Contemporary Portrait Diploma (Full Time or Part Time)


Nicola Taylor - James Lloyd 2009

The Contemporary Portrait Painting Diploma is a two-year bespoke course, offered by the Art Academy and written, taught and assessed by some of Britain’s top practicing portrait artists, many of them pre-eminent in the field of portraiture, including members of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters (the RP), winners of the BP Portrait Award and artists whose work appears in national collections including the National Portrait Gallery.

The course has an average attendance of three days a week and includes components in portrait and figure painting, drawing components as well as tutored creative components. Working from a model is an integral part of the course and there is also study in art history, contextual studies, digital studies as well as professional development.

The only course of its kind in the UK, students follow a structured programme of study which gives them a thorough introduction to the complex and varied skills they will need to develop if they are to begin to create successful portraits. The course helps students to acquire skills in portrait and figure painting and drawing, whilst encouraging individual development through a series of creative projects. Some sessions in portrait sculpture are also offered to enable students to develop an understanding of the three-dimensionality of a portrait head. Students contextualise their work through sessions in art history and contextual studies, whilst digital studies provide them with the skills to manipulate photographic imagery as a tool to assist in their image making. Professional development sessions prepare students for the issues they would need to consider if they were later to go on to seek work as a portrait artist, covering issues such as commissions, working with galleries, writing an artist’s statement and building a website. The course is assessed by a board including members of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.

The Portrait Painting Diploma is a two-year course, but with the option of a further year of study, in recognition of the significant level of ability and artistic accomplishment necessary to create successful works of art within this highly skilled genre.

For more information please download our
Contemporary Portrait Painting Diploma Course Document 2017-2018 (Subject to Change)


Course Contact
Sue Spaull

Course Location
Mermaid Court, 165A Borough High Street, London, SE1 1HR

Course Length
2 Years (Full Time) with the option of an additional year
4 Years (Part Time) with the option of an additional year

Fees 2017-2018

Course Fee Per Level Fee Per Year Fee Per Term (incl 3% surcharge)
Full-time Portrait Diploma (UK/EU) 2yr £7,130 £7,130 £2,448
Part-time Portrait Diploma (UK/EU)




Optional third year for both full and part time students £7,130 (or £2,448 per term).

Part Time Study – It takes two  years to complete one level

Fees must be paid in advance and can be paid yearly or termly (the latter incurring a 3% surcharge). One level is a full cycle of course components, each of which has to be completed before moving on to the next level. In the full time Diploma, each level is completed in a year; in the part time Diploma, a level takes two years. The Academy reviews its fees on an annual basis, but fees for enrolled students will not be increased from year to year other than to account for the annual rate of inflation.

Start Date
12th September 2016

Autumn Term 2016-2017
12th September – 25th November 2016
Half Term: 17th October – 21st October 2016

Spring Term 2016-2017

Monday 9 January – Saturday 25 March 2017
(half term Monday 13 – Saturday 18 February)

Summer Term 2016-2017

Tuesday 18th April – Monday 26th June 2017 (no half term)
including Bank Holiday Monday 1st May and Bank Holiday Monday 29th May as teaching days (students in).

Graduate Show

6 – 8 July 2017 (TBC)


Painting and Drawing

Students undertake one Portrait Painting or Figure Painting skills component each term and one drawing skills component each term, with the option of a second painting skills day (or a skills day in another discipline, such as print, sculpture or digital studies). The painting components take the students through a structured, bespoke programme of portrait and figure painting, first introducing the students to portraiture, then looking at composition, and moving in the second year to a series of advanced courses which will encourage different approaches and a more personal style from each individual student. Courses will cover a wider range of issues including how to use tone, observing colour, understanding form and how to simplify the figure or head, and different ways of applying paint. Students will have the option to study self-portraiture, how to set up and complete a portrait from life from start to finish and how to use photography for portraiture. They will have the opportunity to visit the National Gallery to copy portraits by the great masters.

Drawing is an essential tool for the portrait artist. In addition to learning effectively to draw a portrait and figure, the structured drawing course complements the painting components by considering anatomy, measurement and proportion, and composition. Class sizes for both painting and drawing skills classes are a maximum of 15 students.


