The Big Painting Challenge – Why So Challenging?

I’ll come clean up front and state I haven’t seen the whole series of BBC’s The Big Painting Challenge 2017, a competition for amateur artists using a similar format to The Big Pottery Throwdown, The Great British Sewing Bee and of course the collosal hit The Great British Bake Off.

The show describes itself like this:

Passionate amateur artists undertake an intensive, six-week, artistic boot camp in a bid to perfect their skills and be crowned the overall champion.

I’ve only seen a few bits and pieces of The Big Painting Challenge until last night when I saw the fifth episode, Movement. This episode’s challenge was for the artists to convey proportion and movement in their work whilst observing ballerinas in action.

The show had me almost incandescent with rage at several points. I have a BA Hons in Illustration and have studied Fine Art and Art History over the years and spent many, many hours drawing life models in many situations, including drawing during a theatre performance of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard from the stalls and painting horse racing during a race meeting as part of my illustration degree course. Our artists seemed completely lost as the ballerina performed her routine whilst the artists looked on agape and gasping “How are we going to paint this?” Surely lesson one in this “artistic boot camp” would have involved some sort of rapid sketching exercises to loosen the artists up? But I guess that’s not good telly. In fact I was so curious as to the contents of lesson one that I watched episode 1 on iPlayer and found that lesson one was a still life and Pascal described his teaching style as “alternative thinking.”

Needless to say I was spitting “Fuck you”‘s at Pascal, one of the mentors, as he denegrated the eventual heat winner’s charcoal drawing of the ballerina shown in the clip above as “my worry here is that it’s going to be an illustration. Don’t be afraid of your response as an artist to what’s here.” What the fucking fuck does that even mean? Why use illustration as some kind of dirty word? Why assume that because something is well observed, well drawn and executed that it’s not showing some kind of emotional response from the artist? Does he think that because illustrations are usually done as work for hire that this somehow makes the art less valuable? Most of the work by the greatest artists in history were commissions from wealthy patrons or institutions (usually the Catholic Church) and the techniques used in these pieces inform and influence the techniques and styles used to this day. Edgar Degas, who is mentioned in this episode, was famed for his paintings of ballet dancers but Degas’ later works were all painted to generate an income for himself as he had spent all his money and sold his art collection to pay off his brother’s business debts. Does this somehow lessen the emotion Degas imbued in his work? Of course not. Does the work of William Blake generate less emotion because he was an illustrator? Was he not creating the work for himself as well as an audience? Is that not precisely what the contestants in this show are doing? I’m sure that painting dancing ballerinas would not be on any of their lists of future projects unless the Beeb were making them do it.

Edgar Degas - Two dancers on a stage c.1874

Edgar Degas – Two dancers on a stage c.1874

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing circa 1786 William Blake 1757-1827 Presented by Alfred A. de Pass in memory of his wife Ethel 1910

From the BBC’s description above one would assume these amateur artists had at least been taught some basic techniques over the previous 4 weeks about observation and sketching. Pascal again attracted my wrath as he tried to get his 2 students to paint 100 moving figures on a busy London street using 1 stroke of a brush per figure. How about teaching them some basics? How about a quick lesson in proportions considering that’s what your students will be critiqued on? No, they just stood in the strret drawing lines with a brush.

During the final challenge of this episode the artists had to create a piece of artwork based on a live performance of Swan Lake that was performed several times for them. The ballerinas entered the room, performed and left and I was dismayed to see that not one of the artists was taking the time to sketch the ballerinas in action whilst they were in the room. The artists were not making preparatory sketches and the artists’ “mentors” were intent on getting the artists to paint their “observations” immediately and spend no time studying the figures in motion, preparing sketches, planning composition or working on proportions. Of course, as the artists worked these “mentors” subsequently ripped the artwork to pieces, complaining about lack of motion, poor composition and poor proportions. Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance as the saying goes!

