Sunday, February 19, 2017

Review: The Big Painting Challenge - Episode 2 (Landscapes)

The Big Painting Challenge was out of the studio and down in Hastings for Episode 2 Landscapes, aka as The Big Battle of Painting Hastings.

This is about:
  • what happened next - when the contestants tackled plein air painting
  • the learning points in relation to what mentors advised
  • the learning points in terms of what contestants did
Readers will recall this series of programmes is all about how to Learn, Improve and Grow as an artist.

Review of the landscape paintings after the big painting challenge

The First Challenge

The first test is another Perspective Challenge - they're painting the Pier!
  • this time their challenge involved working outdoors and plein air painting from observation (which always comes as a bit of a shock to those who've never tried it before!)
  • It involves rendering the straight lines and diminishing perspective of Hastings' newly refurbished pier.
The challenges are identified as being about 
  • scale, 
  • perspective and 
  • proportion.
I took one look at the view and dropped my jaw. It's not an easy subject even for experienced painters.

Hastings Pier from the promenade a big plastic tent

The BBC and the judges forgot to identify for viewers that the real challenge was painting plein air!

I really don't know how people can get involved in programmes like this without it occurring to them that it might be a good idea to give themselves a bit of a head start by getting some practice in by trying to paint plein air.

As it happens the weather conditions would have challenged even those with experience.

It was wet and rainy and blustery passed off by one of the tutors as being "a little bit of wind and rain" when clearly even the camera crew were more than a bit challenged by the weather! I wrote down "HORRENDOUS CHALLENGE!"
"Painting plein air has thrown everyone out of their comfort zone - even the camera crew"
The paint appeared to be running off the canvas. I can only conclude they'd been supplied with media which mixed with the amount of moisture in the atmosphere caused the paint to diffuse and disappear. I've actually never seen anything like it.  At one point I wrote down
All their paintings are washing away!
Presumably retiring to a seafront cafe and painting from the window (the perennial sketcher solution) was not an option?

The mentors gave prompts about eyelines and perspective and proportion with reminders to measure size, shapes and angles - and generally indicated that they were looking for a bit of determination to deal with the elements.

Personally I found myself being rather surprised to hear one of the mentors telling one of the painters that he needed to make sure that buildings get lighter as they go away from you - without any explanation as to why.  Clearly the concept of "aerial perspective" didn't make it on to the perspective teaching script - or the idea that this doesn't just apply to buildings.

Angela Watson emerged as a bit of star for this part of the programme. Not only was she very used to it being rainy at the seaside (the only time she ever visited was when the weather was too bad to do anything on the farm) but she also got stuck in and found a unique solution to dealing with the way her paint kept dripping down the canvas. She turned the canvas sideways so the drips then ran horizontally across the canvas. Plus she produced a painting which all three judges like a lot!  I think she's going to do well despite only painting for a year.

Angela gets to grips with her streaks

The Second Big Painting Challenge - Landscapes

The next day, the contestants encounter and experience that well known phenomenon of painting plein air in the UK - four seasons in one day!
  • The location for the day is the pier (did the producers know this is always the most blustery place at the seaside?) and 
  • the challenge is to paint the landscape, architecture and beachfront of Hastings. 
Thus scale and complexity changes - to ENORMOUS!

Mentors Teaching Session

First comes the hints and tips section from the mentors. Topics for teaching include how to capture perspective, composition and a sense of place.

Mentor Pascal Anson dealt with how to tackle big complex subjects by talking about how to select and simplify. He then proceeded to give them an excellent exercise without once mentioning that what he was getting them to do was identify zones. (The exercise involved drawing the outline of the top of each part of the landscape eg buildings, promenade, where the beach meets the sea, etc).

I was always taught that you need to be able to identify:

  • a minimum of three (foreground, middle ground and background) and 
  • not more than five zones for your landscape 
if it is to make sense to you and to other people.  (see Tips 216 and 220 in my book - in the section about drawing landscapes!)

Mentor Diana Ali got everybody used to stepping away from the canvas - and drawing what they saw on the canvas using a cane with a piece of charcoal tied on the end - and holding it in an extended arm, which left the Reverend Richard Coles uttering the immortal line that this left them
Resembling a trainee class of wizards at Hogwarts

The Big Battle of Painting Hastings!

One view of Hastings
One group looked east and the other group looked west. I've only just realised that splitting them into groups makes is so much easier for the cameraman when trying to get shots of them.

The Group looking west across Hastings

During the six hours allocated for the painting, the group go spare as the weather changes continuously throughout the day - starting dull but quite clear, moving through gloomy then becoming very misty - and everything disappears - through to very sunny!

It turns into a veritable Battle of Painting Hastings!

