Monday, April 16, 2018

Review: Portraiture - Big Painting Challenge 2018

Portraiture was the third genre to be tackled by The Big Painting Challenge (last night on BBC1 6pm). The setting - in the RAF's Centenary Year - was the RAF Museum at what used to be Hendon Aerodrome and the models were air cadets for the first challenge and RAF and WAAF Veterans for the Big Challenge.

I took a look online and there were a fair few (generally unfavourable) comparisons with the Portrait Artist of the Year programme broadcast by Sky Arts - which I guess is inevitable given the discrepancy in knowledge, experience and skills.
This week's blog post is going to include posts by the general public on Twitter as I detect a sea change in views about this programme which I think the BBC commissioners should pay serious attention to.

Leading up to the final judgement for somebody - at the RAF Museum
You can view the episode on iPlayer in Episode 3 of The Big Painting Challenge - and below is my digest/review of what happened in this week's episode

It follows on from my earlier posts:
These are the participants in their two teams for this week's episode. This year they seem to be switching people between the two mentors on a regular basis - although I don't remember that happening last year. It looks as if they swop one person with each episode. I guess that's to avoid a situation where one team gets left with too few painters.

Diana Ali's Team - Jane. Chris, Susan and Callum
Pascal Anson's Team - Oliver, Anil, Ray and Tilly
There were a fair few tensions within the teams
  • Oliver wanted to make sure he did himself justice as he normally paints portraits
  • Chris was really anxious as he had never ever painted a portrait before - on top of the fact that he has ocular albinism. I looked up the term this week - and now understand much better the problems it presents. (How do you judge somebody who can't see detail very well against those who can?)
  • Callum had also never painted anybody from life - having spent his time to date painting sweetie packets from photos.

The First Challenge

The First Challenge involved that most difficult of portraits - a young person - in this case two young air cadets - with very young faces.

The artists had to all use the same size of support, media of their own choice and they could bring their own art supplies from home.

I found some of the "soundbite" comments from the Mentors to be absolutely farcical.
  • Pascal said he was looking for them capture the spirit and essence of the individual - while the artists had never met the individuals, who did not speak and were standing at attention for the whole time. Just how do you detect their essence in these circumstances? It made what he said seem like mouthing mantras rather than thinking what was appropriate advice for the circumstances
  • Diana's recitation of where the eyes, nose and mouth were just made my jaw drop.  It was a classic of the "let's go again" genre and "this time make it interesting". It made me realise whoever is directing or producing this programme has not got a clue about art.
The Mentors also banged on and on about the importance of getting the proportions right but....
  • What the painters needed was the 5 minute basics (school) lesson in the distance and proportions between features (eg eyes line up with the top of ears, are half way down the head, the triangle of eyes nose and mouth is critical to capturing likeness; ears are half way between front and back of head in profile etc etc) - plus a crib sheet to reference!
  • It also appears that nobody has taught the artists how to measure. How many times did you see measuring with a bent arm - meaning the measurement is always different depending on how you choose to bend your arm next time....

my "how to measure" drawing for my book

Pascal wailed that it was essential that people kept checking and cross-checking proportions - but that not many of them were NOT doing this.

He also commented that Anil managed to give the appearance of listening but didn't seem to change much as a result. I could sense teachers all round the country nodding assent at this extremely common classroom phenomenon which is by no means limited to art classrooms!

Pascal's team painting Cadet Flight Sergeant Amy Gandey

Diana's team painting Cadet Flight Sergeant Simmonds
The main problems with the painting were predictably
  • eyes (Callum!) 
  • proportions ( a number of them struggled with measuring and "seeing") 
  • discontinuity eg combination of 3D and 2D in the same painting (Tilly)
  • skin tone (Ray) 
I thought Oliver and Jane acquitted themselves reasonably well.


Two "masterclasses" followed.  I seriously take issue with using a term because it "sounds good" when:
  • neither tutor is a recognised painting "master" and 
  • this sort of class is usually reserved for people who have a reasonable knowledge and  grasp of all key concepts, principles and elements of painting - and need to refine and move up a gear to improve the standard of their work.
In reality these painters have not got to the end of the basics they need to know to paint well.  They are a VERY long way from a "Masterclass" in the normal use of the term.

Besides, what they get is basic instruction - albeit with some neat and novel twists on "how to".

"Masterclass" with Pascal Anson

This was about seeing basic shapes and colours.

Pascal's twist on "screw up your eyes and look through your eyelashes to eliminate all detail and get back to the basic shapes and tones" ( a useful tip which can be applied everywhere) was to introduce the notion of using a gauze screen to eliminate detail.

While it may work in terms of getting them to lay down some basic colour shapes in an aircraft hangar, I can't see it catching on!

