Judith Barton is acclaimed for her art far beyond the confines of the Island. She talks to Rosalind Whistance.

We all know those old ladies. The disdainful glance, the set jaw, the folds of neck – they are aunts we had or grannies, or the old bat next door. Their familiarity is such that it almost undermines the skill of the artist who captured it, exaggerated it a little and hung it on the wall.

Siblings in Black Hats is one of two works which have won plaudits for artist Judith Barton in the recent Threadneedle Figurative Prize exhibition in the prestigious Mall Galleries in London. In an art world which has been dominated by conceptual art for the past 20-odd years, it is the aim of the Federation of British Artists who stage the exhibition to turn back to the cutting edge of figurative art. Judith’s razor-sharp depiction of character and story, in this and in Man in Blue, the other work to be selected from the 2,700 entries to the exhibition, celebrates all that is good about old-fashioned painting.

When you meet Judith you find she exudes all the vibrancy and energy that has made her so prolific and versatile. She has been exhibiting and accepting commissions since the age of 18, making headlines in  her local Middlesex newspaper at that age for a painting, and, now with a distinguished and accomplished reputation she maintains a hold on the popular imagination – she won the Island Art Society People’s Choice Award two years running. Yet while she tackles issues which invoke sentiment and emotion – mothers with babies, wild animals and human relationships – she never lapses into the twee or fey.

In October Judith closed the Bloomsbury gallery in Ryde which she had run for 16 years. Demand for her work has led her to devote more time to painting though she is slightly sidetracked by renovating a Grade II listed house which will eventually give her the ‘fabulous studio’ she needs. She describes this as a transitional year. “Once I’m working full time I don’t know where it will take me.”

Presumably it will take her to further plaudits and acknowledgement. In 2003 she unwittingly entered the Turner Prize (her daughter submitted a picture without Judith’s knowledge), a reaction to the growth of severed cows and rotting meat as art – which opened new doors. Yet she herself is ready to embrace all corners in the art world. Indeed, she is about to start on a collaboration with her son James on an installation which unites his music and her painting and poetry, under the broad heading Perception and Communication.

“As the music complements the art and the poetry, the idea is it opens your eyes to things we do unwittingly,” says Judith. She talks about the negativity we project – when even asking if someone takes sugar in their tea is likely to elicit the response ‘Who wants to know?’.  James, so in tune with his mother’s thinking, notes how the actors on Eastenders are so embroiled in the gloom of the storylines their faces become locked in those expressions. By homing in on our tendencies to pre-judge and assume, mother and son aim to draw out positive values.

“This life is a learning game,” says Judith. “All one can hope to do in this world is to try and project a power of good energy. Everybody has talents, some not uncovered, which is so sad. The job of talent is to spread a positive energy, to make people think in a good way. Sometimes that means doing a really sad picture, because it touches a life.”

Siblings in Black Hats is indeed dark, yet indisputably funny. Renowned critic Brian Sewell said it was his favourite, his choice of the exhibition – that it had made him laugh. And this is Judith Barton’s skill, to put the truth we all recognise onto canvas. In her Man in Blue the saxophone player is totally at one with his instrument, depicting that music is the essence of man. “Humanity and musicality are forever intertwined,” says Judith. “It’s in the rhythm of our heartbeat.” She had begun with a painting of the jazz sax, which she picked up in a junk shop, and the man grew from it as she painted.

For Judith the subject dictates the style. Polar bears are caught almost photographically; a baby is totally naturalistic, crying not cute. While one painting is a caricature, another might approach impressionism. What unites them is what they have to say about us and how we see the world.

“How we perceive ourselves and how we judge others has a huge impact on our lives,” says Judith. She recounts her first day at school when her drawing on her little blackboard of a little girl was recognised by the teacher as out of the ordinary. “The other children admired it, and the teacher said, ‘Yes, children, Judith is an artist.’ From then on I felt that was what I was.”

Judith had been taught by her mother, Roberta, to draw before she started school, and she is vocal about encouraging children and adults alike to discover their talents rather than bogging them down with teaching structured round exams. “You take hormonal boys and expect them to worry about exams! They don’t do well, they think they’re thick and you give them a certificate to prove it!”

She adds: “People should be told from the start what an amazing miraculous gift this life is.”

Her son James agrees. He is a singer songwriter, and his easy confidence and quick perception is an obvious result of an upbringing by parents critical of convention. “Because Mum was labelled an artist by a figure in authority that’s how she saw herself.”

Your eye can’t help wandering back to those two old ladies, their faces etched with the prejudice and set ideas about which Judith and James rebel. “People judge each other about the cultures they inherit, the subcultures they hook into. These are siblings presumably at a funeral, they might not have seen each other for years – maybe one of them is a man in drag about which the other disapproves! It’s about the parameters of judgement.”

And, to prove that life mimics art, she recounts meeting an American who introduced himself by saying: “I’m an oil man. What are you?” Being defined by our role in life is something she constantly questions.

For someone with so much to say, it must be hard to know when a painting is finished. But Judith has grown beyond trying to put everything on the canvas. “I like to leave space for the viewer’s own imagination.”