Monday, February 13, 2017

Review: The Big Painting Challenge - Episode 1

I'm going to be doing a review of each episode of BBC's second series of The Big Painting Challenge.  I did this last time with the first series and tried to focus on learning points from what I observed. The aim of my blog posts will be to try and draw out the themes of the episode and identify the things I noticed.
The aim of the series is to help the artists - and by implication the watching audience at home -
  • Learn
  • Improve and
  • Grow as an artist.
I'll also be introducing comments from social media - although frankly I think maybe this programme appeals to an audience that doesn't tweet!  They were certainly very quiet last night.

First episode, first explanation of what happens next!

First Impressions

My first impressions were favourable. They've certainly addressed a number of niggles associated with the last series
  • the artists are allowed to use whatever media they choose - and can bring their own media and kit from home. That gets round some of the nonsense of the last series which was to do with people having to get to grips with an entirely new medium in pretty short order
  • there's more instruction and guidance. This series is going to very obviously have a much higher educational component delivered by the two mentors. There seems to be some sort of conscious effort to replicate the atelier system with a view to 
    • encouraging contestants
    • coaching the artists in fundamental skills - which also provides a more direct benefit to any amateur artists watching
    • pushing them out of their comfort zones in order to realise their inner artist and true potential. (I think it actually takes quite a lot longer than this - but the idea is on the right lines!)
  • the programme is being much more explicit about the criteria that would be used to judge each challenge - this can only be a good thing as that also provides a basis for the audience to develop their ability to make judgements according to those criteria. However judging by last night they could have done with a big card with the criteria stated on it somewhere prominent within each room where the artists were painting!
  • They've changed the format for the challenges. Using the classic three different challenges format as used for the other challenge programmes meant that the last challenge always got squeezed for time. This time the format seems to be:
    • signature challenge
    • mentor tips and techniques session 
    • the painting equivalent of the "showstopper" which now seems to have much more time
  • The artists seem a good mix.  This is their profiles page on the BBC website. There are variable levels of experience and formal art education and tend towards the serious amateur who'd like to do better and the 'just out of art school'. 
    • There appears to be no scope for the series to be won by somebody who had been a professional artist who had become a stay at home Dad as happened rather predictably last time. 
    • I'm not quite sure why television needs to have such an overwhelming obsession with "interesting back stories". It always leaves me thinking that people get chosen for their back story rather than their enthusiasm for art and skill and competence. 
    • One of the contestants, Ruaridh Lever-Hogg is deaf - he has a "voice" who reads his signing and who we never see (which I rather like). He made the very interesting point that losing one of your faculties means the others become more enhanced.  
    • Others have a different perspective about the mix of artists - wanting to see the best of those who applied.
  • I like the introduction of "The Public Gallery" which enables one artist to get a 'pass' to the next round. 
  • They've borrowed the warehouse overlooking the Thames at Wapping - as used by The Great British Sewing Bee.  That should help keep costs under control in contrast to the last programme where every episode was located at a different site around the country

    The First Still Life Challenge

    Quite why this programme insists on having such an odd assortment of totally unrelated objects as a still life is beyond me. It would have been good to see a more considered approach to the objects which could have still offered a challenge in relation to size, shape, colour, texture etc.

    I defy anybody to make a decent still life painting out of this nonsensical set-up!
    A "classic" (as we see far too much of this!) still life - very posed and certainly never 'found'.
    TIP FOR THE PRODUCERS: I'd have liked to see the artists presented with a better test for still life painting - and a range of items ( eg one or more from each of four different sets of items) which they had to choose and use for a set-up which suited them.

    Anyway all the artists got stuck in to their two hour challenge to produce a painting.

    They were split into two groups of five with a mentor each and painted in separate rooms. Since the mentors seem to have different approaches that's probably a good idea.

    Still Life as a subject

    The programme started with a quick history of the still life. For anybody wanting to know more about "still life" as a genre, you might find my epic post on What is a Still Life? useful. In it I tackled:
    • definitions of still life
    • different categories of still life
    • plus my conclusions from a quick trip through the history of the still life
    So - did you learn anything new - I did!
    • there's an awful lot more to 'still life' than we might think at first
    • it has a very distinct and very rich heritage 
    • some of the themes and motifs repeat through time 
    • locality and culture play an important part in the development of still life; artists in different countries are often influenced by this 
    • any definition needs to be flexible to accommodate all the different types of art accepted as coming within the 'still life' genre 
    • the genre has had some very accomplished painters who are not so well known by the public at large - but they have a lot to teach us.

