Forget the usual weird, wacky and self-consciously conceptual art that we see in most contemporary art prizes – the BP Portrait Award showcases the best talent in figurative painting and celebrates the simple but mesmerising materials of paint and canvas. With an astonishing number of entries inspired by the traditional material and technique of tempera, these artists make the ancient and traditional fresh and modern. Here are my highlights:
Haydn as Henry by Stephen Earl Rogers
The composition of this artist’s nephew recalls a scene from the film Goodfellas, reflecting Haydn’s interest in film. The pale red light beautifully illuminates his young face, on the brink of discovering adulthood.
Silence by Bo Wang
Wang has used tempera to create an almost photographic snapshot of his grandmother on her deathbed, with great poignancy. He said of those last moments, “Sometimes she tilted her head and looked at me. There was too much emotion in her eyes to be expressed in words.”
The Rt Revd & Rt Hon Richard Chartres KCVO Lord Bishop of London by Elen Vladimir Baranoff
A founder of the Egg Tempera Movenment, Baranoff has seemingly perfected the Renaissance technique of egg tempera on gesso board in this portrait of one of the project’s supporters. It is breathtakingly detailed and minutely observed, and the colours of jewel-liked red and gold against fresh stark white cuffs sing out to the viewer’s eyes.
Tad (Son of the Artist) by John Borowicz
This charming portrait shows how paintings can record fleeting moments just as well as photography. It is based on an instinctive moment of play, when the artist’s son put a nearby paper bag on his head and transformed, “like an actor going into character”.
Insomnia by Diego Aznar
Small in scale, this self portrait captures the anxiety and discomfort which accompanies sleeplessness; the rumpled bed filling the picture plane, its texture aptly described with oil paints, and the viewpoint looking down into the room, create a sense of restless claustraphobia, further enhanced by the spotlight in which the bed seems to sit, gleaming out of murky shadows.
Self by Shany Van Den Berg
“In an age of instant selfies, fleeting likes and constant sharing, there is something wonderful about the permanence of a self-portrait painting. It invites repeated musing and offers newly discovered details even after a thousand views.” The artist’s own words perfectly describe the quality of this stark, personal and intensely observed self-portrait.
Falk by David Von Bassewitz
Another painting inspired by tempera techniques, this was actually created with tiny brushstrokes of semi-transparent acrylic paint on a wood panel, lending it an astonishing, gleaming photorealism, bolstered by the dramatic use of shadow on textures of skin and cotton.
Laura in Black by Joshua Larock
Wistful and romantic, this captivating third portrait of the artist’s wife seems to hark back to an earlier tradition of painting focusing on female beauty, with hidden depths, for, as Larock stated “I sought a gesture and expression.”
Vacuum 2 by Thomas Ehretsmann
One of the more unusual compositions on display, this eye-bending long canvas surprises the viewer into seeing from a different perspective, with a different kind of visual mechanics. “It is like entering Falk’s train of thought. You could say his apartment in itself is a kind of portrait with him at the centre.”
Francesca by Daniele Vezzani
Made from a photograph of when she was much younger, this portrait of the artist’s daughter captures the essence of adolescence. She seems introspective and shy as she hides behind her hair, but her direct gaze contains a mixture of defiance and cautious curiosity.
The BP Portrait Award finishes this Sunday at the National Portrait Gallery, and admission is free.