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On winning the Wild Card heat on Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year

I'm writing this post on Friday 29th July, 2 days after winning the wild card heat of Sky Arts Landscape Artist of The Year in Broadstairs, Kent. It was such a fantastic day and so I wanted to write down my memories before they become too distant!

Me at Viking Bay, on arrival at 6:45am! Raring to go...

I have become a bit of a fan of Landscape Artist of the Year in the last few months, so when I heard that they were accepting submissions for the next series I decided to apply with my London watercolour 'Five Past Eight' (which was shortlisted for the Royal Watercolour Society Contemporary Watercolour Competition back in January 2018). I was disappointed but not surprised when the rejection email came through (a familiar feeling as an artist who subjects herself to open submission shows as much as possible!). However the rejection email was accompanied with an invitation to apply to the competition as a 'Wild Card' artist and so I figured 'why the hell not'? I was excited to learn that I was quick enough to respond to the invitation to bag myself a 'first come first served' wild card entry. The trip to Broadstairs was in the diary for the 27th June.

Viking Bay

My boyfriend Eddie is currently performing in La Traviata at Longborough Festival Opera, and had a performance the night before the day of filming LAOTY. I was hoping he might accompany me to Broadstairs and so I was really happy when he said he wanted to come along, but in order for him to do this we had to drive from Longborough to my parents' house in North London after his show on the Tuesday evening, and then get up at 4am the next morning to get to Broadstairs for the 7:15am start!

This plan made me feel exhausted just thinking about it, but needs must!

Surprisingly, we managed to do this (neither of us are particularly 'morning people'!) and got there about half an hour before the 7:15am meet time. Once we found the car park we joined the queue of wild card artists to register. The past week had been glorious sunshine; a mini heat wave with consistent temperatures of about 30 degrees, but to my horror the day had turned into a bit of an anomaly. It was windy and cold. and cloudy. And really windy. I was without long sleeves and trousers, and kicking myself for being so inappropriately attired! I was really worried about the wind, and painting in such harsh conditions for 4 hours.

Registration involved having a photo taken and having our painting surfaces inspected to ensure there was no work already on them. I had a feeling I would work in oils but I didn't want to rule out working in watercolour at this stage, so I got some sheets of Arches paper inspected and stamped as well as 2 Jackson's gesso panels (my current favourite support for plein air oils).

After a bit of a wait for everyone to register, we were led from the car park down to the sandy beach, past the pods where the main competitors would paint, and over to the jetty where the wild card artists would paint. The beach was absolutely beautiful: golden sands framed with unspoiled cafes and sweet little seaside shops.

The lovely Viking Bay. The pods for the main artists can be seen just above the blue sunbeds. I was painting on the other side of the cafe on the jetty.

For those unfamiliar with the layout of the programme, the format is the same each episode. 6-8 artists are selected via digital submission to compete in a heat. The heat involves painting a landscape over the course of 4 hours. The resulting works are judged by the expert panel: Tai Shan Schierenberg (award winning artist), Kate Bryan (curator) and Kathleen Soriano (art advisor). The chosen winner of each heat goes through to the semi-final, where they paint another landscape, then the best 3 from the semi-finalists go through to the final where one artist is chosen to win the overall competition. Their prize is a £10,000 commission to paint a landscape for a specific institution.

Alongside all this are the Wild cards! Each heat also sees 50 wild card artists painting the landscape nearby. Unlike the main competitors, wild cards are completely self sufficient, no such luxury as a sheltered pod for us! Wild cards set up nearby and the judges come over and take a look at their work, and at the end of it all they choose a winner. After the final heat takes place the judges inspect all the winning wild card paintings, chose their favourite and that artist goes through to the semi-final.

The view from my spot for the painting session

OK, so back to Broadstairs! After being briefed on where we could paint, and not to start before 9am, 50 wild card artists scrambled to find the perfect spot to paint. I egged Eddie on to grab a spot on the bench for me at the end of the jetty, but then discovered a hefty railing obscured any view! I decided to position myself on the edge of the jetty, looking back to shore. I was glad to have a big cushion with me so I could comfortably sit on the ground. My boards could lean at a perfect angle against the railings. I lay out my paints and waited patiently for 9am.

Getting organised for the painting session

The wait was actually instrumental in helping me work out my composition. I realised that too often I usually just dive into painting, when I could benefit from taking in my view and working out what I want to do with it on canvas. It was wonderful to have a eureka moment when I discovered exactly what I wanted to do with my 4 hours.

I decided to paint across my 2 gesso panels. They each measured 16" x 20", so it'd be a 16" x 40" panoramic composition. I carried out a routine I have practiced a number of times when painting out of doors recently. I applied a thin underpainting in ultramarine red-pink, which mapped out the main shapes of the composition. I then selected the colours that I would work with and mixed a few of them together to familiarise myself with what I was working with. By the time I did this the underpainting was dry (perfect!) I then began laying on the colours.