The artists final pieces were then judged by the usual motley crew of reality show judges and their feedback was generally fair and reflected more on the quality of their teachers than on the artists themselves.

10 Essential WordPress Plugins

iThemes Security

iThemes Security is my number 1 pick for securing a WordPress site. Not only does the handy wizard walk you through the process of securing your site against bots, hackers and malware but it also includes a backup facility to back your entire site up. The backup file is then saved to the local file system or sent to an email address of your choice.

SEO Ultimate

SEO Ultimate is a recent discovery for me. For years I have used WordPress SEO by Yoast which is a fine plugin but lacks a few features that SEO Ultimate does have. SEO Ultimate’s Deeplink Juggernaut is especially useful on large sites as it gives you the ability to link any anchor phrase on any page straight to your desired target page without having to manually edit every page individually. There’s also a code inserter so you can automatically add code to the header and footer and before or after each article on your site. The 404 monitor also shows you what pages are being hit on your site and causing 404 errors so you can address those. It really is the ultimate SEO toolkit for WordPress.

Contact Form 7

Contact Form 7 makes making contact form a breeze. The plugin supports all possible combinations of form elements allowing  you to create complex data capture forms very simply. You can even make the elements accessible for impaired users as required by EU regulations.

Black Studio TinyMCE Widget

Black Studio TinyMCE Widget is one of my favourite widgets. This handy little plugin allows you to add a widget in any sidebar that has the WordPress wysiwyg editor enabled for easy editing of your widget’s content. No more inserting HTML codes by hand in your widgets!

TinyMCE Advanced

The TinyMCE Advanced plugin unlocks the full power of the WordPress visual editor, which is a cut down version of Moxiecode’s TinyMCE wysiwyg editor. TinyMCE Advanced allows you to define your own toolset for the visual editor window. Want to add an easy table creation tool? Done! Want to add font control to the editor? Done! Just drag and drop your required features on to the toolbar and save.


Autoptimize shrinks your HTML code, CSS and Javascript files so they load faster. Many other plugins promise this facility but this is the only plugin I’ve found that works 100% of the time and does not break a site in the process.

EWWW Image Optimizer

EWWW Image Optimizer is a free alternative to Smush.It and does everything Smush.It does including bulk lossless optimization of media files and other images outside of the uploads folder.

Velvet Blues Update URLs

I use Velvet Blues Update URLs on almost every WordPress site I build. If you build a site on a development server like I do then roll the site out on to a live server you may see that some of the live site’s content still links to the development server. Oh dear. Velvet Blues Update URLs will scan your content and links for the URL you input and replace it with another URL of your choice so you don’t have to edit every single page, image or link manually.

Google Analytics by Yoast

Google Analytics by Yoast is quite simply the best plugin I have found to add Google Analytics tracking codes to your site. The plugin is regularly updated so you can be sure you have the latest tracking codes on your site, add reports and see helpful GA dashboards in your WordPress dashboard.

Easy Bootstrap Shortcode

If you’ve ever built a WordPress theme with Bootstrap and want your clients to be able to add columns and the other goodies that Bootstrap brings to your site then you’ll need the Easy Bootstrap Shortcode plugin. The plugin adds a menu of shortcodes to your WordPress visual editor which makes adding Boostrap enabled content to your site as easy as 1-2-3.

What plugins are in your essentials list and why? Let us know in the comments section below.

How To Set Up Google Content Experiments in Magento 1.7

I spent a lot of time looking around for a way to conduct Google Analytics Content Experiments in Magento with very little success. I did find this post in Finnish that detailed one approach and I adapted his findings (with the help of Google Translate) in to the following solution.

Step 1 – Set up your Content Experiment code block
In CMS > Static Blocks add a new static block with an easy to identify name such as “Google Content Experiments Code” and an identifier such as “google_code_block”. Paste the Content Experiments code in to the wysiwyg editor by pressing the HTML button and pasting the code in to the pop up window. Click “update” and the window will close but you won’t see anything appear in the wysiwyg window. This is normal.Make sure you enable the code block and save it.

