Why are we still fascinated by painted portraits in the age of mobile phone selfies? – ABC news | Ad On Picture

Although our daily lives are inundated with photographs, the painted portrait still plays an important role in telling stories about human experiences and characters, and in creating intimate connections between people.

One of Australia’s richest portrait awards, the Lester Prize received 720 entries from across the country depicting Australians in myriad ways, from the abstract to the realistic.

The Lester Prize, formerly known as the Black Swan Prize, invites Australian artists to paint Australian sitters.

The 40 finalists will be shown at the Art Gallery of Western Australia and will compete for a $105,000 prize pool, including the $50,000 Richard Lester Prize and other awards chosen by the public and other artists .

Photo of a woman with short hair and glasses in front of two portraits
Penny Grist, curator and one of the 2022 Lester Prize judges.(ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)

Judging between 40 paintings that vary so much in size, technique and approach is always “a really interesting experience,” said Penny Grist, juror and exhibition curator at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

But despite the differences between the paintings, she said there are certain qualities to look for in a portrait.

“One of the most fascinating things about portraiture in general is that human-to-human feel that you get,” she said.

“And the experience a viewer would have with a portrait is the same as a juror would have with a portrait.

“You get this portrait of someone’s presence, energy and spirit. You get a sense of all the work coming together to tell this story about this person.”

Paul Kelly, by Jenna Pickering
Paul Kelly, by Jenna Pickering.(Included: The Lester Prize)

While it might seem impossible for outsiders to compare a painting that barely depicts a face with a detailed piece of photorealism, Ms Grist said it was the stories that mattered.

“The judges go around, and then your minds meet, and you have this beautiful conversation about humanity and art and experiences and stories,” she said.

“Because of this experience, I love judging awards.”

Beggar Faith, by Fiona White
Beggar Faith, by Fiona White.(Included: The Lester Prize)

Not just a literal resemblance

In the pre-photographic era, portraiture was all about developing a likeness and creating an image that not only speaks about how someone looked, but also something about their character and personal experience.

“Often what you respond to as a human isn’t necessarily the resemblance, it’s all the other information you get about a human body,” Ms Grist said.

Smoko by Julia Donney
Smoko by Julia Donney.(Included: The Lester Prize)

“[Information] like the pose, the sense of energy and character of that person and where they are located and how they interact with their surroundings and how they were represented through the techniques the artist used.

“All of this doesn’t necessarily relate to an image of a face, but to a whole host of other things that make us human.”

The judges must also look at an artist’s technique. But instead of just judging a painter’s skill, they judge how well the technique is used to tell the story of their sitter.

Saif as Houses, by Sean Burton
Saif as Houses, by Sean Burton.(Included: The Lester Prize)

“The technique could be expressionistic, it could be realistic, it could be a mixture of both, but if it fits beautifully with what they’re trying to say about that person, or how they saw the truth of that person, or the particular one story that they try to tell, that’s where technology becomes important,” she said.

“It has to fit the story.”

Chhetri Sudhir Soup of the Day
Chhetri Sudhir Soup of the Day.(Included: The Lester Prize)

What is striking about this year’s finalists is the number of portraits that contain references to the COVID-19 pandemic, either directly by painting their subjects with masks, or through artist statements describing the circumstances under which the painting has arisen.

“It’s interesting, and one of the nice things about portraiture is that it’s so alive and so ‘current’ because all these people are embedded in their time.

“All the vastly different experiences represented in this year’s awards are really invigorating, and I think that’s one of the really important things that portrait photography can bring.”

“Deep personal investigation” that a camera doesn’t capture

Despite living in a world of phone selfies, portraiture is more relevant than ever, according to Emily Eastgate Brink, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Western Australia.

“Although we are probably being inundated with portraits more than at any time in human history, we need these slower, more conscious constructions of identity and people,” said Dr. Brink.

“If it’s a self-portrait, it’s about time spent on deep personal investigation.

Artwork - Self-Portrait with a Sore Throat and a Runny Nose, by Jeremy Blank
Self-Portrait with a Sore Throat and a Runny Nose, by Jeremy Blank.(Included: The Lester Prize)

“When it’s a commissioned portrait with an artist dealing with a person, there’s a duration and time spent with that person that I think translates into the way that life is captured.

“It sounds different than an iPhone.”

Trent Crawford Focused, by Jennifer Darcy
Trent Crawford Focused, by Jennifer Darcy.(Included: The Lester Prize)

As Mrs. Grist said, Dr. Brink that in an age full of screens, modern life means the human connection made through personal portraiture is more important than ever.

“We talk a lot about how social media and various technological innovations allow us to be connected, but increasingly, and COVID has intensified, we are more and more disconnected,” she said.

“Part of what portraiture does is it enhances our humanity; it allows us to spend time with someone.

“I think in that regard, we need portraits now more than ever.”

Vicki's Screen Time, by Kirthana Selvaraj
Vicki’s Screen Time, by Kirthana Selvaraj.(Included: The Lester Prize)

Portraits have universal appeal

This year’s entries have been reduced to 40 finalists, which will be exhibited at the Art Gallery of Western Australia from 1 October.

The winner of the $50,000 Richard Lester Award will be announced September 30 and the public will have an opportunity to view the exhibit and until November 20 for the $15,000 Baldock Family People’s Choice to vote prize.

Self-Portrait, by Adrian Lazzaro
Self-Portrait, by Adrian Lazzaro.(Included: The Lester Prize)

Lester Prize executive director Annie Silberstein said the portrait exhibition, now in its 17th year, has universal appeal.

“It’s an accessible art form,” she said.

“People can come into this space and look around and at least they see something, they’re not intimidated.”

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