Surreal. That is how I feel about my participation in the latest BBC Challenge programme! I am waiting for someone to pinch me because it feels like the whole thing has happened to someone else.
It all started at the end of December 2013, when, under pressure from my family to start justifying why I had jacked in a perfectly good job and wage to concentrate on a more 'hands on' expression of my creativity, I vowed to work hard and put myself out there to gauge whether or not I was just chasing a rainbow. Was it really all futile? I am not a trained artist. I am a trained fashion designer - totally different disciplines! Yes I believe I have a good eye for colour, but it is colour that draws me in, turns me on and freaks me out, so that I guess is an inbuilt part of me. How to express that passion for colour though. That is the thing that really gets me going in the morning. Walking the dog and taking in my surroundings, the beautiful morning light dancing in the trees and across the landscape; the murmur of crows taking flight from a nearby field casting black shadows across the bright fresh cut haylage field, the purple and blue reflections after the rain…I could go on but I don't want to bore you with my poetic prose!
It is this inquisitive nature, the urge to scratch a creative itch that got me into painting. I am not saying I am any good at it - far from it! I crave instruction, but can't now afford to pay for it. I freelance to earn money, but that just about covers the basics so a yearned for arty break away from it all to suck up a pro's knowledge is something I now just dream of.
I spent 2013 painting commissions, mainly of pets, but some people, and landscapes too - every one was a lesson in painting for me. What happens if I do this with the brush? If I throw this paint at the canvas does it create the drama I am after? Every brush stroke posed a question, and in my own little studio in Cheshire I was the only one answering my questions. Dangerous for an artist that craves development. I was always taught that if a jobs worth doing it's worth doing well and living in a vortex of unanswered questions was getting me nowhere!
I joined lots of art groups on Facebook and posted my work, which resulted in lots of positive feedback and constructive criticism which improved my confidence and my technique.
I joined the Association of Animal Artists and exhibited with them - I also sold some work too which was great! I joined a local art club, Cranage Art Club, which put me amongst local artists - some of which are really talented, and have some amazing work hidden under their beds! I still felt stifled though. I am an ambitious person and love to learn new things so I knew I needed to up my game!
So when I was handed a printed flyer for the BBC Big Painting Challenge by one of my arty friends I decided that my New Years Resolutions for 2014 was to work my butt off and apply for as many competitions as I could create work for. Who knows - I might actually get the critique I was after. It was whilst in a bit of a deluded devil may care attitude that I fired my entry off to the BBC - I sent 3 images of my work, and bit about me, and pressed SEND! Oh my God - what have I done??? I sat at my desk and panicked! What if they, by some remote chance actually picked me out? I had no idea that there would be such a big entry (over 6000 hopefuls) for the chance to be a contestant on the programme, so you can imagine my SHOCK when I got a phone call from the Beeb asking me to attend one of their 'heats' in Manchester!
I found myself amongst fellow applicants, all nervous and chattering, exchanging stories about how we had all come to be there.
I won't go into detail as I don't think that is fair if the programme goes onto make a second series - I think the element of surprise is what they base their challenges on, but lets just say that I was so excited to be there, and to have got that far, that I painted some of the best work in the small amount of time given that I think I have done to date! And that reaction to a given experience is what makes good art - that is one of the most valuable lessons I have learnt - to paint from real life and emotion - not just a photograph! It is all very well trying to capture a photographic likeness - when you work on commissions that is what the client is after most of the time. This was REAL art. This was about expressing passion and feeling and making it work as a painting.
Blow me then, when I got through to a final heat! What??? I can only assume that it was my personality that was getting me through? The pressure was on now. I was now questioning myself constantly…there must be something of merit to pick me from such a large amount of people. Yes I LOVE painting. Yes I want to be critiqued by judges who have forged their own successful careers as an artist, and be professionally trained, and if I have to be on TV to get what I need to improve then so be it. How hard can it be? (Mmm I have a flash back to a school report at this point "Alison is a popular girl but can be flippant at times". Well let me tell you that this flippancy is probably what saved my sanity through the whole process!) It was my coping mechanism when told "You have 5 minutes left" and I hadn't even finished the main feature of my painting!
So it is thus that I found myself on a train to Alnwick watching the blur of passing scenery and wondering what was in store. for me. Who would be the other 9 contestants? Will I know any of them from the heats? How will the filming fit around the painting? or vice versa as it turned out!
As I struggled to exit the train with my ten ton art case (I didnt know what to bring so I brought everything I had in my studio!) I saw lots of similarly equipped people on the platform - one of them, Anne Blankson Hemens was from my heat! We were all excited by the prospect of being part of an art programme - there are way too few of them in my opinion and for someone that doesn't have Sky and misses out on the Sky Portrait Artist and a lover of Watercolour Challenge this was way overdue as far as we were concerned!
