Perfecting Portraiture

Blog / 07 Jul 2015

In the second of our BP Portrait Award blog posts in collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery, we ask Rosie Broadley, Associate Curator at the Gallery, what she thinks makes a great portrait.

With so many aspiring artists looking to make their mark, what one piece of advice would you give them before sitting down to start a portrait,what would it be?

I believe it’s crucial to spend time with your sitter – even if you end up working from photographs. Spend time in getting to know them. Composition and mood should evolve naturally from this interaction. If you know your sitter very well already, perhaps talk about what you are hoping to achieve with your portrait. They may have some surprising and helpful input which could help shape how you approach the work, and then the portrait becomes a collaboration. 

A collaboration between artist and sitter sounds like the perfect combination! What would you say are the key components that contribute to forming great portraiture?

My favourite portraits are usually the intimate and informal compositions, where the artist has perhaps caught a mood or expression unique to that sitter. They can be loosely painted or with minute attention to every detail, but the artist has captured something truly characteristic because they have spent time observing.

So capturing a mood or expression, no matter how fleeting, is crucial in creating a portrait that revokes some form or reaction – a skill in itself! When you are sifting through all the entries in the competition, what makes for a winning portrait?

Whatever approach the artist is taking, we are looking for excellence in painting technique. The judges are also seeking a genuine engagement from the artist with their subject. You can see from the variety of prize-winning portraits that there is no‘winning formula’. And it’s not just the large or showy works which grab attention, sometimes judges keep returning to the seemingly humble portrait which whispers rather than shouts because it has compelling qualities.


With the BP Portrait Award receiving more and more entrants, along with TV shows such as Sky Portrait Artist of the Year, why do you think the popularity of portraits has risen so much in the last few years?

Portraiture as an artistic practice has never gone away, but it is certainly enjoying resurgence in popularity at the moment. Programmes such as Sky Portrait Artist and the recent BBC People’s Portrait certainly contribute to this. Perhaps, in the present day, with innovations such as the internet helping to shape our identities – individual, group and national – artists feel more compelled than ever to examine changing notions of identity and selfhood through portraiture.

The show picks up on the mixed reactions among the artists when a competitor uses photography within their work. What is your take on the use of technology in paintings – do they inform the painting in a positive way or take away from the original art from?

For me, there is nothing quite like a portrait painted directly from life because it is not just about making a likeness but it is also a record of a specific period of time when the artist and sitter were united in a single enterprise. It is infused with all the tension and emotion that experience can produce. However, if technology is used in a thoughtful and considered way, which contributes to our understanding of the sitter and the relationship with the artist, then I welcome it. New technology can lead to technical developments and innovation – such as photography inspiring the photo realist style of painting several decades ago – which can be challenging and exciting and helps enliven the genre of portraiture.

Thanks Rosie for sharing your fascinating insights, we are certainly keen to get down to the National Portrait Gallery and check out the winning entry by Matan Ben-Cnaan. Open until the 20th September, you still have plenty of time to see all of the shortlisted entries. Let us know which is your favourite, do you think Matan Ben-Cnaan is a worthy winner?

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