My underpainting

I usually paint what is furthest away from me first and then move gradually closer. However that day the sea was involved and I didn't want to lose the opportunity to paint the beach I could see at the starting time, so I set to work on the water and the sand first. While I did this the mighty Tai Shan Schierenberg walked past and remarked 'Great start! I like it!' I thanked him and said to Eddie we could go home now. Tai Shan Schierenberg complemented my picture already! That was a good enough result for me!

My painting about 40 minutes into the session

I pressed on, really enjoying the atmosphere. 50 artists all painting away; it felt a bit like being at art school again. There was a bit of chatter and a few passers-by also having a look. Joan Bakewell strolled past at one point and we had a little chat about the weather. A bit after that a massive wave crashed over the side of the jetty behind me and soaked a couple of my fellow wild cards. I was so glad not to be on that side! Eddie being the wonderful person that he is brought me coffee and tiffin from Costa which was much needed sustenance; it was still absolutely freezing and all my muscles were tense, although I tried to ignore it and press on. I repeatedly told myself I had painted in much worse conditions and been fine. To be honest I'm still trying to think of when though!

Eddie had brought work to study and had phone calls to make, which he did in the car while I worked. He also knows what I'm like and is aware that I often need to feel alone to paint at my best, but saying that it was such a help to know he was nearby, so if I did get into a panic I could go and find him!

My painting at a point where I wondered whether adding any more would ruin it. Eventually I decided to carry on for a bit longer, adding more details to the urban landscape element of the picture.

Before the day I was worried I would find it difficult to 'lose myself' in my work, but on the whole that wasn't the case. I managed to stay relaxed in the mind to paint, and it was fun to turn around every now and then and see Stephen Mangan, Joan Bakewell, Kate Bryan, Kathleen Soriano or Tai Shan Schierenberg ambling by. Towards the end of the painting session I did start to get really tired, and unsure how much detail to put in my work, and ready to quit irrespective of what the painting looked like. But I held it together and stuck some music on my phone that I listened to through headphones to keep me going.

Joan Bakewell (in orange) chatting to a fellow Wild Card artist behind me

Half an hour before the end Stephen Mangan came over and interviewed me. I was so tired and caught up with my painting to be over excited! I hope that I didn't talk absolute gibberish, but I won't know until the episode is aired (unless there is a very clever editor at work at Storyvault Productions!) He was really lovely and funny though, and it was a great break away from painting.

With 10 minutes to go I finished my painting. Eddie came over and I took one last look at the painting, and decided to tweak the sky a tiny bit and add the sailing boat I saw on the horizon in the morning.

Eddie took this photo just after I had added the final brush strokes to my painting

We were then told to put our paint brushes down and listen to what would happen next. We applauded everyone's efforts. In a moment Kathleen Soriano would appear and walk among us, looking at the work. She would eventually gravitate towards the winning wild card artist. She would then congratulate the winning wild card and everyone would be invited to come over and applaud.

My finished painting (excuse the shadow cast by the railing on the top third!)

We stood by our paintings and watched Kathleen Soriano wonder among us. At first she walked away from our end, and I figured I didn't have a chance, but then noticed a man with a microphone and another camera standing at our end, so maybe my chances weren't completely dead in the water. She walked in and out of easels, looking serious. As she came ever closer my heart started to beat faster and I kept telling myself 'It's not you! Get real!' When she was less than a metre away she looked at me and her eyes widened and she said those words: 'Congratulations, you're our wild card winner for today!'

Being interviewed seconds after being told I had won the Wild Card heat

I was stunned, and slightly giddy! I looked up and saw 50 wild card artists applauding me. That was the really special bit, it was really humbling. I was ecstatic and didn't know what to say. Kathleen said they loved the diptych format and the pink underpainting (2 things that have become a bit of a signature for me!) and she asked if I was a trained artist. It was all very manic after that. Some people took my painting away and explained that I would find out in a fortnight if I would be in the semi-final. I was interviewed again by a producer (this time I really was a gibbering mess!) and eventually the crew all dissipated and I was able to pack away my painting gear and then head to the beach to watch the end of the filming of the main competition.

The paintings from the main competition

It was around about this time that the sun properly came out and the wind died down. Finally!

Eddie and I were both so excited and giddy. We celebrated with fish n chips on the beach, and I just couldn't stop smiling. Following quite a few exhibition rejections recently, it was just so lovely for this to happen to help me regain a bit of confidence. What was also lovely was that I was being recognised for an oil painting, which really doesn't happen at all often.

Joan and Stephen having a chin wag on the beach, with Tai Shan Schierenberg standing behind

We headed back on the 4 hour drive to Taunton as the sun set, listening to 70s driving anthems all the way. It was just the best day and one I hope not to forget ever!

Stonehenge and the beautiful sunset captured rather appallingly by me!

Landscape Artist of The Year will be aired mid-late October 2018 on Sky Arts.

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