“What attracted me most to Raga was how at ease she was with herself,” says Enfield Chase artist Claudia Bicen. “She may be a woman in her 70s, but her artistic expression of self, style and colour transcends all concepts of age. I knew immediately I had to draw her."

After spotting Raga in the audience of an event she’d designed the set for, Claudia arranged a sitting with her in Enfield.

“We talked about life, family, philosophy and spirituality for several hours. I took more than 50 reference photos, but I knew the second I had captured the one I was going to use.”

This engaging portrait, created with soft pastels, is the stunning result of the rendezvous – and has been selected from more than 1,000 entries into this year’s Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ Annual Exhibition, which opens next month.

The exhibition, at The Mall Galleries,  will see some 200 portraits by the world’s leading artists including Paul Brason’s portrait of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and Guy Kinder’s portrait of Ian Rankin – as well as Claudia’s own.

We speak to Claudia about her artistic process, using pastels and joining the finest portrait painters on the planet for the Royal Society show.

Why portraits?

I have always been fascinated by the human condition. I studied a BA in Psychology and Philosophy at Oxford University and then a Masters in Social Anthropology at UCL.

It has always blown my mind to think about how conscious beings have evolved from physical matter to be able to communicate and understand one another. Drawing portraits is an extraordinarily intimate process: you are creating a 3D illusion of another thinking, feeling human being with a 2D medium.

What is the process of creating your portraits?

I use both soft pastels and pastel pencils to create layer upon layer of increasing detail. I'll start with large patches of tone and colour using soft pastels to create the base layers and then apply several layers of pastel pencil to bring out increasing levels of detail as fine as the tip of the pencil will allow. Often I'll hit a point several hours in where it feels like it won't come together and that's when I know I just need to keep going, patiently and meticulously.

It is the detail which really excites me, not just in painting but in all of life.

Why pastels?

Pastels are a beautiful medium to produce portraits with because they are at once luminous and fragile. Since pastels have significantly less binder than mediums such as oils and watercolour, their tones do not degrade over time and brilliant colours can be achieved. However, the absence of binder also prevents pastels from being ‘fixed’ to a canvas so that images must be protected behind glass to avoid smudging.

A pastel portrait is, in a physical sense, raw, exposed and vulnerable. I strive to exploit these qualities in my work; to juxtapose the vibrancy of human life against its essentially transient nature.

Does your experience working in a eating disorder clinic and suicidal respite centre affect your art?

I have worked people in communities all over the world and building connections with all kinds of people no doubt affects my work. I try to capture what I see as the essence of the person. For me, this is most often about capturing some aspect of someone's vulnerability and honesty.

When Raga saw her portrait she said that I had caught both a sense of strength and sadness and that she felt both these traits to be very present in herself.

What’s it like to be accepted in the annual exhibition?

I was accepted to the exhibition two days before my 27th birthday. It really was the best birthday present I have ever had!

Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ Annual Exhibition is from May 9-24, The Mall Galleries, The Mall,  Trafalgar Square. Details: www.claudiabicen.com