Monday, March 16, 2015

Review: The Big Painting Challenge - Episode 4

Episode 4 of The Big Painting Challenge was a really serious challenge for any artist. I can think of a number of professional artists who would have struggled with this one.  The reason why is:
  1. they were drawing and painting the human form
  2. two of the challenges involved a moving human form - and not in an easy way!
For those who missed it you can now see it on BBC iPlayer - and see if you can do any better

At the end of this post I provide:
  • some tips for aspiring artists who want to draw people including those who don't just pose for you!
  • links to interviews with some of the artists
  • a note of a Live Sketch Off Competition taking place at 7pm tomorrow night (Tuesday 17th March)
GOOD NEWS for those living outside the UK - Episode 3 has been posted on YouTube.
BAD NEWS The BBC sells its programmes overseas and this link may become defunct in the very near future! It's so small it made me think somebody has been videoing their iPad!

BBC iPlayer - The Big Painting Challenge - Epidsode 4

This week the programme was based at Tate Britain - which is also where the winner will get their best painting hung for a couple of weeks starting 30 April (basically two weeks either side of Easter) .

Episode 4: the human form and movement challenges

Challenge 1: To create a static life drawing of a semi-nude male life model assuming very classical poses (3 hours) 

Life model clip The links to clips from the programme won't work unless you live in the UK.
The judges were looking for:
  • anatomically correct figures
  • accurate proportions
  • realistic flesh tones 

Contestants had to create a very life-like picture of the model in front of them from top to toe, using any materials they chose. They were split into two groups working from two different professional models. The challenge was mostly about
  • measuring to get the scale and proportion right for the body as a whole 
  • sizing their drawing of the person relative to the size of paper
  • getting the feet on the paper as this enables an artist to convey a sense of balance and weight. 
"Drawing or painting from the human figure proves that the artist has fundamental skills in terms of assessing proportion and shape - and we need to see that they have those skills"
Daphne Todd
Interestingly none of the artists got complimentary remarks at the end.  Daphne Todd was disappointed in them and wondered whether they had found the context (Tate Britain) very daunting.

One way or another they all managed to err in some way or another eg
  • not leaving enough room to get the feet on the paper/canvas; (Claire, Paul and Anne)
  • getting some part of the model out of proportion with the rest (eg Anthea's head was too big; the thigh on the right of Claire's model was far too big; Amy struggled generally)
  • drawing too small and leaving too much space around the model (Richard)
  • not thinking about how the image could be cropped to deliver a better composition (Richard)
  • legs not doing what they were doing in reality (Anne and somebody else who I forget - I'll go and check!)
  • flesh tones which resembled a permatan rather than natural tones (Amy's had a permatan)
It's becoming clear that Paul, the ex-architectural illustrator, is much better at painting buildings than he is at drawing and painting people. His quick draw in week 2 was weak and I thought his work this week was not as strong when compared to some of his other work during the challenge.

Challenge 2: Quick Draw Exercise (30 minutes - using coloured pencils) - Capture a sense of the human form in movement - using pastels to draw a rhythmic gymnast performing a simple routine

The judges were looking for an image which capture the movement of the gymnast together with anatomical accuracy.

That's certainly some challenge given most amateur artists would have a major difficulty getting anatomical accuracy with a static pose for 30 minutes!

The gymnast repeated certain gestures all the time. The challenge for the artist was to find where the repetitions were and to choose one that they wanted to draw - and then record it.
"It's not enough just to do automatic drawing"
Lachlan Goudie - commenting on Amy's work
Lachlan Goudie's "how to" this week was very good at tips for conveying movement and energy in a drawing but he said nothing about how best to record movement when that is what you are presented with. Personally I thought Lachlan "bottled out" by providing a demonstration involving a maquette rather than a moving model! :)

I thought all the artists did really well considering they only had 30 minutes available.

Claire in particular did an excellent drawing through her use of little marks and suggestion which conveyed both the model and the movement well and Daphne emphasised this and explained why. Claire was beaming afterwards.  Paul also did a good drawing and used the orange and blue coloured pencils intelligently.

This quick draw exercise is really good at exposing those who hate working at speed!

