Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Mussenden Temple

I love holidays. You get to travel the world, encounter unfamiliar cultures, get ripped off by bureau de change officials and robbed blind by taxi drivers. You complain how the natives make no attempt to speak English, you eat dodgy food, suffer chronic diarrhoea and when you finally get off the loo, you're forced to murder all manner of cockroach, lizard and spider who were laughing at you from the shower opposite for fear you’ll not sleep at night with them prowling around. And that’s not all! You head out to the hotel swimming pool or go lie on the roasting beach and you slap on the sun factor oil only for your poor white skin to redden and blister beneath a punishing and unfamiliar sun. You don sunglasses and pretend not to stare at the topless 19 year old Swedish girls who have decided to sunbathe beside you – the sad sunburnt man in the large union jack shorts and white stringed vest.

Life might be a beach on a sun splashed Mediterranean shore but today I’m flying nowhere. I hate flying, no wait – I love flying, it’s the notflying bit that scares me senseless! Especially in turbulent weather being rocked about everywhere wondering what it's like to splat smack into the Alps or be plunged screaming into shark infested waters. With these images fixed scarily in my head I dragged myself off by car to a rain-soaked Mussenden Temple perched dramatically on a 120 foot cliff top high above the rolling waves of the Atlantic ocean – with not a shark in sight!  

I’d seen this stunning site on many photographs in Northern Ireland tourist magazines but never knew where it was – except beyond Portstewart somewhere. I wasn’t even sure where Castlerock was or how to get to it! It’s hard to believe I have travelled all over Europe and never really been to my own back yard. Enniskillen Lakes? Marble Arch Caves? Londonderry? Carrickfergus? Donaghadee? Seriously folks – I have never been there!

The sun came out as I walked, camera in hand, through heavy grassland, past a large pond/lake and then uphill towards a stone wall that ran along the cliff edge and led to the temple. The view was stunningly spectacular as I looked westward over Downhill Strand towards Magilligan Point and Country Donegal and then back east towards the caravan parks of Castlerock and the beaches and towns of Portstewart and Portrush. As I looked down I saw the Belfast to Derry train winding its way along the coast after passing through a tunnel directly beneath where I was standing.

I dandered inside the Temple, looked around at the bare walls and emptiness and contemplated how this place would have looked like as a summer house. It was certainly much bigger than I had imagined it and people have been known to have had their weddings here.

With erosion eating away at the the cliff face over the past century I doubt if the lady of the house had the precarious view I had as I shot off numerous photographs through the fantastic, long-length west facing window. I studied the outside like a wisened architectural student might and then read the inscription that circled the building "Suave, mari magno turbantibus aequora ventis e terra magnum alterius spectare laborem.” At times like this I wish I’d listened to my teacher Mike Faulkner in his Latin class as - "Cool sophisticated man in a turban goes outside for an ice cream before work!” just didn’t seem to be the sort of thing that gets inscribed on a prestigious building like this! And I had no 50/50 or Ask a Friend options left! 

The reason I wanted to do this paintling was mainly architectural – the temple itself. It’s an iconic landmark in Northern Ireland! There were secondary points too as I had never done waves coming in on a sandy shore, tackled so much grass before or as many wild and windy rainclouds that threatened in the sky that day. These were new challenges. There were people in the painting too which I could have ignored but included them because they added a few spots of bright colour to what was a drab blue/grey/green painting. I have never been someone who has drawn, photographed and now painted by the rule of thirds so I when I was happy with the composition I started to get to work.

For something like this it’s always the sky first and this was fun - probably the most expressive and releasing part of the painting. I loved working up angry looking clouds with my fingers – making sure they were not too cross as to dominate the picture. With them in position I started the temple. Roof first! Yes, breaking all known construction work rules I started on the roof and worked down and methodically left to right. It was painstaking work and I often questioned my sanity especially when things weren’t going to plan. Today I would do it differently but back then I had less pastel knowledge and was probably a bit of a ‘cowboy’ builder. I would not use soft pastel as a base now as the pastel pencils were not blending with them the way I would have liked. I maybe rushed everything too, instead of enduring with the patience I am known for. I had rubbed out many of my ‘scaffolding’ lines so that hadn’t helped my work process. 

I got to the point where I was getting frustrated and had to leave the temple and do something different. I guess that happens in the real construction industry too! So I took my builder’s bottom off home to Moy for a few weeks and started a commissioned job for a lady who wanted me to do not one house but a row of Seven Houses as a birthday gift for her husband who owned them. More about that elsewhere on this blog.

With the summer almost over I came back to the temple fresh and with new eyes. I put the distant mountains of Donegal in, careful to get the colour and light right. I didn’t want them to appear too close. They looked the part! It was the foreground next and I was rightly brassed grassed off by the time I had finished the gardening. The wall I wanted to be rough and textured – it was very different from the smoother temple stonework and I spent ages trying to make something out of my initial dog’s dinner attempt. Today that wall is the bit I grimace most over. I know the evenings  that went into me building it and I just don’t think I got it right. That just left the houses and promenade area at the foot of the cliff, the railway, the beach and the sea to do. It was satisfying that they all came together sweetly and I contemplated that I was maybe in the wrong job. Instead of being a master builder and craftsman, I should just apply for ‘God’ because that sea, its waves and its sandy beach, just like the faraway mountains and clouds had obeyed my every wish! Amen!
MUSSENDEN TEMPLE [as shot through a glass frame ]
The Latin in the inscription was exactly as I thought: 
"Tis pleasant, safely to behold from shore
The troubled sailor, and hear the tempests roar. 
Those more educated than myself, will recognise that as a quotation from Lucretius De Rerum Natura, 2.1-2.  