Getting the gauze out

Some of the quite successful "basic" paintings after the exercise.

four colour paintings - after seeing the model through gauze

"Masterclass" with Diana Ali

While Pascal is the handy gadget man, Diana is the speed merchant.
All her classes seem to involve "do this for 30 seconds" then STOP and "do this for 30 seconds"

So, this week, they had to observe and isolate different features of the face:
  • look at part of the face only for 30 seconds
  • then they had 30 seconds to draw with paint
A good basic exercise - but yet again one that was needed much earlier in the series / this programme.

Looking then drawing for 30 seconds
What she could then have done is tried introducing the sort of quickie exercises for drawing the whole figure that are traditional at the start of a Life Class e.g. one minutes, two minutes etc.

I notice that Tilly is repeatedly the person who really enjoys these exercises and the new learning she acquires as a result. Some of the others give me the impression of "going through the motions"

The Big Challenge

The BIG Four Hour Challenge was to paint two nonagenarians. Only Susan and Oliver seemed really pleased. I question the wisdom and ethics of of asking two very old people to sit still as portrait models or four hours.

Their faces when told how old their models were!

Greeting the two models for the Big Painting Challenge - Roger Wilkins and Lorna Waud

Diana's team painting 
In terms of the outcome, the issues were still:
  • eyes (Callum)
  • proportions (most of them)
  • likeness (few 'caught' either model)
  • not looking at the model enough
  • not checking relative proportions enough
That said I thought the best paintings were by 
  • Tilly who employed the basic colour shapes technique at the start of her painting and did "great hair"
  • Oliver who also tried to work from big shapes and colours to detail at the end
Susan's confidence with colour continues to impress while neither Chris nor Ray seemed comfortable with skin tones.

I kept puzzling about why Ray and Callum's paintings kept looking sparkly. It was as if they had got hold of some iridescent paint without realising what it would do/look like.

Half way through the judges were commenting on the fact that although some had made good starts, not enough were looking at what they were seeing and were instead painting the thing that had a name eg an eye - which they thought looked a particular way.

You can always tell with eyes whether somebody has really looked by whether:
  • they look round 
  • there are shadows caused by the eyelid
  • the other eye has not been painted (at all or in its entirety) because it was not visible - even if the artist knew it was there!

The artwork example

I guessed that the artwork would be Dame Laura Knight's painting of Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring as soon as they talked about portraits of people at war.  What was really fascinating was seeing the Imperial War Museum film of the real Ruby doing her job!

See my post about the Laura Knight exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in - Review: Laura Knight Portraits which includes the painting and other associated with her work as a war painter.

The Final Judgement

Public Judgement

The public decided that this week Anil's painting was best. I did wonder if they had met the models and knew what they looked like in reality. It certainly wasn't the best in my view and while I did think Lachlan went OTT I did see where he was coming from.

I rather suspected he got extra points for doing a half torso and not just a head and including some realistic looking medals.

Anil gets saved by the public for the second week running
I must confess I'm still puzzled as to why somebody who is a trained graphic designer can possibly be counted as an amateur in the same way as the others are.

Judges Feedback

Feedback this week included some harsh words - but this week they mainly came from Lachlan. Daphne tends to go for the strictly factual and I can see her editing what she really wants to say at times. I very rarely disagree with anything she says.

Lachlan was a little bit too "emotional" - a.k.a. "dramatic" - and prone to exaggeration for effect this week. (ref "Keith Richard" and Muppet"). Maybe he's been doing too much television and emoting a bit too much in recent months? I find his style works really well when he's on his own - but maybe needs to be reined in a tad when in front of "strictly amateurs".

Judges giving feedback
The shortlist to go this week was Callum, Ray and Chris. They all suffered badly with drawing and proportion issues. I suspect Judges may now have got to the stage where they think back when pondering along the lines of
  • who has been in the bottom few before
  • who has the best chance of doing better going forward

Daphne Todd indicating the proportion issues with Ray's painting

The moment Ray knows he's going home!
I thought Ray actually looked quite pleased to be going home while Chris looked shocked and and Callum looked relieved.  Not quite sure why Diana has a smile on her face.....

I think Ray went in part because he went back to watercolour paints. So long as he stuck with acrylics he was safe because he'd had them foisted on him by Diana and he was learning. Once he was back with a medium he knew he became vulnerable and a candidate for the "Thank you for taking part" speech. That and the fact his proportions were way off!