The other view of Hastings - in the mist
Plein air painting anybody?
Good landscape painting is where you get a sense of the mutability of everything - Daphne Todd
There were some caustic comments passed by Pascal who makes Daphne seem like a luvvie. Not so much what he says - which is quite often good advice - but more the way he says it.
"If you just paint what you want to paint, you're never going to grow as an artist"
David - the astro physics man - seemed to having very real problems with tackling plein air painting. I'm really not surprised when he used a panoramic canvas in a portrait format.  Tall and vertical is not exactly ideal for tackling a landscape. He was also resistant to trying to draw with a brush but agreed he'd done a better job than when he was trying to draw using marker pens - and I though it was very much better. I totally get it when Daphne says she suspects he's much better than how he painted this week. I rather suspect she saved him from going.......

Those that survived the test the best seemed to have been the ones who stuck to the idea in their heads of what they were going to paint and didn't let the changing weather distract them. Which unsurprisingly is often the best approach to painting plein air.

It did strike however that all the artists could have done better if they'd been giving some more tips about what makes a place different i.e can you count the ways it is this place rather than that place?

The Public Panel Judgement

The Public Panel this week was made up of local people from Hastings.

People kept commenting, unsurprisingly, on whether or not they could recognise parts of Hastings or not. They also really seemed to like when small details were introduced into paintings which somehow made them more real.

Clearly since the vote went to Jennifer for the second week running, this was the BBC playing games with our minds (theme of the moment) and trying to get us to guess wrong who won!

The paintings I liked were by Alan (very moody) and Angela (very luminous sea). I can see both of them maybe making it to the end.

The Judges decision - who goes

Lachlan opined that landscapes are a real test of painterly abilities while Daphne is very clear they need to make a strong decision at the beginning about what they're going to do. I suspect both kept these two views in mind as they reviewed the paintings.

The criteria for the judgement were:
  • composition
  • a sense of light
  • a sense of place
Which is odd since the middle point rarely got a mention from the mentors during the course of the programme and certainly was not identified up front when the challenge was announced. (Editing?)

Interestingly the three artists did not agree on who should go - they all wanted somebody different and in the end the artist who went was a compromise.

Maud was chosen as the artist who'd made too many mistakes and not got to grips with the big painting challenge of painting perspective plein air - in the rain and the wind and four seasons in one day.

She agreed - she didn't think she'd adapted fast enough.  Looking back at what I'd written down, I found she'd said of the first challenge
It's hard to keep anything on the canvas today. I'm struggling - Maud
I felt rather sorry for her. There's not many people who can say their painting doesn't go to pot when challenged by the elements. So very much NOT the worst painter - just the one who didn't cope with it too well.

The Big Learning Lessons

It was clear all the artists had learned the big lesson from week 1 - fill all the canvas!  No titchy paintings in the middle and lots of space all around. After all that was what led to Lesley's departure last week

In summary, the learning lessons from this week's episode are as follows:
  • Don't apply for a painting programme on television if you've never painted plein air - before the painting the landscape episode happens!  Last series it was week 1 and this series it's been week 2!
  • Get to grips with the plein air painting tips that the mentors (or the Editors) left out of this week's programme:
    • come dressed for all seasons - you won't regret this
    • make sure you pack a hat - it'll either be too sunny or rain a lot
    • when using an easel always weight it in some way so it doesn't fall over and your painting kisses the earth for a bit of extra 'texture'
    • always make a note of where the sun is - if you can see it - and in which direction it's going to move so you can plan what you do with shadows before they change
    • make a sketch at the beginning so you can work out how to crop your work for the size and format of your canvas and 
However the big learning lesson for the BBC is to ask itself how come it needs SEVEN people to do this challenge - and yet it only needs three for the Pottery and Sewing Bee Challenges and four for Bakeoff. 

I cannot help but think it's going to look very silly, the instant that the number of contestants dips below the number of presenters/mentors/judges.

Next week

The big painting challenge will be animals - "not the pond Camilla!"

PS I've worked out that if you watch at the beginning and stop the frames you can work out who doesn't go in the early episodes due to still being 'in the picture' to paint Angela Rippon....

So Jimmy drew dancers and Ruaridh, Suman, David, Jennifer, Alan Angela all make it through to the Rippon challenge in what looks like the National Portrait Gallery. Since animals are next week that means none of them will be going next week. Suman is also still there when they are painting what looks like Greenwich from a boat - and I'm thinking that might be quite late.

My bet is on Camilla going next week and People and Portraits following on from Animals.

What you can do

  • Try sharing your artwork on Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #BigPaintingChallenge.
  • Each week the BBC will showcase a selection of the best efforts 
    • in a gallery on the Big Painting Challenge website, and 
    • through the BBC Arts and Get Creative social media accounts.



I'm maintaining a list of my blog posts relating to each of the episodes as the series progresses


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. A disappointing week. This isn't meant to be extreme painting and to keep them out there in the rain seemed pointless and a bit cruel. Was Maud painting in watercolor? Early on it looked like she had some really nice effects on the pier that all just washed away.

    Dealing with the changing weather in the second challenge was a more legitimate test of the plein air experience albeit going from bright sunshine to dense fog is more than the usual outside challenge. Although it was again a difficult landscape to paint. Given they seemed to opt for less experienced painters, it wasn't an easy challenge.

    I'd like to hear more from the mentors when the painters are planning their work - the format, the composition, the focal point. Some of the mistakes in this episode could have been avoided with some early intervention.

    And I'm confounded by the number of presenters. Keep the mentors and the judges, lose the presenters who don't add anything. And why 3 judges now? I liked the interplay in the last series between Lachlan and Daphne when judging and that's been diminished by the addition of a third judge.

    So far, despite the problems with the last series, I liked it better than this one. Maybe next week will get better. .

  2. I have the benefit of hindsight and so I really felt for these artists having to paint outdoors with very little experience of ever having done so. For what it's worth I think the show would benefit from the mentors doing a little demo at the beginning of each challenge not so the contestants copy parrot fashion but just so they highlight some of the key points of plein air painting. I think this will help us judge how well they are responding to the mentors.

    I hope as the series progress in the coming years that would be contestants will read your blog and others that have been written on the importance of getting some practice in before going on the show. We did not have the benefit of this in series one but certainly it's there now for future contestants. I am pretty sure I have heard contestants talk on the Bake off about their practice sessions and how long it took them etc.
    Also having 'been there' before I know much more will have been said by the mentors but has ended up on the cutting room floor.
    I read somewhere that the producers of GBBO were unhappy about the format of TBC being too close they felt it was being copied and that would probably explain the two groups format, mentors and even the additional judge... the BBC when it comes to this sort of think are quite risk averse.
    In a sense I almost feel if they stuck to one or two genres that it would work better as you would probably be able to see some real improvement in the work produced by the artists over the 6 week period especially as they are being mentored.
    There are two things I really like about this series which we didn't have when we did series one and that is they get to choose whatever format and size of canvas, that's so cool and also they get to work in their chosen medium. I hope this continues throughout.
    And finally... we'll spotted super sleuth Katherine ��

  3. Oh and one other thing I've learned about painting outdoors... use a smaller canvas or a bigger brush...

  4. Great review, Katherine.

    I didn't think Maud deserved to go. Ok, so neither of her paintings were successful, but at least she was trying to do what was asked. Some of Diana's group (e.g. Jimmy and Jennifer) seemed intent on ignoring her advice and doing their own thing; some of Pascal's group (David and Camilla) were actively resisting him - not a good attitude!

    I'll be interested to see how Jennifer copes with the animal challenge: will she produce something representational or will she just fling some lion's mane and elephant dung on a canvas?

  5. I do agree, the competitors seem so unprepared, or is it they suffer from 'driving-test' nerves in front of camera?

    Lesley,for example, who I know quite well (a better writer than a painter) seemed totally at a loss, which is not like her at all. She has painted a lot of Brighton scenes, including the pier. I'm sure she would have loved to have been in episode 2, although I suspect she is not an All-Weather painter.

    At least we were spared the banal humour of Frank Skinner.

  6. Six hours for a plein air painting is just daft - it guarantees the light will change so fundamentally that all the shadows will be different - I can't believe that anyone in this country particularly, with its rapidly changing weather and light conditions, would choose to spend 6 hours on a painting out of doors. Nor would most people choose to paint in such foul weather - I think these people were set up with totally unreal conditions, the only virtue being that it was the same for all of them. But then it wasn't the same, because some were using watercolour, or possibly acrylic, there was insufficient or any cover from the rain, and their paintings just floated away from them.

    How Todd and Goudie must have chuckled in the warmth of their hotel rooms - "poor devils, thank goodness no one asked us to do it...": although it might have been quite interesting, or anyway more interesting, if they were to paint their own pictures as well as judging those of others.

  7. I can't see this show from the US but I agree with Robert (above). Plein air painting is dictated by the weather conditions and NOT a TV schedule so I find it more that a bit annoying that this was a televised "example" of plein air painting. I can easily spend 6 hours painting outdoors on a nice day but I start a different painting every 2 hours because the light changes so much. And take a lunch break! Anyone not knowing how actual plein air painters work, watching that episode must think outdoor painters are nuts. When it's 95 degrees F and some nasty little bugs are biting me I think so, too.


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