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.

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