At half time, in terms of going forward the more competent painters are:
  • Tilly, Oliver and Jane - as in they are more on a par with the previous series - but they also have their own particular strengths and weaknesses
Beyond that:
  • Anil has skills - but also some stylistic and technique issues which I think are irritating mentors and judges
  • Callum has problems with looking - plus the kind of issues which come from only working from photos and taking an inordinate time to create paintings
  • Chris has got obvious problems associated with his eyesight - and it's unclear how the Judges will get to grips with that - without seeming mean!

The Really Big Issues

Following on from my first post about this series - The Big Painting Challenge (2018) - The Issues - I thought this week's episode really exposed some of the problems behind the concept and format of this series - and, in particular, the selection of the participants.

Here are the two equivalent episodes from Series 1 and 2
The first one doesn't have any images from the episode but I clearly remember that there was some good paintings - even if some were less than wonderful. However the overall standard of portrait painting this year is way below that seen last year. 

Let me make it very clear. The participants/contestants all seem really nice people - but I dislike the fact I increasingly feel really sorry for them.

Seeing people produce not very good paintings does not make for very good television.  In a way it's worse because you grow to like the artists as the series moves on and it's not nice seeing some of them being humiliated on screen. This series is becoming distinctly uncomfortable viewing for some fans of art and uncomfortably like "comedy" for those who aren't fans of art but do like a laugh.

I also question what on earth the production company were doing in the assessment exercises for the series - just going through the motions - or picking their checklist of token characters?

I also really don't understand the notion that these people were "10 passionate painters" who were chosen as "being selected for their potential to learn".

So far as the latter is concerned I'm seeing relatively little evidence of the latter or of the ability listen and then act on that listening. The artists paint and make mistakes, are given a "masterclass" and then asked to paint again. Very rarely do we see anyone incorporating the learning potential from the masterclass into their response to the "big challenge". This week only Tilly and Oliver seemed to use what they learned in a constructive way - and each week it's becoming more apparent who listens and who doesn't.

If it's a programme about learning then we need to see some very clear development in the paintings produced between the beginning and the end of the programme.

I also really dislike how much they seem to be being thrown in the deep end with far too little instruction and support relative to what they are being asked to do. Many of those watching know just how long it can take to become good at what they are being asked to do - and how much skill is down to practice, practice, practice - and not a very quick masterclass!

As one commentator on Twitter aptly put it....

and as another pointedly asked

I also did not like hearing Lachlan's comments which seemed to me to be borne out of sheer exasperation. Judges are going to be precise and accurate - but they shouldn't be asked to judge people who should not be judged - or to pretend issues are not issues.

Given what's happening this year I can't see this series continuing.  Not without a radical rethink and rejig of how how it works.

Next year too few genuine art fans/students will apply - or it will revert to the egotists who always seem to turn up in the year after a series has stopped being of any value - and that only makes for really BAD television

Here's the verdict on this week's episode from Suman Kaur, the winner of the last series. I think she has it just about spot on.

Bottom line - this series needs to stop being uncomfortable to watch.


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The story so far for Series 3 (2018)

Series 2 (2017)

Series 1 (2015)


  1. Just wanted to say I think your comments are spot on. Watching the episode, I was continually willing the painters to produce something better, and the tutors to give them the key information they needed for the task. It is not enjoyable when neither happens and expert judges (who could give really useful guidance to good artists about how to reach the next level) are left facing the resulting mess. The programme makers need to either choose contestants who already have sufficient skills and experience to benefit from the critiques and quirky teaching exercises, OR pitch the whole programme as 'teaching enthusiastic beginners how to paint' with properly thought out tuition. - Cait Webb

  2. Totally agree - uncomfortable to watch, and I felt really sorry for the painters who were not given the support they very obviously needed.

  3. I must say that I have been very disappointed this year. The selection of participants seems questionable. Yes, it is all about amateur artists, unlike the Sky series, but surely there must have been umpteen applicants who were a little more able than at least half of those on this series? The tasks so far have been beyond most of them and it is very uncomfortable viewing seeing the participants struggle so badly. Portraiture might be better left until a later episode. Not exactly a straightforward challenge for an amateur artist. I suspect much of what is ‘taught’ is edited out which is a great pity. As you say, basics are omitted. For example I’ve noticed that rarely do they stand back and I’m not sure the mentors have suggested they do so.

  4. Thankyou Katherine for airing the views of many or certainly in my case. I get so cross when the tutors say what is wrong with the painting but offer no tuition. I nearly fell off my chair when Ray was bludgeoned into using a medium new to him.
    I am sure I didn't get this animated last year. I found this week's programme uneasy and irritating to watch.
    One small question, do you ever sleep,I am in awe of the amount of work you produce.Lucky for us though.

