Whilst at least it bucks the trend in needlessly patriotic titling, it’s still not hard to see that The Big Painting Challenge is another entry in the ever lengthening line of televised competitions aspiring to be the next Great British Bake Off. Una Stubbs and Richard Bacon fill the Mel and Sue presenter roles and the male and female judging positions go to Lachlan Goudie and Daphne Todd respectively.
The mirroring of the Bake Off format isn’t limited to the number of judging and presenting roles within the challenge, however, the show is segmented in a rather familiar fashion too. Each of the series’ six episodes is broken down into three distinct challenges: a fairly brief one in which the artists have to produce a painting that introduces both the episode’s theme and their individual styles; the quick draw challenge working to the same specific subject as one another; and lastly a longer challenge the contestants are given the chance to prepare for in advance, in which they have to pull out all the stops, so to speak. In addition to the challenges, a segment is devoted to Stubbs going out on the field and giving a contextual report about the wider art world. Furthermore, in more of a departure from the show that is its manual, a bit of time is devoted to a demonstration from Goudie on how viewers could approach a potentially difficult technical element the artists are facing that week. The demos are quick and are carried out in pencilled line art, which rather gives the impression that Goudie is a slightly less accomplished artist than he actually is, as his use of colour is one of the strengths of his paintings – none of which are shown during the programme. This does make the outcome of the demos feel pretty manageable, however.
Goudie takes a slightly more relaxed attitude towards judging than Bake Off’s Paul Hollywood or The Great British Sewing Bee’s professional tailor equivalent, Patrick Grant. Whilst he doesn’t shy away from making constructive critical comments, he is fairly gentle and considered in his delivery, which is probably just as well because Todd certainly doesn’t hold back.
Anyone who’s taken Art and Design any further than their school’s core curriculum bare minimum is likely to be all too aware that artists need to develop pretty tough hides to be able to come through the other side of regular group critique sessions unscathed, or even, as is the real goal of the exercise, better off. Todd doesn’t seem to have adapted the approach she takes towards giving critiques for family television particularly, which in many ways is admirably honest. She’s never outright insulting when talking to contestants: if there’s something she doesn’t like about somebody’s work she does take the time to point out what that is, though she can be patronising. Todd’s real flaw is an insidious habit of looking down on artistic modes and styles that aren’t similar to her own. She frequently uses the word ‘illustrative’ as a criticism, particularly with poor Anthea, who admittedly wasn’t one of the strongest contestants in the competition technically, but whose work had real character.
Switching out Richard Bacon for a different presenter, or even leaving Stubbs to do the presenting alone, á la Claudia Winkleman, might make the format more successful. Bacon is rather flat. He isn’t irritating, he isn’t offensive, but the only thing he really brings to the show is the continual sight gag that is the height difference between him and his co-presenter. The purpose of the presenter role in these shows is twofold: first providing a source of comfort and support for contestants in the face of stressful incidents or harsh critiques, second to help keep viewers without specialist knowledge in the subject entertained. Bacon was apparently selected for the job in part due to his interest in art collecting but, if anything, a strong link to the formal art world is something of a mark against the presenter’s strength as an audience surrogate. Stubbs was chosen partly because she paints recreationally but the difference is that her remarks are insightful about the process whilst still lacking the harsh edge of a judge and she is also simply much more enthusiastic and engaging than her co-host.
Ultimately, producing a successful show objectively judging something as subjective and variable as fine art was always going to be a big challenge.
Illustration: Zoë Jorro (edited)