    Criteria and Observations

    In terms of criteria they were being judged on the basis of how accurately they could capture the look of the still life.

    Something that Jennifer (the abstract painter) either forgot or decided to ignore.  I decided that she would be a candidate to go until she got saved in the second challenge by the public!

    For future reference for budding contestants - the issues I noticed were as follows:
    • size - being unfamiliar with a bigger size than they are used to painting on
    • design and composition - how to put four lines around a subject and fill the frame. There were too many paintings which left the edge of the painting unfinished
    • time management - I always hope that people have practiced before they start filming. That obviously wasn't the case last night with a lot of people demonstrating problems with managing their time. It was the bakeoff equivalent of failing to get the bake in the oven on time.
    • failing to pay attention to the criteria - very evident with some of the artists

    The Second Still Life Challenge

    The second challenge involved taking something everyday and making something wonderful out of it. They had to paint an interior (a bedroom) as a still life with rooms resembling paintings by Van Gogh and Ry Lichenstein recreated in the warehouse.

    This provided an opportunity to teach the assembled artists about perspective and negative space.

    I don't know why but I rather hoped that such a basic bit of knowledge might have been tested through the selection process. However I guess if your objective is to produce a programme which teaches for the public in general as well as the artists then you need to select people who don't know how to deal with specific challenges.

    Some useful tips followed - including
    • paying attention to the eye line and 
    • using something transparent to find the angles of lines within a subject
    • using negative space to help you navigate around a complex subject and get proportions right
    This was the point where I wrote down that the programme was much more education - and I think useful for beginning painters looking to develop skills and improvers looking to fill the gaps in their knowledge.

    The criteria for this challenge was:
    • competency in use of perspective
    • composition of the painting
    • their own personal vision
    Things I noticed during the challenge were as follows:
    • total lack of awareness by some painters of how big their brushes need to be relative to the size of canvas/support in order to get lots of paint on to a canvas fast. The sight of people using tiny bristle brushes to lay in vast amounts of paint had me gasping.  I'm guessing these are probably also the painters who didn't try practising in advance. 
    • use of portrait format for a landscape subject - I think this happens when people are used to painting in one format only. Portrait format can work in the hands of somebody accomplished at design and composition - and it soon became clear whether or not they were
    • using sketchbooks for planning which weren't the same format as either subject or canvas. The basics of identifying four lines and working out the ratio of height to width was obviously not a skill some artists possessed and I think it went unremarked by the mentors
    Again there were some major issues to do with design and composition and placement of the subject on the support.

    The Picture Gallery and Who went

    Some of the paintings in The Public Gallery - which isn't really public, the guests are all invited!
      The Picture Gallery was visited by members of the British Interior Textiles Association (I think that was it) and they chose Jennifer's painting as the best. I must confess I thought the same as her painting was at least interesting. Although I am bemused by somebody who can use hair extensions to achieve texture on the support and yet doesn't know how to draw a chair.

      Earlier in the programme somebody referred to 69 year retired nurse Lesley as follows
      "seems like she really wants to learn"
      I don't think she was the worst per se as there were a number who produced really boring paintings so who would go was always going to be a bit of a test. However the first programme is a test in more ways than one for most of the contestants.

      I identified Lesley as being somebody who would go as she had the same problem with composition as that which many amateur painters have.  She didn't look happy with the size of canvas they were working on in either challenge or with filling the 'frame' of her format. There was always too much space around her subject. She struggled with putting four lines around her composition and making her subject properly centre stage as opposed to sat in the middle of a lot of space. It's a very common indicator of amateur status as a painter.

      For what it's worth here's my contribution to this topic Composition - the four most important lines from my big project on Composition and Design.

      The Big Learning Lessons

      Final thoughts for those hoping to paint on television. You need to become skilled at
      • painting on very large format supports
      • design and composition - filling the frame
      • managing your time and completing a painting on time

      In the meantime

      Somebody hasn't quite mastered the art of the artful tweet! I think this is what I define as "crowing" and it's not nice! They're different programmes!

      Next week

      They're down in Hastings painting landscapes!


      For those who want to revisit the 2015 Big Painting Challenge you can find all my past blog posts still available - and listed below!

