Like so many artists, I once aspired to win the National Portrait Award – the BP National Portrait Award. After several years of putting work in for the competition, I began to listen to others who had been doing the same: ‘It’s a lottery’ they said. ‘It’s rigged’ they said. It’s a money spinner for the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) I said.

Having seen exhibitions related to the award, any entrant can be forgiven for thinking they can ‘make the grade’. Some of the work shown isn’t all that. The BP portrait award tends to generate a certain type of portraiture – for a competition, rather than for Art’s sake.

Often, entries would be photo-realist in style. I looked closely at some of the paintings put in for the award and it seemed ‘artists’ had painted over giclee prints on canvas. Super tight or novel works taking the field. It’s all about screaming for attention.

colourful painting of Mike by alan dedman
Portrait of Mike by Alan Dedman

The good thing about the BP portrait award is: it gets people painting portraits. I wasn’t so capable when I started – I could knock out a portrait, according to ‘good manners’ – ie conforming to my own expectations of what is virtuous, but these often lacked spirit.

I developed skill and confidence over the years. However, I got fed-up with the whole silly, expensive business of carting paintings up to London to have them rejected by the effing ‘judges’ at the NPG. At times I did a quick flit around the the vast store-rooms where competitors lodge their entries. Much of it is lively, competent work.

When (on one occasion) it was announced all entries chosen for the NPA exhibition were painted by people of the same sex, it seemed the award could well be rigged – a media event, rather than a fair Art competition. Additionally, it is funded by a petro-chemical corporation which the tyranny of popular opinion now deems undesireable; decades ago the event was funded by a tobacco company, it was the JPS (John Player Special) portrait award. Perhaps the NPG should clean up it’s act altogether? Maybe the competition could be run in regional soviets?

The Times Newspaper announced ‘National Portrait Gallery to shut for three years’, (6th of November, 2019) speculating it’s closure will enable the gallery to terminate the National Portrait Award, BP sponsorship ending in 2022. David Sanderson’s article goes on to quote art historian, Bendor Grosvenor as saying: “The more I think about the NPG closure the less I understand it ….. I think you only contemplate a three year closure if you view your audience with contempt.” You can say that again, Bendor!

Olwyn Bowey RA once advised me to ‘only paint that which you like and are interested in’ – that means people. The portrait I’m writing about here is of a man from North-East London. When younger, he travelled during the 70s/80s settling in Amsterdam where he remained til the 90s. He sat for me on a few occasions, we agreed the work had to be done rapidly, rather than my normal hundred hours or so from observation, and it was.

I decided to paint exclusively with my left-hand, to rid myself of habitual behaviours but found no difficulty in swapping sides – something I attribute to many years training in martial arts; an old Jamaican instructor in London would discourage ‘sugar side’. I bought some vibrant colours (befitting my subject). Mike likes his music and has lived a colourful life. I like the painting because I wasn’t trying to do anything other than commune with and observe the phenomenon of another human being.

My painting captures a look of worried sincerity, characteristic of Mike in conversation. This is expressed through directly drawn charcoal lines. I applied the paint vigorously, ‘feeling’ the form of my subject matter, using ‘irrational’ colours. A turbulent assessment of someone whose face bears the scars of battles fought in youth and beyond.

By clicking on the image here, you are linked to Alan Dedman’s static website, where further examples of his painting can be found.