Step 2 – Alter your template to write the code block
In your appdesignfrontenddefaultyourtemplatetemplatepagehtmlhead.phtml file add the following code right at the top after meta charset="UTF-8"

<?php  $routeName = Mage::app()->getRequest()->getRouteName();
$identifier = Mage::getSingleton('cms/page')->getIdentifier();
if($routeName == 'cms' && $identifier == 'home') {
echo $this->getLayout()->createBlock('cms/block')->setBlockId('google_code_block')->toHtml();
} else {


If you are performing an experiment on a page other the home page you will need to change the $identifier string to match your page identifier which is your URL key. You will also need to change the Block ID if you have called your code block something different.

Step 3 – Disable the code block on your variation pages
Set up the variations of your CMS page and in the Layout Update XML part of the Design tab paste the following XML code:
<reference name="head">
<remove name="google_code" />

This will stop the code block from loading on the variation pages as per Google’s instructions.

Step 4 – Verify it all works in Google Analytics!
Check it all works in GA and start your experiment.

I’ve yet to work out a way to perform experiments on category pages without creating a brand new category containing the same products.

Proof that Google Plus Helps Rankings

A couple of months ago I re-developed a site for my Dad’s knitting business, Tandy Knitting Wools, to complement his eBay shop. We’d launched a site a few years previously but were having problems keeping stock up to date between eBay and his own website and the bricks and mortar shop so we closed the e-commerce site for a while. We launched the new Magento-based site in September and I waited a while for Google to do it’s thing and assign us some rankings. I built a few links, posted a few things on Facebook, Twitter, a Google Plus post, etc. and slowly the rankings climbed to around the 50s – 80s mark for most of the keyphrases I was keeping an eye on and settled there. Obviously the site was in need of a boost up the rankings but how? After Penguin and Panda the old ways of building links were no good to me and spending time writing and publishing articles wasn’t really practical so I decided that social media was the best way to increase not only rankings but conversions and to draw new customers in. My first step had a dramatic effect on rankings… The site went from ranking in the 60 – 80 region to top 10 in just 6 days!

So, what did I do that had such an effect? Well it’s extremely simple, I set up a Google Plus page for the site. All I added was the site’s URL, the shop’s physical address,  phone, and email address and logo. Nothing else, no photos, no videos, no posts on the page. The page isn’t even verified yet (waiting on the postcard) and the rankings went rocketing upwards.

Cygnet DK Wool went from 40 to 8, Cygnet DK went from 15 to 4, King Cole Big Value Chunky from 82 to 14, Krystal Wool from 52 to 11, Wondersoft Wool from 70 to 18 and many more! All this just by spending 5 minutes signing up for a free Google Plus page. Today I’ve linked the site to the Google Plus page using the rel=author and rel=publisher attributes so we’ll see what effect that has on rankings.

Quickly Add Open Graph tags to Magento

A client of mine recently shared the site report for her site from Silktide with me and it showed a few things needed improving, particularly the Open Graph integration. Her site is a new Magento store, built on Magento Community Edition 1.7.02 and whilst I’d added share buttons to the product pages via the ShareThis widget I hadn’t added in any Open Graph tags to optimize the sharing process. The Silktide report spurred me in to action and I thought I’d share my code to quickly add the OG tags to your magento pages.

First you’ll need to edit your theme’s head file at “app/design/frontend/YOURTHEME/default/template/page/html/head.phtml” and add the following lines of code:

