The RBSA Portrait Prize: Advice from Two of the Judges

The biennial Portrait Prize is one of the RBSA’s most popular exhibitions. The deadline for entries is 4pm on Wednesday 12 June, and the exhibition will run 25 July — 31 August 2019.

This year’s show is being selected by four professional portrait painters: Sara Shamma, John Devane, Robert Neil (RBSA Vice President) and Jonathan Waller.

Sara and John Devane have provided ART BLOG with great insights into their thought process while judging portraiture, along with some invaluable advice for entrants!

Sara Shamma

Sara is a renowned painter whose works can be found in both public and private collections around the globe. Born in Damascus, Syria, Sara moved to London in 2016 having been granted an Exceptional Talent Visa. This year she was shortlisted for the Ruth Borchard Self-Portrait prize.

Sara explained what makes portraiture special:

The inner life of human beings expressed on their faces and hands is highly inspiring to me. I’ve always since I was a child sailed into faces and gestures. And when I discovered that I can do all the sailing by gazing into my own face and hands, the mirror became my source of inspiration. Basically, one human being stands for humanity as a whole… actually for the whole universe.†

Sara Shamma, London series

Sara’s 2017 ‘London’ series drew inspiration from her early experiences of living in the City as an artist and mother.

I think a portrait communicates better with the viewer; it tells the story of a person. The viewer can stare into the eyes of that person without getting embarrassed, and it is ‘alive’.

For me what makes a portrait stand out is the real expression, its distinctiveness, and the overall mastery of the artist.

John Devane

John is a figurative painter and printmaker who has exhibited widely since graduating from the Royal College of Art. He was a finalist in the BP Portrait Award. Last year John was made RBSA Professor of Painting. Here are his thoughts on the Portrait Prize:

In my view a portrait must be an interesting and compelling work of art in its own right. A portrait that simply relies on ‘likeness’ is not enough. Especially as this quality cannot be wholly determined by the judging team. Likeness is also highly subjective! So the portrait has to work as a painting in addition to the notion of likeness. I would always seek to recognise qualities like composition; brushwork; quality of light, tone and colour; emotional engagement; subject matter and theme; expressivity and finally the human interest in each entry.

I think competitions of this sort are fraught with challenges. The entrant needs to make a decision about what to submit, and as all artists know we are not always the best judges of our own work. I think all judges will attempt to be as objective as possible. However, we all have our own baggage and, try as we might, our own preferences and subjective views will undoubtedly surface.

My own approach would be to try and reward the following: ambition, imagination and technical competence of some sort. My overall advice to entrants is to give it your best shot and think about what the piece of work is about. What is the work saying?

Apply soon! The deadline for entries to the Portrait Prize is 4pm on Wednesday 12 June. Click here for the entry form and details.

This year there are five prizes up for grabs, including a £1,000 top prize and a People’s Choice Prize, selected from votes cast by visitors.

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