Monday, April 02, 2018

The Big Painting Challenge (2018) - The Issues

This is the first of my series of reviews of the BBC's new series of The Big Painting Challenge.  Each week I'll be reviewing the programme and highlighting what I perceived as:
  • issues (with the BBC format) and 
  • tips (what they said - and what I think!). 
People seem to have enjoyed these posts previously and I hope you do again!

CAUTION: I'm now going to get Four BIG BBC Format Issues out of my system in one fell swoop - before moving on to the actual programme (tomorrow) - which you can watch on demand on iPlayer - Big Painting Challenge - Still Life

It's a bit of a cathartic process for me!

Issue #1: How many series?

The participants in the BBC's Big Painting Challenge 2018 - a.k.a. Series 3 by me!

The first thing I learned when I sat down to write this blog post is that the BBC can't count.

So we have the programme websites for:
Huh?  Somehow the BBC seems to have decided to have amnesia and behave as if the 2015 series never happened.

I have news for the BBC.

Series reinvent themselves and change programme makers ALL THE TIME but IF you stick to the same title AND keep the same judges (even if you change the presenters) then you count the series consecutively.

Which makes this series 3!  However to avoid the problem with me knowing this is Series 3 and the dimwits in BBC programme commissioning calling this Series 2, I shall reference the year in the titles of future episodes.

Issue #2: Talent show or Edutainment?

The format is officially listed by the BBC as a "Talent Show". Which prompts my next issue with the format....

We know from shows like Sky Television's Portrait Artist of the Year that there are some very talented amateur artists out there.

However it seems as if there is a very BIG divide between the talented amateurs that turn up at:
  • the Wallace Collection for Sky and 
  • some interesting heritage property somewhere in the UK for the BBC.
Personally I find those on the BBC programme wholly representative of very many amateur artists in very many painting groups around the UK.

As such, I can completely understand that these participants must be much easier to relate to for the thousands out there watching the programme who want to improve their painting skills.

However, if that's the case then should this really be classed as a talent show (which is how it is officially classified by the BBC)? (You can picture my quizzical raised eyebrow as I write this!)

For me it's much easier to make the case for it being actually educational (hence the mentors) - or "edutainment" as I think it's called.  They could as easily keep all ten painters in to the end and then award a prize to the "most improved amateur painter on TV"!

I guess the point I'm making is that this programme is Educational - dressed up as "a talent competition" - rather than a genuine Talent Competition.

In a proper Talent Competition, when we have 10 contestants that means we've got to that bit of a series where we're down to the final 10 after "Judges Houses" and "Boot Camp" and the various Heats around the UK to find the best from the hundreds and thousands who entered.

But it's NOT THE BEST TEN - because we know there is much better amateur talent out there.

So it's neither one thing nor the other.  It's not pure education and it certainly isn't a genuine talent show as such.

The Reductive Drawing Exercise in Episode 1
- a great example of how to learn how to improve your tonal control

Which I think is why I now FINALLY understand why the Sky Artist of the Year Fans have always previously commented on my reviews of this programme to the effect that they much prefer the Sky programme - which does at least have a a better sense of being a talent show - even if the Judges do come up with some very odd decisions!

Having said that the programme makes the point at the beginning that the contestants were selected for "their ability to learn" - which is why this programme is more correctly classified as Edutainment and NOT a Talent Show.

Also why, in my opinion, they should just eliminate the elimination of a candidate each week and move to a notion of just having a Heat Winner each week and then, at the end of the series, have a "most improved painter over the whole series" prize.

Issue 3: Demographics and Diversity Rule

I KNOW the BBC has to be socially responsible and represent every last social demographic and diversity dimension of the viewing public - because it's been told off in the past for forgetting to do so. 

What appears to be a NOT very diverse set of people at the BPC Heats

However I watched Episode 1 last night and found myself starting to tick off the "representative caricature individuals" which somehow seem to get into programme makers heads when they make series like these.
  • the one with the disability
  • the one with an Afro-Caribbean heritage
  • the one with the Asian heritage
  • the immigrant who has made a success of their life
  • the middle class one from the home counties
  • the one who is incredibly old but still going
  • the one who has had a major health challenge
  • the one who is getting on with life after the death of a loved one
Not forgetting the fact that EVERYBODY always seems to have an interesting back story.

Do people with mundane lives - who get a lot of joy out of painting - never ever get a chance to be on television programmes like these?

