Ten questions for the portrait judge

Deputy director of the UK’s National Portrait Gallery Pim Baxter. © Sophie Gost

Last edited: 23 June 2015

What’s it like to judge the world’s most prestigious portrait painting competition? Pim Baxter is the deputy director of the National Portrait Gallery and this year, as acting director, chaired the panel charged with choosing the 2015 BP Portrait Award winners

1. What should you look for in a good portrait?

“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.”

2. How do you arrive at one winner from so many entries?

“By a gradual process, in stages. This year, for the first time, we started by looking at digital images of the paintings, selecting from the 2,748 entries. The judging panel looked at every single image, and a painting went through if selected by any one of the judges.

Next, we asked to see the original artworks, and the panel debated the merits of each one. When we had reached the stage of between 70 and 100 paintings the judges began to choose the winners.”

3. What is the most difficult part of judging?

“Choosing the 55 portraits for the exhibition, when you have reached between 70 and 100 in the final shortlist. It’s really hard to take any out at this stage as they all have the potential to be in the exhibition.”

4. Do the judges disagree?

“Yes, we all have different styles that we like, but that helps to create an exhibition with something for everyone. There’s lots of debate, but it’s all done very democratically and we gelled very well as a panel.”

New York based artist Eleana Antonaki, 25, is the winner of the BP Young Artist Award 2015

5. Don’t the judges just pick their favourite artists?

“We don’t know who the artists are or where they are from until after the winners and the paintings for the exhibition have been chosen.”

6. How do you create the exhibition?

“One of the judges is Sarah Howgate, our contemporary curator at the gallery, and she has the remarkable ability to visualise how best to display the final selection of paintings judged to be of the highest quality.”

7. Has it been helpful to have artists submitting their entries digitally at first this year?

“It means artists don’t have to worry about the costs and risks of sending original artworks, which we think has helped to increase the number of entries this year, particularly from artists outside of the UK. Having four days of judging – two in the first instance for digital and two with the actual paintings – meant we could spend more time on the later stages.”

8. Do different trends in portraiture emerge each year?

“We noticed a lot of yellow this year! More seriously, some years we see more photorealism than in others, and sometimes you notice more artworks in the style of the previous year’s winner – but that won’t influence the judges as it is not exactly the same panel each year.”

9. What do you value particularly in the BP Portrait Award?

“It is by far our noisiest exhibition. It gets people talking and debating about who they think should have won. We have a feature called Visitors’ Choice, where people vote for who they think should come first – and it’s never the same as the judges’ decisions, which is really interesting.”

10. What advice would you give to visitors to get the most out of the exhibition?

“Think about the stories behind the portraits, and what the artist is telling you. And join in the debate about whether or not we made the right choices about the winners!”
  • Entry to the BP Portrait Award 2015 exhibition is free; it runs at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, 10 October until 28 February 2016, and Ulster Museum, Belfast, 11 March until 12 June 2016.

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