Philip Hensher: We the panel hoped to surprise: we even included two painters

"Well," a journalist and art-world insider said to me, slightly reprovingly. We were at the breakfast to announce the shortlist for this year's Turner Prize, which I've been judging this year. "Normally I manage to guess at least one artist in advance." I apologised: but secretly I felt rather pleased.

The Turner Prize is probably the main encounter many gallery-goers have with contemporary art each year. The announcement of the shortlist, and the Tate Britain exhibition in the autumn, always succeed in encouraging debate and wide interest in what can seem rather a circumscribed world. Judging it is a responsibility; but then so is the willingness to surprise with your choices.

The prize is firmly associated in the public's mind with conceptual art. But this year we were enthusiastic about two artists who work with paint and canvas; one of them a figurative artist. Dexter Dalwood reconstructs scenes of historic trauma – the Brighton bombing, the interiors where Jimi Hendrix or Sharon Tate met their deaths. Not everyone on this list would immediately have seemed like an artist to Turner, but Dalwood is one of them.

Angela de la Cruz also works with traditional materials, but in less traditional ways; her canvases are broken, bound, slack, or shrink into corners. They seem like the products of dreams, their titles hinting at stories we can only guess at.

Susan Philipsz works with sound; her installations, in unexpected places – a supermarket, or under a Glasgow bridge – aim to surprise, to present an object of pilgrimage, to bemuse the passer-by.

I loved my year of judging the prize – I've seen a lot of things I would never have got around to otherwise, including some terrible rubbish, of course. It's a committee choice, so I have to say that I really regret a couple of near-misses.

I couldn't persuade my fellow jurors to join in my enthusiasm for Marcus Coates, whose Dawn Chorus in Milton Keynes gave a room of ordinary-looking people the throats of birds. And I'm sure Katie Paterson's time will come; her poetic installation on Deal pier, lights responding to remote thunder storms, was a beautiful and simple idea.

Is our shortlist too old? Too out of touch? Not where the artistic action is? Well, I believe less in fashion than in accomplishment. I also think the gallery-going public is in for a treat this autumn. Is there a clear winner here? It's wide open.