Thursday, 16 July 2015

The gorgeous Keira Knightley

Back in the autumn of 2005 I penned a love letter to Keira Knightley who had just split with her then Northern Irish boyfriend Jamie Dornan.

Dearest Keira

I know you have been quite upset recently with Jamie and you breaking up but hiding away with your friends and getting drunk every night in London town is not the answer. You need to gather up your pride and get back on that bicycle so please allow me to be the first to be bold enough to register my personal interest and invite you out on a dinner date with a view to perhaps becoming your dashing new beau! I think it’s best we stay well clear of Fleet Street and paparazzi for now as my pastor would not like to see me on the front page of the Sun newspaper with a half dressed atheist. Jealousy is an awful thing! You might think this proposal just a little presumptuous on my part, after all you hardly know me from Adam so before you rush to the internet and google my name,  let me bowl you over with a little non-googly something about myself. 

I have been seeing someone for the past few weeks so before you jump to the conclusion that I am off limits I need to explain the situation to you. When Meg and I first talked about entering into a relationship last month I did so on the strict understanding that if Keira Knightley, film star extraordinaire, should ever at any time give notice that she is available, drunk or otherwise, then the terms and conditions of our relationship would mean that it would be up for negotiation, perhaps even deemed null and void. I called it my Keira Proviso. You might think that this is simply a jokey, verbal agreement made between two consenting adults over a few glasses of wine while watching Bend it like Beckham on DVD. You’d be wrong. I’m strictly a Sprite person and I was of a sound enough mind to have had a document drafted by a solicitor who when he worked in London dealt solely in celebrity pre nuptial agreements. Meg did complain that it wasn’t a very romantic gesture to be handed a legal document as well as pay the bill on our first night out together at McDonalds in Sprucefield but I felt safe as she wasn’t wearing stilettos and she had little choice but to comply and sign on the dotted line. She did get a little weepy but we reached a compromise and went dutch on the food. Knowing you're a bit of a restaurant connoisseur, I had what she had (a McChicken Sandwich with chips) and though delicious, the food was definitely not as orgasmic as Meg made out.

Hopefully this explanation will have cleared what was probably the only doubt in your mind and all that remains now is for us to settle on where to meet. The top of the Empire State Building has been done before and it’s where Meg takes her guys, so let’s not go there. Might be embarrassing. Naturally you are welcome to visit Northern Ireland though it might be best to stay away from Holywood just in case Jamie is home for the weekend. We could get together at the top of the Europa the most bombed hotel in the world and admire the smog over Belfast. The KFC is close by so I could treat you out there. No need to buy me jeans or anything as a wee gift – After seeing Jamie half hanging out of the pair you bought him I think I'll choose my own thanks.

Alternatively, and this might work best given your West Ham commitments, I could fly out to your pad in London or if you preferred we meet in a more secluded place away from everyone – that’s fine by me too. I have heard the Caribbean is great now that the pirates have all been booted out! Just send out a private jet and I’ll be on my merry way! 

Love you in the clips Ive watch from Pride and Prejudice. The short hair suits you.

Hope to hear from you soon

Now how could I not so a tribute to a beautiful British actress who completely mesmerised me in Pride and Prejudice.

KEIRA  [38cms  x 26cms approx]
The Keira picture I used was taken from Google Images and I turned the pastel around in about ten days over the summer months. 

I tackled skin tones in a completely different way to earlier portraits using a lot of white pastel pencil as an undercoat and adding light tinted pink, grey, yellow and blue pastel pencils into the mix. And there was a right mix. There are probably six or seven layers in there slowly built up with extra white going in between layers – a bit like making lasagne with white the pasta I suppose. At this stage the painting was looking like a Venetian mask. Adding the eyes and the mouth really brought Keira to life. I was chuffed. It really was looking like her. I added in the darker areas that lay under her hair and made sure to go beyond the hairline as you can’t really do it later. The forty shades of green background was fingered in with soft pastels stopping just short of the skin but spreading lightly into the bald head area. I would use an appropriate set of green pastel pencils to kiss the background to her skin.

Now for the scary bit. Her hair. 

I’ve always failed with hair, even as a pencil artist I found it hard to replicate convincingly. I roadtested on spare pastelmat for colour, style and strand and it looked decent but reproducing that under pressure of a nearly finished artwork was more daunting. I think I managed to get Keira’s hair looking like hair and like it belonged on her lovely face, three dimensional and rounded with the light, shade and shadows in all the right places. And I loved the little wisps of hair dangling down over Keira's ear. I could not have pastelled them that thin six months ago. That's what comes of using razor blades instead of sharpeners to get a very thin lead.  

I stepped back and admired the painting, close up, upside down, in the mirror and from a distance. That was Keira Knightley. No question.

Definitely the best pastel I have done to date. And the quickest! 

