It's the wierdest thing, knowing when you're going to be eliminated from a competition when no one else does and not being able to say anything.
So many people said they were rooting for me, that they liked my painting and knew I would make it to the final. Knowing they were wrong and that they were going to watch me be eliminated at the end of the 3rd week was so hard. I felt like I was letting a lot of people down.
As always, we had no idea where we were going to be taken for the 3rd set of challenges. We knew we were painting a still life because we had the task of putting it together beforehand. The brief was to create a still life comprised of personal objects that had some kind of meaning to yourself. Now I have lots of 'stuff' but most of it is books and art equipment and music, with a few bits and bobs of jewellery that belonged to both my grandmothers. Working in fashion for over 20 years meant I also had a wardrobe bursting with clothes. I racked my brains for a few days trying to figure out what I could put in a still life that would be interesting to paint and tell a story about me.
I live close to a pebble beach, but didn't want to paint things like shells - I thought it might come across as a bit twee. I didn't want to go for obvious fashiony things like a tape measure or a book on sewing. The things that matter to me at the end of the day are my family but I don't have much in the way of heirlooms. I gathered together a few bits and pieces to play with in an attempt to make a story. A piece of embroidered textiles, my mum's old wedding ring, my grandmother Louise's watch, my grandmother Kitty's necklace. I thought these might be good. There was an immediate link - family through the female line - all strong women. Grandmother Kitty's necklace was a Leo necklace and we were both Leo's. Grandmother Lou's watch was broken and my timekeeping is pretty slapdash so I thought that was quite appropriate. A wedding ring refers to infinity, a watch refers to the passing of time, so time meets time. Perfect! I wanted to reference my life in fashion but didn't want to paint clothing. I love vintage fashion and collect pieces when I can, so I figured a crumbling embroidered silk shawl from the 1920's would be great. A clear reference to my work and my love of colour and texture and again the passing of time. That little pile wasn't enough. I looked around my flat and saw my vintage hat. A fabulous mustardy yellow colour pot style hat from the early 60's. The early 60's was when I was born, so that went into the mix. The last thing I added was a tube of paint in reference to my love of painting and my move away from fashion and into a future that I hoped would be painting. I worked on multiple ways of displaying it all, knowing it had to fit onto a small surface, until I was happy with the layout.
None of us ever had any idea what the quick draw would be, but I love drawing so had no qualms about it.
The last challenge we knew would be some kind of building of architectural interest but absolutely no idea what building or where in the country it would be. If I'd had any idea at all it was going to be Blenheim Palace I would have syked myself up big time! Only two days before leaving for the challenge did we know we were going to Oxford and only the day of arrival at our destination did we know we were going to Blenheim Palace.
The still life challenge took place in the Orangery. What a beautiful place. Fabulous gardens outside with manicured hedges and statues. The tables for our still life were quite low down, so my view point was much lower than I had planned. Instead of looking at the items, I was now looking down on them. Still, generally I was happy and looking forward to making a start. We were using acrylic to paint. I'd used that in the first challenge for the first time and once I'd gotten to grips with it had quite enjoyed it. I knew I had to work faster in order to get all the details in and the shadows. Lack of shadow had been pointed out in my previous challenges, so I knew this was something I need to address. My initial sketch on canvas was very good, very accurate. Unfortunately it was too low down, so I rubbed it all out and started again, determined to have a better composition. The 2nd drawing wasn't quite as accurate but I figured I could amend that when painting. I worked hard, as we all did. My colour mixing was good. I was going great guns, but as always, time slipped away and when time was up I hadn't managed to get in all my shadow. However when I looked at it I could see it was pretty accurate, full of colour, quite well painted. Most of the others had finished, except for Anne who hadn't finished her tablecloth background. Richard's painting was extraordinary - beautifully painted - and Paul's looked fabulous. He had been practising, he said, and it showed.
I was a bit startled to be called up first for the judging. Usually I'm at the back of the queue. I explained again the idea behind my painting and that I'd run out of time so the shadows weren't all there, but that I was aware of that. I really wasn't expecting what followed. My work was totally torn to shreds! Lachlan said the colour was good, but then proceeded to tear into the subject matter, ranting about how much he hated the hat. Daphne's comments weren't much better - that no one would know what it was about from looking at the picture, which was maddening as that really applied to most people, which when it came to their turn, was considered not a problem.. I was so gobsmacked I said nothing (unusual for me) and just took my painting away.