<meta property="og:site_name" content="<?php echo Mage::app()->getStore()->getGroup()->getName(); ?>" />
<meta property="og:description" content="<?php echo strip_tags(htmlspecialchars($this->getDescription())) ?>" />
<?php if (!in_array(Mage::app()->getFrontController()->getAction()->getFullActionName(), array('cms_index_noRoute', 'cms_index_defaultNoRoute'))) {
    $currentUrl = Mage::helper('core/url')->getCurrentUrl();
<meta property="og:url" content="<?php echo $currentUrl ?>" />
<?php if (Mage::registry('current_product')) : ?>
<?php if (Mage::registry('current_product')->getMetaTitle() == "") {
  $ogTitle = Mage::registry('current_product')->getName();
} else {
  $ogTitle = Mage::registry('current_product')->getMetaTitle();
?> <meta property="og:title" content="<?php echo $ogTitle ?>" />  

<meta property="og:image" content="<?php echo Mage::helper('catalog/image')->init(Mage::registry('current_product'), 'small_image')->resize(200,200);?>" />
<?php endif;?> 

This code is mainly aimed at product pages and sharing them on Facebook so it renders the product’s title, description and a thumbnail image of the product, resized to the recommended size of 200 pixels square. Any HTML in the description is stripped out leaving the plain text. The code also adds the current store view’s name (you may need to edit this in Configuration > Manage Stores) and the URL of the current page. Finally the code checks if the product has a Meta Title set and if not it displays the name of the product instead. Upload the altered file, clear your Magento cache and away you go. You can check your integration with the Facebook debugger tool.

The code below checks if we’re on a product or category page and pulls the relevant image and sets the correct og:title for the category or product page.

<?php if (Mage::registry('current_category')) : ?>
<?php $ogTitle = Mage::registry('current_category')->getName();?>
$_category  = Mage::registry('current_category');
$cur_category = Mage::getModel('catalog/category')->load($_category->getId());
$imageUrl = $cur_category->getImageUrl();
<meta property="og:image" content="<?php echo $imageUrl;?>" />
<?php endif;?>
<?php if (Mage::registry('current_product')) : ?>
<meta property="og:image" content="<?php echo Mage::helper('catalog/image')->init(Mage::registry('current_product'), 'small_image')->resize(200,200);?>" />
<?php endif;?>
<meta property="og:title" content="<?php echo $ogTitle ?>" />

I still haven’t found a way to get all the product images but it will be necessary to loop throught the product image array and write out an og:image tag for each image.

5 Essential Magento extensions for UK shopping sites.

I’ve been spreading my wings lately and offering low cost e-commerce solutions using Magento Community as the base for websites. Magento Community is a fine piece of software with a mind-boggling array of features and options but it does lack certain abilities that make it a truly great product. Thankfully due to the open-source nature of Magento there are plenty of extensions available to make Magento do what you want it to do.

Yoast MetaRobots
This exension by the respected Yoast (known for his excellent WordPress SEO extension) allows you to control the Meta Robots tags quickly and easily on a variety of pages on your Magento site to help direct the flow of “link juice” around the site and prevent pages from being indexed. Yoast MetaRobots allows you to set pages such as Send to a Friend, Customer Account pages, Tags and Checkout as “noindex, follow” from a simple panel in the System > Configuration  > Web section of Magento’s administration area.

Now that Google (and Bing to a lesser extent) are really pushing Rich Snippets as an important part of your site’s content it is imperative that your Magento site implements semantic markup for Rich Snippets for Google and Bing. The MSemantic extension takes away all the pain of marking up your site with a simple to install extension. Once installed your products and reviews contain the correct markup for Rich Snippets integration which will help with your rankings and visibility in Google, Google Shopping and of course Bing.

Google Content API for Shopping
The only way to get your products listed on Google Shopping if you use Magento. Simply install the extension, add your Account ID, Google Account Email Address and Password and then upload your selected products to Google. You can configure the extension to automatically update the product listing on Google if you change the product in any way and it’s easy to see what products you have listed and what needs adding. The extension also supports custom attributes and the full range of Google Shopping taxonomies.

