Today marked the first day of one of the most popular annual exhibitions in London. The BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery is the most prestigious competition for international portrait painters. The work displayed in each year's exhibition mark the diverse trends and attitudes towards one of the most traditional and highly-regarded types of painting. Of the nearly 2,000 paintings which were submitted to the 30th annual competition, 56 were selected for display in the National Portrait Gallery. Though the featured artists come from all over the world and have had varied levels of training, a few themes ran throughout the whole display: photorealism and the provocation of traditional portraiture. First prize was taken by Peter Monkman for his painting Changeling 2, a haunting portrait of his adolescent daughter on the cusp of adulthood. Michael Gaskell won second prize for his portrait of his son Tom, painstakingly undertaken in photorealistic egg tempera. Though the prize-winning portraits were worthy of recognition, I was more drawn to other works in the Portrait Prize show. Matt Batt's naive painting of his sister, Debs, is gorgeous in its disarming simplicity. He painted the portrait from sketches taken from a single sitting, and the immediacy of his subject matter is palpable in his bright colours and bold brushwork. I also loved Jayne Cooper's portrait of her daughter, Madeleine. Her young daughter sits in a contorted position on a wooden chair in the dim glow of dawn or dusk. She wears a headband from a Halloween party from the night before, but the accessory doesn't suit her simple outfit of a white t-shirt and cotton panties. The streaking shadows across her face, combined with her mature pose, make her seem far older. Clara Drummond's portrait of her friend Iris has the appeal of an old movie star or a sad photograph from a broadsheet. She has classical looks and a beauty typical of portraiture through history. Natalie Holland's portrait Agnes shows a little girl in a red hooded sweatshirt, mischievously smirking at the painter while gathering handfuls of her long, blonde hair. In her clothes she resembles a character from a classic fairytale, while her demeanor tells another story. Peter Holt's portrait of his son Tom is more evocative of an icon painting than a family portrait. All these works are similar in that the sitter, though perhaps unknown to us, is significant to the artist. This importance is palpable in every work, whether realistic or abstract. Some images are eerie, others unsettling, and there are expressions of joy and pictures of loss. However, all the works share a dedication to representational painting, and the BP Portrait Prize is invaluable for maintaining a place for figurative portraiture in the world of contemporary art. The BP Portrait Award 2009 is at the National Portrait Gallery from today until September 20, 2009. Admission free.