The quick draw turned out to be drawing giant chess pieces on a chequerboard on a lawn at the back of the house. I found the subject matter dull. But it was all about perspective and that is a good challenge, so once we started I chose my area to draw and threw myself into it. I draw quite fast, so when the perspective was a bit off I had plenty of time to correct it. Overall I did well, although I acknowledged that my white chess piece looked too grey, not white enough.
The last challenge took place very late the next day. I'd had no sleep at all and felt absolutely wretched. I tried getting a little sleep on the floor of the room we used for hanging around in, but I just couldn't. Blenheim is a beautiful place, with fountains and greenery and statues. The front is very grand with multiple columns and windows and very little else. I prayed that we would not have to paint the front. Of course, that's exactly what we had to paint!
As usual, we were given our spot to sit in, so no chance to find a view that appealed. Just paint what's in front. From the moment I sat in front of it I knew I hated it. To me, it was imposing but not beautiful. It was just stone, stone and more stone, with statues (stone), windows, forecourt (stone) and sky. It was a daunting task that never stopped being daunting. It thoroughly intimidated me and I hated it even more because of that. I craned my neck for a better viewpoint to no avail. Nevertheless I threw myself into it. I started with acrylic, planning to finish with oils. I painted a ground colour and plotted the building out in pencil and then started painting. To begin with it wasn't too bad, but as time when on the tiredness I felt was becoming overwhelming and at some point I lost where I was. I almost gave up and asked for another canvas. I toyed with the idea of doing it in watercolour because at least then I could draw it in pen and just add a wash of colour, but when I'm that tired I find it hard to think clearly, so I carried on, painting away and feeling like I was getting nowhere fast. Eventually I began to crumble. I'd had enough. It wasn't working. I hated everything about it. I was totally overtired and emotional and just wanted to stop. I couldn't fix what was wrong and no longer wanted to. When time was called I felt distraught. I had failed to achieve what I thought was a good painting and was frustrated and burst into tears. I felt the judges would rip it to shreds.
I don't remember now all of what they said, except for Lachlan commenting that I'd had a lovely cornflower blue sky which he was disappointed to find I'd painted over with oils in a duller blue, but the sky hadn't been cornflower blue, that had been just a base I put down to work on, so the finished sky in my painting was truer to what had been in front of me. I found that confusing . The other most notable comment was that Lachlan said, when you have a bad painting day, just throw it away and don't get upset. That was it really. No rant. The finished painting didn't look so bad. Some of the others said they liked it and that I was getting upset over nothing. Still, I had a strong feeling in my bones that I was going to be eliminated. I said as much when we were waiting for the deliberation to be over. And sure enough, it was my name and Alison's name that were called. And then it was all over.
We were whisked off for a debrief before being taken for dinner and then we met the other guys for a drink in the hotel bar and breakfast the next day before going home again. I called my partner Matt and told him the news. I think he was glad just to have me back home again and found the whole thing a little cynical. I wasn't sad, which surprised me. I wanted to sleep. I had no job and needed to find work. But, over the course of the next week I found I missed the rest of the gang enormously. It was like having an arm removed. I hated being separated from them and not being there having a whinge about the latest challenge and larking around between filming. They had become a sort of second family. And we're still attached to this day............
Goodness, so behind with the blog! My apologies.
All 10 of us artists from The Big Painting Challenge are having a group show in London 2 weeks after the programme has finished airing. I've been a major organiser of this and it's taken up huge amounts of time. I've never organised a show before for myself, let alone for 10 people. Talk about steep learning curve! I've also discovered that getting 10 people to comment on or agree on something is easier said than done..... I'm definitely becoming much more skilled in negotiation techniques.
Anyway, I'm going to back track a bit to the third episode of The Big Painting Challenge, now called BPC for short, which was an episode on still life and architectural painting........