Tai-shan Schierenberg (Sky Arts judge, NPG, BP Winner, Hon RP etc)
Andrew James (RP)
Anastasia Pollard (RP)
Robin Lee Hall (President, RP)
Robert Dukes
Tim Benson (VP Royal Institute of Oil Painters)
Alex Fowler (Member of New English Art club)
Suzanne du Toit (Winner of BP Portrait Prize, 2013)
Sadie Lee (Winner of BP Travel Award, 1996)

Creative Projects

The students complete a creative project each term, with the projects designed around portrait painting, but aiming to challenge the students to develop their own personal approach to portraiture, and to push traditional boundaries within the genre. Included within this programme is the requirement that each student undertakes a commission, with instruction from the tutor on issues such as how to approach and liaise with the client, consideration of place and purpose and determining a budget. The projects are designed to fulfil the Academy’s academic principles. For these projects, the Portrait Diploma students in each respective Level meet weekly as a group with a tutor to critique one another’s work. Through all these projects, the students are taught to explore artistic principles, to learn to manage the creative process and to understand design process. They have an opportunity to experiment with and develop their work, exploring different mediums and styles, whilst developing their own personal artistic language.
Optional Third Year

Portraiture requires some of the highest skills level of all painting genres. Whilst the Portrait Painting Diploma is designed as a two-year course, the Academy considers this the minimum amount of study time required to obtain base level skills as a potential portrait artist. Students are encouraged to consider pursuing an optional third year, during which they will further develop their skills and in particular their own practice, under the guidance of the college’s expert tutors. This will help them to consolidate the learning they have acquired over the initial two year study period, and to begin to work towards the level of artistic accomplishment they will need to be successful in the field of portraiture.

Art History, Contextual Studies, Digital Studies and Professional Development

Wednesdays at the Art Academy are devoted to art history, contextual studies, digital studies and professional development. For some of these sessions, the Portrait Diploma students join with the Academy’s general Diploma students. For example, the Academy’s comprehensive art history and contextual studies programmes are designed to provide an essential understanding of all aspects of these fields of study relevant to any practicing artist, so Portait Diploma students join the other Diploma students for these sessions. Portrait Diploma students are required to write a 2 – 3,000 word essay during their second year, on an art history or contextual studies topic relevant to portraiture in general and their own practice in particular. The Digital Studies programme is similarly beneficial for all artists, enabling students to develop skills in manipulating and managing photographs, in addition to considering the use of digital media as a creative tool.

Other parts of the Wednesday programme are more specifically tailored to the needs of the Portrait Diploma students, who are provided with sessions covering issues such as pigment making and tempera painting, artist’s talks from practicing portrait artists and an art conservationist, a session on portrait commissions, relevant gallery visits (eg to the National Portrait Gallery, RP Annual Exhibition or other relevant exhibitions), together with bespoke sessions on developing their artists’ statements. In Term 2 of the course, Portrait Diploma students follow a three-week portrait head sculpture course, run specifically for this group of students to complement their painting and drawing skills classes with some three-dimensional portraiture skills study.


Portrait Diploma students are given one tutorial per term with a practicing artist, providing an opportunity to discuss their work in more detail, and to consider their development as an artist. In addition, they receive one tutorial each year focusing on their professional development.

Creative Opportunities and the Artistic Community

The Art Academy is a vibrant artistic community, with its own resident artists, tutors who are all practicing artists and many alumni who achieve success as artists soon after leaving the Academy and remain connected to the college. With its comprehensive range of courses in Fine Art, the Academy also has a diverse student group, studying a range of different disciplines and with widely varying practices, who all also contribute to the energy of the college. All current students benefit from the inspiration and opportunities this creates. The Academy provides exhibition and commission opportunities which is encourages all its students to participate in, including its Portrait Diploma students. It also has on offer a whole range of residencies, scholarships and other events enabling Portrait Diploma students to extend their learning beyond that which they receive within the college.


Portrait Diploma students will be expected to show their work in the Graduate Show at the Academy at the end of their second year. This show will form part of their final assessment. The course will be assessed at the end of the second year by a board including members of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, based upon work over the two years and the end of course show. Members will also undertake a mid-course assessment of the students. Assessment over the period of the course is based upon 80% attendance on the painting and drawing skills classes (one day for each per term), and grades given for the personal creative projects, weighted to give the second year projects greater importance, together with the art history essay. The Learning Outcomes for the Portrait Diploma are set out below.


