The Story Behind the Portrait: Works at the RBSA Portrait Prize

Alex Kelly ‘Lizzie’

I have been painting portraits in a more conscientious and sustained effort since the beginning of 2017 – the result of a New Year’s resolution to paint every day.

I haven’t managed to paint every day as life and my day job sometimes means there is little time to devote to painting.

I had been asking my wife to sit for a portrait for some time but with our busy family life and two young children an opportunity hadn’t presented itself to paint her in a sustained manner.

I work primarily from life as the quality of the light is a vital aspect of painting for me.

On this particular day my wife was working at the dining room table and there was a cool, soft light coming through the windows. I asked her to look out the window and her expression struck me as having something compelling and ineffable about it.

Alex Kelly ‘Lizzie’

My paintings are primarily in the realist genre, although there are usually aspects of abstraction present too. Painting for me is as much about what to leave out as what to emphasise. I am inspired by many subjects and believe that creating good work starts with being sensitive to the truth or beauty present in the subject. Most often it is the quality of light interacting with the subject which inspires. I prefer to work directly from life wherever possible.

Katia Kesic, ‘Self-portrait’

I was reflecting on the question of whether there is still a division between man and woman in the contemporary art world.

Does gender really matter?

Inspired by Hockney and Van Gogh, both male artists, I left the most “feminine” detail of apparel on the chair in a most “feminine” colour.

Katia Kesic ‘Self-portrait’

Mark Youd, ‘Fragment XXXI’

The Fragments series makes reference to the art of ancient civilisations, to statues of fallen leaders, broken and buried.

My subjects have been affected, over centuries, by the natural processes of geology, erosion and corrosion.

I aim for a sculptural physicality in my images, a sense of materiality, of weight and volume, in order that, ultimately, the deconstruction of the portrait might reveal something just as tangible.

By disturbing the expected traditions of portraiture, by stripping away the layers and looking beyond the surface features of my model, I hope to identify and describe something universally human.

Mark Youd ‘Fragment XXXI’

Mark Youd is an artist working in Southerndown, near Cardiff on the South Wales coast. He trained as a draughtsman and, in parallel to a successful career as a designer and technical illustrator, he has developed his personal artistic practice, challenging the traditional approach to portraiture and to painting itself.

To purchase an original painting, or to arrange a studio visit, please contact

Ruth Swain ‘Lady with 2 Sticks’

My painting is of April Cantelo, the lady who lives down the lane.

She walks down my lane every day with her good friend Faith, and they just looked so lovely together that I asked if I could paint them.

Both were happy to do so but I decided that just one figure would make a better composition so April came and ‘stood’ for me.

We met up several times and she told me her story. April Cantelo was a famous opera singer formerly married to Sir Colin Davis.

She ended up moving to Sutton Courtenay and gave singing lessons to many people.

As a hint to her former life I painted a music score from one of her early recitals in 1967, singing Handel’s Messiah with the London Choral society.

Ruth Swain ‘Lady with 2 Sticks’

Ruth Swain is a contemporary artist, best known for her realistic portraits. She lives and works in Oxfordshire. Ruth studied art and graphics in Bristol and worked in advertising as an Art director before becoming a full-time artist.  She concentrates on large scale pictures and has a passion for detail. Her large portrait of her mother-in-law, Gill – They said I used to look like Her – was exhibited in London’s Mall Galleries and won the public vote for Artists and Illustrators Magazine Artist of the Year.

We would like to thank all the artists who submitted to the Story Behind the Portrait. These stories accompany the current Portrait Prize Exhibition at the RBSA Gallery, which runs until August 19.

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