The local art group of one of the participants

The thing for me is that:
  • it appears somewhat remote from the actual composition of most amateur painting groups around the country - most of whom are pensioners. Maybe the BBC could check the audience profile for this programme?
  • the profiles always seem to miss out the percentage needed to address the 'working class' element - for want of a better way of putting it.  This is a VERY middle class programme!
  • people who take up painting for a health reason always seem to have a disease or physical  health problem that people readily understand (eg the sight problems of one man and the breast cancer challenge which had been faced by one of the lady participants) - rather than recognising, for example, that art and painting is an activity very much promoted by those who work with people who have mental health problems.  I'm sure the Duchess of Cambridge could enlighten the BBC about her interests in both art and the need to make sure that those with mental health issues are treated equally and receive good support. One way to do this is to recognise their personal challenge when trying to reflect diversity in a positive way.
In other words the BBC's programme makers might be trying to do better in addressing ethnicity and physical disability - but they are still missing the point in relation to the actual reality of diversity within the population of people interested in painting.

Issue #4: The 4 Hour Rule

Why do so many contestants struggle with the 4 hour challenge?
I think I'm getting a bit fed up with participants in the programme having to face a major challenge which they have to complete in 4 hours - when it becomes very apparent very quickly that some of them have never painted anything in 4 hours in their life - and some have rarely if ever painted from life.

Judging the paintings after 4 hour challenge

How about a new version of the 4 Hour Challenge Rule?

I suggest that everybody wanting to have a go at appearing on the Challenge Programme MUST submit a painting which is:
  • painted from life NOT a photograph
  • completed within 4 hours (max.)
  • absolutely no exceptions allowed!
That way we'd at least know who was going to make a decent fist of facing the sorts of challenges the contestants have to grapple with in 4 hours.

As it is we are shown contestants in their home environment painting away - and producing paintings which are very often nothing like what they paint during the programme.

For me I really strenuously object to seeing people humiliated by very difficult challenges in a time scale they are not used to - because they never really appreciated just how difficult a four hour challenge was going to be.
  • I love people's optimism that they will cope. 
  • I hate producers who turn this into something which upsets people because they have not done their best - because they're not used to painting in 4 hours.
By all means put people under a time pressure! However please only do so if you know they are competent to meet it i.e. produce a decent painting within the time.  Otherwise it just looks really mean and cruel!

By creating one simple "sift" challenge at the beginning of the submission process, the programme makers would get a much better idea of who's going to be able to cope with the challenge embedded into the programme

Plus it would also achieve the ENORMOUS educational benefit of having hundreds (thousands?) of people have a go at painting from life in 4 hours - and that's got to be a good thing!


Subscribe and receive every post from Making A Mark via email. 
Your subscription is only activated after you verify the link in the email you will receive

Having written so much about the Issues - and it's great to get MY BIG NIGGLES out in the open - I feel the best thing to do is start again with a new post tomorrow for the Still Life Episode - in order to do that one justice!

So - what do you feel about the issues highlighted above?

Do you have any niggles about the programme that you'd like to air - either here or my Facebook Page?


  1. I So agree with you. It seems very little thought goes into the planning of this programme. I would love to see the artists stay in the competition and have the chance to grow and improve their skills along the way. I’m sure the tutors are very talented and would love to see more tutoring from them, instead the BBC only shows a few tips shouted aggressively at the contestants.

  2. Thanks for this Katherine as usual and for all the effort you put into your blogs for our benefit.
    You raise some interesting points/issues...
    #1. Is interesting and I too would call this series 3. I wonder if the Beeb have an explanation.
    #2 some great points there and I would agree with you in the main but regarding keeping all 10 to the end of the 6 week period would make it a big budget production which the Beeb I imagine would argue may not be the best use of tax payers money. Having been in the original series one, I was amazed at the size of the crew. There must have been well over 70 people and all the equipment that had to be hired. As the weeks passed the number of crew dwindled and so would costs, hotels, transport, catering etc. Plus I think the Beeb love the controversy of elimination... it keeps people watching.
    #As the token ethnic in my series I am not sure what to say here other than sometimes you have to dig deep to find the right fit. For the Beeb, this is an argument they can’t win and my personal view, everyone has a back story. It’s a matter of getting the angle right. I have often wondered if I’d have made it in had it not been for my ethnicity. Maybe it does pay to be black sometimes eh? 😜
    #4 the four hour rule is never 4 hours when you have major interruptions with film crew obscuring your view and presenters and judges chatting with you etc... during the auditions they will have been asked to paint within a similar time period. It’s all part of making a ‘good’ show with a bit of drama and a twist of controversy.
    They might want to present a level playing field for all but the ones who come out tops are the ones that read the rules and put the practice in. I think Daphne mentioned it in the programme, to paraphrase she was looking out for those who are keen and passionate.

