During lockdown in the spring of 2020, I decided to apply for Landscape Artist of the Year. I normally can’t take part because the heats take place in the middle of the school holidays. However, with opportunities to travel somewhat limited this year, I decided to give it a go.
I’m a great fan of the programme. It strikes me as pretty democratic, with part time hobbyists painting alongside seasoned professionals. It doesn’t matter who you know, what society you may or may not belong to, or how long you have been painting. Once you’re selected, it’s a level playing field. It is also hugely entertaining, and I wanted to find out whether taking part is as much fun as it looks on screen.
I entered with a slightly ‘risky’ painting. I am used to painting outdoors in single 2 – 4 hour sessions. However, I had an itch to paint my personal lockdown view, looking north from our roof in south London. I was inspired by Susanna MacInnes AKA @pindroppainter who painted a fabulous series of rooftop paintings during lockdown. There was no way I could produce this complex view in a single sitting, so it took 5 sessions in total. The result was a very personal painting but perhaps not the best example of my work.
Needless to say, I wasn’t selected. However, I’d secretly yearned to be a wildcard. I thought it would be a nice introduction to the programme without the pressure of competing.
The wildcard competition this year was open to artists who had applied for the overall competition. I applied to go to Westerham (which I guessed would be Chartwell) and was thrilled to be one of the 30 artists accepted.
Before my wildcard day there was some behind the scenes admin, a couple of forms and a telephone interview. I googled a few images of Chartwell so I knew what to expect. I remember being telephone interviewed and asked if there was anything interesting to say about myself, to which I responded, ‘not really.’ The poor researcher on the other end of the line must have thought I was terribly dull, and this may explain why the production crew left me to my own devices on filming day! Top tip: if you are ever selected to take part, think in advance of something interesting to say about yourself.
I’m quite organised and, having binged watched previous episodes on Now TV and read a couple of blogs (thank you Katherine Tyrrell), I knew it was important to be prepared for every weather eventuality. As 25 July dawned with clear blue skies and a forecast of 27 degrees and 0% probability of rain, I was armed with a rain poncho, umbrella, pullovers, flask of coffee and as many other wet weather comforts as I could fit in my bag. Fear not, I also took sun screen, a sunhat (thank goodness) and of course way too much painting kit. I knew I’d have too many paint colours with me but was expecting to have to render the pink and orange hues of Chartwell plus a few trees so thought it best to be over supplied.
What you don’t appreciate when you watch an episode is that everyone has a terribly early start. We had to arrive at 7.15 am so I left the house before 6 am. Having crawled through south London (where was everyone going at this time of the morning?) I finally reached open countryside and Chartwell. I thought I was early, but the car park was full, and wildcards were already queuing to be ‘processed.’ I joined the line of excited wildcards, had my painting board stamped and was ready to go.
Occasionally we would spot an artist being escorted away by members of the production team. Ah, those were the chosen ones. They were heading towards a pod! Meanwhile we wildcards gathered under some shady trees awaiting further instructions. At this point I realised that the wildcard community is really what makes the day. Supportive, self-effacing and a mine of information (many had wildcarded before.) I met so many lovely people during that first hour that I started to wonder whether being a wildcard is a whole lot more fun than being in a pod.
Soon we were led off to our painting location. Our approach was filmed a couple of times and eventually we were deposited on a very green slope surrounded by equally green trees. There was a murmur of confusion as we tried to find Chartwell House but no, this was it. Lots and lots and lots of green. Now, I’ve never been that good at greens (I live in London!) but I had thought to practise them before my wildcard day, in anticipation of the odd tree. I know it’s called Landscape Artist of the Year but normally there’s some kind of structure included. Many of the seasoned wildcard artists had already nabbed spots in the shade or with a view of a wall (to break up the green) and I found myself floundering for a good 10 minutes after everyone else seemed to be settled. Ah well, best just go with it! The slope was pretty steep but I reckoned if I went to the front I would have a reasonably clear view of the lake and trees and be fairly undisturbed. This spot was, of course, in full sun on a very hot day but I’m good in the heat and I thought it might help the painting to dry a little faster.
My plein air kit doesn’t accommodate anything bigger than a 12” wide board but I had an urge to go bigger so I blue tacked my 20” x 16” board to the pochade box (rather wonkily with hindsight) and cracked on. The first thing I needed to do was counteract all that green so I put a wash of red acrylic over the board. That dried instantly so I was ready to squeeze out just five or six of the huge supply of paints I had brought and got going.