  5. Can't argue with much of that...

    I have watched these programmes with increasing reluctance, because the BBC simply doesn't seem to know what it's doing with them. I'm glad Ray had a good time, or said he did, and for a 90 year old he must have great stamina - but he was handicapped from the outset by his tutor's mad advice to switch to a medium he'd never used before. I mean - how was he supposed to do that, and produce anything creditable? It's as if the tutor knew from the outset that he was a lost cause, and thought she might as well just indulge him and introduce him to a new medium as a bit of fun. I'm not saying she was wrong entirely - but it surely had nothing to do with what the programme SAYS it's all about. And this stuff about 'passionate painters' showing an ability to learn - that's been tacked on afterwards, hasn't it? When the producers saw what a dog's breakfast the whole thing was and wanted to get their excuses in early.

    Of course, we're seeing only a fraction of what actually transpired, which makes it impossible to judge the real quality of mentoring/tutoring advice - but even given that, I just don't think you gain anything from having people as mentors in a painting programme who aren't primarily painters themselves. They seem woefully unprepared for the low level of expertise shown by the majority of the contestants, and have to go back to basics which, on the basis of the evidence, they've actually forgotten themselves. I think they're part of the problem.

    Daphne Todd is wasted - I don't suppose she feels like tutoring nowadays, but if only she were a tutor, some of these poor souls would learn so much more; and as a second best, perhaps Fraser Scarfe - Lachlan Goudie is getting too frustrated and irritable with them; can't really blame him, either.

  6. I agree with just about all you said, Katherine.

    I can't watch this programme anymore: watching people being embarrassed and humiliated is not my idea of what art and entertainment are all about.

    If it was a series in which novices were brought along from first principles in taught stages, I would feel easier. In the event, watching an old man being expelled, with insults, is totally unacceptable.

  7. Does anybody else think Anil is painting "competitively"? - just doing a picture that is noticably a finished picture and trying not to show any signs of struggling with anything. He's learned very quickly to ignore the mentors. He figures he just has to not be the worst painter. They all needed the basics pointing out. A very strange series. Perhaps they should fill the hanger with hundreds of painters all trying then we could see a good cross section of abilities (like Sky and their WildCard painters [which I think deserves a series by itself). Five Years of SkyWildCards - I'd watch to see how they were doing now.

  8. I'm not sure that he's painting competitively - however he does remind me somewhat of Paul Bell in the first series - who very clearly had knowledge and experience beyond that of his peers on the programme - and it was no surprise to me that he won.

    Chris's comment about Anil "He's learned very quickly to ignore the mentors. " will be commented on further in the next review in the context of the apparent discontinuity between mentors and judges.

    In point of fact I think Pascal was spot on when he said that the proportions were wrong re Anil's painting of Lorna Waud.

    Whether Anil was choosing what to do based on time constraints rather than 'how to paint the best portrait of Lorna' would be interesting to know. I suspect a lot of factors contribute to why people do what they do - and since we're not flies on the wall we can only guess at what some of those factors might be! :)

  9. The portrait episode amplified to a deafening level the faults that you had identified in your earlier reviews. In particular the BBC's odd choice to have a competitive program with unskilled/limited experience participants. Like others I feel sorry for the contestants asked to paint very difficult set ups that are way beyond their competence levels with little instruction.

    And I would have loved to have heard Daphne talk to them for even 5 minutes about how to begin a portrait or the important elements of getting a likeness or any portrait painting topic. It seemed a waste to have such a talented portrait painter not share some knowledge with them.

    It's hard to watch because the discomfort I feel for painters put in impossible situations. But I also get so annoyed and frustrated at the poor decisions made throughout by the producers. Not exactly the enjoyable entertainment I'd expect from a program like this.


    The choice of tutors is bewildering. No evidence of portrait experience whatsoever.

  11. I'm sorry to post late on this thread, I've only just found this very interesting site.

    I think one of the problems is that, like so much BBC output at the moment, the contestants seem to be selected to represent some sort of all inclusive 'Britain" , rather than on merit or aptitude. So they have to find various ethnicities, a very old person, a person with a disability.... I gather that several of the contestants were actually approached by the programme makers, rather than applying for themselves.

    Does this represent the universe of amateur artists,though? I suppose the only area in which this attitude does not apply is sport, no point in getting people to compete who are utterly physically hopeless ( like me). I'm very much afraid that the inclusion of the ' public' in judging is so that the director can manipulate the results, by pretending that a contestant they want to keep was the publics choice, against the expressed opinion of the evermore frustrated judges.

    Why does this matter? Because in these days when manual dexterity is being threatened by the increasing prevalence of electronic communications, the skill, solace and personal development offered by actually doing an art or craft is so important. It is sad to see it being debased and trivialised into a game show where the judging is inscrutable, and the expressed purpose unfulfilled.


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