  3. Thanks for your usual very well informed input on this programme.

    I'm sure they could lose a lot of the costs if they adopted the same strategy as for most of the other "talent" programmes on the BBC and stayed on one spot - preferably outside London.

    I'm guessing the BBC commissioners decide the scope and budget and then the team that makes the programme decide how many people they need.

    Interestingly I have also been "televised while painting" on the BBC (great fun!) - and have the video somewhere to prove it.
    However our team (back in the late 80s) actually worked for the BBC and the entire team who filmed about us (about 10+ people on a painting holiday in Provence) included:
    * one presenter (Ann Gregg)
    * one producer
    * one cameraman and his sidekick
    * one sound man
    * one continuity lady
    I think I've got a photo somewhere of them all doing a shot

    Yup - take a look at this blog post which includes pics of the shoot

  4. Thank you for this blog Katherine. I felt after Sky Portrait Artist this programme was very insubstantial. I agree that the BBC wants a "journey" from every one. To some extent it takes away from the art.

  5. I agree totally with what you say, the BBC might think watching people struggle makes good tv but I'm not sure it encourages others to have a go. I too found it strange that everyone was so obviously 'ticking a box' of some sort as if we couldn't see it for ourselves, it was thrust right at us. Much prefer the Sky programmes, although as a poor artist, I can't afford sky... i hope you make a pitch to BBC for a better programme in the future!

  6. Your comments on "talent show" vs "Educational program" hit home with me. The BBC seems to making a educational program but can't quite commit to it. If cost is the issue about keeping all the contestants on, they could do a compromise - a more stepped winnowing process. Keep all the contestants for 2 weeks and then eliminate 2 or 3. Another winnowing after 2 more weeks. And base the elimination not just on best paintings but on improvement. this allows the participants to practice some of the advice they are being given. And they could eliminate both hosts without any impact as far as I'm concerned and save that money. use the mentors to provide more commentary. I've found their comments much more useful and to the point.

    My pet niggle with the program is that I feel the details are being decided by programming/production people not the artists involved. So the participants are asked to bring in an object used to create two very disjointed and ugly still lifes instead of someone creating a pleasing still life that one would actually want to paint. Then the next location, the distillery, had to be a producer's decision. Way too complex for the first week with all those reflections and the machinery. I want them to succeed and to show progress and think the locations and challenges actually impede the learning process because they're not teaching a skill and allowing them to practice and use them.

    okay now I can't stop - one more annoying bit. The participants are shown the subject and then told to select their canvas. No recommendation that they might want to consider their composition before choosing canvas size and orientation!

    But I still like watching. It just could be so much better.

  7. Re: 4 hours only.

    The selection process this year included attending a group audition. I believe that over 200 artists were invited to these across the major cities of our country, approx 16-20 in each 'pool'. The audition was split between a 10 minute interview to camera, and a still life painting (no choice of topic or position) to be completed within two hours... whilst having a camera and interviewer in your face.

  8. Re: 4 hours only.

    The selection process this year included attending a group audition. Out of the many thousands that applied for the show, I believe that over 200 artists were invited to these across the major cities of our country, approx 16-20 in each 'pool'. The audition was split between a 10 minute interview to camera, and a still life painting (no choice of topic or position).

    So, the selectors KNOW that they can perform under pressure, without drying out (verbally) and being able to explain what their thinking is.

  9. Having just watched some of the SkyArts competitions (using a NOW TV free trial!) I agree that it is a better show than the BBC offering but I wonder if this is because it is in a fixed genre. Most amateur contestants are probably working on subject matter that is in their comfort zone and therefore are starting at a higher level. The BBC show is like asking the participants to take part in a sort of artistic heptathlon rather than allowing them to shine in their own specialism.
    This might be slightly off-topic but I feel that one of the major difficulties in being an amateur painter/drawer is the lack of opportunity to get a serious critique of your work and suggestions for going forward (wherever that may be). It is much easier to get this in amateur photography groups but in my (limited) experience art clubs do tend to shy away from judging & critiquing members work.
    Katherine- I recall Anne Gregg as the arts presenter on Anglia TV during the 80's. Sadly no longer with us.

  10. I agree Les.

    The thing is I can't think of a single art teacher who would take students to a distillery and ask them to paint it based on the level and quality of of tuition they got (ie the still life set ups were dire and the mentor exercises were good - but only sufficient that they could go back and have a second go at a "proper" still life set-up of a bit more complexity when compared to objects of different shapes, volumes and textures lined up next to one another

    The notion of moving from that to giant complex interiors which would overwhelm most painters is just crackers!

