Below – a speeded up video of the three paintings produced on the day
I swithered a bit on whether to post about my day on Landscape Artist of the Year 2023, mostly as I had no idea how the whole thing would come across. As it was, I think it was nicely edited – they edited out the fact that at one point, unbeknown to me I’d plastered half a tube of green paint across my face and hair!
If you’re selected to take part in the programme and if you’re anything like me, you’ll check out the participating artist’s blogs online to get an idea of how it feels to be there, painting in the most unlikely circumstances. I mean, you’d be hard-pressed to re-create a scenario less conducive to painting! So here’s my account of it all, and I hope it’s helpful…
I’d applied before to Laoty, but didn’t get selected. A friend had said ‘Rose, you’ve got to apply, do it, go on!” and I thought ‘why not?”. When I didn’t get selected the first time, I thought about it and realised that although it’s called landscape artist of the year, almost all views are urban. I can’t remember an episode, offhand, where there were no buildings or structures involved, so I painted Chancelot Mill for that reason. I was surprised to be accepted on the basis of the painting (described as ‘brutalist, painted in brutalist brushwork’ by the judges!) The work I produced on the day was a bit more characteristic of my style, though I’d never have selected that particular view to paint (I suspect few of the artists would).
Above; Chancelot Mill. Oil on 33×23 inch wood panel. Rose Strang 2022
When I heard I’d been selected I was excited, a bit trepiditious and immediately wanted to know where the artists would be painting. The first few days (and right up to the event itself) is a flurry of answering questions from the producers, who are very encouraging (one said they’d like to buy my submission if it wasn’t snapped up after the show aired).
When I found out it was going to be Blackpool, I imagined it would be a view of Blackpool Tower, or that we’d have a choice of view where we might choose to look away from the sea front to paint the tower, or paint a beach scene. I would definitely choose the latter if it came down to it, but just in case, I had a look at Blackpool Tower online and did a couple of rough sketches!
Because I’m perhaps a bit anal (or, as I prefer to think; prepared!) I had a good look at the surrounding views on Google Street View once I learned the subject was to be Blackpool’s North Pier. Then (similarly to some of the other participants) I checked tide times.
What a disappointment to learn that the tide was going to be all the way out most of the day. A shocker in fact, since sea is one of my most painted subjects. I supposed at this point that we’d be painting a view of the pier, so I realised I’d be painting out of my comfort zone and just decided to turn up on the day and authentically respond as best I could to whatever was in front of my eyes!
Really it’s entirely a matter of luck for participants, in that sense – of viewpoint. It’s frustrating to know that you’ll be stuck in your pod all day and can’t find the view that moves or inspires you.
Take note also that even if it’s ok to take a close up photo and focus in on that, you won’t be able to see the photo unless you’ve brought an ipad or something bigger. Bright light will mean you can’t actually see your photo unless you have some way of printing it out.
My mistake was that I’m quite short-sighted and didn’t have time to get a new pair of glasses. Should have gone to Specsavers, that’s my big tip of the day to artists selected to participate. I kick myself for not bringing along a pair of binoculars or perhaps opera glasses, though I’ve no idea if such a thing exists, outside of antique shops.
If you’ve been selected for Laoty, are a bit short-sighted, pressed for time (my Laoty day was sandwiched between two exhibitions), take time to avail yourself of a device by which you can clearly see what’s there, because it might be many many hundreds of yards away with nothing in the foreground to give depth/perspective.
That mostly covers what happened to my painting efforts on the day, so I’ll get on to what it’s like to take part …
It’s like a small pop-up village consisting of a whole host of runners, camera people, judges, presenters, producers, technicians and who knows what else. On our arrival in Blackpool it was fun to play a game of ‘spot the pods’ with my partner Adam.
We wandered along the north pier and read inscriptions on the benches. Most of them had a dedication to someone passed away who’d loved sitting there, taking in the sun and sea. The sun and sea is everything in Blackpool. Take away the slightly grotty buildings, rickety pier, numerous run-down cafes, pubs and restaurants, big brash lit up signs and that’s what you’re left with – huge west coast skies and a luminous billowing sea (oh to have painted the sea as I saw it when we arrived, when the tide was coming in!)
We walked down to look at the pods, which was a strange moment of realising I’d be in one of those soon. I spotted someone taking in the view, looking thoughtful and guessed it would be one of the artists. It turned out to be Finn, and as I’d had a look at the see-through marquee where all the painting submissions were mounted up, I asked which was his (one of my favourites from the line-up as it happened!)
Finn, Adam and I chatted about the view, or lack of it – ‘we’re painting that?!’ – the selected view was now obvious given the position of the pods. We wished each other luck and as it was getting dark, headed off to get some sleep.
Earlier Adam and I had checked in to a hotel then headed out for dinner. I’d decided to have a big glass of wine despite the threat of hangover, as I felt it would help me drift off to sleep. It did, and I woke at 6am ready to face the day. Drawing back the curtains I looked out on a sea-front drenched in rain. That didn’t discourage me though, as a I like a bit of atmospheric weather to paint.