      PLUS my article for WH Smith - Katherine Tyrrell: Ten Artistic Tips Learnt From The Big Painting Challenge

      PLUS my blog post about the run-up to the new show in 2017 in The NEW BBC Painting Show - which outlines the process for entering.


      1. I just tested to see if your system now admits me - it didn't for a while.

        This is a really useful post; so clear and informative, and must have taken you ages .... many thanks

      2. You're considerably more generous about this programme than I am, but I agree with all the points you make, and particularly the one about the still life - a more incongruous group of objects, horribly placed and grouped, I've yet so see. Probably the best of them was the one (I can't remember which one) which emphasized the bear and basically let the rest of the nonsense go hang.

        And did you think the other room, ie the non-van Gogh one, really had anything to do with Roy Lichtenstein? I didn't see the point of even dragging him into it...

        So far as I'm concerned, the programme can only improve - but if they're getting boring paintings, as indeed they are, it's because they're setting boring subjects, boringly assembled.

      3. Would have loved to see a watercolour artist among the contestants......... or even a watercolour challenge seperate programme ....

      4. You're very polite about it. For me the programme falls decidedly into the "could do better" category with the presenters/judges being excruciating at times. As for the ridiculous wait-for-it wait-for-it time wasting before making the who's leaving announcement ... please just get on with it already.

        I found myself obsessed with the angles of many of the easels which were so far off vertical. How can you do accurate perspective with a skew easel distorting your view of your canvas?

      5. I am following the programme because David is a member of our local art group and his large paintings are very striking. However, time constraints and uninspiring subjects are unlikely to result in stunning work from any of the contestants - I don't envy them their task. Hopefully they will each find something they can relate to later in the series.

      6. Thanks for the article; I enjoyed reading it - and learned something from it! I enjoyed the programme but would have preferred more focus on the painting and fewer presenters/judges/mentors (the Rev added nothing). I liked the idea that there would be instruction in the programme but thought the mentors did very little really. I learned more from your article than from them! It would have been nice to have more input from the mentors before the painters started tackling the subject (fill the canvas, work big, tips on composition...) rather than standing back and watching them get off on the wrong foot. We could have had some much more interesting paintings that way.

      7. Interesting your comment about the sizes of brushes used! I found myself desperately searching the screen for a large spalter/bakers brush. It almost hurt! But it is good that the amateur painters are amateurs. I am not quite feeling comfortable about including a painter who is quite clearly a well developed and natural abstract painter...It is a bit like entering a circle in a squares competition, and I wonder if a painters objectives are out of line with the whole representational thing, what the point of taking part is? However, she must have her reasons and hopefully its not a case of her being used by the programmers just for effect. These things are done in agreement, and I am sure she is clever enough to use the exposure wisely. The bottom line for me is that I offer a huge amount of respect to anyone brave enough to put themselves in the media while working on a painting. It's wonderfully brave of all of them! Rather them than me!!!!

      8. I don't normally allow anonymous comments but I thought the last one made some sound points - hence publication.

      9. I don't understand why they are going to all the expense to seriously produce a series with people who have so little experience...and then giving them challenges that are really tough AND timed. It would be so much more interesting and educational with more experienced artists.

      10. Thanks for letting me know about these programmes. I immediately set my TV to record the entire series as I did in 2015. I find it so much fun to watch them and then go to "Making a Mark" to read all the commentary. The programme may not be perfect but the additional resources such as your blog posts make it into a fascinating art event. There's even work by TV viewers on the BBC1 site. Someone painted the Hastings landscape from the image on their TV. I'm tempted to try that.
        Yet I agree about the still life: what an uninspiring group of objects!

      11. Hello Making a Mark - loving your blog.
        You are obviously knowledgable about the practice of art in addition to being erudite. And you're right, it was indeed a very tough gig - the heat (35C and rising) was unforgiving, and the newness of being filmed was equally challenging.
        Hopefully my own website might indicate the fact that I largely ignore the still life genre - except for practicing drawing skills. And, despite the observation of one or two people that I am afeared of a big surface on which to paint, much of my work is LARGE - I love a big space!
        Looking forward to the rest of your incisive observations on the series, I am yours faithfully,

        PS - A bit more about me can be found here -

      12. Hi Lesley

        Many thanks for your comments. I didn't realise you were all having to cope with extreme heat as well - that must have been very trying while getting used to being filmed at the same time.

        I'm certainly getting plenty to comment on!



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