Shortly after I had got Keira framed, Ray (who’s a real artist and not just a part-timer like muggins!) dropped round and told me that his London-based son Neil knew Keira’s agent if I ever wanted to get in touch! Some might think this proposal just a little presumptuous, after all Keira would hardly know me from Adam and she might have to visit the internet and google my name to see how valuable my work was before flying me out to her pad in London or jetting me off to the Caribbean with the painting. Now there’s a thought should I ever need a few pennies or alternatively be taken to court for infringing her and the image rights of the photographer/film studio.

This pastel painting started out as a labour of love and there is absolutely no way Keira and I are going to be parted. We’re in it for the long term. In sickness and in health. Though I have taken the liberty of having a Lady Sybil/Jessica Rose Brown Findlay Proviso drawn up. 

Monday, 29 June 2015

An exhibition in Moy

I spent my childhood and all but four months of my teenage years in Moy, a charming little village with a huge history on the Tyrone-Armagh border. The local primary school was where I learned to play football, recite my tables by heart and draw. When my mother told me there was an art exhibiton being held in the halls of the Presbyterian church I had grown up in I was interested.

I contacted the organiser asking if I could just exhibit and not sell, and while he didn’t pour cold water on my idea he wasn’t over encouraging either. He said he’d get back back to me in a few days. He took my name, telephone number and I never expected to hear from him again. Two minutes later my phone rang and we were working out an agreeable price, £25, for me to show five paintings. I guess that’s what happened when he rung someone more in the know and found out my family’s 60 years connection to the church.

It was the first time I had been in the new church halls. I reminisced with Eileen Riddell and Barbara Abraham about the days we learned catechism in the upstairs Sunday School with Bill Patterson, Muriel Pinkerton and John Barr and for me personally where I had dib, dib, dibbed and bob-a-jobbed in the cubs under the late, great Will McKee. This attractive new edifice hadn’t erased the memories they had simply removed the physical context. The rickety tennis courts where I didn’t learn to serve and volley very well was now my father’s resting place and that of the Grahams, Mrs Adams and Norman Finlay. Progress meant the beautiful new had replaced the worn out old and I was OK with that! 

It was quite a moving day to be back among old friends showing off my art and recalling the past in equal measure. I walked from the hall into a more recognisable church, looked at the old familiar pews and stared up at our usual seat in the balcony where my mother tried her best to control her five rascals. I looked at the plushly carpeted choir area, Vera’s organ, the hymn boards and thought that nothing had changed very much here. I looked at murdered RUC officer Roy Leslie's memorial and wondered where my brother Kenny’s was – or wasn’t!

I was surprised by how many had entered paintings. TV watercolour celebrity Dermot Cavanagh declared the exhibition open and even put a few of his paintings on show at scary prices. I enjoyed seeing Mrs Nesbitt’s watercolours. I had no idea she was so talented. She was my Primary One schoolteacher and the mother of three of my friends growing up! Judith her middle daughter would be a big player in the art world - a director in the Tate Galleries and a judge of the prestigious Turner Prize for the past few years. And to think I used to go to concerts in Belfast with this eminent lady in her teenage years!

 If I had been forced to buy one it would have been a very narrow framed portrait painting of Scrabo Tower. Not sure who did it but it was wonderful.

Hopefully they will allow me to exhibit again in two years time.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Big Painting Challenge Final

The topic for this week’s three tasks was seascapes and the artists were packed off to the picturesque little naval town of Dartmouth in South Devon. It was a beautiful summer’s day and the harbour certainly had a lot of colour and life about it.

I’m a bit bemused why the artists are taken to the Royal Naval College and asked to create a painting which captures the atmosphere, spirit and heritage of the Naval College. Seascapes – really? 

The artists had two hours to do their research using sketches and photographs – the usual  pre-painting exercises. They then had three hours to create their paintings – indoors! This place would have bored the life out of me with its regimented lifestyle and OCD leanings where everything looked obsessively clean and in order. 

I can understand why Claire didn’t take to it – it’s macho-male territory and it’s no wonder Richard is practically salivating with his services background. Both he and Paul could probably relate to this environment better than either of the two girls and it’s they who both come up with interesting narratives for their paintings. All Claire can see is one battered old sofa that somehow breaks the sterile uniformity of cadet life here.

Amy is a less sensitive soul than Claire and just gets on with the job in hand. Her inspiration leads her to painting a submarine floating among a sea of flags. As a composition it isn’t great but it’s par for the course for Amy. She desperately wants the judges to ‘get’ her but her work doesn't merit a second look! She displays a lot of energy at the start of every picture as she lays the paint down fast and furious and while this is admirable her lack of planning is her downfall. The pressure of the occasion proves too much for her and she too had a Claire-like meltdown and gave up on her painting near the end.

Paul’s painting was well structured and thought out but oddly his clever narrative divided the judges – Lachlan got it but Dorothy played the dumb blonde (grey!) perfectly and feigned ignorance over Paul’s powerful evocation of loneliness that might engulf cadets enough to take to their bunks. I liked it.

Richard dealt with a similar concept but painted himself as the cadet in his bunk missing the person in the over sentimental photograph pinned on his wall. His lack of colour which I am sure was intentional added to the loneliness of the image. Like Paul he got a decent review of his work and both could feel happy with the start they have made. 

Dear Claire simply imploded. She took a risk in Liverpool with her abstract shopping centre and it paid off but here she tried to be too clever with her statement and no-one bought her left field, angled white rectangle on a uniform black background. She’d have been better off admitting it was a white flag of surrender.

