'My Best Face' winner announced! Guest judge portraitist Helen Perkins reveals the expression of the entries
19th June 2015
When you paint a portrait – and I mean this in the literal ‘get out your apron and wooden palette’ sense – your aim is to capture your subject and reveal them to the world. Rembrandt, Vermeer, Velasquez, and Lucian Freud all shared this ability to drag you down the eyes of another human – one that you could almost believe was breathing, despite their painter faces being a fabrication on a 2D canvas, usually coated in very little other than raw umber, flake white, and linseed oil.
When it works it is something else.
The best writing, for me, can do the same thing with words.
For me, a good story also sucks you in. There will be a framing device, the kind that holds a story together – starting it and finishing it within the context of an event, or a thought – and there will be background tones and history. There will be a strong character, a personality and an expression which is similar, but just ever so slightly different, from expressions you have seen before.
The most successful entries I judged from this week’s competition My Best Face had several of these features. My two runners up were ‘My First Serenade’, a poem which tripped me through a wonky American coming-of-age narrative, and ‘As I Left the Job Interview’, a tale of a woman stranded on the great wilderness of the postmodern job hunt.
The first was full of glimpses of life - full of The Smiths records, Goodwill sweaters, and laser discs as big as dinner plates. The second had a great character, built up through an explanation of a job application. The great visuals – her sweating through her clothes after leaving the interview room and making up a new fake face at the story’s end, were brilliant points in this story. Both tales made the most of a ‘show don’t tell’ means of writing. The stories that didn’t work so well were often lacking this feature. Maybe this is the great lesson to be learned from the good painters: don’t tell your reader what your character is thinking, or how they are feeling, but make them act in a way that shows their inner motivations – in that way, every writer has to learn to be a visual artist.
My favourite story this week was ‘Always Look on the Bright Side’ – a story about a woman who realises her partner has been unfaithful and goes about seeking revenge. I liked the strong character - the narrator’s straight-speaking tone, explaining her mother’s oft-touted, clichéd life mantras. This set her up as a pragmatist even within the story’s first three lines. The images within this tale – snapshots that help connect the reader to the piece – were its winning factor. There was one that caught my eye...the reflection of a woman, holding a camera, shooting a picture of a mistress’ shoes through the glass pane of a door.
That is a great image, and one I’ll be drawing up for the winner.
All the best to all the entrants. I hope you keep writing.
Helen Perkins is a Midlands-born painter, now based in South London. Her work focuses on portraiture.
As a former newspaper reporter and features writer, she has conducted hundreds of interviews. Now, when painting or writing, she remains intrigued by the ways authors and artists capture the world and the amazing characters it holds.
You can see her work at helenperkins.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @Helen_Perkins