The Contemporary Portrait Painting Diploma Learning Outcomes

1. Develop a strong understanding of the traditional and contemporary skills of portrait and figure painting

This concerns the ability of the student to discover, experiment with and develop practical skills within the genre of portraiture.

2. Develop a critical faculty, reflection and evaluation applicable to their own artistic practice

This calls for the student to reflect on and evaluate their work, scrutinise their intent, identify their strengths and weaknesses and develop future ambitions through their evaluation.

3. Develop their own approach to their practice, a personal method of working and a passion for learning

This concerns the ability of the student to evolve their interests, set about tailoring their own learning pathways and incorporating their growing knowledge into their personal way of working.

4. To produce creative and authentic artworks that contribute to contemporary society

This encourages students to push the boundaries of portraiture and find their own voice within the genre. Through the intelligent use of skills and artistic language, students should develop new and imaginative forms of expression.

5. To research and understand the Historical and Contemporary context of their work

This concerns the ability of the student to have examined and debated relevant philosophical, historical, cultural and artistic ideas that are relevant to their work.

6. Prepare for an artistic career, through understanding elements of professional practice and art world activities

This calls for the student to research and understand the broad art market and to understand what is needed to be professional within the art world.

7. To be prepared for progression in their chosen path beyond the Academy

This involves the student to have investigated the options for their path beyond the Academy and where possible to have gained relevant experience for it.


“I have had work accepted in numerous shows including ING Discerning Eye and the Cork Street Open.”

‘I chose the Art Academy because I was looking for a traditional art school – somewhere which teaches all of the required skills and starts from the figurative with a view to developing artistic expression from this grounding.

It has been an amazing time, there’s a huge variety of incredibly talented and inspirational artists here and I find this environment brings out the best in you. It is I should say also great fun! My art has come on enormously and my sculptures are beginning to express what I am looking to say. I have had work accepted in numerous shows including ING Discerning Eye and the Cork Street Open.

When I graduate this summer I’ll leave the Academy well prepared for life in the ultra competitive art world. There is more to being a sustainable artist than being able to paint or make – you need to know how the market works and how to promote yourself within it. The Art Academy does not shy away from teaching students about the commercial realities so that they can hopefully go on to earn a living doing what they love’.

Gary, 3rd Year Student, Full Time Diploma


“We work in an atmosphere that is relaxed, friendly and mutually supportive”

‘For me the decision to attend art college was not an easy one. I have always loved painting but found that often over the years it was neglected for work and then later the demands of life at home with four young children.

Juggling art with home life is a constant challenge. But the structure of the diploma course allows me the flexibility to attend the skills classes I am interested in each term. When I started the course I could only manage one day a week – I then had three terms off when I had my baby son. Over the following couple of years I have increased my days to two per week. I am now in my fourth year at the Art Academy and my plan is to graduate in 2014.

I have learnt the importance of composition, colour, tone, materials and supports, the fundamentals of composition, perspective, and working at scale. I have explored abstraction, portraiture, life and still life painting, using a variety of different media and surfaces. There is still more to learn.

I have also been encouraged to think commercially, with advice how to market myself as an artist. Last year I showed my work publicly for the first time, which involved writing a website, producing business cards – and being brave! The Art Academy advised me on all aspects of the commercial world – such as how best to hang my paintings, and how to price them. The response was truly amazing. For me, it was life-changing.

I am privileged to have been guided by tutors with diverse talents across a variety of disciplines, all of whom are successful and, in their own way, inspirational. My fellow students come from all walks of life, and are of all ages, and nationalities. We work in an atmosphere that is relaxed, friendly and mutually supportive.

Above all I have learnt to have confidence in my own creative abilities, and to treasure and nurture them’.

Lucy, Part Time Diploma Student





If you don’t find the answer to your question here, take a look at our Terms and Conditions, or contact us

Can I do the Portrait Diploma course part-time?
Yes, there is a flexible Part-time Portrait Diploma programme. You can vary the number of days you do per week each term, but typically students attend 2½ days a week and take 2 years to complete each level of study.

If I do part-time weekday courses, can they count towards a Portrait Diploma?
If you apply to do the Portrait Diploma we will consider other courses you have taken and decide whether to credit you with that course. Part time courses can also build towards a Certificate qualification – see Certificate Courses for details

Are scholarships, bursaries or student loans available for the Portrait Diploma course?
Not for the first 2 levels, but the Academy can offer advice on possible sources of funding for students. Contact us to discuss.

