Sky Landscape Artist of the Year - semifinal
The build up – skip this section if you have no interest in the torturous days before the semifinal
You may remember that I won my wildcard heat at Chartwell. After the Chartwell day, there were four more heats to be filmed. As we prepared for our Cornwall staycation and a double family birthday celebration, I put all thoughts of Landscape Artist of the Year out of my head. I had been really buoyed by Chartwell, so entered a period of painting frenzy, no longer scared of greens!
13th August came along. It was my birthday and a belated 80th birthday celebration for my mum. We were all gathered in Cornwall and I knew that there was a slim possibility of being selected for the semfinal, but no one really thought that might happen.
After a long lunch, and rather well lubricated, we were relaxing in the late afternoon sun. My mobile rang. I knew who it was before I picked it up. It was about 6 pm, the final heat had just been filmed and all six wildcard winners would have been reviewed. You are supposed to feel elated at this point, but I entered a blind panic. I was in Cornwall. The semifinal was to take place in two days in East London which meant I had to get from Cornwall to London sharpish. We weren't allowed to use public transport and I couldn't deprive the family of the car. I actually said to the Storyvault Films production person on the phone, ‘um, I’m not sure I can do that, can I call you back?’ Probably didn't make a great impression. After some consultation with my family, and a bit more wine, we agreed that of course I had to take the opportunity and would make it work somehow.
I won’t bore you with the logistics of the 8 hour journey I took back to London on 15th August, but suffice to say I made it home early evening with just enough time to eat and gather my art materials for the early start. I hadn’t had an opportunity to think about what I might need for the day and certainly no chance to shop for paints or boards so had to make do with whatever was already in my home studio. I packed pretty much everything into a small suitcase, plus wet weather gear, and warm weather gear. Both would be needed!
Another early start and I was on my way to the painting location, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. I had managed a good 5 hours sleep, to top off the 8 hour journey and two previous nights of very little 'nervous' sleep. Not seeking sympathy but it’s amazing how many LAOTY artists enter the competition sleep deprived or journey-stressed. I remember reading that Jen Gash’s car broke down on the way to one of her heats! Didn’t do her any harm.
Arriving at the Olympic Park, I was properly excited for the first time and looking forward to meeting the other contestants, with a slight case of ‘imposter syndrome’ brewing. I was determined to enjoy the day and make the most of the experience, rather than treating it like competition. As a wildcard, with very long odds, you simply don't allow yourself to think about appearing in the later stages. And as a fairly literal painter, I wasn’t expecting to make the final so I planned to squeeze every last drop out of the experience.
The painting location was a gift. We couldn’t have hoped for better. A mixture of water, greenery and architecture. There was so much there it had to suit everyone. The light, however, was uninspiring, with a yellowish warm haze hanging over everything, which dampened down the colour. This was going to prove more problematic than I anticipated. But more of that later. The contestants gathered to introduce ourselves before filming. What a lovely bunch! I was on my own as I had been during the heat, but most of the others had brought a companion. We were fitted with body mics and I was a bit alarmed that they could pick up and broadcast all my ‘under my breath’ mutterings. I had to be very disciplined not to swear or hum madly, which is what I normally do when painting.
I’ve never been on a TV show before so really didn’t know what to expect but the level of professionalism is outstanding. Everyone, from the cameraman, to the production guys, to the person who grabs you a coffee was supportive and good-humoured. They make you feel extremely at ease and I think this comes through on screen, compared to other TV competitions where contestants can be portrayed as stressed, maniacally competitive or downright insane, just for ratings. At the time of writing, I haven’t seen the episode, so hoping none of these apply...
This was my first time being filmed for a whole episode and the Storyvault Films team were unerringly patient and kind, giving me little tips as to what the pod experience would be like. Everyone else had been through this before and were seasoned pod painters. I already knew that there would be interruptions throughout the day and had planned for a 3.5 hour painting to compensate. The presenters and judges all came to say hello, I tried not to swoon when Stephen Mangan popped by, and we had some initial filmed interviews and very long shots of setting up. Who knew that squeezing out paint could be so interesting? A few more preliminary checks and we were off!
I had a plan. Really, I did. And I’m usually quite good at sticking to my plan. The first part of the plan was to spend longer than usual on the composition. There was so much to choose from I wanted to get this right. I am a figurative painter and I like to paint what’s in front of me but not always the most obvious view. I chose a composition that had the waterway and footbridge leading off the right edge of the painting. This is a device I use quite a bit. I like to leave the viewer wondering what’s at the end of that path. It was a little unsettling as a composition, but I hoped balanced by the verticals of the buildings in the distance. I also wanted to include The Orbit, as my kids and I had whizzed down this a couple of years earlier.
The second part of the plan was to use my favourite long flat brush, the same one I used at Chartwell. I often only use a flat brush as I like the ‘staccato’ effect of the brush marks. I also determined to use just one size brush, so that the brushwork would be consistent across the painting. I’m not sure what happened but when I reached for my single brush I must have grabbed a Filbert by mistake. It took me three hours to realise this.
The third part of the plan was not to be thrown by changes in the weather. Oh well.
I was sandwiched between Dougie Adams and Ophelia Redpath. I had a good view of Dougie’s painting and he’d already put down a fair amount of paint before I had laid down a single colour. I thought I’d better crack on in case the voice over would say later ‘whilst other artists are making quick progress, one artist is yet to start.’ The painting went fairly well at first, but I did worry it lacked ooooomph. The yellowish light shrouding everything gave an eerie quality but didn’t give great tonal variation. Check out the images above and you will see everything looked quite flat. There was a 20 minute reprieve with some weak sunshine so I leapt on that and introduced some subtle subtle tonal variations.
