The Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ 132nd Annual Exhibition is on now at the Mall Galleries in London until 13th May, so what better time to dissect what people are painting, the modern portrait painting trends right now, and why? I sat down with RP's president, Anthony Connolly, to discuss what he considers the biggest trends in portrait painting.
Aside from being a renowned portrait painter and the president of one of the world's most respected art organisations, Connolly has also overseen the 132nd Annual Exhibition submissions process, which has meant studying over 3,500 entries from new and established artists.
Recently I highlighted some of the artists being shown at the RP's 132nd Annual Exhibition and pinpointed how these modern portrait painters are inspiring. What I loved about the artists on display is the mix of styles but also subject matter, these portraits feel personal and intimate.
Speaking with Connolly is fascinating, so what does he consider the biggest new trend on portrait painting? "I think the trend is towards the everyman," says Connolly, who takes a beat and considers what this means.
"We still have all the institutional portraits, we still have all the kinds of stock in trade as a portrait painter; the famous, the high achievers, the heads of institutions, all those people are still being painted," expands Connolly. "But alongside that, I would say the trend is towards people, people painting their friends, people in the street they like the look of, those who have interesting faces."
The telling statement from Connolly is the final phrasing, "There's a kind of democratisation of the genre," he says, revealing how portrait painting has left the preserve of the rich and famous and become a way everyone can be remembered and recorded in the artist's gaze.
This sense of inclusivity is what makes the Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ annual exhibition so interesting, as everyone and anyone can enter a work of art. Connolly is proud that the RP focuses on getting the best work into the show regardless of status.
"There aren't any agendas," he tells me. "As such, I think it comes through and I think you'll see lots of paintings of ordinary ordinary people. I'm going to qualify that because I don't think people are ordinary."
The breadth of art on show at the RP exhibition is inspiring. Connolly highlights there are over 200 portrait paintings on display, and established artists sit alongside not-so established painters. As Connolly shares, it means you can discover new art from "people who perhaps aren't making their living painting, but are creating really interesting work".
Reflecting on that trend of 'people painting people' and Connolly picks up on how Covid lockdowns and the rise of Instagram and social media has, perhaps, encouraged this new shift in modern portrait painting to celebrate the interesting lives and personalities of everybody over celebrity and wealth.
So are more people painting now? "I suspect," considers Connolly, "that it's not a case of more people doing it but that more people are being seen to be doing it. Once you realise that it's a real thing that's happening all over the place I think the inclination is to join in."
The convergence of a rise in social media, everyone being able to display and be involved in painting, looks to have set alight this trend in portrait painting for 'people painting people. Connolly himself discovered Instagram two years ago and has been amazed by the wealth and quality of portrait painting being shown.
"It's lifted this lid on all this activity," says Connolly as he reflects on how social media has broken down those traditional barriers to portrait painting, which has a traditional reputation of "people painting worthies for specific spaces".
"In fact," he continues, "it's much livelier than that and it's just people painting people, and all sorts of people are appearing in portraits and it's now in really good hands. Clearly, painting the human person is a very engaging thing to do."
If this has inspired you to take up portrait painting then read our feature, Oil painting for beginners where you can learn the five top tips to get you started. Don't have room for traditional painting then try digital art, with our extensive Photoshop tutorials.