Meanbee Royal Mail Domestic and International Shipping
This simple to use extension adds the current Royal Mail shipping costs to your Magento store and works out the correct postage cost based on location and weight. My 2 qualms with this extension are you can’t add the cost of your packaging materials to the shipping rates so you would have to add a bit extra on to each product’s cost or define a shopping cart rule to get a more accurate cost and the extension does not take the packet’s dimensions in to account as it’s based purely on weight. Otherwise this extension is fantastic and a really simple way to set up Shipping Table Rates in Magento for UK users.

Clever CMS
Magento’s Content Management System is a bit… well, basic to polite, but Magento is primarily an e-commerce solution not a fully featured CMS. Clever CMS extends the basic Magento CMS with some great additions that I feel are essential to any good CMS. Clever CMS allows you to assign permissions to your pages so you can decide who sees your pages (logged in customers, not logged in customers, etc.) and more importantly creates a tree structure for your pages similar to Magento’s category tree structure so you can create sub pages and rearrange your menus at will and each store view can have it’s own “tree”. You can define your own URLs and if you change them at a later date then Clever CMS will set up a 301 redirect from the old URL to the new one.

Is Google removing free directories from it’s index?

This is my first post in a long time on my often neglected blog and I thought I should come back by answering a question a lot of people have been asking on the SEO forums and sites recently, “is Google removing free directories from it’s index?” Barry Schwartz highlighted the issue over on Search Engine Round Table and claimed that over 50% of the directory sites he checked had been de-indexed. Search News Central followed that up with a test of over 400 directories and found that just over 1% had been de-indexed. I used to use a lot of free directory submissions when I was starting out and built up quite a list of directories that I knew were good for a link, would show up on Google and were regularly crawled. I checked this list of just under 200 directories to see if any had been deindexed and the results were… underwhelming. Out of 191 sites 2 were no longer online so had been de-indexed, 4 were still active but had been de-indexed due to server errors or just plain crap coding or set up and 1 had only the home page indexed. The rest were fine. So in short the answer to the question above is… no.

It may be that after the Penguin update that these free directories are no longer passing as much or any link juice as before, it may be that these sites are fine. As I said earlier this list is a hand-crafted list of free directories that have been proven to work pre-Penguin, post-Panda and long before that. So is Google removing quality free directories? No, but it might be removing the crap ones and about time too.

Removing Voltrank Increased My Rankings

Following on from my recent post about Voltrank’s ineffectiveness at increasing rankings I thought you may be interested to know what effect that has had on rankings. A week on from deactivating and uninstalling Voltrank my rankings for my entire site have shot up considerably. I mentioned 2 target phrases in my original post and for the the first of these, “bra measuring guide,” my site is not firmly in the top 10 of Google UK and for the second, “lingerie guide,” the page is hovering around postion 15 or 16. Rankings across the site have improved immensely for many of the keywords I’m tracking for the site with a few top 10 and top 20 results just a week after being nowhere in the top 200! I am aware that some of this boost may be coming from the links I placed in my previous post but that wouldn’t really explain the site wide jump. I mean this blog isn’t exactly popular so there’s very little link juice flowing around. I think this just reinforces that my experience with Voltrank was bad. To back this up, here’s a screen shot from my Google Analytics account for this site:

Yep that’s five fold increase in traffic after the site was re-ranked. Yes it’s only 14 or 15 a day but it’s a lot better than 2 a day!

Free Link Exchange Programs That Don’t Work – Linkalizer

In the second post in my series of Free Link Exchange Programs That Don’t Work I’m looking at Linkalizer. I’d like to start by pointing out that it’s been a few years since I actively used Linkalizer as I realized a while ago that it was crap! I checked my records and I signed up in 2007. It may have changed in the last few years but by looking at the website I’d say it hasn’t! One quick glance through the Link Exchange Directory on the site (where all sites that join Linkalizer are listed) shows us that there is very little care or attention put in to this system. Looking at the Arts section of the directory shows us that Linkalizer is full or spam and misfiled sites. There’s a Nigerian Job Centre site, Google Classified Ads site, NTFS data recovery, college party tips, Warcraft sites, a technology new blog, corsets site, the obligatory Vietnam travel site and “Medical tourism in India” all on the first page of the Arts directory. This tells us the sites aren’t being reviewed and anyone can join. I tested a handful of links from various pages in the directory on Yahoo! Site Explorer and none of them showed a backlink from Linkalizer’s directory so it’s not even worth joining for a free followed link from their directory as it will never be counted!

