The morning I was scheduled for breast cancer surgery I got up, took a shower with the antibacterial soap they gave me, and decided to distract myself by watching a few minutes of Landscape Artist of the Year, my new favorite show on YouTube. I’m completely addicted to this show. And so, awaiting my procedure I was able to escape my anxiety for a short while by traveling to the British countryside where this episode was filmed.
In the show, artists compete painting en plein air at enchanting locations like the reserve established by Beatrix Potter in the Lake District, the lovely scenery in Cornwall, and sites made famous by earlier painters (Turner and Constable are frequently mentioned) of British countryside. My husband and I recently saw some of these very locations on our Rick Steves tour of the villages of southern England. And here on TV were these talented contemporary artists interpreting the greens, the castles and manors, the rivers, the beauty.
Each week’s competition includes eight selected artists from the hundreds (maybe thousands) of entrants. The eight must paint a landscape in four hours while on-lookers mill about. It’s really difficult for me to do something, anything, with a person looking over my shoulder, so I can’t imagine the concentration it must take to focus on just the task at hand and not the on-looker. The British observers are polite and don’t make comments that something looks like shite or question why a painter placed a kangaroo in the scene when there are no kangaroos outside of zoos in England. OK, that has not happened, but one artist included a helicopter and several artists rearranged the scenery to fit their ideas.
I really like the concept of making the moment fit your needs and watching the show distracted me from the impending surgery. I thought about one artist, a thalidomide baby, now a 50-something man, born without arms, who used feet and mouth to create a landscape on silk. At that moment I focused intently on art, not cancer, and that perhaps, later, I would paint a landscape or a portrait.
On each show, in addition to the eight invited artists, another 50 artists (drawn by lottery) vie for a spot in the final competitions. These stalwart individuals of all ages and descriptions arrive toting art supplies, easels, snacks, and gear for whatever weather Mother Nature decides to stir up. Each locates a “compositional scene” that is both available and inspiring, and set to work. Typical of British weather, many of the episodes occur on rainy, cold mornings with sun peeking out in late afternoon. Rarely, do the artists have a full day of sunshine. Clouds, though, are a magical gift.
Landscapes appear on canvas, wood, metal, fabric, slate, and possibly other surfaces. The artists use paint (oil, acrylic, watercolor), pastel, ink, charcoal, graphite, colored pencil, torn paper, coffee, fibers, linoleum, and wax. Most use a mixture of two or more media. Some work hunched over a tiny metal plate that receives their etched marks and only at the end of the four hours, when they print their efforts, do we see if the image has any merit at all. Some people work very quickly and complete two works in the four hours. Some are meticulous. They’ll make a small mark judging its location, intensity, width, and comparison to the scene in front of them, before then making another small mark. It’s fascinating.
Judging the competitions are British art historian Kate Bryan, landscape and portrait artist Tai-Shan Schierenberg, and independent art consultant Kathleen Soriano. They have an excruciating job. The hosts and judges mill about talking with the artists as they work. Sometimes they ask a question about the use of a color or comment on a technique. It’s quite a learning experience for anyone with artistic leanings.
During one episode the host, Joan Bakewell, commented that she never thought watching paint dry would be so fascinating. For me, it was both fascinating and a diversion from an event I had been dreading. And, since I didn’t finish the episode, something to look forward to when the surgery was over.
Janelle Kingsley enjoyed a 30-year career teaching English and history at the junior high and high school levels in Spokane and Redmond. She retired in 2009 and lives with her husband in Belltown.