Artist interview with Nigel Whittaker: from the BP Portrait Award Exhibition to life with his late father

Artist interview with Nigel Whittaker: from the BP Portrait Award Exhibition to life with his late father
Nigel Whittaker with various portraits he's created of his father. Courtesy the artist.
Leading lights  -   Artists

Each year, a number of artists are featured in the National Gallery’s BP Portrait Award Exhibition. This year, 44 artists have been chosen out of thousands of submissions from 84 countries to exhibit in the exhibition that opens on Thursday in London.

One of those artists is Nigel Whittaker who was chosen for his work One Minute to Midnight, which features his late father. Whittaker, who is a self-proclaimed ‘nosey’ person, is no stranger to creating emotive and striking portraiture with the occasional landscape thrown in the mix. Despite his impressive body of work, One Minute to Midnight was his first ever submission to the prestigious BP Portrait Awards. In light of his recent accolade, Art Critique had the opportunity to talk with Whittaker about his submission, his father, and his process.


Nigel Whittaker, ‘One Minute to Midnight’. Courtesy the artist.


Art Critique: What was it like to find out that ‘One Minute to Midnight’ was in the running for the BP Portrait Award and ultimately one of only 44 works to be shown in the exhibition?

Nigel Whittaker: My first reaction was they had made a mistake. When you consider the number of artists that entered – 2,538 worldwide – you have a less than 1.8% chance of being selected. Those are pretty tough odds, so I thought I had won the lottery. Also, I have been going to the exhibition for some 12 years and being wowed by the standard and diversity of styles of artwork on show. It’s a great honour to be in such esteemed company. I suppose you could say it is the “Oscar’s” of the portrait world so I was pretty overwhelmed to be selected.

AC: What do you think your dad would say about the portrait you created of him being in the exhibition if he were still here?

NW: I had a great relationship with my dad, although he could be gloriously irritating – though it could be said I was the one irritating him. As he got older our roles were reversed and I became the parent and he the child. But above all, I respected him and was grateful for his love. He was always very supportive and would have been very proud that I was in the exhibition.

AC: What was the process of painting your ageing father like? How did it compare to your usual painting process?

NW: Surprisingly, most of the time, once I started painting it was like any other painting where you go through the emotional highs and lows. As with any other project, it’s a balance between great satisfaction most days, and some deep frustrations, where you just want to throw something at the painting.

I felt like I was in total control but, also flying by the seat of my pants. That’s the best part; when I felt like I could have ruined it or conquered it at any moment. It’s exhilarating and exhausting at the same time, but above all I wanted it to command the space that it inhabited.

I did find myself talking to him though, as he emerged from the painting which I don’t usually do apart from the odd swear word. Don’t tell anyone that – they’ll think I’m bonkers.

AC: On that note, you’re more or less self-taught. In what ways has that impacted your career? Have you confronted more obstacles or, perhaps, felt more liberated in what you can create?

NW: Getting commissions is tough for any artist and doing enough to make a living from them even harder. In some ways, with the internet, it has never been easier to get your work out in front of people, but the sheer volume of what’s out there drowns you out. In terms of the artwork I produce, I do it for myself and if people like it then that’s a win-win. It’s so nice when somebody appreciates or connects with what you have done.

AC: By and large, you focus on portraiture. What is it that draws you into creating portraits? How do you usually decide who to paint next?

NW: I love people and I am a very nosy person, too. Inspiration comes from all sorts of sources. I’m always on the lookout for an interesting face, an expression, a situation. Talking to people, I’m looking at their eyes, their skin, their emotion, and thinking about how I would paint them; what colours would I use to express their personality. I see people pass by me in the street as an opportunity lost.

AC: What do you hope viewers take away from your paintings and particularly ‘One Minute to Midnight’?

NW: My painting of One Minute to Midnight is ultimately about mortality and love. Dad was a strong man both physically and in character when I was growing up. I was shocked to see how time and life had diminished him and it also made me consider our attitude to the old in the West. We refuse to participate with the old, to include them our lives. We send them off to a nursing home where they are out of sight and out of mind. If you spend an hour talking to someone who’s twice as old as you, you will probably hear something hilarious, clever, wonderful and probably extraordinary.


‘One Minute to Midnight’ will be on show at London’s National Portrait Gallery from June 13th through October 20th before heading to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh from December 7th through March 22nd, 2020 as part of the BP Portrait Award Exhibition.