Bearing in mind Amy was already in meltdown the judges didn’t add to her misery and fair play to them they found a few good things to say about her effort. It's pretty evident it’s now, barring something spectacular happening in the final two tasks, a two horse race between Richard and Paul!

Challenge Two as you can see illustrated here meant a 40 minute sketch with either charcoal, pastels or pencil, capturing the movement, energy and dynamism of a whole platoon of naval cadets marching in formation as they perform a sword drill. Seascapes or Human Form and Movement (Week 4)?

This was a difficult task and I think I would have been overwhelmed and probably produced something as static as Richard’s. I’m not sure whether I would have also put the sword in the wrong hand though! That's quite basic! Anyway that has just about blown any chances he had out of the water!

Claire made a reasonable effort but it was all quite tentative and her small strokes were never really bold or suggestive enough to cover so much information. She concentrated too much on the shadows and not enough on the idea there were a huge platoon of men marching.

Paul’s use of perspective and his inclusion of context made for a more successful drawing in terms of depth and movement. He understood what this was all about. He got everything that was required bar the colour. This was possibly his best Quick Draw round and he was probably satisfied to have saved it for the final. He is ahead of Richard now and barring a disaster in the Showstopper Paul will be the winner.

Amy did very well considering she was the rank outsider. She used chalk pastels and  had the cadets walking away from her. The judges liked it as she more than the other three caught the energy and movement of the occasion. She’ll be pleased with that. Was she in with a chance of causing an upset for second place – maybe – but I don’t think so.

Now to the final challenge to capture, in oils, the fluctuations of light and atmosphere of a picturesque and visually complex scene down at Dartmouth harbour. Finally something that fitted the Seascapes title! This was beautiful and to my eye there wasn’t too much complex about it – compared to the Liverpool skyline and Blenheim castle. This had for me everything I would want to paint in a landscape. I think the artists responded too as both Paul and Amy produced their best work of the series here.

Seeing the easels and the four artists on a little cobbled quay side street on an absolute peach of a day made me want to be there as they held up their small picture frames to sort out their composition. It’s funny what you learn too. Paul despite having a strong Scottish accent said this is where their family holidayed when he was growing up - so he had empathy with this Devon location.

Paul after a few brief sketches to work out the values in his paintings then went all alla prima as he painted wet on wet. He did a loose drawing, layered in his lighter focal areas first, added the darker tones. Once the main elements were blocked he started using bold impasto strokes and then a rag on the canvas to remove excess paint. After this he added the finer details and highlights into his focal points. It was interesting to watch how he worked. It was also becoming increasingly obvious that his painting was better than Richard who appeared to be struggling. 

Interestingly Amy who works oils in a similar but looser way to Paul but just doesn’t have his architectural eye for detail was giving an excellent account of herself. I was impressed by this painting as much as Paul’s.

Richard’s colours were far too muted for a summer’s day that was more Mediterranean than Merseyside. His painting just didn’t look like the sun was beaming down on Dartmouth that day!

Poor Claire seemed to be just filling in time as she was probably more than aware that she had blown what chances she had of challenging Paul for the title of Amateur Artist of the Year completely out of the water. She shown her inexperience, not for the first time, of being indecisive and taking far too much time to get started. She also over elaborated on the small woodland area of her painting so she had time issues and that meant she didn’t finish her painting. 


For what it is worth she has the potential to be a very good artist. She’s still searching for her style however. When she finds it and when she has acquired a lot more knowledge, she’ll probably be in my opinion, the best of all four in the next five to ten years.

Paul I think won easily and if based purely on the final day Amy might have pipped Richard for second place. However if the series was taken as a whole Richard would probably be runner-up, Claire third and Amy fourth! Just my opinion!  

I would have loved to have gone to Tate Britain to see the exhibition of the winner’s work and when they’re all busy looking at Dartmouth harbour I’ll slip a few Monets under my jacket. As a sort of pension plan! You know how it is!

Next year, if there is a next year, I’d like to see better artists and keep all ten throughout the six weeks as who knows how Melvyn or Jan might have developed. Amy was hardly setting the programme alight until the final week so sometimes artists need time to find their feet and get used to having cameras around and having annoying people like Una Stubbs and Richard Bacon ask them stupid questions. Anybody can have a bad week and then follow it up with a good week!

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

The Big Painting Challenge Week 5

First up the five artists battling for a place in the final were asked to do a painting in watercolours that represented their personal interpretation of Liverpool.

They had to get out and about the city with cameras and sketchbooks to record the images that inspired them. I was rather surprised at the subjects people chose to do as none of them screamed out ‘Liverpool’ to me. Claire went to a shopping centre which in truth could have been anywhere in the UK and Anne went to a park with a bandstand that we’re told inspired the Beatles in the early 1960s. Really? Paul and Richard focused on run-of-the-mill terraced housing and street scenes while Amy did a collage of different things that were instantly forgettable.

Interestingly both Claire and Anne changed their watercolour style during this task. Anne lost her boldness while Claire became a lot more abstract and conceptual and I’m not sure if that was her best move. I’m not sure what she was trying to say in her statement but Lachlan seemed to like the risk she ran with. 

