called 'About Face'. This was an attempt to establish a dialogue between practitioners, theoreticians and curators about portraiture, a topic that has dropped off the curriculum in UK art schools. Some of the issues that have been raised relate to self, to vulnerability and to the embodiment of the archive and all of these led me to think about what might be hidden or revealed in painting myself.

What are the vital tools in your studio?

Paper, oil paint, wax, charcoal.

Charles Moxon

Charles Moxon is a portrait artist who is based in London and New York. Having graduated from BA (Hons) Painting at Camberwell College of Art in 2013, he has exhibited widely in Europe and North America. Moxon’s sitters have included Harriet Harman MP and Ex-England and Chelsea football player Roy Bentley. He has appeared on the BBC and publications both in Europe and USA. In late 2015 Charles Moxon was selected for a residency and solo exhibition at Lux Art Institute in California. 

Your painting has a lot of political undertones; can you talk me through why you wanted to paint an MP and how this political tone is translated in your painting?

I first met Harriet at my degree show at Camberwell College of Art. At the time I didn't follow British politics particularly closely, but when talking to her I did find her extremely engaging and very interesting. We arranged for me to paint her and the portrait was completed over the period of two years. Part of the reason why I love being a portrait painter is not only getting to know new people but the process of learning about their world. This painting in particular was an intense, immersive experience. Until I had some understanding of her and the world that she was involved in, I didn't feel that I would do her or myself justice. As a result I listened to political discussions and read political based books every day. I have changed in the process and it has been such an interesting experience.  

A political tone was inevitably translated into the painting. I was however very aware that I wanted to let 'her face do the talking' and to avoid any overly political images. I like to think my work rewards people who look at it closely.  For instance, on this painting I added a butterfly onto the arm of her jacket. The reason that I wanted to incorporate this feature into the painting was because this butterfly is named the ‘Camberwell Beauty’ after being discovered in the area. There are several references to this butterfly in her Peckham and Camberwell constituency.  

Could you tell us about your method and process?

Part of my process when I am thinking about a portrait is to try and immerse myself within a particular headspace.  So that when I am not with the person, I can still feel connected to them. I will listen to music they like or something of that nature. When I was painting Harriet I went to different speeches that she was giving to see how she acted. I find a lot of what is important when painting someone is seeing him or her indifferent situations. 

In terms of my technique, I predominantly work on canvas. I determine a composition quite quickly over the first sitting or two. I then work from photos and from life to a varying degree dependant on the sitter. I work in oil using Old Holland and Michael Harding, the most the most majestic of mediums and use sable brushes to build up the hundreds of translucent layers. Towards the end of the painting process the brushes will get smaller in size until sometimes I am just using brushes with two hairs. 

Where do you look for inspiration?

I practically live between the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery in London. I am inspired by the clarity of 17th century Northern European painting in particular. 

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