“I am completely and utterly surprised,” said John Moores Painting Prize 2012 winner Sarah Pickstone yesterday, after being told she’d won, “and it feels really good.”

The Manchester-born painter received the £25,000 award for her mysterious and enigmatic large-scale work, ‘Stevie Smith and the Willow’, described by judge Fiona Banner as a “double portrait that grapples with the creative self.”

The news was announced by the prize’s patron Peter Blake, an artist who could be said to embody the reasons John Moores matters so much to painters – history, continuity, prestige.

Blake won the Junior section (for artists under 36) in 1961, the same year that Lucian Freud, Patrick Heron, Frank Auerbach, Richard Smith and David Hockney entered, all hoping to pocket the £250 prize.

“It was a good year to win,” said Blake, graciously answering questions as part of what he described as his “honourary role, something to put on your letterhead”. “It was very different then. We were young and the prize was young.”

On the current show, Blake said: “The prize changes all the time. This year it’s much softer in mood, maybe the whole country at the moment is gentler, maybe it fits in with the mood – there doesn’t seem to be much angst about.”

Pickstone’s piece concurs to some extent with Blake’s optimistic reading. Smith wasn’t averse to a spot of angst, but while the painting draws inspiration from Smith’s most famous poem ‘Not Waving But Drowning’, there is a lightness and openness to it that belies its title.

Said Pickstone: “The painting started with a drawing of a willow tree, and the tree suggested Stevie Smith and this really quite dark poem I was reading at the time. But I felt like I wanted to make something slightly more joyful.

“I really like the idea of the connections between things and the tree suggested the image; there was nothing very contrived about it. I was drawing the tree and thinking about Stevie Smith and the drawings she made to go with her poems – I’ve always found them really strange, and her poetry really strange, too: menacing and very British. The synthesis of the writing and the drawing brought together this connection with the hair and the tree.”

Free from the source

In the exhibition, Smith’s poem is on the wall next to the painting. It was the curator’s idea to include this and, while Pickstone is happy for it to be there, she is clear that it is not essential in order to read the piece: “The painting becomes free from the source. Every painting has a source and the source for this was the tree and Stevie Smith – so, thank you Stevie!”

Judge George Shaw, who along with Fiona Banner was present at yesterday’s announcement, said of Pickstone’s painting: “I couldn’t’ resist this Ophelia, enlarged like all gestures of doomed romance into an everlasting drama.”

On judging the prize, the former 2011 Turner Prize nominee said: “It makes a nice difference to be the judge and not the judged. It’s quite an interesting process finding out what criteria you’ll use, and in the end I used a criteria that was deeply unfashionable – choose what you like.”

In the lead up to this year’s show, fellow judge Alan Yentob has referred to painting being back at the top table of contemporary art. For Peter Blake, it never went away:

“Hockney never stopped painting, I didn’t stop painting, it’s always there and other stuff happens around it. In my own body of work, I do all sorts of things but painting is the constant; being a figurative painter is what I started off doing and it’s what I’ll be doing tomorrow.”

Pickstone, too, sees flexibility and opportunity in painting rather than constraints: “People get annoyed and frustrated with painting because it’s a very fixed form, but it can have lots of different meaning. I’m interested in how you can open out meaning – I don’t have fixed rules for myself.

“Lots of artists start with their set of rules, but I’m a very intuitive artist, and I like to take work from lots of different sources – I’m not a slave to painting. I think this painting [‘Stevie Smith and the Willow’] is an example of something where there’s a lot of different sources that have come together to make a new image.”

The John Moores Painting Prize continues at The Walker Gallery, Liverpool until 25 November and is part of Liverpool Biennial 2012. www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/johnmoores