Oh my god! I have just watched gogglebox with Matt and my friend Sabrina. Now can I just say that it's not something I watch very often. Usually I watch it when channel surfing and there's nothing else on. I've definitely never watched it with Matt before but we knew they were going to be 'reviewing' (I use that term loosely) The Big Painting Challenge. I figured it was one to watch.
What I didn't expect was my portrait of Pam/Pat to be flashed up onto the screen. One of the guys shrieked really loudly when he saw it. I don't blame him - it is quite scary. I have to say I thought the whole thing was hysterical and laughed as loudly as that man shrieked. But now I feel I really must make a point - HER EYES ARE NOT TOO NARROW!!! Here, judge for yourself..........
Well, that's the 2nd episode of the Big Painting Challenge done and dusted! I definitely felt nervous before the programme aired. There's so much edited out you just don't know what's going to end up on screen. I'm getting used to seeing my face on telly and I'm amazed at how calm I look, bearing in mind that I was feeling as sick as anything that day. Is that the magic of tv?
Painting a selfie is hard. Looking at yourself in a mirror for 3 hours is not the most comfortable experience. I'd rather study someone elses face than my own. I've sat for many portrait classes and people always make my features huge, quite often they take over my face. I found myself doing the same thing. I guess it's because I've got strong features but the trick I think is to minimise them a bit. Anyway, keeping your head in the same position's not easy either. When you have to look at the canvas to paint you need to remember to have your head back in the exact same position when you turn back to the mirror or your finished piece will be all over the place.
I wasn't at all pleased with my self portrait, though people tell me they like it. It was rather flat, missing shadow down the right side of the face. Daphne liked it (I'm loving Daphne at this point) although she did comment on the lack of shadow, Lachlan picked fault with my high forehead. I hoped the next 2 challenges would be much better.
It's a bit weird being cooped up in a London warehouse all day, which is where we were for the entire duration of filming. Bare creaky floorboards, raining outside at times, lunch warming in hot plates at the side of the room and tons of sugary snacks and coffee. We were all getting a bit skittish, mucking about with plastic cups, playing games, taking the mickey out of the film crew, singing Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, linking arms and doing funny walks. You bond really quickly when you're in that kind of situation and we had fast become a group of friends as opposed to competitors. You stop wanting anyone to be eliminated. You all want to be in, but you know in reality someone has to go and you just don't want it to be you. We missed Melvyn. At that point we had no idea that Jan would be the next to go. He's a big guy with huge hands and a warm heart. I told him he would be good at massage because he has really fat fingers. What I really meant was strong fingers, but it came out wrong and I've not been allowed to forget it since! Amy stood on the table and recited a poem, The Man in the Arena, by Theodore Roosevelt............."there is no effort without error or shortcoming......and if he fails, he at least fails while daring greatly......" A fantastic speech. If you don't know it I encourage you to look it up.
I loved the quick draw challenge. Life drawing is totally my thing. I was completely in my comfort zone and finished in half the time.
The last portrait of the day - the celebrity portrait. We had no idea who it was going to be and then there she was, Pam St Clement, aka Pat Butcher from Eastenders. We weren't allowed to talk to her until after the sitting was over. She's very nice, very well spoken and attractive. However that's not the Pam that came out in my painting. The Pam in my painting was much more the scary Pat Butcher. There was a real ferociousness about her.
It was a really challenging session. She sat much further away than you would normally sit a person whose portrait you're painting. I'm at a bit of a loss, painting skin when I can't see the tones properly and, although in reality I'm sure her skin is beautiful it was hidden under layers of foundation and I struggled with it really. I can paint an enhanced version of what I see, but I can't just make it up, and this was a time when I really needed to 'make it up'. My finished portrait was very different from what I would normally paint and Pam commented that she didn't like the way I had painted her eyes. She said they were too narrow. Lachlan made the same comment. Actually the eyes were accurate. I measured them very carefully. Daphne said she really quite liked the painting (good old Daphne!) That's good praise coming from her. Shame that bit didn't make it onto tv.........
My partner, Matt, now refers to me as The Tortoise. This is thanks to a write-up in Artists & Illustrators Magazine who say I am "one to watch" (I'm talking about the Big Painting Challenge here, obviously) and "only time will tell if this tortoise will win the race". Now, whenever I call him on the phone his opening line is "Is that The Tortoise?". He teases me a lot, but I don't mind.
