Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Review: Still Life - Big Painting Challenge 2018

This post is about the First Episode of The Big Painting Challenge - Still Life which was nominally focused on Still Life.

It follows on from my first post about The Big Painting Challenge (2018) - The Issues which highlighted my niggles about this BBC programme - specifically whether this was a talent show or Edutainment - and why it should be better than it is.

This episode is available to watch on BBC iPlayer for the next 27 days.

To recap, what the episode was actually about was:
  • introducing us to the new contestants for the third series of this very popular programme
  • getting them started with nominally their "signature bake"
  • a couple of exercises (the "technical challenge") with the mentors focused on how to portray volume and tone
  • finally, the Big 4 hour Challenge - the outcome of which was assessed by the two Judges
The Still Life Episode
all 10 participants - and their two mentors - up for the big challenge

The Contestants / Participants

See my first post:
  • they're contestants if this is a knock-out Talent Show
  • they're participants if this is an Edutainment show
We got the introductions to throughout the course of the first episode. I'm going to have to make a note of who they are here because the BBC has "forgotten/neglected" to include the profiles of the contestants on the series website.

How you can have a programme about real people artists and forget to say who they are? 
  • It's as bad as Sky Arts neglecting to put up the names of the artists as they are introduced on their programme - and excluding them from the list of who appeared on the programme. 
  • If we're going to have members of the public appearing can we please at least let them appear in the credits. After all THERE IS NO PROGRAMME WITHOUT THEM!
The programme makes clear that they "have very different experience levels, they were selected for their potential to learn"

Links in their names below are to either their website or Facebook account or Page (where public).

I can even tell you the name of their upcoming Group Show! (see below)

If past participants are anything to go by, I'm sure they'll be posting their paintings and comments as the weeks go by! :) (Note: Anybody who'd like me to remove the link please say and I'll do so immediately - just leave a comment)
  1. 90-year-old Raymond Halliday, a former auditor from Gateshead - who loves watercolour and didn't take up painting until he was 73. 
  2. Callum Stephen (#interestingbutweird)- who is a 23-year-old Welsh bricklayer who loves photorealism and painting packets of sweeties. His story of how he came to be involved is interesting. Apparently the programme staff saw his Instagram and invited him for an audition and before he knew it he was one of the final 10! (Article in local paper). He now lives in the South of France. Read all about it on his Facebook - given he spent time filming for several weeks I take it he doesn't go soon despite the problems (not looking) in this first episode.
  3. Bokani Tshidzu, (art website) a 30 year old Zimbabwe-born tech entrepreneur who lost both parents to Aids and was adopted by her aunt and brought to the UK. 
  4. Oliver Freeston -  BA (Hons) in Professional Dance and Performance from the Central Ballet School. Has travelled the world performing in classical and contemporary ballet companies and latterly in musicals. He and his partner live in Texas with two rescue dogs. He began painting while on a tourist visa in the USA. He now does Canine Commissions.  See the article in his home town newspaper A Hertford ballet dancer will be competing in the Big Painting Challenge on TV this weekend
  5. Chris Davies - the chap who has a vision impairment (ocular albinism) and uses indoor binoculars to see the still life. On his website he indicates that he loves doing very large paintings.
  6. Elizabeth (Tilly) Farnham - the one who's afraid of Daphne and who got the Grrr! She's a self-taught artist living in the Cotswolds.
  7. Jane Voss the Life Skills Coach who now owns and is the Creative Director of an Ice Cream parlour called Silly Moos making artisan ice cream in Lytham St Annes. She seems to have a real enjoyment of colour.
  8. Susan Farrell - The lady with contemporary and colourful glasses and earrings (love them!) - who started painting as an occupation after having treatment for breast cancer. I've got a hunch she's going to be interesting.
  9. Surjit Kali Rai - a Pharmacy Technician from Solihull in the West Midlands - the one who sat to sketch and stood to paint.
  10. Anil Patel (Facebook) - a graphic designer who lives in Leicester and is a big supporter of the local footie team, and who won my "fastest painter of the episode" award. I think it's possible he's both got a lot more experience than the others and has maybe practiced painting to a time constraint. 
Their Chapter Ten "after the show" show of paintings - done without the pressure of cameras -will be at 112 St. Martin's LaneLondon, WC2N 4BD next month (May 2018)

The Still Life Challenge

Before we start, for those who want to learn about "Still Life" try my 2007 blog post on What is a still life? in which I examined what the still life is all about and the different types of still life in art history.