Paul, a football fan, wanted to do something around football and Liverpool FC in particular but reluctantly strayed off his Hillsborough disaster idea over possible controversy. He opted to paint a gritty urban landscape instead. 

With the benefit of hindsight he would learn that was a mistake as both Lachlan and Dorothy (in particular) tore his work to shreds telling him it was too lady-like, too feminine and more Trumpton than Toxteth! What a load of cobblers! I thought he executed the painting very well and after all it was his interpretation of the place – not theirs! 

They should have been judging him on his technical ability and how he used the watercolours to show the run down area. Anyway it’s my Painting of the Week! 

Richard appeared to come out of the judges’ criticism the best. They liked his street scene with the cleaner in the foreground.

Challenge Two was the Quick Draw where they were asked to sketch the Royal Liver Building Clock Tower from the top of the Cunard Building using charcoal, pastel and pencil. The judges were hoping they would get to grips with the complicated archiitectural features of the place and get both the proportion and multiple planes of perspective right. Did you know that the clock face on the tower is the largest in Britain - no, neither did I Una! 

Most of the efforts were so-so with none of them doing the scene justice. Paul was again slated by Daphne which was starting to undermine the poor man’s confidence. 

The final task before the finalists were known was to paint the Mersey river against the panoramic backdrop of the iconic Liverpool cityscape.

This was a harder task than it looked as is forced the artists to tackle the changing light and the vast expanses of sky and water, two elements that are always on the move. There were clouds in the sky, reflections in the river and then there were all the buildings on the far bank.

Claire worries me in that she tends to overthink her subject and paints very slowly which means rushing her work at the end to try and get some semblance of completion.  I thought she did quite well though she was rather upset with her canvas. For me it was one of the better ones in terms of capturing the colour of the buildings in the light and attempting to reflect them in the water.

Richard was the only one who managed to get recession into his water and to make it look the size of waterway he was actually painting. It was a good effort and for me the best of the bunch. 
Can he win this?

I had problems with Paul’s painting. It was all rather vague and that was probably a result of Dorothy’s comments earlier. In his macho-ness he started to paint more manly in that it was big, bold and quite disorganised. The colours depicted looked like he was more likely to be in Venice than Liverpool. I had no idea where he got that light from.

Amy was criticised for overworking her painting which meant that at one stage it was actually better than how it ended up. Mind it was a lot better than most of her previous attempts but was it good enough to beat Anne?

Anne’s again started off by painting everything red!!!! Why red and not blue which should have been a more obvious choice. Red is not even complimentary! I don’t like her technique. To her credit she did have a muddy river and she was the only one who went to the trouble of putting a ferry across the Mersey.

The judges did a very Sugar-like thing in that the changed the rules that had been serving them so well to this point. Instead of judging on this week alone they were going to consider the previous four too which was practically giving major wobbler Paul a get-out-of-jail-free card. Undoubtedly he did deserve to be in the final but this week was not a good one for him and maybe, just maybe, he should have walked. 

I of course would have put him straight through on the strength of his first piece and thrown Anne or Amy out. I am still undecided who is worse as neither has a style I like.

In the end it was big, bold Anne who went and somehow Welsh girl Amy has scraped her way into the final. 

I still think Paul will win it.

Second and third is more difficult. Richard, Claire; Claire, Richard - who knows – just whoever is best on the day. Amy has absolutely no chance!   

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Big Painting Challenge Week 4

As if the task wasn’t hard enough the artists were based in the intimidating atmosphere of Tate Britain and I am not even sure Judy would have had a little peep in to see what all the fuss was about. I don’t think she’d be a big fan of this ‘dumbed-down’ painting show.

The first challenge was to create a static still-life drawing of a semi-nude male life model. There were two of them who looked kinda jungle tribal especially with the spears in their hands and their brief attire. The judges Lachlan and Dorothy were looking for anatomically correct figures, accurate proportions and realistic flesh tones. The medium was up to the artist to choose.

I thought this was the easiest of the three tasks but the finished work suggested otherwise. None of the contestants got complimentary remarks and all because they made some fundamental errors.

Paul, whom I would rate as the most accomplished artist of the bunch bottled out of giving his model feet. He had the room to, unlike Claire and Anne who worked from top to bottom and suddenly discovered there wasn’t enough room to ground the poor man so their legs just got chopped off just above the ankles. Claire was also guilty of giving her model an enormous thigh while Anne thought hers should have a supersizeme head. Richard blotted his recent improvements by poor composition. He worked far too small in an effort to get the complete spear in. Amy fell down big time by giving her bloke a permatan and being poor generally.

They would all have been troubled by the scathing remarks of the judges to up their game! Their hearts must have dropped when told what the next task involved! 

Out skipped a rhythmic gymnast who danced her way through a series of moves with a long red ribbon that made circular, snake and spiral motions in the air behind her. 

The artists were to work in coloured pencil. I think Anthea expressed it best when she described this 30 minutes as torture. She had probably never come across this exercise at the art club she belonged to. 

 The secret was to discover the repeated gestures the gymnast made and draw the one they felt most comfortable with provided they could snapshoot it in their mind! Most of them made a decent fist of it. Claire in particular did an excellent drawing through her use of little marks and suggestions which conveyed the movement of both the gymnast and her ribbon. No wonder she was beaming afterwards. Paul also got commended for clever use of his orange and blue coloured pencils. Richard and Anne did rightly. The only black marks were reserved for Anthea whose effort was described as ‘wooden’ and Amy who got accused of ‘being self indulgent’. Both these remarks were justified.