I've spoken to family and friends who all say they're really proud of how I did in the first episode and I'm really glad. I was a bit worried that some of them would find it all a bit cringey, me being on tv in another bake-off style programme, but they don't. I've had so many positive comments and compliments about what I did, especially the painting of the bust.
Midweek I met with a new friend called Diarmuid, someone I met recently at a birthday party, who is a well respected painter with work in the NPG. I'm a bit in awe of him I think. Well, who wouldn't be in my position, the 'amateur painter' who at the end of the day would really like to be him! He got the programme time of the first episode wrong and ended up watching it on mute while he worked out at the gym. As he doesn't have catch up it will only ever be a silent episode. Still he also loved 'the bust' and was very encouraging. He's pointed me in the direction of a painter called Harold Gilman who was one of the Camden Town Group and used a lot of expressive colour in his paintings. I've goggled him and fallen in love with all his paintings. My eye has a tendency to heighten colour. When I study someone's skin tone I start to see all sorts of wonderful colours which affects what I put down on the canvas. Looking at Harold Gilmans paintings makes me feel at ease with my own use of colour.
So tonight! Episode 2!!! I'm nervous. I've no idea what to expect. I saw a preview of episode 1 at BAFTA in Piccadilly a few days before it aired, but I've not even seen a trailer of episode 2. I've no way of telling how my painting will come across. Editing can make such a difference - there's so much more that happened than will ever make it onto the screen. I'm sure when I watch it lots of memories will come flooding back. For now, what I remember most of all is the overwhelming tiredness. Insomnia had kicked in and I had barely managed 3 hours sleep. When I went to take on the first painting challenge I felt hideously nauseous and seriously considered not doing it. But I had come too far to give up that easily and I figured that if I could hold it together for long enough adrenalin would kick in..........and it did!
So, now the excitement of the first episode is dying down and it's back to doing normal everyday things.
Yesterday morning I sat as a model for a portrait painting class. It's not something I do all the time, just occasionally. I enjoy it. You get to meet and chat with new people, all amateur artists, many retired and looking to be creative and sociable at the same time. This group is very much in that vein. They had all seen the Big Painting Challenge, asked about it and made various comments as to what they thought. The general concensus seemed to be that they didn't like the judges (too harsh and not enough encouragement), they thought it was sad that someone gets 'evicted' each week (would rather see people progressing instead) and the lack of back story on some made it difficult to appreciate where each artist was coming from and what they hoped to achieve. I guess a background story is a nice way for you to either warm to a particular character or dismiss them, which is part and parcel of the fun of these types of programme and it is also interesting to know why other people do things, to hear their thoughts and hopes/dreams for the future.
Anyway, I think I did a good job of sitting still! During the second half I struggled to keep my eyes open which is what happens when you have to stare at the same spot on a wall for an hour. Most of them worked in watercolour, one in oils and one in pastel. At the end it was amazing to see the variety of styles and colours, some students very pleased to show their work and some hiding theirs away. One man, the one who worked in pastel, pretended to be Daphne Todd (one of the judges from the BPC) and critiqued his work in her style!!!
The afternoon was spent at the Hastings Arts Forum, a non-profit gallery on the sea front in St Leonards, where I volunteer and create their e-newsletter promoting exhibitions at the gallery and art-related events. Even put in a mention about the Little Painting Challenge - the beeb competition inviting the public to make a painting or drawing on a postcard and send it in. They're a great group of people at the Forum, all contributing to keeping the place running through volunteering. I got a lot of quizzing about the programme and a few attempts to trick me into uncovering the winner. One thing I have learnt about myself lately is that I'm actually extremely good at keeping a secret. My lips are well and truly sealed!
I've been meaning to start this blog for ages but totally lacked inspiration, but now, with the start of the Big Painting Challenge, in which I am a contestant, this seems as good a time as any and as good a subject as any to begin with.