The thing is this programme wasn't actually about Still life. It was actually about learning how to see and record shapes, volumes and tonal values accurately.  In fact I do believe we actually heard some of the Elements and Principles of Design discussed very briefly during the course of the programme - without actually mentioning that this is what they are.
I predict we'll be hearing more about these in the coming weeks!

The contestants were asked to bring an item that was meaningful to them. The mentors then created a still life setup out of five completely unrelated items.

To say that the still lifes looked like the artistic equivalent of a really bad car crash is an understatement. They were so bad that Mariella Frostrup even started making jokes about them.

Speaking personally I have NEVER ever seen a worse set-up for a still life. I cannot believe that the BBC believes that this has educational content!  It was almost as if the mentors were willing their students to fail!

All the meaning that would normally add value to a still life painting of objects chosen by an artist was smashed to smithereens by the diabolical arrangement. Plus where were the shadow boxes or screens behind to make it easier to isolate the items

...and what was that blue material all about???  TOTAL CAR CRASH!

The still life set-up for Diana Ali's team

BIG CHALLENGE for the BBC #1: Which bit of this exercise was trying to teach them that in still life the set-up is half the challenge for the artist?

If you want people to make sure people learn how to portray volume and tone why not just do the sensible thing. Rather than bang on about "forget it's a doll" why not just bring in some very simple and plain basic shapes and forms with different sized volumes. Let's not bring in 10 really unhelpful items!

Or failing that why not give them a plain and simple and classic still life with lots of challenges in terms of size, volume, shape and tone e.g. a basket of eggs, a loaf of bread, a slab of butter and a plate and knife.

The paintings were mostly not great. The artists have my every sympathy. Good artists like Daphne and Lachlan would have struggled with those abortions very loosely referred to as still life set-ups. In fact I'm pretty sure both would have refused to even contemplate "having a go".

The Mentor Exercises

These were possibly two of the BEST exercises I've ever seen done during ANY of the series.

THIS is also what should have happened first! i.e. let's have less of the messing about and looking awful on purpose of the first challenge and START with the instruction. We'd have seen much better paintings of still life if this had been done first.

The two exercises were:
However by waiting a little while before doing my review I have the answer!
What was very interesting about these two exercises - besides being genuinely helpful for viewers - was that it really illustrated very quickly who could look and see:
  • see volume
  • see relative sizes
  • recognise and simplify tonal shapes
In particular, it was really interesting to see who could draw without needing to outline first - and who recognised the differences in the relative sizes of the three items.

The results of the Reductive Drawing Challenge

The changes in the Mentors

The other interesting aspect of this first episode was the changes in the mentors since the last series.

Both are articulating much more clearly the lessons to be learned. One could even believe a SCRIPT has been written as to what need saying during the mentor sessions and the introduction to each challenge. :)

In the meantime, when they comment on people's work they revert to "self" and more normal habits and modes of speaking.

However even that has had some modification - which I assume comes from watching a whole series of programmes in which you feature largely!  I well remember the first time I saw a film of myself teaching. I was absolutely mortified at my gestures and habits - I used to close my eyes when concentrating on the point I was making! I gather moritfication is a not unusual reaction of most teachers when seeing themselves for the first time.  (BTW getting yourself filmed/videoed is very definitely an exercise I'd recommend to would-be teachers).

  • Pascal has become less much less gruff and much more approachable and animated - and even comes across as a friendly soul at times. I liked the way he referred to his students who were not really doing what he'd asked them to do as "the naughty end " of the table - which was quite a fun way of drawing a distinction. I'd want to be in his class!
  • Diana has obviously been told that she comes across as aggressive and didactic - and it would appear remembers this some of the time. She certainly smiles more. The rest of the time she still comes across as aggressive and didactic and a bit of a bully. Of which more later.

The Big Challenge

The third challenge - the BIG one - in this episode involved a visit to The Glasgow Distillery where the participants were to draw the gin and whisky vats.

Nominally very BIG versions of what they'd been doing during the mentor exercises. (It bore absolutely no relation to the first challenge which remains out on its own and off the scale so far as I'm concerned)

I do hope this too too literal translation of BIG challenge does not continue for the rest of the series!
Why this should be called Still Life is utterly beyond me. 

This was an invitation to paint an interior of a whisky and gin distillery - a HUGE, monumental and complex interior and very complex INTERIOR which happened to have some large vessels.