It was easy to spot the artists as I arrived with all my painting things at 7am, since they were the only ones chatting under a rain shelter (the crew were all running around setting up and we weren’t to go into our pods until much later when the film crew were ready to film us setting up our paints etc).
We were given a bag of breakfast things and snacks, tea or coffee, then we were all miked up, which meant whatever you said and did could be listened into, but that was the least of our worries. Anyway the focus is presumably capturing what’s filmable, not the mutterings between artists about the awful viewpoint or occassional expletive when a painting goes wrong!
The first bit of filming was the artists arriving (the bit where they say ‘such and such is a professional artist from wherever’. We were paired up, I was to walk down with Gregory, who was one of the friendliest, most calm people I’ve encountered, so he made that bit easy. All of this had to be repeated a few times while they sorted out levels and angles or whatever camera-people have to do in such circumstances!
We were shown to our pods and they filmed the artists setting up. I’d brought a range of acrylics and water-mixable oils (I don’t use the usual oils as solvents irritate me), a sketch pad, pencils, pens, numerous rags, all my brushes and palette knives and a large piece of flat wood which almost covered my little side table. I use that as a palette so there’s room on the palette to experiment, but a lot of artists prefer something they can have in their hand during painting. I also brought three buckets for plenty of water changing (the helpers or ‘runners’? are on hand to change water if you need it though).
As it was a chilly day at first, but would get warmer later I wore a thin shirt, a hoodie and an anorak. I’d meant to bring a couple of head scarves and regretted not remembering them as my hair got in the way at times.
At this point the judges and presenters were milling around and I was curious who’d come up to say hello. Kathleen Soriano came up first and we chatted about my submission. Tai popped up and asked if I’d be warm enough – ‘Is this going to keep you warm?’ he asked plucking the sleeve of my anorak, a nice gesture which made me feel cared about! I could see his keen artist’s eye checking out my pallete and painting set up.
Anorak checking (photo Adam Brewster)
Then Nicky Seare (the producer who’d first contacted me to let me know I’d been selected) came across for a chat – a very chatty and enthusiastic person, whose job it was to get the artists talking on camera. No easy task since the instinct is to shut off outside noise and to focus when you’re painting. (I’ve often shouted at the TV; ‘let them get on with it!’) We all knew the drill though, having seen the programme, and knew we’d have to describe to some extent what we were up to!
The thing that doesn’t come across when watching Laoty is the timing of the event. I’d been trying to ascertain when we’d be painting throughout the day, but that was hard to pin down because of filming everything. It’s four hours off and on throughout a twelve hour day, from start to finish. You arrive at about 7am, start at approximately 10am, paint for a couple of hours, have a lunch break, then continue for two more hours, but with quite a few interruptions. Then the artists are photographed with their submission painting and at that stage the judges are selecting the three finalists.
The part where Joan Bakewell says ‘Artists, your time starts now!’ is amusing since there were several takes of us starting – we were briefed about that though; ‘Just pretend to start!’. Then there’s the real start, which is a tense moment obviously. I’d already decided I’d paint a somewhat distant view of the pier since (as mentioned) I’d not had time to get new glasses so I wasn’t able to see details. And of course it’s impossible to see a small camera image of a close up when you’re outdoors in bright light so I couldn’t work from that either.
One artist was more savvy though and took their camera into the loo to have a look at details of their photo without all the bright sunlight, I wish I’d thought of that!
My approach was to quell my nerves by making some loose relaxed brushmarks to start – my thinking being that at this stage I could be experimental before I’d painted more detail. That worked well for me as it’s how I paint generally. In fact it’s the one thing that did work for me on the day as the pier was a hugely difficult subject to simplify. I think the judges were right in saying I could have taken the best part of the first painting (the sky) and created a different composition on the second one. The problem was that I didn’t have the option of a closer view of the pier, and sadly there was no sea to see!
My ideal view would have been from the actual pier itself and I’d imagined they’d set pods up there. I’m not convinced that the folks who set up the pods are thinking about the view from an artist’s perspective. Or probably where they set up is restricted by access and power supplies. Anyway, this is why, when you read comments by viewers, they’re often complaining that the artists don’t tackle the actual subject. The reason for that is (I think) that they have to be creative with composition in order to make a well-composed painting since they’ve not had any say in the composition that’s in front of them. That’s probably the main challenge in fact. And I think if you’re lucky enough to get to the finals, at which stage you get to choose your composition and show the judges something new, you have the best chance of showing what you’re capable of.
During painting Tai came over to ask about my new green-hair look! He also commented ‘that’s a beautiful sky’ which was encouraging. One of the producers, Nicky Seare commented, amusingly – ‘that’s like the Hollywood handshake!’. Kate was also very engaging. I found her warm, someone with natural camaraderie and, similar to Tai, I got the impression she did genuinely care about the contestants. I never got the chance to chat much with Joan Bakewell or Stephen Mangan, though at one point I caught his eye when we were both laughing at the repeated (‘let’s pretend’) ‘artists, begin now’ filming scenario!