We travelled straight to Alnwick to survey it's breathtaking structure and surroundings. I met Jan Szymczuk, who was also in my heat and lives locally to Alnwick so no train journey for him!
Wow! Have you ever been to Alnwick? How on earth do we do this justice in a small amount of time? We were soon about to find out!
After being given a short time to view some of the interior of the castle with various stuffed pets gracing the lounge used by the Percy family that have owned it for over 700 years! we were taken outside. It was the outside that spoke to me. I closed my eyes and heard the sounds of history, the whispers of its walls and cries from the parapets. The stone was a beautiful yellow, weathered by time and I knew that I would try to capture the some of that emotion that I felt in my painting. It was all coming together and I felt inspired! On fire some would say! To quote Ralph Percy "It is an important part of British heritage; its walls are steeped in history and filled with tales of warfare, romance and chivalry." That's what I wanted to capture!
We all sat like coiled springs ready to leap into action when the battle cry from Richard (Bacon) came! "Artists, you have 3 hours to complete your painting. Go!"
With fervour I reached for my trusty Magenta Acrylic and quickly put down the base colour. I always put the brightest colour in my palette as a base layer first as it helps my eye to perceive the tone, colour and light of the subject and with those battle cries still ringing in my ears I wanted to try and give a sense of war and the blood shed by past defenders of the castle. With my background in textiles, and my experience of using Illustrator and Photoshop in my design work, I often use a layering technique with acrylics to give depth and tone to a painting. I like to actually feel the subject, sometimes using mixed media to build up a 3D effect. That wasn't allowed in this challenge so a brush and palette knife would have to do! We were all aware of the time ticking away, and any artist will tell you that you get sucked into a painting - unaware of what is going on around you - you are in 'the mode'! So I nearly jumped out of my skin when Richard and Una crept up behind me and asked what I was doing! I tried to articulate as best I could but I wanted to just get on with it, not describe it - this was supposed to be the best painting I had ever done wasn't it? I should have known that wasn't to be the case - I think I could honestly say that painting at home in my studio with constant interruption from my children is a breeze compared to sitting in unfamiliar surroundings with a clock ticking and a couple of celebrities appearing every few minutes to ask what you are doing!
Oh, and I haven't mentioned that we were amongst people that I have grown up watching on telly! Una Stubbs!!! UNA STUBBS! and Richard 'Bad Boy' Bacon!! Not to mention the judges - Daphne Todd aka "Daphers" (I stood gazing at her winning painting at the BP National Portrait Gallery for hours! - I am not worthy!) and Lachlan Goudie (who I have to say has brilliant dress sense and a great wardrobe full of pastel cashmere jumpers! not to mention the fact that I admire his painting style immensely).
So you can only imagine the terror of having had the "Artists time is up! Put your brushes down!" to the walk of shame (as I fondly remember the big reveal and critique)! It was my turn - I felt ok about my painting in that I don't think I could have done any better given the time and pressure - but who the hell am I to know what is perceived as 'good enough'!
Apparently it must have been - I remember the judges saying that it showed a good colour sense - there were other comments about perspective but it could have been so much worse! The producers compounded short falls in the paintings critiques by making the judges say it again, and again, and sometimes even again! Just to capture the right intonation in the voice!
It was onto the next Challenge! The gardens at Alnwick are stunning! It was a glorious sunny day, the bees were buzzing and so were we! The camaraderie amongst the artists was palpable. It imagine it is how a group of people feel after surviving some traumatic event! We are still here! We are still standing! We were still terrified…what was coming next? We had no idea we were going to be asked to draw flowers…in coloured pencil! Not my choice of medium - though I really admire artists that master it…and the flower? A Delphinium. A beautiful plant (I have many on my garden) but I have never felt compelled to represent one artistically. This was out of my comfort zone - but it was part of the challenge so with only 30 minutes to describe my chosen floret on paper I set about with a feeling of dread. The coloured pencils felt waxy and I struggled to get any depth to the colour. The plant was wafting in the breeze so was really hard to focus on - I was going cross eyed and getting frustrated by the minute. Richard (Salter) sat next to me and we set about making excuses for our poor attempts, blaming our tools (yes, yes I know, bad workman etc etc). Another yell from Richard (Bacon) telling us to down tools! I was so disgusted at my pathetic effort I actually threw my pencils into the flower bed and walked off. I had let myself down. I felt deflated and cross with myself and as we were all sat in pairs around the garden I let off steam to Richard (Salter) who equally felt disappointed with his efforts.
