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.