The Big Painting Challenge, which to the majority of people will just be a BBC Sunday tv programme, has been a huge thing in my life. It's brought me new friends and fresh hopes for the future. When I applied to be on the show it was for 2 reasons - one, to push myself to paint more and 2, the chance to exhibit a piece of work in the Tate. I had been working in a fashion design team and my job was really full-on. It left no time for painting and I knew I needed a big stick prodding me to pick up my brushes. Entering the Big Painting Challenge was that big stick. I found that I had been selected to take part in the programme at the same time as being made redundant - what great timing was that! Don't get me wrong, being made redundant was a horrible experience and I had no idea when I would find another job, but when something bad happens, you need a good thing to pick you up and the BPC was definitely it.
It was also very scary. It had been a year since I'd painted anything and I had no proper technical training, so a lot of ground to cover in a short space of time. I set about cramming like a student, practicing colour mixing and painting still lifes in oils. I knew there was a chance I'd have to tackle subject matter I hadn't done before, so I contacted a local painter and asked for advice and, amazingly, she invited me over to watch her paint even though we'd never met each other before. It felt wonderful to stand in an artists studio, albeit a small one, and watch her paint. I don't have a studio yet - I paint in my living room by the window which can make painting difficult as the light constantly changes.
Travelling to the first location was exciting and unnerving. I knew where to get on the train, where to get off the train and nothing else. Details were limited. Getting off at the end station, I saw a small group of people forming on the platform, all wheeling art cases and bags and figured they were all there for the same reason as me. And so they were. We were all whisked off in taxis to our secret location, checked in to our hotel and then all met for dinner. Just me and 9 strangers. Very daunting but really exciting. And there the real journey began.
I'm not a natural landscape painter and I'm not a natural castle lover, so the subject matter of the first challenge was a mammoth task for me to get my head around. Painting a landscape with a castle in it - aaargh! But I threw myself into the task and hunted for the thing, whatever it was, that would capture my attention and my imagination.
I fell in love with the bust of the slave, or whatever she was (to this day I still have no idea), as soon as I saw it in the library, sketching it quickly. I took a few photographs and then moved onto the outside of the building. But even though I found the colours of the castle's stone walls and arches beautiful, I couldn't get the bust out of my mind and made the decision then that's what I would paint. And it worked for me. I had a subject I felt enthusiastic about and a paint medium (acrylic) I had no experience in using. My enthusiasm and interest in the bust had to carry me through. I thought having a deadline to make a painting would be good as I generally take my time and then pull a painting together at the last moment, so even though I knew the judges were worrying about my tardiness, I wasn't. However, handling a new paint medium and juggling that with judges and a camera crew was a very new experience and my confidence constantly fluctuated. I remember, when we were told to stop painting, looking around me and seeing for the first time what everyone else had done. Amazing and so different, each and every one. I thought I would be bottom of the class! To my delight the judges loved it. They picked up on the energy and liveliness of it. I was so pleased.
The landscape painting was totally different. Our places were already decided, so no wandering around finding your own spot. The view you saw in front of you was the one you had no choice but to go with. I have to admit that, to begin with, all I could see was a sea of green with a castle in it. When I'm not sure what to do I muck about a bit and that's exactly what I did, adjusting the easel a million times, getting paints out and putting them away, standing up and sitting down. It didn't help that just before starting I had nipped off to the loo and on my way back trodden in a bog, ending up with one foot and ankle completely wet and caked in black in mud. I remember looking around and seeing everyone else getting started and feeling kind of helpless. Then I noticed a dip in the land by the side of the castle - probably once the moat - and that was it. There was something about the curves that appealed to me, and the mixture of greens, the sweep and movement of the whole thing. I sketched and plotted it out. That would work for me and that was it - I was off. It was my first proper landscape painting and very possibly will be my last, who knows. But I pored my heart into it, getting stuck at times, sometimes feeling like there was too much green for me to cope with and I'm sure there were points when I forgot to breathe. I thought, at the end, it wouldn't be good enough. Everyone elses looked so much better than mine. But - again when it came to the judging, it turned out that they thought very differently. They could see so much more in it. I will never forget Daphne saying she thought it was a very lush painting and that she could stare at it for hours, looking at the colours! The relief I felt was monumental.
The sad part of that first trip was Melvyn leaving. He's a great guy and very passionate about his painting. We all worked so hard and even though we were competing against each other we had already started to become friends. When they called his name I put my head down so no one would see the tear in my eye. I was glad it wasn't me, but sad it was him.