Challenge 3: (two parts)
Using pastels - make studies of live flamenco dancers dancing (30 minutes).
Create a picture based on the studies (3 hours)

This is a very tricky challenge. It combines all the precision of life drawing with ability to capture movement... they have to convince me that these are human forms moving around in a dance
Lachlan Goudie
Another ways of looking at this is that this particular challenge involved showing what the artists have learned from the critique from the two previous challenges and demonstrating that they can make some progress and improve on what they have produced so far
The judges were looking for pictures that have captured the passion, vibrancy and drama of the flamenco performance
I know I certainly would not have enjoyed this challenge. It's a VERY "big ask" first to be able to get decent studies down in the very short time allowed and then to use what you've got to create a decent drawing. It seemed to me that this was the first one where a fair bit of imagination would have to come into play.

The effectiveness of pastels also tends to depend on the quality of pastels and the support used. I'd have absolutely hated having to use paper rather than an abrasive support! I also didn't recognise the pastels but I guess they have to try and anonymise them?

The two men ducked out from doing more than one figure - there's a word for that! ;) At least all the women had a go at including at least two people and as such fulfilled the brief better.  Anthea went one better and included three - but that didn't work to her advantage!

The Judges comments

I keep seeing lots of people complaining about the comments the Judges make - including the artists.
"Well this is very different It's on the path to somewhere.....I have to wonder if it's not a little bit self-indulgent. There's a lot of movement in it. Whether it describes the movement of that dancer today I'm not sure it does."
Daphne Todd
"I wasn't happy with her comment about it being self-indulgent because I'm just making the art that I love to make and I just thought that was really unfair... I don't really think that they get what I'm about"
Amy - after the Quick Draw Challenge
I do think people need to keep in mind that:
  • this is an art competition - not a painting holiday or an art class - artwork is being JUDGED! 
  • on the whole judgements are being made about the artwork and not the artists. Artwork doesn't have feelings! (That said Daphne's remark about 'self-indulgent' was about Amy although prompted by the nature of her artwork)
  • the feedback the judges provide is hopefully being heard by a lot of other amateur artists who want to find out and learn how to paint better. In my opinion, the comments we hear provide valid, relevant and precise feedback of the type not many will hear.
  • what we see is not wholly representative of everything that happened. We are not watching in real time - we only see the edits. Thus we only hear what the Editors choose we hear. That doesn't mean to say there haven't been more positive comments.  In principle, the best people to make a judgement on the comments of the Judges are the participants.
  • the comments are coming from two people who are experienced and professional artists. In my view their comments (as edited down) are being honest not cruel - albeit possibly in the style of Simon Callow and Paul Hollywood! Frankly this makes for better and more memorable television and I think it very unlikely that this practice will change. 
To my mind what's really cruel is tutors who never say anything negative about the work of their students. The "feel good factor" approach to art critique as always struck me as being a smart marketing move by those who want to ensure their students come back for more tuition. It says nothing whatsoever about what their real skills and abilities are.

The exit

Last week I didn't make a prediction as to who would go - but highlighted Amy, Anthea and Anne as being three people who were all possibles.  The programme makers agreed this week and paid a lot of attention to them - and Richard, who I think struggles with creating pictures from other people in a short time frame. It's a common problem for very many amateur artists so no surprises there.

To my mind Amy pulled herself back from the brink with her last drawing - where she stopped and started again with not much time left.  It was a very brave move and undoubtedly the right one and she created an effective drawing in the time.

Anthea was selected to go home this week. The words "illustration" and "wooden" were used a lot in relation to her portrayal of people. As she herself admits, drawing and painting people is not her forte.

I'm convinced Paul and Claire will make the final but I'm not sure who will join them.

Next week is Cityscapes and the challenges continue! Paul is bound to do well. Who goes? It could be anybody....

Tips for those thinking about applying for the next series

It's challenges like Episode 4 which reveal just how skilled people are at drawing and painting other people.

First off, drawing the human form from life has traditionally been regarded as a fundamental skill that an artist needs to have - and also one of the best ways of learning how to draw just about anything.  It was certainly the advice I got when I came back to drawing after a break of some 15 years. I promptly went and enrolled in an evening life class at Central St Martins and watched as my ability to draw the human figure began to improve slowly over the months and years

That bottom line is the message from this week's programme for aspiring artists. If you only draw the human figure from photos them you should not kid yourself that you have learned how to draw the figure. I'm guessing that's why Anne was so upset in this week's programme as I think she thought she could draw and paint people - and I would have agreed with her having seen her paintings. However she wasn't relying on observation and drawing from life, she had largely relied on photographic references for her paintings - as I guess very many painters do.