Linkalizer is a simple link exchange system, you link to someone else’s site and they will link back to you. Free members can send a limited number of link requests per day and respond to incoming requests. Members can search the directory and request links from any site in any category. Unfortunately this means you will be inundated with link requests from poor quality sites, unrelated sites and makes finding the good sites even harder. The directory lists the PageRank for each site (because that’s such a reliable metric…) and a link to the Alexa data for the site so if you want to find any good sites you’re going to have to do some serious digging with 3rd party tools. You can’t search the directory, only browse the listings which makes finding link prospects even more time consuming.

As I said before it’s been a few years since I used Linkalizer and maybe if you were determined enough and did enough analysis of your link exchange prospects you could get some strong backlinks from this system but you would spend most of your time in the dashboard rejecting link requests from spammy sites. If you are looking for sites to exchange links with then avoid this system and stick to looking for link exchanges manually.

Don;t forget to check out part one of this series, our review of Voltrank.

Free Link Exchange Programs That Don’t Work – Voltrank

For the past several months, since May to be precise, I have been experimenting with a link exchange system called Voltrank. Voltrank promise “quality one-way links” on a system that’s been “built by SEOs for SEOs” and best of all it’s completely free. The set up procedure is simple, you sign up for Voltrank, install a widget on your WordPress blog or a piece of code on any site capable of running PHP scripts, check your installation is working and then set up the links to the pages you want to promote. Voltrank then puts your link on other sites and gets different sites to link to your site. The widget displays up to 6 one-way text links from the Voltrank network and each link is different on each page of your site and each link is permanent so there’s very little link churn. The links only change if the link’s site leaves the network or changes the advert text. Your site earns “Volts” per page on your site. The more Volts you have, the more sites on the network your ads will appear on. Naturally this system benefits larger sites and sites that add a lot of new content like blogs. It all seems like the perfect link exchange system, one-way links, automated, nice and simple to use but… it doesn’t make any difference to search engine rankings.

As I said in the opening paragraph, I’ve been using Voltrank for 5 months now on an affiliate blog and had 2 ads running, one for a “bra measuring guide” and another for “lingerie guide“. Voltrank’s dashboard features some very comprehensive reports including a breakdown of every page your link appears on. The first link appeared on 71 sites and the second on 37. However out of the 71 sites that Voltrank reported my first link to be active on, 22 of the sites had no link on them. For the second link, 9 out of 37 sites had no active link and 2 were infected with malware. The rest of the linking sites low quality sites, foreign sites (even though you specify your language during the set up phase), 404 blog pages and all were of absolutely no relevance at all to my site’s niche (fashion / lingerie). Many of the sites were advertising illegal downloads of TV shows or were so blatently spam domains and made for adsense sites that you wonder how they ever get through Voltrank’s review process in the first place. After 5 months the “bra measuring guide” page has a whopping 3 inbound links from Voltrank sites according to Yahoo! Site Explorer and 4 according to Google Webmaster tools and the “lingerie guide” page has none, zero, zilch. The first page doesn’t even show up in Google searches for it’s target term according to Google Webmaster Tools and is not in the top 200 results whereas the second shows up in Google Webmaster Tools but not in the top 200 results. Both pages are indexed and cached in Google.

I will admit that my test pages were not optimized beyond adding a heading tag and a title tag but this was an experiment to see if Voltrank could power my pages to the top on link juice alone. Unfortunately it seems that in this case Voltrank’s batteries are flat.

I did try to add another WordPress blog to the Voltrank system to double check my findings but even though the blog was on the same server with the same set up and same plug-ins the Voltrank script would not validate the set up.