You could have easily chosen a Maritime scene and asked people to draw ships!

Most artists I know would have found it off-putting. So a really sensible choice for 10 artists who are not the best amateur artists out there!
(Let me just refer you back to my last post at the top of this post and my reference to the total confusion in this programme as to whether it's Edutainment or a Talent Show)

Cramped easels - so they can get this shot? Camera pan priotised over painters?

I was really concerned about the set-up of the easels for these challenges.
  • It seems to me that at least some of the problems were caused by easels being far too close together. 
  • Filming considerations seem to have trumped educational and artistic considerations. 
  • EVERY artist needs to have a really good view of what they are painting - and if they haven't got that then you may as well give up!
  • EVERY artist needs "walking back to have a look" room behind them - and some of these artists appeared to have very little of the latter
Which is how come we had the absolutely ridiculous situation in this episode that one artist couldn't actually see what he was painting!

Amateur artists, being filmed for the first time are not about to question the wisdom of a film production team's set-up. However I am!

More cramped easels - and one artist who couldn't actually see what he was painting

BIG Challenge to the BBC #2: When commissioning a production company - make sure that they size up potential venues properly! The producer and the production team need to walk round with giant footprints of the space that the artists need and place them on the ground - along with footprints for the space needed by the cameras/sound people - and LOOK at whether it's big enough.

Quite honestly at the moment, based on the first episode, it looks as if they have delegated running round the country trying to find good venues to the new junior who hasn't got a clue about how much space is needed!

This final part of the episode was the one which was judged - by both the public (staff at The Glasgow Distillery).....

.....and the Judges - Daphne Todd and Lachlan Goudie

Or as the Telegraph put it (see The Telegraph's 3 star review The Big Painting Challenge: a pleasing mix of Bake Off and The Generation Game... with a splash of whisky - review)
the steely yet twinkling Todd had potential to become a breakout star.
Must have been that Grrrr moment! ;)

Interestingly we had complete silence on why the third judge, introduced for Series 2, failed to reappear for Series 3. Regular readers last year will guess that I am VERY pleased, given my comments about his complete inability to make any sensible comments throughout the last series. I can only assume he was sacked - or is that "contract not renewed"?  Whichever all I can say is Yay! Then I looked at the credits for next week's programme - and it appears we have a guest Judge (for more see the end). He better be better!

Judging in the Distillery

I had a distinct impression - but may have been wrong - that the judges were somewhat constrained by their choices.

What may have appeared to many watching at home to be an obvious choice to go - Bokani - ended up with her painting being chosen as the public's favourite painting. She was pretty surprised too!

So she was not part of the last five lined up for elimination

Ray is the chap sitting down in the cap, Callum is the one in the white T shirt.
(This is not the last five)

Another possibility was Ray. Lovely chap - but a 'typical amateur' and not the best painter in the group. However he had been "bullied" into changing from watercolours to acrylics by Diana. There were absolute howls of outrage about her behaviour from people on my last blog post and Facebook Page and elsewhere online.

I'm also concerned that it apparently didn't even occur to her that people would see her as a bully to behave like this.

If somebody prefers to paint in watercolour then SHOW HIM how to paint better in watercolour. Don't make him change to a completely new medium he has never ever tried before - minutes before the BIG CHALLENGE starts - and then comment negatively during the course of the programme that he's still using it like watercolour!
  • He doesn't know any better - 
  • he's never ever been given a lesson in using acrylic 
  • which is entirely down to the crass production values and choice of mentor!
Just because Diana has an entirely unwarranted prejudice against watercolour does NOT make it a bad medium to use.
  • It is also the medium of choice of the vast majority of amateur painters who will watch this programme and 
  • It was also favoured by very many past masters of representational art - which is what this series is actually about - much as Diana might like it to be otherwise.  
That said - given Diana got him to change his medium prior to the challenge there was absolutely no way Ray could be sent home no matter how weak his painting was!

BIG Challenge to the BBC #3The BBC Programme Commissioners need to ask themselves:
  • why did the production team not find a tutor capable of showing amateur artists how to use watercolour more effectively! 
  • Why didn't they address the interests of vast numbers of amateur painters. 
  • Why is the favourite medium of very many amateur painters being ignored? 
  • Don't they know that large numbers of people are still watching Channel 4's Watercolour Challenge  on Sky? or via the NOW TV app)
In summary, nobody produced a really good painting and arguments could be made for and against a number of the paintings.