Amy certainly drew without any reference to what was going on in front of her - it was just a series of representative swirls that didn’t really cut the mustard. She would have been disappointed and I guess she’s now plunged into the ‘going home’ zone with Anthea! Anne might have saved herself with her effort.

For the final drawing the six were taken to an unnamed London theatre to make sketches and notes for 30 minutes as three flamenco dancers put on a fast and furious routine. 

The artists had to capture the essence of what was happening, the wildness of the dance, the story of the two girls fighting over their strutting man and put it down on paper with soft chalk pastels.

Pastels!!!!! The said pastels! I don't believe it... pastels got a mention. For the first time in the series my favoured medium got a mention without the planets all crashing into each other! I was all eyes to see how they would get on.

I was interested in seeing what make of pastel they were using: Unison, Sennelier, Rembrandt or Schmincke but typically BBC they were anonymised. They returned to their Tate Britain studio to create a picture based on what they had observed. This would have been the first time they would have had to use their imagination to recall the dance they had just witnessed. The previous two tasks gave some idea who would do well, who would struggle and who learnt from their critique and in the main that’s how it turned out!

I would have thought the story of the dance and its passion, vibrancy and drama would have taken centre stage so it was poor that both Paul and Richard only dealt with one character while the four women answered the brief better and included at least two of the dancers. 

Amy, rapped on the knuckles by Dorothy previously, was struggling in this three hour round too. The television cut suggested she discarded her first painting with only 15-30 minutes left so she took quite a risk in starting again! Credit to her – this effort was much better and that gamble paid off as she really was one foot out the door. Hard to believe what she achieved in so little time so I have to question if the producers were making a drama out of nothing? She even got complimented on the corkscrew effect she gave the female’s waist and the strut of the pouting male!

Richard wished that he had the balls to have started again but then again he wasn’t on Amy’s sticky wicket! His painting was too pigmented, too static and  there was no idea his woman was in a dance off with another over a man! His forte has always been his storytelling ability so on this count he failed badly!

Claire whose piece is shown here excelled and for someone who probably had never used pastels before she did great. She does use very expressive short bursts of colour very well and she’s a cert for the final now. Can she win it? She’ll have to get past Paul first!

Paul like Richard came up short. His initial sketches were good but he just didn’t deliver on the main drawing. One rather static female dancer was not enough! He was the only one to include the ornate and smokey backdrop but that was window dressing and I’m sure he knew that he for the second time that day had bottled it.

Anne did OK. Like Paul, her initial sketches were probably better than her finished piece which she went on to overwork. I think she may be safe though as Anthea was heavily wounded in her critique when Dorothy called her effort a cartoon! Lachlan was only slightly more forgiving congratulating her for answering the brief of including all three participants! Anthea knew she was past her sell-by date and that indeed was how it turned out. 

That’s five left and next stop is Liverpool for a day down by the Mersey. Paul and Richard will probably be relieved that there will be very little figure drawing involved as this appears to be their weakest suite. Claire on the other hand will want to bring it on! 

Meanwhile one person still has to leave the process. I’m thinking it’s either Anne or Amy and I am not sure which one will miss out on the final!

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The Big Painting Challenge Week 3

This week’s task took me right back to ‘O’ Level days and still life drawing at RSD. I recall putting a series of objects together – not unlike Claire’s in this episode and drawing them in pencil. Those were the days!

This week the eight remaining artists were off to Blenheim Palace where Winston Churchill was born. It’s quite an impressive place to have a silver spoon in your mouth. I had no idea the former prime minister was an avid painter – maybe if he and Mr Hitler had got together over a few oils en plein air in Tuscany we could have avoided the catalogue of deaths during WW2.

After landscapes and portraiture the eight were now tackling still life, though how the facade of Blenheim seen below can be called such is beyond me! I would have called it the two Ps – Perspective and Proportion.

First up however was a four hour painting of an arrangement of objects personal to the artist. Now I don’t know what planet some of them were on but half of them didn’t make it easy for themselves. First up you select items that are simple to draw and that sit well within a composition, are obviously related to one another to tell a story and balance one another in terms of size and colour. It didn’t want to be too flat neither. Again I was shocked to hear that some of them had never done a still life and had never really painted in the medium thay chose. I know Claire is only 20 but her quote on the left is a rather remarkable confession.

Richard, Paul, Claire and Anthea escaped with the least bruising from the judges. 
They had controlled their tone and managed to describe the three dimensional aspect of their objects particularly in relation to perspective and depth. It was becoming quite evident that the two men were probably streets ahead of the others in terms of technical ability and thinking conceptually about their work. 

The 30 minute Quick Draw of giant chess pieces on an outside chess board in black and white chalks was next up. This was an exercise in accurate drawing, tone and perspective and would sort the weaker people out. Surprisingly the person who impressed the judges (and me) most in this task was Alison. Hers was easily the most confident. Anne and Heather had big failures and things were definitely not looking too rosey for them unless they came up with something dramatic in the final three hour piece.

How would I have tackled Blenheim Palace? 
I certainly wouldn’t have drawn a wide angle view of it like Alison did leaving a huge foreground for the judges to get all spiffy over. I think I would have taken the central area and one of the turret areas and not worried about trying to get a mirror image of the other side. Why give yourself that problem?