I was also very amused at the stage where I started a new painting. Adam had been watching from the sidelines and he also noted that as soon as I decided to put a new piece of wood on the easel, a drove of cameras descended on me, with producer Nicky Seare asking ‘Why have you decided to start a new painting Rose?’ (When watching the programme it was described as a ‘drastic measure’ or something similar). When I change over to a new painting in reality it’s such a non event, and a normal part of my process, I found it amusing that it was even noticed. Everything has to be filmed though, and the camera people probably prefer it when artists work steadily and slowly throughout the day, so I had to be filmed again taking off one piece of wood and setting up another.
A drove of cameras. (photo Adam Brewster 2022)
Later on, I knew I was getting nowhere and decided to just have a sit on my stool to contemplate the changing scenery in front of me. That was apparently a cause for cameras to descend again, with one of the producers asking ‘Is it easy for you Rose? Is it not a challenge?’ They’d rightly observed that I was relaxing, maybe feeling a bit demotivated. I think the questions were designed to galvanise me and elicit a response. Understandable, but in fact that was a moment that might have allowed some new ideas to drift into mind, or maybe not. Drifting is not really something that comes naturally in those circumstances though, especially when you have a camera up on the right of the pod roof, click, click, clicking away every few seconds (which is how they capture the fascinating speeded up painting-process videos).
Chatting with some of the other artists after we’d stopped painting, it was clear many of us felt pretty drained. In real life painting scenarios, you get to sit back and contemplate in a more relaxed way, your rhythms are not disrupted, but during a day of being filmed the pressure feels fairly constant. I’d attempted to break the tension by chatting to some of the helpers, or going over to catch up on what was happening with Adam, but it’s tiring because of the constant focus over so many hours (and I say that as someone who can paint non-stop for hours quite happily in normal circumstances). I think producing anything approaching your normal level of painting is quite an achievement while being filmed for a programme, so to say it’s given me a whole new level of appreciation for all the artists taking part in Laoty and Paoty is an understatement.
I knew I was capable of much better, so it was a sad moment not being chosen as one of the final three, a feeling no doubt echoed by the other artists who weren’t selected. I also felt bad for Adam, who had faith I’d get selected too. In fact his words were ‘I feel a bit empty, I was just thinking you’d definitely be on to the next one and it feels weird we won’t be doing this again!’, that made my heart pang, and made me feel it was harder on him than me in many ways!
I think though, that the fact I was just about to launch an exhibition at the Resipole Gallery and the Limetree Gallery soon after, and that there was loads to distract us afterwards helped a lot. About a day after Laoty finished, we were driving up north to the beautiful wilds of Ardnamurchan for an exhibition opening. The paintings I’d produced for that had been a dream of a process as it’s such a stunning landscape in May. Plus, we couldn’t feel down for long since just the month before we’d got engaged!
Once filming ended and I’d exchanged emails and social media contacts with some of the artists, it was suggested we all go for a drink, but I just felt exhausted, so we went back to our hotel to clean up (I had a tonne of green paint in my hair!) and went out to eat. We found an Italian restaurant and settled in there, not realising till we sat down that the entire panel of judges and presenters and a few producers were sitting right next to us! (it was dark in the restaurant compared to the bright light outside). I went over to say a quick hello, Tai and Kate were super-friendly, though I bet by this time they must also have felt a bit drained by the 12 hour day!
I thought Finn’s painting was a very worthy winner, he’d realised the restrictions of the view, and planned a strong composition. I loved the pier painting part of Suzon’s painting, but I think my personal favourite was Efua’s – it was so complex, truly painterly and had presence. I think it would have been no surprise if any of the other artist’s paintings had been selected for the final three, sometimes the judges maybe have a favourite, and the two other runners up are not so carefully thought through, possibly? It can’t be easy judging.
I hope if you’re selected to take part in next year’s Laoty you’ve found this blog post helpful. And don’t worry about how you’ll appear on camera (I was dreading it but was pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t too cringeing!) It’s not in the producer’s interests to make you look bad and they’ll edit out any obvious clangers, plus I think maybe they use nice filters or whatever to balance out the colours so everyone looks healthy, not washed out by bright light etc! Some people have asked if I’d apply again. After seeing the programme and thinking about it all, yes I would consider it. This year is way too busy but maybe in 2024 if the programme’s still running. (one thing I’d say though, is that they should offer more in the way of expenses to participating artists. I think younger artists particularly might struggle with that, it’s not as if art brings in a big income, unless you’re really well-known or your work is in constant demand).
I really enjoyed meeting the artists and helpers in particular, and I was super impressed by the skills and talents of all who take part in making the programme which is quite the production number – really fascinating to observe. And thanks to Tai for being genuinely kind when they chatted to us after the selections, he said ‘bad luck, wrong subject on the day maybe?’. Maybe, but mostly I should have gone to Specsavers!
Above all, huge love and gratitude to Adam who was there with me all the way!
Adam, Blackpool, 2022. (photo Rose Strang)