BP Portrait Award 2016 • Exclusive Artist Interviews Part 2

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.

Representing the very best in contemporary portrait painting for nearly four decades, this year’s entries showcase a breadth of international talent. 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.

Continuing our series of exclusive artist interviews, we caught up with the finalists of 2016, to bring you more inspiration, advice and insights into the artists behind the portraits…

Fiona Graham-Mackay

Your portraiture has included HRH Prince Michael of Kent and Lord Carrington, how does it feel painting royalty?

Really, once over initial formalities, there is no difference in who you paint. My approach is the same for everyone. Whether it is because Royalty is used to dealing with the public, my experience has been one of graciousness, generosity of time. But I consider it an honour to paint anybody, famous or not. It requires a certain commitment on the part of the sitter, as well as my own and I find the best sitters are those who give back. Perhaps I have been lucky.

What art materials and painting techniques do you use to achieve your highly realistic portraits?

Drawing is the basis of what I do. I like a structure, a boundary and I am interested in the space the person inhabits. I keep it simple. In terms of method, the painter Euan Uglow has been a considerable influence. I use a system of horizontal and vertical lines although the goal is to be freer within that. My basic palate is not large and through time I have evolved a form of mixing with four or five basic colours which I use to bring tones up or down. I use Winsor & Newton and Michael Harding, and a lot of Titanium White, Indigo, Umber and Sienna with an initial tendency to apply it nervously then scrape it off again! The brush varies depending on what part and at what stage the painting is at. I use the finer brushes only at the last stages for detail. One brush, one colour. I like to work on unstretched cotton or linen, using masking tape as my boundary, which of course I can change if needs be.

Do you prefer to paint from life - what do you think the benefits are?

I always prefer to paint from life. Unfortunately sitters these days are often extremely busy and their time is limited so it's not possible to have as many sittings as one would ideally like. However, I do insist on having some time working from life and whilst I take photographs during the sitting I also draw, draw and draw. Drawing is looking, it is committing consciousness to paper, it gives confidence and is invaluable to the painting. Working from life gives life and that’s what we are all after.


Martin Brooks

Your painting style captures a delicate sense of movement; which materials or techniques do you use to capture this kind of energy?

For 'Unfolding' the painting process is loosely based on Alla Prima techniques, although a variety of approaches came into play by the end. Some sections are worked in one fluid layer of oil paint (the coat and the background). I use brushes, card, rags and my fingers to both apply and manipulate the paint on the surface leaving distinctive traces in the paint film. I like the emergent quality this gives the image. I tried to integrate the figure into the background at an early stage; it's too easy to over-model the form so that it seems to sit on top of the rest of the painting. So rather than build in layers, successful areas of the painting are 'stitched' together to maintain the fresh feel of a single skin of paint across the canvas surface. I rub unsuccessful areas down or 'tonk' them sometimes to rework the painting (Whistler did this very effectively I think), this gives me control in defining form, creating subtle edges and allows for delicate tonal transitions in the final painting.

Your model appears almost submerged in the background, as if he is stepping from the darkness. Is this a style you include in all your paintings?

The painting's title 'Unfolding' suggests a narrative interpretation of the pose. There is a sense of expectancy, almost of urgency in the forward-leaning posture of the figure, of someone absorbed in their own story, of a decision being made. The hands are also important, locking in the triangular composition but eloquent in themselves, as if there is some inner revelation taking place. I wanted the painting to work effectively from a distance, hence the 'stepping out of the darkness' feel. I wanted the viewer to be simultaneously aware of the illusion of a figure emerging into our space and also of the marks and apparent movement of the paint surface - this is, I think, what gives the painting its tension and contained energy.

I understand that you are a Lecturer at Plymouth University. What is the most important advice you give your students when it comes to painting?

I spend a lot of time in the Life Room with my students. It's great to see their work evolve over the three years they are with us at the Uni. They are given time to develop an individual approach to drawing, one that integrates with their own studio practice. I believe passionately that drawing is key to the true evolution of any serious artist.


Teri Anne Scoble

Your paintings have featured in numerous shows, including the BP Portrait Award 2013, the Royal Society of Portrait Painters 2015 and Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year – Congratulations! What advice would you give to someone wanting to submit a piece to a competition? 

Visit as many exhibitions as you can. Assess the competition. Ultimately, paint what you believe in. Find a subject that interests and inspires you. Consider composition, lighting, line and colour and Go For It! Strive to achieve your very best. Deadlines for competitions are good for motivating an artist to complete, or at least to conclude a work. I find it hard to finish a painting. 'Good enough' doesn't exist in my vocabulary.

Your background has focused on acting, choreography and teaching. Was there a defining moment when you decided you wanted to be an artist?

Undoubtedly, the defining moment was waking up in hospital after being admitted seriously ill with sepsis. Faced with my own mortality I decided that before "I popped my tap shoes" so to speak, I wanted to paint. It wasn't an easy decision because in order to do so meant giving up a successful theatre school business and acting agency.

The detail in your painting sets a very in depth scene, right up to the time on the brother’s watch - Can you tell me how you decide on the right context for your portraits?

Maybe it's the choreographer in me. When I'm choreographing, the stage is my canvas, the blocking of a routine is the charcoal outline and the steps and costume provide the colour. The little details have always mattered to me. They go to make up the whole picture. You know that they are there, even though they are not searingly obvious at first.


Richard Burger

The portrait is of your sister, can you talk to me about your relationship and why you chose her for your model?

Whilst I have lived in London for over 20 years my sister has always lived in Italy. However about 18 months ago she moved to London and doing a portrait of her seemed like a good way of getting to know her again. I think we both enjoyed the process since she is also an artist, but has never been on the 'receiving ' end. For me, it was the chance to do an uncompromising painting.

What draws you to portraiture?

I love people: they are so different to each other, both in character and physical looks. Portraiture allows me to explore these differences that I find engaging and intriguing. I also enjoy the interaction with the models which makes painting a slightly less lonely pursuit. 

Do you think your painting style reflects the hidden stories of your models?

That is always the aim. I was pleased with the portrait in that we both feel her character come through. Her hands show the stiffness of the body caused by Parkinson's and I hope that the portrait while fairly uncompromising, shows something of Carol’s strength of character.


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