    I'm going to comment in my next post on a format which I think would work much better...

  11. Agree with yours and Anne's points, and having also been in Series 1 and wishing the learning and mentoring format had been present in that series I can only say this Series contestants have got a good deal!
    That aside the idea of all ten staying till the end could be easily managed by doing less challenges and filming in less flashy locations in a shorter period of time. We were shipped all over the place and the travel/food budget alone must have been immense!
    I will be watching with one eye open

  12. My idea for a better approach which would both cut costs and deliver a better Edutainment programme

    They need to emulate a more 'normal' one week painting holiday - everybody stays in one location, which has a decent size location.

    This should then mimic a much more NORMAL painting holiday
    * different learning exercises and challenges on different days
    * trips out - and days in the studio (with scope to vary according to the weather)
    * ALL participants stay all week
    * identify an Artist of the day and Most Improved Student of the Day
    * at the end of the week you have a Most Improved Student of the Week

    If the BBC is reading this - that idea is my idea!

  13. It is a badly thought out show and I agree it's not a talent show at all despite the weekly eliminations. The artists were given some awfully disheartening things for amateurs to paint! I would love to see all the participants taught properly and kept in to the final show to see how much they manage to improve with intensive tutition. Most people think being a competant artist, in terms of realism, is just some god given gift that you just have or you don't have, rather than the result of many, many hours of hard work and training we know it takes! The show could encourage other people to take up art lessons and persist with it if they see that huge progress is possible with a will to learn and proper training whether self taught or in classes.

  14. I far prefer the Sky Artist series, one main reason is that they focus on the positive and they don't humiliate the people who haven't done so well. It's a much more positive programme and makes for happier watching. I teach an art class of pensioners and I would hate to see any of them go on this programme to be criticised instead of encouraged and guided. I agree with Katherine's idea of keeping them all and watching their improvements .

  15. The Sky series is far better even though the 3 judges obviously have to make sure different "types" of artists end up in the semi-finals. TAI S-S would clearly pick 3 painters trained in Florence classically if he had the casting vote. This last series calmed down a bit - less collagers, less encaustic wax, less weird teeny tiny postcard pics, and less printers... The BBC series is just comparatively rubbish. The mentors are obnoxious and Daphne seems to want to upset everybody. If they improve miraculously I will apologise but somehow I can't see it. Draw a dog. I can't : it kept moving !!!! What would have happened if someone pulled out a camera/phone/ipad ? Come on BBC treat Art seriously if you're gonna show it !

  16. As an amateur aviation artist(mainly) I was interested to see the next prog preview was set in an Air Museum only to get the impression that the subject would be "portraiture ". I hope that they will include some element of my aviation interest beyond that but I get a sinking feeling that this might not be the case.
    I agree with Katherine's points . This programme is a great opportunity to make a superb series and it is being mangled in a mess of snatched shots , fleeting comments with no follow up , symptoms of TV today's view that Joe Public lacks the attention span of a mouse and must be constantly fed on sound and vision bites at a rate of knots. I feel for the early victims of elimination . It would be better if the aim was to show people growing their ability thanks to expert tuition rather than being thrown to the wolves at the first hurdle . Shades of the fall of the Roman Empire I fear.

  17. Watched episode 3 - portraiture and haven't laughed so much in ages, first rate telly amusement. This series is watchable and that's the only real test. There are plenty of excellent painters who could have produced first rate work for the show but would they be such good entertainment value? You simply can't judge a popular painting show put out by a ratings conscious channel by the accepted standards of representational fine art.
    I listen up when we get to the "master class" bits because this is where there is some learning opportunity. Perhaps therein is the germ of a programme idea, but admittedly it would be much more niche. In the mean time we just have to enjoy BPC for what it is and if it encourages more people to pick up a brush, that's a bonus.

  18. i would suggest that the judges and tutors of this series be selected for their people skills, encouraging words rather than humiliation. If this is good entertainment then the jeering element is quite uncomfortable and also the presenters are patronising, the vicar is chummy but I felt he was condescending.

    Art should be a joy, i like the participants rebelling. Thankfully the public vote let a rebel in unconditionally last time. I was in tears for the traumatised expelled woman. She was happy with the comments but her face told a different story.

    Sky Portrait artist of the year manages to relate to the artists with unconditional respect. The producers of the BBC program could learn from this.


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.