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.     

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