It's got to be a good year when you're a finalist in both the Archibald and Sulman prizes, two of the major art competitions in Australia.
The Archibald winner picks up $100,000; the Sulman winner $40,000.
Nigel Milsom won the Sulman Prize in 2012 and the Archibald Prize in 2015.
This year, at age 43, the Newcastle artist was a finalist in both prizes - along with three other artists (Clara Adolphs, Tom Carment, David Griggs). He also entered the Wynne Prize (all three are held simultaneously by the Art Gallery of NSW), with a huge canvas featuring yellowed-tail black-cockatoos in flight, but did not make the finals.
His Archibald piece began life as a single image self-portrait, not targeted as an Archibald entry. The first head was on the right side of the painting.
"It did look like I painted it from a mirror, a reflection from behind," he says, "because I didn't want a profile . . . it was casting a dramatic shadow, so my face morphed into the ground, into the depth of black."
Two months later he revisited the artwork.
"During the day I started looking at it. I wasn't quite happy with the original face. I kind of felt like, it was a bit iffy. There's certain things. I needed something to, like, not counter-act, I needed something that did go to the next stage. I didn't feel it was a great painting, but I was still happy."
So he added another image of himself to the left side of the image.
As he states in his artist's statement for the Archibald: "It was inspired by an experience I had one morning when I looked in the mirror and my reflection seemed to have absolutely no correlation to what I thought I looked like."
The second self-portrait energised the work.
"I needed something to pull it into that quality, that intensity," he says. "Because they started to look like they related to each other."
The work is titled, Judo-house pt 8 (a perfect light). His winning Archibald piece in 2015, of barrister Charles Waterstreet, was called Judo-house pt 6 (The White Bird). His winning Sulman work in 2012 was Judo house part 4 (golden mud).
He finds naming works a difficult process: "I can't sum a painting up with words. It's just impossible. So many things go through your mind while you are painting a picture. There are so many different influences and feelings . . ."
Rather, he's more comfortable grouping paintings as a body of work. The Judo-house era lives on, so far.
So many things go through your mind while you are painting a picture. There are so many different influences and feelings . . .Nigel Milsom
"I like the idea in 20 years, paintings form one series. Say I live until I get to 50 or 60, I get up to Judo-house part 30 or something, I'd like to think you could pull one out of judo-house part 30 and it could hang with judo-house part 6 and the relationship between the two and the dynamic abstract narrative that can be formed almost like in a chronological or numerical order . . .
"I'm hoping that because it is all one body of work, one painting can hang with another, they can interchange, there is more fluidity between the whole body of work."
Milsom is an intense professional, dedicated to the art first. Commercial considerations are not really part of the equation for Milsom (he does not have a presence on social media, and has not had a solo show through his dealer Kerry Crowley in a few years).
"The way I work, I'm sort of combining a very hard edge and quite a graphic quality that wouldn't be associated with oil painting," he says. "Some people think hard-edge painting is completely stuck in the realm of geometric abstraction where they use acrylic painting and a spray gun and tape. I'm still always trying to get that hard edge, but then I'm also trying to marry it with really physical and expressive brush strokes."
He's always learning on the job, but always focused. Even when he's too tired to paint, he's thinking his way through the subject at hand. ("My body is laid out, but I'm painting in my mind," he says.)
"It doesn't matter what I'm painting, I'm still going for that clarity," he says. "In some ways, it's like, something is crystallised in the process. You see something, like a knife, it's sharp, and it cuts through things, and it's so visually . . . clear. If you put something else next to it even, it kind of cuts the air almost like a sword."
Milsom's artwork in the Sulman Prize finals (which carries the same name, judo-house pt8 (a perfect light), as his Archibald finalist piece) is beautiful, delicate painting of a little girl in full flight on the seat of a swing. The colours are subtle, precious-like, in her glittery sequin top and tutu with puffy balls. It speaks to the innocence and energy of childhood.
The Sulman can be a genre painting, subject painting or mural. Milsom's work fits the genre category as some aspect of everyday life.
The work came from sketches Milsom did during a visit to a park after a coffee with his friends, Ercan and Angie Ersan, and their two daughters, London Daisy and Elvie.
Milsom returned to the sketches eight months after the visit, and asked the parents for more details on what London Daisy was wearing that day. The puffy balls on the tutu were flying everywhere when the little girl was on the swing. "It was almost like she had this atomic field," Milsom says.
Always one to think about birds, Milsom was thinking she reminded him of a hummingbird.
"It took a while to paint," he says. "I hadn't painted something like this before."
As close to the edge as Milsom lives ("The only thing I would be worrying about are bills and I just think, f - - - 'em," he says. "If the electricity gets cut off, I'll just get it put back on later."), it is the pursuit of his own creative challenge that gets him out of bed every day.
"You want your work to live and breathe and grow and expand like your life does," he says. "I think it almost has to run parallel."