The BP Portrait Award 2016

Pia by Gentian Lulanaj (c) Gentian Lulanaj

Pia by Gentian Lulanaj (c) Gentian Lulanaj

LONDON, United Kingdom — For portrait and figurative artists around the world, The BP Portrait Award is the holy grail of competitions. Having your portrait exhibited means recognition amongst peers, and can catapult relatively unknown artists into the public eye, resulting in commissions and sought after gallery representation. It is also one of the most popular art exhibitions in the UK with 329,556 visitors in 2015.

This year the competition received 2,557 entries from 80 countries with 53 portraits selected for exhibition. The shortlist for the top three places are Clara Drummond for ‘Girl in a Liberty Dress’, Benjamin Sullivan for ‘Hugo’ and Bo Wang for ‘Silence’. The winner, who will be announced on 21st June 2016 will receive one of the largest arts prizes in the world, £30,000, as well as a £5,000 commission for the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection. Immortality in the company of some of the world’s greatest paintings – every artist’s dream!

Life after winning the BP Portrait Award

I caught up with Israeli artist Matan Ben Cnaan, winner of the BP Portrait award 2015, to find out what his year has been like. “Immediately after winning, I was approached by media from around the world,” he told me. “Perhaps the most noteworthy was an interview with a Chinese news channel. I was also invited to meet and talk with art lovers in London and was approached by many galleries and curators.”

I asked Matan what winning the competition has done for his career, and if he believes that awards like the BP are important in the life of an artist. “Awards and exhibitions such as the BP shouldn’t play a significant role in the life of an artist, but they are important with regards to bringing your work into the public eye.” He continued: “In fact, this was my first time even submitting a painting for the competition.”

In addition to generating commissions and priceless publicity for me, winning the award introduced new people into my life from around the world and I made a lot of connections.

What advice might he have for people considering entering the BP and those that have experienced rejection? “I would advise an artist not to ‘work’ his way into the competition by means of trying to guess what the judges would like,” he said. “One should keep one’s authenticity no matter what. And when you have a painting you believe in, submit it, that’s what I did. For those who have been rejected,” he added, “I would say that you should go back to the easel and work. It doesn’t really say anything about the quality of your work, but use it as a motivation for next time.”

Matan Ben Cnaan, First Prize Winner of the BP Portrait Award 2015 with his painting Annabelle and Guy © Matan Ben Cnaan. Photograph © Jorge Herrera

Matan Ben Cnaan, First Prize Winner of the BP Portrait Award 2015 with his painting Annabelle and Guy © Matan Ben Cnaan. Photograph © Jorge Herrera

What are the judging panel looking for?

In an interview in BP Magazine, Pim Baxter, Deputy Director at the National Portrait Gallery, who chaired the judging panel in 2015, said: “What is it saying about the sitter, that is, the person or people in the painting? Is there a story being told? What does it tell me about the artist? What is the style? What is the painterly quality of the picture, in other words, is it painted well? These are the sort of questions we ask ourselves when judging the paintings submitted.”

An NPG spokesperson added: “The BP Portrait Award entries are judged anonymously – just the portraits are seen, they [the judges] see no information on sitters or artists. So likeness of the subject cannot be the first over-riding consideration – though technical accomplishment in the execution of the face and figure is a possible criterion. Interpretation is also something the judges will be wishing to acknowledge.”

Working from sittings vs. photos

Historically, there has been some contention among artists and critics that certain exhibited paintings look very photographically referenced or even hyperrealistic, which appears to contradict the rules – that portraits be painted primarily from sittings with photos as a supplementary source only. I asked the NPG if they can tell whether or not a portrait has been painted from photographs. “We can’t distinguish between the two,” they replied, “but we ask entrants to ensure that there has been a sitting from life. We have received comments that there has been a number of ‘photo-realist’ portraits but this has to be contrasted by the very opposite approach being adopted in many of the others.”

Given photography is a tool for the modern artist, is the restriction to painting predominantly from life perhaps unrealistic? And is the execution not the primary objective rather than the means by which it is arrived at? “The rules don’t stipulate that entrants should avoid photographically-referenced work,” the NPG responded, “the judges accept it is a necessary tool for the portrait painter.”

The top three

What is it about 2016’s three finalists that stood out and distinguished their work from the rest of the entries? According to judge Sarah Howgate, Contemporary Curator at the National Portrait Gallery: “The judges felt the portrait by Bo Wang was very moving and related strongly to universal themes. It was also extremely well executed. Clara Drummond’s painting felt very contemporary and was achingly beautiful and wistful. And Benjamin Sullivan’s portrait, finely rendered on a small scale, gave a strong sense of the presence of the sitter and was a good likeness of the poet Hugo Williams. It has a timeless quality which is subtly balanced by the appearance of the modern wrist-watch.”

Beatrice by Benjamin Fenske (c) Benjamin Fenske

Beatrice by Benjamin Fenske (c) Benjamin Fenske

I have been fortunate enough to see the paintings that will feature in this year’s exhibition, courtesy of my correspondence with the National Portrait Gallery. I believe the selection represents a genuinely rich diversity of styles and approaches to portraiture and will be well received by fellow artists who are perhaps the competition’s harshest critics.

The exhibition, which is free to the public, runs from 23rd June to 4th September at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Courtesy of: The National Portrait Gallery | Website:

Lucille Smithson About the author

Writer, artist in progress, reluctant brunette, and terrible at telling jokes. When she’s not fighting with her own paintings she’s conversing with artists about their creative process. She has a black cat called Diego. Visit her website at:


  1. All of which is of course undermined by BP sponsorship. It really is time to end that appallingly unethical contract.

    • Thank you for your comment. While researching for this article I did contact BP directly, specifically Des Violaris, Director, UK Arts and Culture, BP (who was a judge on the BP Portrait Award 2016) and ask her why the BP sponsor The Portrait Award. She declined to comment and I was instead referred to the BP website to source an answer. Given their negative press recently with regards to the Greenpeace protests against BP, I was surprised that they would decline an opportunity to talk about what is a genuinely positive contribution on their part. This competition and exhibition is an important aspect of many representational artists’ lives and the prize money that BP provides is significant and life changing for those that win it. According to the info that I got from the NPG: “The annual Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery was first established in 1980 and has been sponsored by BP since 1990. It was set up as a way of supporting young painters and encouraging them to think about portraiture as a medium.
      The Portrait Award has always been sponsored and prior to BP it was sponsored by John Player tobacco.”