Richard agreed with me as did Claire but Paul was a bit more adventurous and included the bit beyond the turret too, so engaging only one side of the Palace. He also called on his career experience as an architectural illustrator and produced a decent enough watercolour painting. All the others I feel are hanging on to his shirt tail – some a bit tighter than others.

Heather had a complete meltdown and if she could have walked off the set probably would have. Anne’s looked a cold bluish mess while Alison fresh from previous praise undid all her good work with a badly scaled painting. She knew it too and wanted to put her foot through her canvas – I can sympathise with that feeling!

Anthea surprised me. With the choice of using any medium she opted for pen and wash and produced one of her better pieces. Claire too did exceedingly well with only her second serious foray into watercolours. Richard experimented with colour and was complimented by the judges for taking a such a bold step. Most of his works so far had been dark affairs and here he was being a bit more expressive and joyful! It worked for him.

I thought Heather was certain to go – indeed she was probably resigned to her dismissal but the judges produced a Sugaresque decision to send two home this week. I was certain that brought Anne into the mix but hey-ho shock-horror the person getting the red card with Heather was Alison who had done such a fine job with the chess pieces. How did Anne escape? She simply cannot analyse and she has this default action of painting her entire canvas either a vivid blue or red colour regardless of the subject! It is the BBC however! Have been speaking to a few people and they too are amazed that Anne has got this far - so it's not just me matter of factly wondering why such a weaker person trumps someone a lot more talented.

Next week is Human Form and Movement so I expect those who can’t really draw well to have big problems here. That’s Anne and Amy for me. The latter has been under the radar a bit.

The final looks like being a shoot-out between Paul, Richard, Claire and Anthea at this stage though I am dreading the thought that the producers might just want to keep Anne in there for a while longer. 
No Painting of the Week! There was just nothing that stood out for me!

Friday, 6 March 2015

The Big Painting Challenge Week 2

With Melvyn gone the nine remaining amateur artists faced three challenges in portraiture on London’s Southbank.

For the opening task, they were given four hours to create pictures of themselves from their reflections in mirrors. This was followed by a quick-draw where they have 30 minutes to attempt an anatomically accurate sketch that captured the likeness of a stranger in black and white chalks. In their last chance to impress before the elimination, there was a four-hour sitting with EastEnders actor Rudolph Walker (Patrick) and Albert Square legend Pam St Clement (Pat). Plus, Una Stubbs talked to royal portraitist Nicky Philipps, while Lachlan Goudie provides tips on proportion and scale. 

Looking back on last week and dwelling on this week’s programme two things are starting to annoy me – the art world’s contempt for illustration, notably some of Daphne Todd’s comments towards Anthea. She has a horrible insidious habit of looking down on artistic modes and styles that aren’t similar to her own. 

I also don’t like the idea that making art should have time restraints placed on it. I think the latter is one of the weaknesses of the show yet I understand why it is necessary. The 3-4 hour time factor is probably why some of the 6000 artists who applied to get on the show and who were much more talented than the ten picked didn’t make the cut. 

It was Jan who went out despite being a professional at drawing people’s faces. What was more surprising was his portfolio had a wonderful portrait of Winston Churchill so he had experience of what was expected of the task. Maybe that’s the problem with drawing from a photograph - when it came to life drawing he fell flat on his face!

I felt there were others worse than him  but because their paintings were expressive (another word for badly drawn in my art world) rather than graphic they escaped Todd’s biased noose.

The best self portrait was done by Claire.
She announced herself as a real contender with a superb likeness. She’s my third person nailed now for the final – I just have no idea who the fourth will be. Heather would appear to be my favourite at the minute. 

It’s really worrying that several drew heads far too small for the body. At school my art teacher Ivor Coburn drummed it into us that the head fits into the body six times and that your eyes are placed halfway down your face – you never forget things like that!

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The Big Painting Challenge Week 1

I hadn’t heard about this new BBC Sunday teatime show until I caught Helen reading a newspaper write up about it at Lisnagarvey Art Society one Tuesday night. It seemed interesting and I reckoned if it did for painting what it did for cooking the artistic ripples would be felt some time around Easter when the series of six concludes.

I was interested to see who the ten contestants were so I googled the programme to read about their painting background, visited their websites and plotted out my favourites. Interestingly there were two that presented me with a loose connection – Melvyn was a retired graphic designer and Amy was Welsh and had gone to Cardiff College of Art so I suppose I had to root for them in the first episode.

There were three tasks per programme – a three hour study compositional piece called a SIGNATURE CHALLENGE, a 30 minute QUICK SKETCH and the final piece a four hour SHOWSTOPPER. Each week dealt with a different subject – landscapes, seascapes, cityscapes, human form and movement, still life, and portraiture.

So far I am undecided about the presenters. Una Stubbs was mildly irritating on screen though slightly better as a voice over. She didn’t possess the same quiet authority of Hannah Gordon who did the Watercolour Challenge on Channel Four a few years back. Richard Bacon was OK but at his height he was hardly a good foil for tiny Una whom he towered over. To be fair to them they do have artistic credibility. Bacon we were told has an impressive collection of modern art on display in his north London home and he’s good mates with Jonathan Yeo (who?), Damien Hirst and Grayson Perry (another who?) Una has exhibited her work at the Royal Academy which shows you how far having a famous name can take you as her work in my opinion is less than ordinary!  