Things people can do to help them if they decide to enter - or just if they want to improve their art
  • Take a life drawing class - in fact, take several! Drawing people well benefits enormously from regular practice.  Make it part of your routine for keeping your eye constantly attuned to measuring and sizing and being able to draw correct shapes and volumes and tones. 
  • Draw from photos only after you have learned how to draw from life.  Those who are not practiced in drawing from life struggle in the challenges where the models are real and not photos.
  • Use a sketchbook and draw people everywhere you go - I fill my sketchbooks with drawings of people in places I visit. Below is one from last week when I sketched Irish Illustrator PJ Lynch while he did a painting demonstration.
  • Practice using dry media - dry media is invariably used for the quick draw exercises and artists need to be familiar with the properties of each media and also how they can be used intelligently to produce quick drawings
  • Learn to draw fast - drawing fast takes lots of practice but the faster you draw the more practice you get!
  • Review my blog post 10 Tips for How to Sketch People - this  provides ten very practical tips that I use and which help me to draw people better 
  • (I'd also add that I have 8 pages of tips about drawing people in my book - although none about how to draw flamenco dancers!- see pages 78-87 of Sketching 365 a.k.a. Drawing 365 in the USA and 365 Hints & Tips for Drawing & Sketching in Asia)
Irish Illustrator PJ Lynch giving a painting demo
at the Ulster Festival of Art and Design in Belfast 11.03.15.
I kept updating the portrait as he painted!

For comparison with the real thing, this is a very short video of PJ Lynch painting from the life model - and at the end you can see my sketchbook on my knee

The next day I was on a Panel Discussion - and drew the audience while I listened to the other contributors and waited my turn ( see below). One of the points I emphasised was the benefit of carrying a sketchbook everywhere and take every opportunity to draw from life.

View of the audience - without faces - at the Panel Discussion on "Drawing Together"
a 15 minute sketch at the Ulster Festival of Art and Design in Belfast 12.03.15.

The Big Painting Challenge: An Exclusive Interview with....

The WH Smith blog has interviews with some of the artists.  I can find two so far.

Little Painting Challenge

You can see some 'examples' of postcards re. the Little Painting Challenge on the Big Painting Challenge website

Live Sketch Off Competition

Think you can do better than the participants on The Big Painting Challenge?

Why not try the WHSmith / Derwent Pencils Live SketchOff tomorrow night? See the WHJ Smith blog for more details - but basically you've got 90 minutes from 7pm tomorrow night. Clear the decks! :)
On Tuesday 17th March, join us on Facebook or Twitter at 7pm as we reveal the subject that we want you to sketch. Just like on The Big Painting Challenge, we’ll be setting a time limit of 90 minutes, during which you will need to demonstrate your sketching skills by drawing a mystery subject that we’ll post on the night. You’ll then have until 8.30pm to upload the finished results to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram using the hashtags #WHSArt and #SketchOffYour artwork will be reviewed by Derwent once all your entries are in and a winner will be announced the next day. The winner will receive a set of 72 Derwent sketching pencils, all presented in a beautiful box


  1. Hi Katherine. I've been enjoying your posts on TBPC and wishing we could get it here in Oz, but happily this morning, I saw the Ep 3 on youtube (as you had advised).
    Great to see the people you've been talking about. Yes, I think Paul is the stand-out, but I also like Anne!
    Hope I can see more episodes.
    Thanks for all you wonderful posts!
    Regards Ethna

  2. Hi Katherine, yes I think the comments are fair. It does make my blood boil when you go to a class and even your most awful, inept work is wonderful. You've paid to learn and need instruction There is nothing wrong with constructive criticism. I was sorry to see Anthea go .I liked her honesty. Mary

  3. I'm so glad you alerted us to this very enjoyable show and that I simultaneous heard about the VPN app "Cloak" that is allowing me to see the show here in the U.S. as if I was in the U.K. The thing that strikes me most is how much more civilized and genteel British reality competition shows are than US ones. Even the music is pleasant as opposed to the "Jaws" type of music in our reality shows and contestants are humble and not saying mean things about each other.


COMMENTS HAVE BEEN CLOSED AGAIN because of too much spam.
My blog posts are always posted to my Making A Mark Facebook Page and you can comment there if you wish.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.