Sydney artist Tony Costa has revealed he painted his award-winning figurative expressionist portrait to win the 2019 Archibald prize in just two days, using a “wet-on-wet” technique which could’ve ended up in the bin.
Costa, 63, who on Friday won the coveted prize with a portrait of fellow Australian artist Lindy Lee meditating, told reporters the painting had to be done in “one or two sittings”.
“It’s wet on wet, it has to be done in one or two sittings at the very most.
“The risk of contaminating the paint and making it look tired is very real if you start overpainting. So they either work (or) I just throw them out and start again. No safety net.”
The painting is Costa’s fourth Archibald finals entry, and the first winning portrait to feature an Asian-Australian artist in the Archibald’s 98-year history.
Costa thanked his late mother for encouraging his artistic endeavours: “She said follow your heart, but I thought she said follow your art”.
“I’m absolutely overwhelmed, honoured and thrilled.
“I am very aware of all those who have come before me as Archibald Prize winners and I am humbled, to say the least.”
Lee – a Zen Buddhist – was herself an Archibald finalist in 2002. She has also been a subject before: In 2006, painted by Bin Xie, and in 2012, by Kate Beynon.
Lee’s art explores her Chinese ancestry through the philosophies of Taoism and Zen Buddhism.
Costa said he was inspired to paint Lee after listening to an interview with her at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and being intrigued by many of her ideas.
“I was attracted to her wisdom, humility, courage, humour and, above all, her deep focus regarding her art practice,” he said.
“In my portrait of Lindy, I have kept the colour minimal to avoid any visual noise.
Costa’s previous awards included the 2014 Paddington Art Prize for landscape painting. He’s also had works in the Wynne Prize, Sulman Prize and Dobell Prize for Drawing.
The $100,000 Archibald prize-winner is picked from 51 finalists, whittled down this year from a staggering 919 entries. The winner is chosen by the trustees of the Gallery of NSW.
The Archibald began in 1921 and is one of Australia’s most prominent art prizes, awarded annually for a portrait of someone ‘distinguished in art, letters, science or politics’ and painted by an Australian resident.
This year, subjects immortalised by the finalists included 28 artists (11 self-portraits), four media personalities, four actors and four performers from the music and dance scene.
The faces are familiar and include writer and actor Nakkiah Lui, Paralympian Dylan Alcott, media figures Benjamin Law, Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb, and Archibald-winning artist Del Kathryn Barton.
Last year, Melbourne artist Yvette Coppersmith took out the Archibald with a self-portrait. It was her fifth entry in the competition.
Perth artist pick of the packing room
Self-taught artist Tessa MacKay, 27, won the 2019 Packing Room Prize with her first finals entry in the competition with a hyperrealism portrait of actor David Wenham on May 2.
“As soon as I saw it I was like ‘That’s the one I want – thank God’,” head packer Brett Cuthbertson, who has 52 per cent of the vote, said of the piece.
The Archibald Prize exhibition opens to the public on Saturday, May 11 at the National Gallery of NSW and will tour Australia from September.
See all the finalists here.