Artist Alan McGowan’s self-portrait an Underground hit

THE London Underground is notorious for its unfriendly, unwelcoming atmosphere, with people rushing from one destination to the next without even lifting their heads up.
Artist Alan McGowanArtist Alan McGowan
Artist Alan McGowan

But when Edinburgh artist Alan McGowan joined the dozens of commuters squeezing themselves on to the escalator, the last obstacle to navigate before emerging once again into the daylight, a familiar and welcoming sight caught his eye. A full blown poster-sized mirror image of himself.

“I almost felt like I wanted to stop and shout out ‘that’s my picture’,” says Alan. “It was amazing.”

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The “picture” Alan is referring to is his self-portrait which earned him a coveted place in this year’s BP Portrait Award exhibition, which after its run in London is opening at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh on October 10.

Entitled How Soon is Now?, the piece is drawn from life, using a mirror to capture his character as accurately as possible.

“I hadn’t done a self-portrait for ages,” explains Alan, who is based at St Margaret’s House Studios. “When I was young and learning to paint, I did a lot of self-portraits – I was a free and available model!

“Some people do self-portraits from photographs, but I always work from life. For this piece I just worked from a mirror. It’s quite difficult because every time you go and try to paint something, the reflection moves. It’s obviously different from using life models as they normally sit very still.

“I wanted to do a piece that had a bit of character about it.

“You can be a bit more adventurous, a bit less worried about what the sitter thinks of it. In a normal portrait I guess there is always the feeling that the sitter may or may not be pleased, but with a self-portrait you can take a few more risks with the painting – which suits the way I paint I think, as my work isn’t really flattering.

“I don’t set out to make people appear beautiful or anything. I’m more after a kind of truth or honesty.”

He adds: “I don’t believe that I experience the world the way a camera does, so it doesn’t make sense to start with a photographic image, though that is a common way of working nowadays.

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“I don’t think people are opened up to the possibilities and challenges of working from life, which is a skill not much taught in art schools any more, so they just think of images in photographic terms.”

Alan, 51, painted his self-portrait over the course of a day or two, and named it after the music he was listening to at the time. “I work quite quickly and I enjoy that spontaneity so don’t want to keep going back to something,” Alan explains. “Sometimes a title is just the music I’m listening to at the time, and I had been listening to The Smiths then.

“The song is about waiting and how you can wait a long time to actually get anywhere. It’s quite fitting for me because I’ve been a painter for a long time without really much recognition in the way of competitions, so to get something in this big exhibition is fantastic.”

This year’s BP Portrait Award received submissions from more than 90 countries. The award is firmly established as one of the most prestigious international portrait competitions in the world and has a first prize of £30,000 – one of the largest for any global art competition.

Organised by the National Portrait Gallery in London, the exhibition of the top 55 entries will be in Edinburgh until February. As the only Scottish artist who made the final selection, Alan is understandably proud and excited about his work going on display in the city where he has lived for the past 33 years.

“It’s slightly unusual that I would be the only Scottish artist, and it’s a really big deal for me to be part of it. It’s become a much more international competition than it used to be which makes it even more of a big deal. They also used my image in their marketing which I hadn’t quite grasped until I went to London and saw it for myself on posters.”

Alan, who studied at Edinburgh College of Art and who teaches at Leith School of Art, adds: “Some of my students have been talking about coming along to the exhibition and making it a bit of a trip as portraiture is something we talk about. Obviously I saw the exhibition in London but having it in Edinburgh, my family and friends will be able to come along and it will feel more special.”

• The BP Portrait Award runs at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery from October 10 until February 28.