Oh well - it IS only art. I had to get this into perspective. I was lucky to be here and I knew I had to redeem myself in the next challenge if I was going to still be 'in it' the following week!
The judges surprised me with their critique of the flower challenge. They obviously saw things of merit that I hadn't! I felt slightly buoyed up as we went into the plain air challenge. I was looking forward to this. I had done some plein air before but not enough to make me feel totally at home sat in front of the majestic vista of Alnwick Castle - this time looking from the other side of the river!. It had it all! Water, boats, Stripey tents, beautiful blue sky…and turrets! It seemed like they were multiplying! Every time I thought I had cracked the sketch of the castle it grew another turret - the judges wanted to see how we painted what we saw! How on earth can I paint what I see when what I see keeps changing? "Ah, that's the secret of a good plain air painting though" I hear you arty types shouting!
Added to the fact that the scene changed constantly due to fading light, my easel was stood in a cow pat and my art equipment was also balanced on a small table which wasn't nearly big enough so you can imagine that the senses were well and truly immersed in the scene.
Camera's were whizzing around on sticks like the Quidditch scene from Harry Potter! and microphones were frequently thrust in front of us as we mixed the perfect colour only to have it dry to a thick crust as we clawed for a tangible expression of our feelings as we painted Alnwick Castle!
I had two thirds of my painting sketched in after spending way too long trying to get those blasted turrets right when the 30 minutes left call came! I needed a wee…..I really needed a wee! But having a wee meant sprinting up a hill leaping cow pats to the temporary mobile convenience and then back before all my paints dried and I knew that with the foreground and river to still attempt I wouldn't have time! My head started going then - it is that horrible feeling of impending doom that just won't go away, clouding every brushstroke and colour mix. Richard (Salter) had finished his painting and was busy inserting his trademark bullet into the canvas and was chatting away to the producer….My rising stress levels must have been sensed because I felt them closing in and before I could start singing a merry tune to throw them off the scent they were there! Camerman positioned perfectly blocking my view of the one bit of the painting I had to get down - right in front of the river! I could hear the moorhen mocking me from the reeds! Grrrr!
"5 minutes artists! You have just 5 minutes!"
I must have been visibly having some sort of delicious breakdown!
"So, Alison how are you feeling right now?" with a sympathetic smile on her face!
(In my head "Would you please just **** off out of my way so I can finish this *****ing abomination of a painting!")
"Oh you know, I still have work to do and not much time to do it so feeling slightly under pressure" Hope fully that had played it down…now they will go away…
"..and how do you think you will finish with only 5 minutes to go? You haven't put the river in"
(In my head) "That's because you are stood right in front of it FFS!!!" I felt like throwing my brushes down at that point!
"I know it won't be the best painting I have done, but I have enjoyed the challenge and hope to be able to get the opportunity to do more" Tick Tock Tick Tock - frenzied brushstrokes and palette knife action onto canvas were going to have to substitute what I really felt like doing!
Finally "times up artists".
I slumped away from the canvas. It wasn't good. Even my amateur eye could tell that it just wasn't good. My need for a wee was replaced with a need for something to kill the adrenalin - normally a nice bottle of wine but today one of Pauls' cigarettes! (I don't smoke - I hate it - that's how bad it was!)
We all stepped back from our canvases and eyed each others attempts up. Some were astounding in circumstances, but even climbing that hill and viewing it from 200 yards wasn't going to redeem my efforts.
It was up to the judges now - I wonder if they were secretly laughing as they got to mine in their private critique?
How surprised was I (and I bet you were at home too!) I scraped through! Melvyn took the blow and left the first week. We were all surprised as he was the only one to use watercolours, which is after all the hardest and most unforgiving medium, but we were all trying to fathom out what it was the judges were looking for. I have been quoted as saying that watercolours are too wishy washy or 'bleak' for me! This is only true in the respect that when I use watercolour I am only satisfied when I have built an intensity of colour that is akin to acrylic paint - this is something that in my opinion kills the appeal of a true well executed watercolour. Most of my fellow art club members are accomplished water colour artists and I admire them greatly. I just need time to get to grips with it - a 3 hr challenge in front of millions of people was not, I felt the time to learn!
I hope you enjoyed watching the programme. I have played my part in it if it has given people the impetus to have a go and to know that anyone can paint - you just have to keep practising! I am!
I am a painter specialising in Oil portraits of animals and people, though I do take on commissions of just about anything. I love art, and I love being inspired and I love to paint! Please feel free to comment on my work.