I really enjoyed the painting but was unprepared for the level and frequency of interruption. It’s not so much the interruptions themselves as when they happen. You can be at a critical point in your painting, trying to resolve something that isn’t working, when you have to stop, brush in hand, and leave the pod. I found that by the time I got back to my painting, I had completely forgotten what I was trying to resolve. I apologise to my cameraman who asked at one point ‘is that look for me?’ as he stopped me once again to film an inert painting board. I really wasn’t grumpy, just frustrated that the painting wasn’t progressing as I wanted. Hopefully there isn’t a shot of me looking p***ed off.
Lunch arrived and this gave contestants the opportunity to look at each other’s work. I was stunned by the breadth of styles. Magic realism, semi abstract and figurative all vying for a final place. Many of us were of the same opinion at this point, that we weren’t operating on all cylinders, and had much to do. I do remember being struck by Clare Lord’s painting. It was huge and she’d put down so much paint. I thought I worked fast but she is a demon! I had her pegged as a finalist pretty early on.
The afternoon continued with a cycle of painting, interviews, and filming. Before I knew it, I had less than an hour to go and lots of areas of the painting unresolved. It was at this time that the heavens opened. It didn’t just rain, it sheeted down. Rain was coming into the pods, easels were shifted, we all grabbed raincoats and tried to keep painting amidst the chaos. You couldn’t see much of anything. At this point, I had a decision to make. Do I Ieave the light and water as is on the painting, or do I modify it to show the effects of the deluge? My brain was shouting ‘leave it, leave it!’ but my hand wasn’t listening and, before I could stop myself, I was repainting the water, and modifying the now invisible buildings. I’m not totally sure what I actually changed at this point and obviously the time lapse film will tell, but whatever magic my painting may have had at this stage, was washed away in that 10 minute downpour.
As the final minutes ticked by, Kathleen came to talk to me. I knew I was running out of time and was stressed for the first time during the day. ‘You don’t look stressed,’ she said. ‘No, I really am,’ I answered. I’m aware that I was running so short of time that I carried on painting while she was talking to me. I probably appeared very rude. Also, I really wanted to ask where she’d got her fabulous silver boots from but was beyond small talk. Check them out on the episode.
With just a few minutes to go, I tried to strengthen certain elements of the painting, and realised that the whole thing would have been much punchier if I had managed to use the correct brush and kept to the original weather. I needed an extra 20 minutes but time was up! We downed tools and the exhaustion hit. It really is an intense experience. I had received some lovely positive comments from passers by so hoped the painting was more successful than I thought. At one point I overheard a small boy say to his dad ‘I like that old lady’s painting.’ I turned around and he was looking at me. A moment of hilarity in a stressful situation.
We all gathered while the judges deliberated. I don’t remember how long this took, but we had time to be interviewed again, eat, drink and chat. I still had Clare down as a finalist but really couldn’t call it for the other places. With hindsight, and having seen the heats, I’d have put Dougie Adams or Ben MacGregor through. But what do I know?
Before long, we were lining up with our paintings and the announcements came. Here’s the interesting thing. I spent the whole day not thinking about it as a competition, just an experience to enjoy. It wasn’t until I was in that line up that I really, really wanted it! I knew I hadn’t painted my best painting and certainly wanted a chance to redeem myself in the final. But that’s the point isn’t it? You have to deliver when it matters. So when the finalists were announced as Clare Lord, Ophelia Redpath and Shelagh Casebourne, I wasn’t surprised (they are all fabulous artists) but I admit to being disappointed. I don’t watch shows like Strictly or Bake Off but that moment of ‘losing’ is really hard. You’ve been nurtured and feted all day and now all the focus is on the finalists and you feel somewhat surplus to requirements.
The non-finalists were all pretty keen to leave but it took a good while before we could. There were final interviews to film, my paintings were delivered back to me, a taxi was ordered. The judges left way before I did. In fact, I think I was the last non-finalist to leave and spent a good while sitting alone on a concrete block. Quite fitting.
I arrived home and put my painting in a cupboard, not to be looked at again until this week.
* * *
With the benefit of several days’ hindsight to think on the experience, I decided that I loathed my semifinal painting and would leave it languishing in its cupboard. Now that I can look at it again without recoiling, it’s not as bad as I remember. I was true to myself, literal but hopefully not boring, accurately reflecting the light and weather conditions, and I still like the composition. But it definitely lacks impact so not enough to propel me into the final.
With the benefit of several months’ hindsight, my LAOTY experience has done me nothing but good. I am more confident as a painter and, after participating, I resolved to paint what I enjoy painting, and dial down the commissions. I have also given myself permission to push myself beyond my comfort zone of local landscapes and tackled lots of different subject matter and media. This is very much work in progress but I don’t believe I would ever have taken this path had I not taken part in the show.
I would like to say a massive thanks to the entire Storyvault Films crew, especially Cora, the production team, my long suffering cameraman, sound technician and everyone that helped put up my pod, brought me sustenance, or kept the rain off me. There is also a small army of people who deal with gathering information and other admin by telephone before the event so thank you to them. The judges and presenters were delightful and I wish I had had more time to engage with them. Maybe next time. Would I enter again? In a heartbeat!
Good luck to the finalists. I can’t wait to see what you do.