Something new or déjà vu? Revisiting ‘The Big Painting Challenge’

February 19, 2017

This week, for the first time, I sat down to watch ‘The Big Painting Challenge’ in a state of complete relaxation.

How wonderful, I thought, to enjoy the programme without seeing my own panic-stricken, paint-covered face staring back at me. And then, all of a sudden, I saw just that. “Jennifer has been working on the floor now for 45 minutes and still hasn’t made much progress” said the voiceover. “It’s gone a little bit too abstract at the minute” said the tutor. “I’m afraid it’s sort of meaningless to me” said the judge. As the finished abstract painting got slated, nightmarish geometric visions flashed before my eyes; memories of painting a rectangle on national TV and claiming in crazed sincerity that it encapsulated Britain’s sea-faring heritage came flooding back. I could hear the producers murmuring to one another to bring in more cameras, making sure to capture Jennifer’s tears in HD. That’s it, I thought, I can’t keep watching.

But I’m glad I did. This new series, as it turns out, has set out to nurture not narrow, support not suppress, helping ten amateur painters to ‘learn, improve, and grow’. In the first episode the contestants were under pressure to show they’d learnt a thing or two about perspective. And they weren’t alone:  the BBC itself seemed particularly eager to refine its previously limited point of view. Now alongside Lachlan “this is a kaleidoscope of calamity”  Goudie and Daphne “I snorted with laughter when I saw your work” Todd stands third judge David Dibosa, whose charisma and positivity is warmly refreshing. Then there are tutors Pascal Anson and Diana Ali who roam the studio offering advice and tuition to the contestants, not to mention the two new presenters Mariella Frostrup and Richard Coles. Just when you’ve got used to all the new faces, in charges the entire corpus of the British Textiles and Interiors Association, who are summoned to vote for their favourite of the artists’ paintings (the chosen artist is then granted immunity until next week). This multi-perspectival approach, while well-intentioned, feels a tad chaotic, and when Lachlan said of one piece that ‘things have got a bit muddy’, I couldn’t help feeling that the programme itself was in danger of becoming overworked.

Still, it is and will always be, fascinating to see ten enthusiastic amateurs bring their own approaches and experiences to the challenges. Former astro-physicist David offered an analytical, precise approach to drawing, while art student Rauridh  explained how being deaf has heightened his visual awareness. After being given a traditional still life to paint, the artists then produced their own interpretation of Van Gogh’s room, a reconstruction of which was set up in the studio. A particular highlight came when Jennifer, after the disastrous first challenge, started painting over handfuls of thick hair on her canvas (perhaps in a bid to upstage the sculptural masterpiece of a moustache sported by tutor Pascal). This quirky technique worked brilliantly and echoed something of the uncomfortable, unnerving strangeness of Van Gogh’s masterpiece. And thankfully, no ears were harmed in the making of this week’s art.

Looking back, being part of The Big Painting Challenge taught me more about pressure than it did about art. The judges’ comments often felt so sharp they could almost pierce straight through the canvas, leaving it, and our confidence, in tatters. But in this series the contestants seem to receive that bit of help and encouragement that would have gone such a long way back in 2015. Finally there is more room to be creative; the idea of having art tutors is a good one, and the artists are given a full day to develop and finish their ‘show-stopper’ style final challenge. For the first time, it seems the producers seemed to want to help the contestants make good art as much as good TV.

Despite the insistence on a more relaxed approach, though, that uneasy tension between helping people learn before unceremoniously chucking them out when they don’t learn fast enough remains. Early in the show we met retired nurse Lesley, who told us how much she was looking forward to learning new skills and get better at something she was passionate about. But one deviation from Pascal’s apparently sacrosanct advice in pursuit of her own artistic vision, and an experimental “floating” interior spelt curtains for Lesley’s future in the competition. The ‘one leaves every week’ format that proved so successful in the GBBO tent seems slightly out of place here. Without the fear of being thrown off each week, the contestants might start taking the risks and making the mistakes that are so vital to creating great art. This fascinating group of people is no doubt capable of doing just that, and I can’t wait to see how each of them grows and develops. Here’s hoping Jennifer’s inspiringly creative approach won’t just be hair today, gone tomorrow.