After years of submitting to the BP Portrait Award, Felicia Forte was finally heading to London in 2015 to see her work on display. The National Portrait Gallery selects portraits from the exhibit to advertise, and Felicia was thrilled to see her self-portrait Melting Point on a large banner in downtown London. Fast forward three years- and three more submissions- and Felicia’s portrait Time Traveler won Second Prize.
For those of us still learning the plethora of opportunities open to portrait artists, the BP Portrait Award is one of the most prestigious competitions, along with the Outwin Boochever Portrait award, and of course, the Portrait Society of America’s Members Only and International Portrait competitions.
Why do artists like Felicia enter competitions? Why isn’t exhibiting and selling artwork enough? Competitions offer a means for aspiring artists to gain recognition and to be judged alongside their peers. Felicia says, “you’re pretty isolated, [and] it’s good to have deadlines and challenges to keep you going,” referencing her reason for entering competitions early in her career. Katie O’Hagan, a self-taught oil portrait painter, lists encouragement and exposure as two reasons for entering competitions.
Felicia Forte with her self-portrait,
Melting Point, in London, 2015
For Katie, the Portrait Society of America’s International Portrait Competition was the first competition she entered, and it was the first rejection she received. Katie’s submission moved Gordon Wetmore, a founding member of the PSoA, to reach out. “He wanted me to know that although I wasn’t selected, he had liked my painting and wanted to make sure that I wasn’t discouraged and would keep trying and enter again,” Katie recalls.
Portrait competitions run the gamut. An internet search using “portrait” and “competition” is a good start. For portrait painters still honing their skills, local nonprofits and art centers host juried exhibitions and receptions for mingling with local artists. Art magazines, like International Artists Magazine and Southwest Art Magazine, list open calls towards the end of each issue and offer competitions and prizes as well. Art competition databases, like callforentry.org, entrythingy.com, and submittable.com list competitions as well as other artistic opportunities.
A fun habit to establish is to search the curriculum vitae of artists who you admire. Some opportunities that may not be easily found through an internet search or listserv could be listed there.
A note of caution: beware of the vanity gallery or publication. The business model of these for-profit companies is to make money off fees the artists pay. They do not offer merit-based recognition; therefore, inclusion is meaningless and a waste of money.
A tenacity for improvement and perseverance are keys to success. Rejection is universal, and there’s no way to know for sure why a particular work that one artist submitted was selected over an equally talented artist. Both Felicia and Katie mention that rejection helped them “grow tough skin.” It is part of the process.
We will conclude with this sage advice from Amy Sherald, the official portrait painter of Michelle Obama and the best-of-show winner in the 2016 Outwin Boochever competition. Amy recommends to “keep pushing because at some point everyone is going to quit.”
Felicia Forte and her second prize portrait,
Time Traveler, in the 2018 BP Portrait Award
Amy Sherald UNC Chapel Hill Interview- youtube: https://youtu.be/rgDuZhhV0RE
Recommended listening: Felicia Forte and Katie O’Hagan interviews on John Dalton