2023 Winner

Shaun Downey
Showing 102cm x 77cm relative to 200cm x 200cm

The purple square represents the relative size of the portrait to a 2 metre x 2 metre maximum size allowed.

Shaun Downey

Home: Toronto, Ontario
Title: Near the Elevator
Media: Oil on Canvas wrapped panel
Dimensions: 102 x 77 cm
Website: shaundowney.com


When I paint a portrait, my main objective is to capture what I perceive as the primary essence of a person. As I often portray my wife and close friends, forming an idea of what I’d like to portray about them comes with relative ease. It becomes more challenging when I meet the sitter for the first time during our first session together.

As I work from photographs that take over 3-4 hours, it is often my only direct encounter with the model. I’ve grown to relish the challenge of getting to know them briefly and trying to comprehend which direction I should take with their portrait.

I met Serena through social media in 2019. She was modelling professionally then, and it was my first time hiring a sitter through an agency. I was struck immediately by her confidence in front of the camera and hoped to be able to express the strength and grace she naturally exuded in my portrait of her.

It was a transitional period in my life. The building where I had my studio, which had housed artists for decades, was to be torn down for a new development. I wanted to paint a sort of double portrait, one of Serena and one of a small portion of this beloved structure. We set up our shoot next to the cargo
elevator, which was already out of commission at that time.

It is natural for anyone to be a bit apprehensive in front of the camera, especially when the final result will be a portrait painting that will outlast both of us. An important part of my job on shoot day is to
make the sitter feel at ease. I’ll often tell stories about my career and try to be entertaining to take their mind off the process.

My favourite moment to capture is often the space between a full smile and a resting expression. In these few seconds, the sitter is going from engaging with me back to their inner dialogue with themselves. In this brief period, I feel we reveal our true essence, at once, how we present to the outside world, tangled within our innermost thoughts and emotions. If I can convincingly portray the expression held in that flash, I believe my ability to emote that person’s presence is greatly heightened.

The title of this work then reveals a double meaning. The portrait’s location is simply near an elevator in yet another building lost to time. But more importantly, it captures the time Serena and I spent together and my gratitude towards anyone who allows me the time to paint their portrait. Indeed, I am the one who is elevated by our exchange, inspired to continue the tradition of portrait painting while striving to bring something fresh and modern to this genre.