Entries for the 2017 Archibald Prize are flooding into the Art Gallery of NSW as artists face off in the popular portrait prize.

All over the country, artists are putting the finishes touches to portraits, packing paintings, and delivering artwork to the Art Gallery of New South Wales as Friday’s deadline for entries to this year’s Archibald Prize approaches.

First awarded in 1921, and now worth $100,000, the Archibald Prize is Australia’s most high-profile and popular portrait prize, attracting more than 800 entries in 2016. Among the entries flooding in this year is a portrait of leading actor and director Robyn Nevin, painted by first-time Archibald entrant Julie Pastars.

Julie Pastars’ portrait of Robyn Nevin, courtesy of the artist

Nevin, who is currently playing Mrs Higgins in Julie Andrews’ 60th anniversary production of My Fair Lady, has featured in the Archibald before. In 2011, a portrait of her by Christopher McVinnnish was selected as a finalist.

“I was also painted by Jasper Knight. It wasn’t selected, which was a surprise given his track record at the Archie. I really liked it too. I love his work,” says Nevin.

Pastars is a Sydney-based artist. “I had toyed with the thought of painting a portrait for the Archibald for many years without seriously doing anything about it,” she tells Limelight.

Three years ago, she began to seriously think about it and wondering who to paint. “Several very good suggestions of possible subjects were made by my supportive network but I just felt that those people just weren’t the right ones for me. I continued to paint portraits of friends, models and explore other works; but the right person for the Archibald eluded me,” she says.

Then in early 2016, Australian film producer Jane Scott suggested Nevin. “It’s uncanny, but as soon as Jane mentioned Robyn’s name I instantly knew that I had found my subject. I had never met Robyn but I certainly knew of her and I had always admired and respected her work,” says Pastars.

They met at the Wharf Theatre, home of Sydney Theatre Company where Nevin was Artistic Director from 1999 to 2007 and Pastars says she was immediately struck by Nevin’s “incredible presence and demeanour”.

“For me, a successful portrait painting needs to capture many things. Beyond capturing a likeness, I always strive to catch the quality of the subject; I guess if I were to try to explain what I mean, it’s like trying to paint someone’s soul.  Robyn has such dignity, professionalism and presence apart from her expressive face and her natural beauty,” says Pastars.

Nevin for her part had already had a look at Pastars’ work and was impressed. She agreed to give Pastars three sittings for a portrait. The first took place in September 2016 in a Paddington terrace that offered wonderful natural light in the afternoon. The studies from that initial sitting can be seen on Pastars’ website.

The second sitting took place in March 2017 in a studio at the Opera Centre in Sydney where Nevin was in rehearsal for My Fair Lady. A third proved unnecessary.

Of the finished portrait, Pastars says: “I wanted the pose to capture Robyn’s elegant beauty to best advantage and to show the fine features of her face because, after all, this is a portrait of someone who is well known to audiences. However, Robyn also has a keen ability to look you in the eye and to be very direct in thought and action. The pose had to reflect a woman who is worldly wise, confident and dignified. It seemed to be a balancing act between portraying Robyn’s strength of character alongside her very delicate feminine qualities. Introducing the lace in the portrait helped to symbolise her underlying femininity. The light shining on her face is indicative of the stage lights that have shone on her throughout her career.”

Nevin admits that she feels “uncomfortable” about having her portrait painted. “I don’t like being photographed for the same reason. I’m an actress without a singular way of presenting myself. I am so accustomed to transforming, or attempting to transform, that making a decision as to how I actually look, simply as me, seems always difficult,” she says.

Happily, she is impressed with Pastars’ painting. “She’s a fine technician, as far as my eye can judge. The only surprise was my hair, which is never as well managed, as neat, as that. But Julie is neat. It had been, in an earlier version, a bit wilder. I’m fascinated by painters. I’m attracted to the mystery of their skills,” says Nevin.

Pastars says she is “in reverence of the Archibald because it attracts such a vibrant energy and it is part of our culture. Over the years, the Archibald has become an event. It doesn’t really matter whether you love art, don’t understand it, or fall somewhere in between. The Archibald has carved out its own special place in the Australian calendar when everyone becomes an art critic. I just love it!”

Finalists in the 2017 Archibald Prize will be announced on July 20 along with the winner of the Packing Room Prize. The winner will be announced on July 28. The exhibition runs at the Art Gallery of NSW, July 29 – October 22, then goes on tour

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