Week One was landscapes and the painters were taken to Alnwick Castle in Northumberland which is probably better known to the Harry Potter generation as Hogwarts. From a distance it looks quite Irish with its imposing outline against a pale blue sky and the rolling green fields with a small river meandering lazily through them.

The Signature Challenge saw the artists looking for something interesting to draw as they wandered around the grounds taking reference photographs and drawing quick sketches in preparation for their television debut. This task was to be completed using acrylics and I was surprised just how many of the ten had never seriously used this medium before. You would have thought they would have given them a whirl if they knew they were going on the show if only to save themselves from nationwide embarrassment.

The Quick Draw Technical Challenge had the artists in the castle gardens drawing delphiniums – bluish/purple headed flowers that I would have called lupins – I never was an expert on things botanical. Surprisingly they were sketching them with coloured pencils and yet again quite a few of the artists said they had never drawn flowers before! Neither have I so I can sympathise. This exercise revealed who could draw, who couldn’t and who could adapt to different mediums. 


The Showstopper, the grande finale had them all across the river painting a pastoral ‘Hogwarts’ en plein air! The scene looked a little flat and was only saved I guess by the deliberate placement (I’m guessing) of red rowing boats in the immediate foreground. The sun appeared to play havoc silhouetting the castle as the sun went down in the late afternoon. As a task it drew comparison with The Watercolour Challenge – same idea just a different broadcaster. Once again very few of the artists had ever painted outside before. Amazing. 

I have never painted outdoors but I have sketched en plein air during an art college week-long trip to North Wales. Abersoch, Pwlheli and the slate quarries near Nefyn on the Llyn Peninsula all immediately spring to mind! Having tutor Derrick ‘bloody’ Barrett on our backs was bad but to have a camera stuck in your face watching your every brushstroke knowing your creation is going to be judged by a few million people is some pressure.

Seeing the work produced and wearing the hat of a comfortable armchair critic, I was rather shocked that the calibre of painter wasn’t better. Of course, it was only the first episode and it could be some people take a while to get going. I have a suspicion we'll see what happens when people who look good on paper/canvas get exposed when asked to paint subjects in front of them rather than from photos (although they were allowed both their own reference photos and sketches for the first of the three challenges).

PAUL (the stay at home Scottish Dad) and RICHARD the ex-army bloke were away out in front based on the evidence of the first programme. It’s difficult to contemplate either of them going home before the final. Nobody else stood out as being exceptional though I guess there is room for a dark horse to come through in some of the other disciplines and tasks. The winner will not be Jan the ex-police artist who struggled to draw things that were not wanted for burglary, assault or deemed missing. He may escape next week as it’s a portraiture round but he’s already a dead man walking – he'll not make the final!


I had never heard of Lachlan Goudie (Mr Blunt) or Daphne Todd (Mrs Even Blunter) the charisma-free judges who are reputed to be among the foremost painters in the country! I really would loved to have seen them work alongside the amateurs just so I could see how the professionals do it and to know they are not all bluster. I was quite taken aback by some of their cutting remarks and while I am writing this just after Week Two has aired I am quite shocked that the BBC has allowed them to be so forthright in their criticism. That said, I much prefer to hear constructive, observant and fair feedback to slushy flattery.

The critique looked a nerve racking experience for the contestants as they made the ‘long’ walk with a canvas under their arm to stand on a little floor marker and hear the thoughts of the judges. 

“It feels a bit flat, a bit cartoony; it’s a bit Wallace and Gromit; it’s got no depth; it’s not very good, sorry; your flowers are wooden!”

If Daphne painted herself as the Simon Cowell of the show, Lachlan sounded like he had swallowed a thesaurus. And for viewers who are not well versed in an artist's world –please understand that  making art is different to making cupcakes in a baking competition or growing tomatoes in an allotment. 

A painting has more of its creator’s soul invested in it; you’re really criticising them, and these are punches to the heart. 

For the most part I enjoyed the handy tips, about communicating depth and space, light and distance but would have preferred it more had the cameras been on the paintings rather than the judges faces.

I could not believe Una Stubbs thought Constable’s ‘Haywain’ was chocolatey boxy and twee. It was left to Fraser Scarfe to explain to this celebrity painter the genius in the man’s work!

I wasn’t too sure how this programme worked, whether it
was filmed over a week en bloc but reading about it in the online version of Radio Times it appears that the artists did get briefed on the next task – in this case portraiture and have a week to prepare for it. So there really was no excuse for any of them to be caught off guard.

I had high hopes for Melvyn and Amy but both disappointed. 

Melvyn made the unforgiveable mistake of conflicting shadows - an embarrassing schoolboy error and while the sun did surely move over the space of a three hour painting session it didn’t move 180 degrees! He was my favourite - just ahead of Jan, to leave the show this week and the judges didn’t let me down!

Finally, I’m not too sure whether I agree with the process of eliminating someone every week. I would prefer the series not to exclude but rather be inclusive and allow the artists to grow into the competition. Mark them out of twenty for each piece and add their totals up at the e
nd to get the winner over all disciplines. And get better artists!  
That’s my tuppenceworth.