Monday, March 09, 2015

Review: The Big Painting Challenge - Episode 3

More commentary on The Big Painting Challenge - which this week was in Oxfordshire. Episode 3 was all about Still Life - which I personally think might have been more accurately described as being about perspective and proportion. It went from an arrangement of still life objects to painting the facade of Blenheim Palace!

You've got 29 days left to watch it on iPlayer.

The Big Painting Challenge - Episode 3 on iPlayer on my iPad Mini.

Episode 3: The Still Life Challenges

A still life is a group of several inanimate objects grouped together, often with an over-arching theme
The challenges were again very challenging!
  • a four hour painting in acrylics of a still life arrangement of objects personal to the artist
  • a 30 minute Quick Draw of giant chess pieces on an outside chess board in black and white chalks. The aim was to capture perspective, proportion and tone. It was a challenge which I think would have got many artists running for the hills within that time scale!
  • a 3 hour artwork in the medium of their choice of the facade of Blenheim Palace! This one would have many a professional painter feeling pretty challenged. Those who felt swamped by it had by sympathies! I'm not quite sure how this one qualified as a still life. Most buildings don't move too much - although the light does!

What was interesting was that the extent of experience that the participants bring to bear on the subject matter is reflected very clearly in the choices they make in terms of set-up, scale and composition - before they even start painting!

In relation to the set-up of the still life, Lachlan emphasised four factors that the painters all needed to address the fundamentals of creating a strong picture
  1. create strong composition
  2. balance out their colours
  3. suggest  illusion of natural light
  4. convince us that objects have three dimensions
Working out the placement - and, by definition, the four lines that go round their subject matter - seemed to be something that some people lacked skills and confidence in. (see my blog post on this topic - Composition - the four most important lines)

I was actually very surprised to hear that some of them had never done a still life or done very little and/or never really painted using the media they chose. I simply can't imagine being filmed for BBC1 doing something I've never done before!
I haven't been practicing with watercolours, although I did get a book out from the Library..... I'm enjoying finding out how to do it but learning on the job is perhaps not ideal in this situation!
Claire Parker
The fact that it was clear that people could have practiced their still life - but didn't - made me wonder why they made life difficult for themselves. If you take a look at Paul Bells's website you can see "one he made earlier". I'm saying that in the sense that the positions of objects and the colours in the shadows are different. This is his blog post about Episode 3
I was very comfortable with my painting, the hours of practise paying dividendsPaul Bell
I was also really surprised to learn that Paul Bell had previously worked as an architectural illustrator. I guess that accounts for why he's way out in front in the skills department!

Judges comments

The Judges also considered that some of the artists had made life very difficult for themselves in terms of:
  • the objects they had chosen
    • objects which were very shiny and difficult to paint, 
    • objects which were very dissimilar in size and shape - and therefore difficult to meld together into an interesting composition
  • their ability to draw their objects and achieve the right size and shape
They also observed that artists varied in their skills in putting objects together to create a strong composition.

They liked the artists who controlled tone and managed to describe the 3D aspects of their objects - particularly in relation to perspective and depth - and those who had clearly thought about what they were doing.

The conclusion

Richard Salter really impressed in this episode. With every challenge he seemed to do better than I was expecting based on previous performance. It was great to see him introduce colour in the last challenge.

It struck me that both Paul and Anthea made a really smart move in demonstrating their abilities in a new media.  I had Anthea identified as possibly being at risk this week. However she applied herself in a  much more focused way this week and also worked in pen and ink and watercolour and was rewarded by taking herself out of the frame.

The judges also seemed to like those who went on a journey and tried new things (Richard and Claire) - and made a good attempt at using their new approach (colour and watercolour respectively)

I think this episode provided some very clear tips for those selected for subsequent series of this painting.

Here's what I noted down as being some of the lessons learned in this episode:
  • make sure you've tried painting all the different types of subject matter
  • master the basics in different media
  • become skilled in observation 
  • learn how to draw accurately
  • give yourself challenges in terms of shape, proportion and tone
  • develop your abilities in the use of colour and composition 
  • think hard about what you want the end product to look like before you start
  • practice your still life before you start on site
  • think about how you can demonstrate your versatility with different media
  • don't focus on what you don't like - focus on what you can do
One could tell that Alison, Heather and Anne were in the frame just from the amount of time devoted to their experience of the challenges this week. Heather in particular seemed to be very fed up by the end of the day. However I must confess I thought Amy was going to be one of the two going home based on some of the comments made in the challenges.

My prediction for the next episode

Episode four is all about Human Form and Movement so I'd expect those who dislike drawing and painting people to have a problem

Paul continues to be way out in front. Richard and Claire have demonstrated their ability to have a go and pull it off - plus they were all on the better side of average in Episode 2 (Portraits). I think they're all safe.

I don't know if I've misjudged Amy in terms of expecting her to go this week. I certainly haven't seen everything the judges saw.  I think it's very definitely the case that I'm struggling as Amy's style of painting is not one which I'm a fan of - and that's purely a question of taste.

