"All judging is a manifestly imperfect process," says Dr Patricia Morison, herself a judge of today's Jerwood Prize. "Which is why artists should never be discouraged if they don't make the shortlist. It's very brave to enter work at all."
In terms of prestige and press ballyhoo, the Jerwood may not yet compete with the Turner Prize, but then it's only now in its fourth year. In terms of cash value, though, it's a winner: at pounds 30,000 , the Jerwood is the most valuable prize a British artist can win (offering, in Dr Morison's words, "a great security in such an insecure world"). And with previous recipients including Craigie Aitchison (in 1994) and Patrick Caulfield and Maggi Hambling (the joint victors in 1995), it's rapidly gaining its own credibility as a bastion of traditional painting skills in the face of the installation-based art that dominates the London scene. Sadly, John Jerwood, a British entrepreneur who made his money from dealing in pearls, died in 1991, before the prize had made its mark.
The true value of any prize depends on the acuity of its judges, and the Jerwood's are drawn from the ranks of art-world heavyweights. Morison, an executive of the Jerwood Foundation and former art critic for the Financial Times, is passionate about the responsibilities that go with the role: "Judging is gruelling, but exhilarating. It's a mystical process, a kind of chemistry where five people come together and `something else' happens. A kind of collective wish or wisdom somehow comes to the process."
A shortlist of nine has now emerged from the several hundred aspiring entries. Of the finalists, three - James Rielly, Gary Hume and Jason Martin - belong to today's club of Y(oung) B(ritish) A(rtist)s: should any of them win tonight, it will mark a significant shift from the older generation who have carried off the prize so far (John Hubbard, last year's winner, is in his sixties).
Whether Craigie Aitchison, who recently resigned from the Royal Academy in protest against the current Saatchi-based "Sensation" show, would feel honour-bound to return his prize money remains to be seen: in the meantime, we can enjoy his 1994 Jerwood Prize-winning "Crucifixion", which has just gone on public display in King's College Chapel, Cambridge, and has been reproduced on the cover of the choir's latest CD, Credo, a collection of 20th-century religious scores, interspersed with ancient plain chant, released this month by EMI.
Melvyn Bragg will announce the winner at 7.15pm tonight, Central Saint Martin's College of Art; the nine finalists' work will be on show at the college's Lethaby Galleries from tomorrow.