I found the experience of painting not that different to a typical plein air painting day in London. I was vaguely aware of the camera and production crew patrolling but I don’t recall being filmed and I was certainly never interviewed (remembering the telephone interview where I said I wasn’t interesting.) Dame Joan interviewed two artists to my left, both with interesting stories to tell, no doubt. Tai, Kathleen and Kate wafted through the wildcards occasionally but didn’t speak to me. Rather disappointingly, we didn’t see Stephen all day! I had heard that the more the crew, presenters and judges interact with you, the stronger your chance of being the wildcard winner so it was with some relief that I settled into the painting day and relaxed.
You have good painting days and not so good painting days. I don’t know what makes for a good painting day, but this was a great painting day. Yes, it was hot, and everything was green but the light was clear and consistent and there wasn’t any rain or wind. I have a habit of ‘finishing’ a painting in an hour or so, then spend an hour ruining it, then a final hour rescuing it. True to form, the first hour went so well that several people asked me if I had finished. No! I responded confidently that I was going to do a few more tweaks, just a touch here and there and I would be done. Well, those tweaks took a good couple of hours. I disciplined myself to using a single long flat brush to keep it loose and this helped keep the brushwork consistent.
I managed to complete my painting comfortably within 3 hours. Remember, there weren’t any interruptions, major changes in the light or difficult structures to paint. This meant I had plenty of time to patrol the area and see what the other wildcards were up to. This was the fun bit of the day. As many personalities and styles as there were people. I remember particularly Faye Bridgewater’s wonderful watercolour studies and the very young artist behind me (sorry, I can’t remember your name) who I thought was a shoo in as the winner as she had completed two fabulous paintings, had been interviewed and was telegenic! I’d like to say thank you to the man who brought me a much needed ice cream at one point, and to all the artists and visitors who commented on my work. The wildcard community is a truly generous community.
As our session ended, rumours circulated as to who the wildcard winner might be. Most participants agreed that, if you had been interviewed and filmed, you were a likely contender. I had not been interviewed or filmed to my knowledge so doubted my chances. It wasn’t until the end of the session that Kathleen walked by and commented ‘it’s much cooler close up’ and Kate said my painting was great. I was happy to go home with that!
The production crew announced that Tai would be doing his rounds shortly and would approach the winning wildcard in a meandering route through other artists. This is TV after all. A couple of other artists and I had already decided that the young artist who sat behind me was a likely winner. In fact, we were having a lively debate about this at the back of the crowd when we saw Tai descend the slope towards her pitch and slow down. Ah, just as I thought. But then, inexplicably, he moved off again. He kept walking down the slope with more purpose. I started to feel faintly sick. People started to look at me expectantly. My legs started to wobble. This cannot be happening! He walked right up to my painting, stood with his arms out, and said ‘well, I have a winning painting but I don’t have an artist!’
By the time you read this, you will know whether or not I looked like a total plonker at this point, but my recollection is that I yelled ‘I’m here! I’m here!’ and ran through the crowd towards Tai, rather unkempt and unprepared. I don’t remember much about the next 5 minutes, beyond suddenly having cameras surrounding me, clapping, answering a few questions very badly, and wishing I wasn’t so hot and dishevelled. And that was it. Tai was magicked away to the pods again and I was left to have my photograph taken, answer a few more questions and wonder why I hadn’t brought a family member along for moral support. My painting was taken away by someone in white gloves and I found myself sitting alone in the middle of a green slope, legs wobbling, not really knowing what to do next. I called my husband to let him know and packed up my stuff.
It’s amazing how quickly everyone disappears after the wildcard session. It felt strange to have spent the day surrounded by artists to now be left pretty much alone. A few of the remaining artists walked up to the pods to wait for the heat decision but it was clear that the deliberation was going to take some time, I was pretty exhausted, the adrenaline was dissipating, so I decided to head home. It was a very slow crawl back through South London. My teenagers grunted their congratulations and I drank far too much celebratory Prosecco on the roof before sinking into a very deep sleep at about 9 pm!
So that was my wildcard experience. I urge anyone who has ever wondered what it might be like, to have a go. You will meet lots of fantastic people and, who knows, you may just be the wildcard winner.