It was good to see that the judges limited themselves to the worst paintings to decide who should go.

I'm pretty certain that Surjit lost out because of her basic lack of appreciation of the fact that her eyeline changed between sitting down (to sketch) and standing up (to paint) which led to the discontinuities in her painting.

However given that she's self-taught and has not yet had a lesson in perspective and this point hasn't been highlighted to her i.e. she has only been asked to look at shape and tonal values - and did appear to focus on the latter, this did seem a mite unfair. The judges were definitely right to have their concerns - but the logical pathway between the learning part of the programme and the big challenge got a bit mashed up en route.

Personally I could have made a better case for Callum going home. I'm also guessing he was the other one also in the frame for going home. He painted something and nothing and only after he had not addressed the fact he couldn't see the subject matter for most of the four hours!

At least Surjit attempted more objects in her painting and made quite a good job of her vat - even if she messed up on her barrels because of the sightline issue.

Incidentally, viewers should listen out for the questions being asked by the Judges as they review work - they are always apposite although sometimes easy to miss in the effort made to give more time to activities which offer less value!!

There is no right answer - even Judges can disagree - however Daphne and Lachlan are good value and you can learn a lot by listening to the only two proper accredited representational painters on this programme!

The Next Episode

The next Episode is all about Nature
Mariella Frostrup and Reverend Richard Coles travel to the Cotswolds for the second episode of the amateur painting competition. Nine painters continue in the artistic bootcamp, which this week sees themworking with their professional mentors, Diana Ali and Pascal Anson, to conquer paint-handling techniques to depict nature in all its glory.

The first task sees the artists try to capture the form and character of dogs Herbert and Nutmeg. Once the task is complete, the mentors continue their tutelage with masterclasses that have the artists painting with bark, moss, leaves and even underpants before moving on to the final challenge. They need to capture the majesty of the Acer Glade. For some this means painting outside for the very first time. Will they be able to cope with the changing light conditions?
Go on admit it- you're gripped!
  • moving dogs - that's got half the nation nailed to their seats
  • then painting with things that aren't brushes - fair enough - but why UNDERPANTS?
  • Finally painting outside for the first time in changing light. Not quite sure how that follows from what has gone before

So that's nature!

You'll be even more gripped when you learn that A THIRD JUDGE is reintroduced next week!

His name is Fraser ScarfeI can reveal now that he is the Drawing Year Manager at the Royal Drawing School and that he graduated from the Drawing Year in 2013 - and he's a Landscape Artist.

Presumably then we will see a different expert for different aspects of the art of painting?


The story so far for Series 3 (2018)

Series 2 (2017)

Series 1 (2015)


  1. This is an absolutely excellent and comprehensive and sensitive summary. You have perfectly explained the flagrant weaknesses, and that’s putting it mildly. Thank you.

  2. Very interested to read your comments on this , I’m trying to give painting a go. I loved the sky arts programs as I find them quite inspiring. But I found this programme terrible last year and this week I thought it was worse. I liked your comparison to the generation game not sure if I will continue to watch....

  3. Well-analysed. As after watching last year, I was left with a feeling of dis-satisfaction and as a (trained and practising) teacher, inwardly groaning at the poor teaching technique of the mentors; the stiff, humourless and cold in-put of the judges and even the presenters unable to create anything like the atmosphere of either Bake-off or Pottery Throwdown. Some of it is simply the absence of ‘chemistry’ but also poor research and planning on the part of the production team must be largely to blame. Awaiting further episodes with more of a sense of duty (my students will be watching and expecting to debate) than excited anticipation!

  4. Maybe get them to read my blog posts too Rebecca? :)

  5. Katherine an excellent blog (you ears may be buring as I sent a copy to the production team to illustrate an issue I have with this series which you captured beautifully). I have a vested interest in the show and it is wonderful to see an unbiased opinion of the art and artists.

    I look forward to reading more!

  6. Hi Katherine,
    I cannot watch the BBC live, but had a look at a previous series of a still life session with gorgeous combinations of a teddy bear,scissors and clarinette on youtube, which gave me the ultimate WTF-Moment of the year.

  7. People need to know Martin to know why I guffawed when reading that last comment! He is spot on!

  8. Another disappointing series how can you have a contestant who is a graphic designer taking part ?

  9. Thank you for so clearly articulating so many of the issues that have plagued this years programme.

    Jane linked to some profiles for them on the BBC website, just so you know! She described them as 'not 100% correct, however'


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