Anthea seems to become a lot more focused and seems to be intent on pleasing the judges rather than being flamboyant. On that basis I think she might well be OK.  There again there's a rather ominous segment within the film at the start of each episode where Daphne Todd makes a remark about some flamenco dancers (next week's third challenge) - and I think it relates to Anthea - so maybe not OK?

I'm not convinced that Daphne thinks Anne can draw or likes her style which tends towards the flat and graphic - although it's very clear that Lachlan likes her use of colour. It's entirely possible she will be a candidate for departure next week. However she clearly demonstrates an ability to listen and to address issues that are raised - and that's something judges always like!

James Hobbs, Anne Blankman-Hemans and Katherine Tyrrell
at the Mall Galleries "Meet the Author" event this week
I met Anne during the week - when she came to my booksigning at the Mall Galleries - and bought my book Sketching 365.

You can see her on the right with me and fellow author James Hobbs and his book.

I was very pleased to hear that she has been carrying a sketchbook and doing a lot more drawing since the programme.

The good news is that, once the series has finished, she has agreed to give me an interview for this blog. I shall endeavour to find out what it was really like to be an amateur artist painting while being filmed by the BBC!

My drawings from the weekend

Again - in the spirit of participation - I'm going to share my own drawings from last week.

On Saturday, I spent the afternoon drawing with London Urban Sketchers at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

It was so very nice and sunny that I sat in the courtyard in the sun drawing all the other people sitting in the sun!

I should add that I avoided trying to draw the architecture of the building because I've tried that before at the V&A and it's very, very challenging! So I decided I'd use my time to better effect and focused in on something I felt more comfortable doing - drawing people. They were my "still life"!

For those who've got my book you might want to take a look at pages 86-87 in which I provide some tips about drawing large groups of people.

Any time you're in a situation like this you have, in effect, got free models for practising your life drawing - except they are apt to move around a bit and do have a tendency to just get up and walk away.  The fact I don't know them and don't have their permission to draw them means I don't ever draw faces in detail.

The trick is to find one or two people who become your measuring sticks for everybody else. I started with the chap who was sat against the outside corner of the building and noted how he related in size to the cornicing.

I then moved to a single woman sat on her own on the steps just to the right and below him and drew her in relation to him....

...and then continued across the page drawing people in and relating each to the other. That way I get less worried that I've lost their relative proportion. In fact I have got some wrong - but they're not so wrong that it jumps out at you - I think!

Sunny afternoon in March - Courtyard of the Victoria and Albert Museum
pen and sepia ink in A4 Moleskine (11" x 16")
I then sketched three London Urban Sketchers who were sketching the architecture. That's Jean Edwards on the left and Pavel Miller on the right.

London Urban Sketchers sketching in the V&A Courtyard 7 March 2015
London Urban Sketchers sketching in the V&A Courtyard 7 March 2015
pen and sepia ink in large Moleskine


  1. Well observed review again. I must admit to enjoying this program despite wondering about the real purpose of the show. Like you I thought Amy would be a candidate for elimination this week. I would have failed miserably with all these assignments I suspect.
    The still life reminded me of the remit for my O level exam. I have never been able to work out perspective and it always goes wonky somewhere. Blenheim Palace would have overwhelmed me. Also I don't understand this insistence on using different materials. All artists develop a preference for certain materials and trying out a new medium whilst tackling a new skill can only add additional pressure on the person's creativity. To be honest, it is reminding me of my foundation year at Camberwell, except I had a year to try out things and I wasn't thrown off the course for not being able to master a medium. Also I wonder if the judges were from totally opposite sides of painting world, if the assignments would have been different. Both of them come from very familiar fields and both from similar schools, Camberwell and the Slade.
    I read quite a few criticisms of the judges being too harsh but I suspect this down to the editing as much as anything. Also as a professional artist (which these people want to be) you have been prepared for such critiques. I know the ones at Camberwell were brutal and not just from the tutors but other students. Sadly they did not do them at Bath and I really could have benefited from such feed back.
    Lastly I have read quite a few barb criticisms of the presenters, particularly Una Stubbs. Yes she is a little vague and slight but she does seem to be supporting the artists which is what she is meant to be doing, isn't it?
    Your drawings are lovely and give a real feel for the place and situation. Again like my comment about Sargy Mann, I can only wish I had as much talent and zest for life as you. However, I think you would have failed the assignment as the building is sadly lacking in appearance and doesn't capture the drama of the stunning architecture. LOL.
    Lastly, wish they had at least something like this in the US, instead of the endless reality shows like the Kardashians or the Bachelor!

  2. I totally enjoy watching the programme, and I'm always looking forward to reading your comments about it, and indeed your blog, which I only just discovered.
    I was also surprised that some of the contestants didn't take the chance to practice more beforehand, as with the still life, which apparently they knew they were doing.
    I also wonder about the definition of "amateur artist", as some of the contestants seem to have some formal art training and/or work experience. But then the term "amateur artist" is a very elusive one. It seems that so often these days, it is impossible for some people to judge a piece of work just by itself, without any reference to the artistic background of the creator, and that if it doesn't come with a degree, it is by definition seen as inferior. Even though there's a lot of excellent work by artists who chose a different path than art school.
    I'm really looking forward to the interview with Anne. To hear the "other side", and all the things that there isn't time for in the episodes.


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