Do you take mature students for the Portrait Diploma course?
Yes, the age range is quite wide and applications from mature students are welcomed.

Do I need to have done formal art training before applying for the Portrait Diploma?
No, but the Portrait Diploma course is for those intending to make art their full-time occupation, so selection is made mainly on commitment to the course of study. We will though take some account of your ability and prior experience.

What is the structure for paying fees for the Portrait Diploma course?
Fees must be paid in advance – full details can be found on the Fees pages

Is the Portrait Diploma recognised or accredited?
Students from the Academy’s Diploma course have gone on to do an MA at another college, or have entered the third year of a Fine Art BA course. The Academy is in the process of making links with other higher education institutions offering accredited degree courses in order to facilitate this process. See also ‘Why we are independent’ for more on this topic.

How does the Portrait Diploma differ from a BA?
The qualification that we offer is an in-house diploma. Our assessment panel always includes an external assessor from a London university.
We offer a diploma, rather than a standard government-recognised BA or MA qualification, for a number of reasons:

We offer a very high level of tutored hours for the students which we feel is fundamental to providing the best possible education. Accredited courses cannot afford to do this, as the cost of compliance with all the requisite paperwork is so high that they have to drastically reduce the number of tutored hours, or raise the fees to an unrealistic level.

A course within that system is heavily influenced by it and has to fall in line with the structures, values and guidelines laid down by it. Our course is unique and has been very carefully considered and tested. We have no wish to lose valuable aspects through changing our accreditation.

As a professional artist, your most important assets are your portfolio and your previous experience. Very rarely is an artist asked what qualification they have. We therefore focus our attention on building portfolios and giving students as much experience as we can within our programmes.

Regarding job prospects, our Diploma is specifically designed to prepare and equip students to undertake a profession in Fine Arts. In this respect, your portfolio and experience will be the central focus. In addition to building skills and techniques across a range of disciplines, our programme includes in depth modules in Professional Development, Marketing, Art as a Business, etc to ensure students are able to translate their creative practice into a viable work life.






In order to apply for the Contemporary Portrait Diploma starting September 2016 please fill out our online application form.

Alternatively you can download a .pdf form and post it to us along with at least 5 images of your work.

On receiving your application, we will offer successful candidates an interview. The Art Academy’s Course Administrator will arrange a suitable time and date for interview with the Director of Academic Affairs. Interviews are based on the content and quality of the applicant’s portfolio, CV and application.

Application Deadline

We keep an open deadline for applications, however we can only accept a small number of students each year so we encourage early application.

Visiting the Academy

Open Days

If you would like to visit the Academy and learn more about the programs of study on offer, you can come to one of our open days (click on the TOUR tab for more information).

Individual Visits

Alternatively, please contact us and we can arrange a personal tour and discussion about your course requirements. If you bring some examples of your work, it can help to determine what course might suit you best.

EU & International Applicants

We accept applications from all EU, EEA and Swiss citizens or those with an existing visa for the UK.


If possible please bring to the interview a portfolio containing the following: If you do not have all of the below, please do not worry, just contact the office and we can speak to you about alternatives.

6 pieces of original finished work, which show your technical ability in a range of media.
1 sketch book showing your own areas of interest, individual thought process or development process of finished work.
1 example of writing, critical study work or exploration of other artists, that you have done.

Application Results

Applicants will learn whether they have being successful within two weeks of interview.

We have to be select about the students that we accept due to the high level and quality of tuition we offer. Our decisions are based on the students’ application and commitment to their artwork rather than the quantity of previous work.


Open Days offer a valuable opportunity to visit the Academy, meet some of the staff and students and gain in-depth information on our courses, teaching and student life.

Where The Art Academy
Mermaid Court
165a Borough High Street
London SE1 1HR

When 2.30pm – (approx.) 4.30pm

Guests You are welcome to bring up to two guests with you. Please mention the number of guests in the booking form below.

Booking For individual reservations please fill in the online booking form below.

Schools If you wish to bring a group of school students to one of our Open Days please email us in advance to reserve places:

If you have any questions about our Open Days please contact us, via email at: