Sunday, March 05, 2017

Review: The Big Painting Challenge - Episode 4 (Portraits)

This week we had the The Big Portrait Challenge! and my particular challenge was this post. It's rather long!

In the BBC Big Painting Challenge this week:
  • Jennifer had to paint hair rather than use hair in her painting!  
  • David got to grips with using oil paint - for the first time in this series, while using a palette knife - for the first time!  
  • Plus two more of the ten "enthusiastic amateur artists" who started the series are not returning next week after hearing the judges thoughts on their work this week!

Who's an enthusiastic amateur?

Before we start, it's become apparent to me from various comments I've seen posted online that the playing field is not level.

I'm not sure you can or should describe people who have studied or are studying art in a higher education context as "enthusiastic amateur artists" as the BBC does.  Most would regard such study as training for becoming a professional artist.  If you study the profiles of the contestants, you'll see what I mean.

I see this as something the BBC needs to think about if repeating this challenge. I love seeing people with a formal art education trying to improve their art - but I'm none too happy with seeing them described as enthusiastic amateurs or ranked on a par with genuine amateurs. The latter term needs to be reserved for Jimmy, Alan, David, Angela and some of the others who exited early who may do classes but have not participated in a higher education course.

Here's some ideas for the BBC:
  • Maybe they need to get better at promoting the opportunity to participate amongst "enthusiastic amateur artists"? 
  • Maybe think about whether there's scope for more than one programme about finding art a challenge - for people at different levels?
  • Ensure that the really genuine amateurs get some extra coaching before they start to even out the playing field?
  • OR just stick to having a challenge limited to genuine "enthusiastic amateur artists". That means making those who have studied art within higher education or been employed in 'art or illustration or graphic design' either now or in the past ineligible for the Challenge. We'd have had a different winner for the last series if that had happened at the outset.
The final judgement at the end of Episode 4 of The Big Painting Challenge
The venue for the challenge this week was the National Portrait Gallery and very grand it looked to!  The two teams worked in the galleries and it appeared for at least part of the time they were doing it while the gallery was open to the public - judging by all the faces peering in at them.

The First Challenge - a self-portrait

Their first challenge was to produce a self-portrait in two hours. It was pointed out to the artists that while two hours might be fine for doing a drawing, it was very tight for producing a painting and they needed to work really quickly.

There's no question that in this challenge, some artists had significantly more experience e.g. the bio for Jimmy says he regularly attends life-drawing classes at Glasgow School of Art.  Now that's something a lot of amateur artists do.  Maybe more than some of those who have been art students at university or college....?

I guess this happens because portraiture is a genre which many amateur artists are drawn to. Making images of family and friends and those you love is something lots of amateurs like to do. In Angela's case, this seems to be limited to her furry friends - which wasn't going to help a lot with the challenge!

The criteria to be used for assessment were:
  • accurate proportions
  • sense if character
Mentors' comments included:
  • A  classic mistake involves starting with the details. Artists should aim to start with big blocky shapes and work towards detail.
  • Proportions need to be thought about from the start - relating size of head to the canvas and the size of features to the size of the head
The biggest challenge was, of course, seeing whether or not Jennifer could actually paint from observation. (You can read comments she got below.)

It was also interesting to see
  • which artists had some awareness of proportions in portraits (David and Jennifer) while others were very inexperienced when it came to painting people.
  • how they struggled with the mirror - and working out what sort of pose or profile would make them look like themselves.  Would a bigger mirror have helped? Maybe it was intentionally small so they could only do their heads?
  • how those wearing glasses (Jimmy and Ruaridh) kept wanting to take them off in the painting. I've always thought glasses are a god-send as they give you a whole load of extra lines and angles which help you to check your freehand drawing of the features around the middle of the face.  It turned out Daphne agrees!
  • they still very clearly had issues about time management and assessing what approach might work best within the very tight timeframe of two hours.  I'm beginning to think that the BBC ought to be telling them what the challenges are in advance so they can at least practice painting to a time limit (eg paint a self-portrait in two hours). I'm wondering whether challenges like those in the series form any part of the selection process or whether it is all paper and interview based.
I'm fascinated how every time they introduce Daphne Todd they emphasise that she won the BP Portrait Award - and yet forget to mention that for many years she was the first female President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters (1994-2000)!

There were some memorable comments when it came to the judging.

Lachlan seemed to have decided to get a bit more air time...
The surface of the flesh looks like spam (Lachlan about Ruaridh's neck in his self-portrait) 
This is Jimmy with botox - there's a slab of flesh you've got across the side of this painted face (Lachlan about Jimmy's self-portrait minus glasses) 
The thing I can't help but notice is the moustache - Lachlan about Angela's self-portrait
Bottom line the message was clearly about - watch what you're doing with both your brushwork and colour!

Jimmy was very disappointed to be  criticised for something he thinks he's really quite good at. You could see he was gearing up for the next challenge and becoming determined to 'show the judges' what he can do.

After the Judges Visit - Suman and Ruaridh with their self-portraits
Alan did really well having kept his nerve and decided to stay restrained and create a monochrome painted portrait. All the judges likes it - and it emphatically demonstrated that he could both draw and paint and not reduce either to a caricature.  I think he did himself a lot of good with that painting.

Praise for Alan's monochrome self-portrait
Daphne and David certainly weren't pulling any punches on Jennifer's self-portrait. I thought it looked quite promising in terms of colour at one stage - before it turned into a Mekon (a technical term used by those aged 60+ who draw or paint portraits!)

I quote
"It looks like somehow there's been some sort of nuclear meltdown going on" - David Dibosa
"In terms of us knowing it was you it's failed really abysmally and the proportions are just dire" - Daphne Todd
Jennifer acknowledged that she needed to work on her drawing - halfway through the series!

Jimmy's (minus glasses and plus slab) and Jennifer's self portraits
After the first session:
  • Alan and David both did well - although both could have done better. However they made some sensible choices with the timeframe for how to treat their self-portraits
  • Suman was in the "could do better / not one of her better days" frame. Not bad but not good either.
  • Jimmy, Ruaridh and Angela all made some serious mistakes with their use of colours and brushwork which undermined their paintings.  Plus the men bottled on their glasses which was a serious mistake in the "looks like you" tick box.
  • Jennifer was winning virtual awards for "courage in carrying on in the face of adversity" after the comments she got. They'd have finished off many other artists - even if they were thoroughly well-deserved! 

Tips from the Mentors

Prior to the Big Painting Challenge of "Painting a National Treasure", the mentors handed out some more tips.

I started off thinking Pascal's baked beans tin challenge - a 3D model of a face out of card - was totally crackpot but in the end decided it was actually quite useful in terms of getting them to think about the 3D nature of their subject's heads.

An aside about facial proportions and why such knowledge is essential
I remember doing a lesson in my life drawing class at Central St Martins College of Art on an evening when the weather was completely dire and there were lots of problems with transport. (my idea being go to class nearby and problems may have all disappeared by the time to go home!). No models turned up and there were only about about 8 students in the class. So the tutor gave us a lesson in placement of features on the face which I have never ever forgotten.
  • how small the 'mouth eyes triangle' is to the overall size of the head
  • where ears sit on the head when looked at in profile - halfway between front and back
  • where eyes come - typically halfway down the skull
  • how the bottom of the nose is very often halfway between the eyes and the bottom of the chin
  • how eyes often line up with the top of ears 
  • how proportions vary between men and women - and children.
We just took it in turns to be a model while the tutor pointed out new aspects of how to be aware of how the features of the face actually work from a 3D perspective - when relating one feature to another and looking at overall proportions and looking at heads from different angles - and how this worked even on people with very different sized heads and very different looking people.

It was an invaluable lesson - and I suspect that creating heads out of card might be similar!

You can find a diagram (see below) which demonstrates this on page 80 of my book Sketching 365 - plus related tips for drawing heads.

Facial proportions (page 80 in my book Sketching 365)
Diana's team tried being more experimental and daring in terms of how they applied ink to wet paper - loose strokes speedily applied with a long arm. Great for those who have a tendency to be too careful. The idea was to think about how strokes expressed character. Which was interesting but still served to highlight who could draw and who couldn't. It also didn't substitute for knowing what the character is in the first place!

The 4th Big Painting Challenge - A Portrait of a National Treasure

The artists had five hours to paint A Portrait of a National Treasure (Angela Rippon and Baroness Floella Benjamin). They could also choose how much of their sitter to include in the painting.

The criteria for judging the artists' paintings of  were:
  • resemblance - "what you paint needs to look like the person in front of you"
  • facial expressions as an indication of character 
Don't forget, a good portrait always gives you a sense of who the person really is Richard Coles
Frankly while the first criteria is a portraiture 'given', the second was always going to be a major challenge for the artists when:
  • they don't know the individual personally - only their public persona; and 
  • they may even be too young to have seen them on television!
So it was always going to be interesting to see how the portraits turned out and out much of the character of  they were able to portray.

I'd have loved to draw Floella Benjamin - a really interesting head.

Choosing how much to include was obviously a major challenge for a number of the painters. Pascal demonstrated why choosing the whole body leaves very little scope for nuances around the painting of the face i.e. the recognisable bit of the person
If this is the space the face occupied that's about 1/100th of the whole canvas - Pascal to Ruaridh
Pascal demonstrates how small the head is within the overall size of the sheet of paper 
i.e. 1/100th (or maybe even less?)
What I noticed is that they didn't seem to relate the size and format of their paper to their canvas. In other words, they were drawing on paper without thinking at all about their supports for sketching and painting and the four lines that sit on the edge of the composition. (see my blog post on this topic Composition - the four most important lines)

I find it very helpful when creating sketches to start by sizing by sketch paper to the ultimate size and format of the support I'll be working on. The sketch paper does not need to be the same size but it does need to be the same format (ratio of width to length) to make it meaningful.  You can scale up from the paper which is the same ratio.  I find that when working things out with the sketch I'm also working out how things will work within the end format and/or I determine what ratio the end format needs to be. This then avoids the difficulties associated with transition of sketch to final support when you don't do this.

Comments from the expert judges were interesting. I'm with Daphne and Lachlan again on this one.
Being able to recognise a portrait depends entirely on how accurate the artist has been at getting the shapes and the relationship between the shapes right. Daphne Todd - former President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters(!)
whereas David Dibosa had a different view - he has no mention of shapes and proportions and relationships
Focus on colours, on composition on outlines, THESE are the things they need to bring to bear in this particular challenge - David Dibosa
while Lachlan has yet another perspective
Can they present a sense of elegance in their sitter, a sense of presence and proportion and scale, all the things which are the tick box things which they have to get right - and then can they move forward by creating images which are exciting as paintings? Lachlan Goudie
Are the BBC trying to set up apparent differences of opinion to "make good TV"?

There was also a fascinating mini debate between Daphne and Lachlan within the televised comments at the judging stage as to 'how to start to paint a portrait'.

I ended up thinking that I'd have liked the reverse of dumbing down to follow the programme i.e. an expert comment programme after the challenge in which experts discussed what makes for a really good portrait - and explained this with examples of portraits by a range of portrait painters.

In terms of the progress made
  • David apparently has not had much experience with portraiture from life.  (You can see his approach to painting his daughter on his website) He seemed to spend forever in making a decision about what he was going to do - apparently in ignorance of the fact that his options for what he could do would reduce in terms of time left as he pondered and pondered apparently endlessly. I'm all for taking your time and having a good long hard think but the way it's represented makes it seems he'd taking forever certainly in terms of where everybody else has got to before he puts paint to canvas.  Then having left himself with a lot less time, he started to paint with oils for the first time in the competition - and even applied them with a palette knife which he'd also never used before. Echoes of Camilla came back at this point - and I started to think David was going.... I still think he would have gone if Pascal hadn't given him some fairly forceful pointers re how he needed to resolve the very demonstrable problems with likeness. I also loved Angela Rippons's insightful comments on his approach to painting!
  • Angela struggled in a major way - unsurprisingly for somebody who was also painting her very first painting of somebody from life. She made a huge mistake in terms of relating her subject to the canvas. The head was far too small in her first attempt and she ended up starting again. This comes back to the issue of planning out size and scale and proportion on sketch paper before you start.  I also couldn't help think how much she might have benefited by being in Pascal's class for the 3D exercise in relation to placement and proportion.
I'd have preferred to just do the face but because I've got no idea how to do the face, I've gone and done the whole thing but it's made it worse really because if you go wrong a tiny bit (with the face) it's massive Jennifer
  • Ruaridh got involved with lots of bright colour but completely forgot about tone until Pascal gave him a fairly strong reminder. (see my post How to identify and assess value and tone quickly). He also managed to give Angela Rippon meat packer hands!
  • Jimmy was told by Diana that he'd made Floella too fat. It struck me that he'd actually lost sight of scale and proportion below the neck as everything was a bit too big - including the feet!
  • Jennifer astounded by actually drawing the sitter - really quite well - and then went on to carefully apply her ink so she didn't destroy her drawing. In other words she decided that if she wanted to stay in she needed to start listening to what the judges kept telling her
  • Suman was repeatedly shown producing a well sized head for the canvas with some defined relationships between features (stop the iplayer and look at what's she doing). She's very much focused on producing a 3D form.
  • Alan demonstrated the use of a mahl stick for resting and steadying your hand for doing details in the face - while avoiding resting it on the wet paint of the background. He also very definitely developed a likeness - even if it moved in and out of focus at times. 
The interlude with Lachlan and Gwen John's self-portrait was nice. Pity we don't get more programmes which focus on less well known painters from the past. You can see more portraits by Gwen John on Wikimedia Commons.

The Public Panel Judgement

The public panel was made up of professional portrait photographers. Not exactly what I'd normally call "the public" but I guess they're OK - for people who use a camera rather than a paint brush!

The Public Panel review the portraits and vote.
Suman again won the panel's votes and got a pass to next week. She's more and more looking like a winner to me. For one thing she can obviously draw and paint from observation!

The Judges decision - who goes

Last week I said I thought probably David or Jimmy - and I was leaning towards Jimmy, mainly because he's not had a lot of air time.

Jimmy surprisingly turned out to be quite good at portraiture when he wasn't trying to flatter himself with his own self-portrait and running out of time for including his glasses.

David got a good likeness in the first challenge and, to my mind made a bit of an abortion of Angela Rippon - but was saved by Pascal (IMO) and lived to fight another day.

The two who exited having "learned a lot and enjoyed the experience" were Ruaridh and Angela. Neither were bad so much as not as good as the others.

Angela with her portrait of Floella
I had a lot of time for both of them.

It's very obvious that Ruaridh - as Pascal put it - listens really carefully and tries really hard. He will make progress - of that I have no doubt.

I really liked Angela's approach to painting and I think it's amazing what she was doing given she only took it up a couple of years ago after the most appalling accident. I suspect she's the sort of person who'd get a lot out of a really quite intense painting holiday - like the Big Painting Challenge but without people going home at the end of each day!

If you want to follow them
[UPDATE: Found this and couldn't resist adding it in!]

The Big Learning Lessons

Yet again the same issues keep coming to the fore:
  • Painting portraits from photographs is no sort of preparation for painting from life. If the BBC are having difficulties with getting amateur artists to engage with the programme, it presumably has to be because so many amateur artists paint from photographs. While Jimmy undeniably had some problems, his experience of life drawing classes carried him through this round - he was in no way nervous about working with a live sitter
  • Don't start with the detail! There are various ways of painting a portrait but on the whole it's a  sound principle to avoid getting into the detail too early. Getting the big shapes and their relative proportions right and the placement of key features saves an awful lot of scraping off, running out and having to start again.
  • Use the same length to width ratio if the sketch is to lend support to and help resolve issues with the design and composition of the painting and the scale and proportion of the features within the portrait - on the final support
  • Relate subject to the size of the canvas - in terms of proportion. This was something that the artists are not good at.  Again the lack of experience amongst some painters of life drawing and learning/knowing how to fill the paper with your subject was very obvious. Rather than having lots of space unpainted, they could have tried scaling the heads up and filled the canvas better. The better portrait painters were filling more of their canvas with subject. I rather think the fact David scaled in an appropriate way with Angela Rippon and his own self-portrait might have contributed significantly to why he is still moving forward.  
  • Scale and proportion need to work across the canvas. We had examples of how people focused on the face and completely messed up proportion further down the canvas.
  • Time management continues to be a major issue. I'm still amazed that people put themselves in front of cameras without having practiced how to paint a subject within a time limit. There are ways you can make the challenge less of a problem.....
  • The KISS principle should be engrained by now. Cropping is a very good way of reducing the challenge of how much you have to look at!  (eg reduce a portrait to just a head rather than half or a whole body!) It's a great technique when employed with thought and a good sense of design and composition - and is frequently employed by Suman.
  • The use of red - Everybody should use iPlayer and go back to around 16 minutes in and listen again to Daphne's comments about the use of red in a painting and why you have to be very careful to avoid it "jumping" out at you.
I rather think that in future we could have a better and more informative series from the BBC if there were
  • a complete beginners class - devoted to learning to draw from observation for absolute and complete beginners (no art students allowed!)
  • an intermediate class - for painting from observation. Limited to people who have practical experience beyond painting from photos.

Next week

After this week, we're now down to five and I reckon two more will go next week. When I get to this stage in Bakeoff I always used to work out who I'd expect to see in the Final.

So my current thinking is
  • Suman Kaur (@SumanKaurArt ) is now, in my opinion, a dead cert for the final unless she messes up in a really big way. She can very obviously draw and paint.
  • Alan Tsang demonstrated something in this episode which suggests he has real talent and to my mind he should go through to the final. I'm just a bit concerned that his somewhat tentative manner might tie him in knots next week with the movement episode. He's also a genuine amateur who's not had the benefit of formal art education and he tends to work rather slowly.
In terms of the rest I'm leaning a little bit towards Jennifer I think but could make an argument for them all to stay or go.
  • Jennifer Morrow isn't really an amateur even if she might be new to the world of work. People who lead painting workshops for others are not amateurs (see link in her name). I think she has artistic talent but it somehow goes against the grain to have a conceptual artist get to the final of a competition which is all about observation - especially when she spent the first half of the competition studiously avoiding observation.  Plus I don't think the Judges are going to forget that self-portrait fast!  However that portrait of Floella was good.
  • Jimmy MacKellar is an archetypal retired individual who enjoys painting, becomes an active amateur artist after retirement and attends life drawing classes. He's also the classic audience for this sort of programme and if the BBC are thinking demographics he'd be definitely in the final. However, for whatever reason, we've seen very little of him up until this programme. That just makes me think he can't be in the final - because otherwise surely they'd have been editing more content from him into the earlier programmes.
  • David White is a little too eclectic and indecisive for my taste and doesn't always make the wisest decisions. I rather suspect he's not going to enjoy the Movement Challenge next week and we'll see Mr Grumpy again - in which case I don't think he'll make the final. He's also been close to "the chop" a couple of times. Incidentally I've found his website and he's got comments on the various episodes. It's always fascinating to hear what it was like "from the inside" perspective!



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


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


  1. my goodness that's our Jimmy! might have to actually watch the show now :)

  2. I thought Angela's portrait of Floella Benjamin (do I mean Angela? The one who went, anyway) wasn't at all bad. But there we are - agree with all the comments about the others. I would have liked the programme to have explored the difference between Goudie and Todd (I very much agreed with her).

    As I hadn't looked at the contestants' websites, I hadn't realized the differences in experience between them - and I'm afraid this discovery has entirely vitiated the worth of the competition for me (although it does show that you should be extremely careful before choosing a painting tutor: take a good look at their work before entrusting yourself to their guidance).

  3. I didn't quite see the point of Diane's exercise, which basically amounted to chucking ink and water on paper. Given the comments by the judges in round 1 about proportion, I thought Diane's class would have benefited more from an exercise like that done by Pascal's group.
    Perhaps all the contestants should have just spent a few hours with a copy of "Drawing the Head and Hands" by Andrew Loomis...

  4. Nerys - I'm totally in favour of would-be artists studying the really good tests that are out there! The Andrew Loomis one is one of the standards.

  5. They all did better this week than I was expecting, as most amateurs do portraits from photos and I thought the real live sitters would highlight their limitations , but fair does they did alright. Jennifer is wildly inconsistent producing a dreadful self portrait them one of the best pictures of the lot in the second half. I loved the difference of opinion between Lachlan and Daphne" start with the outline". "Nooo!"
    Does anyone else find themselves air painting in front of the television or is it just me?

  6. I enjoyed this week more than the previous ones. But there was a missed opportunity that could have been both fascinating and educational - seeing how Daphne might begin a 2 hour portrait. She is one of the most well known portrait artists and I would have loved to have heard more from her on painting portraits. Perhaps she could have used Lachlan or David as her model and done a quick demo setting up a portrait.

  7. Jimmy Mac was one of the people, at the life drawing group I went to, who really encouraged me to enter competitions, way back in 2009 - and the rest, as they say, is history. As an aside, on the glasses thing, I've never painted a self portrait wearing glasses, although that's probably how other people think of me. Partly this is because my eyes won't let me if I'm using a mirror more than a foot away - if I can see the mirror then I can't see the canvas. Also partly cause I only ever wear glasses when out and about - never at home or in the studio, so me self image is not of a glasses wearer. Partly as well cause my sp's aren't about recording how I look but experimenting with paint/an idea that I can't ask someone else to pose for.

  8. Kathryn, hello! I went to art college and studied graphic design. I never picked up a paintbrush once during my time there and I would say the same would be true for Ceramics, Textiles, Photography and Product Design students. I did do 'en plain air' for a week and life drawing for two weeks but the rest of my three years was spent using Pantone Magic Markers drafting out ideas for advertising campaigns etc. I picked up a paintbrush for the first time a few weeks ago, around 40 years after I put my last one down in Sixth Form! I'm now trying my hand at acrylics and watercolour and it's hard not to be graphic in my approach after nearly 35 years spent in advertising agencies and design houses being the antithesis of everything Fine Art. I'm an absolute novice when it comes to painting compared to the dozens who attend the two art societies I belong to. So I think you were being a bit unfair to want to exclude all art college students from the term amateur artist.
    Thank you. David

  9. Hi David
    In my experience, all those who have had a good grounding in photography or graphics or illustration are streets ahead of many painters when it comes to possessing the knowledge, skills and experience to know what makes a good composition. Many of the best artists I know started out with a background in commercial art.

    Bottom line - wielding a brush is only half the work when it comes to painting. Daphne et all don't bang on about perspective, proportion, placement etc for nothing.

    I'm in fact making a plea for a level painting field and for all "amateur painters" to be precisely that i.e. never ever studied beyond A level and never ever made their career in the visual arts (of whatever kind and I very definitely include advertising in that).

    PS I don't think anybody is stopping any of the artists in the Big Painting Challenge from using big Pantone Markers! You can paint with all sorts of media! :)

  10. Really fascinating to read your reviews of the Big Painting Challenge, it adds greatly to the enjoyment of watching the programme. As do Pascals videos on his blog. I've also been pondering the definition of 'enthusiastic amateur' and agree with what you've said above.


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