On June 20th 2023 I had one of the best experiences of my life at Hever Castle, Kent.
I was a (Wildcard) contestant on Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year – my favourite TV show!
I arrived early in the day (we had to be there for 7am) and there was a very black cloud on the horizon… a very black cloud. We’d had wall-to-wall sunshine for over a month, so I really should have expected it!
We queued together, fifty Wildcard artists, huddled together under our brollies sheltering from the incessant downpour.
I’d heard that your canvases/panels/or whatever medium you brought would be checked and stamped. Whether it was the conditions or otherwise, I was slightly disappointed to only get a dab from a permanent marker on the back of my two canvases – I wanted that Landscape Artist stamp… I can add it to the TV icons I always wanted but never received, a Blue Peter badge, and at the time – a Jim’ll Fix It medallion.
It was a little chaotic and I will admit now that I kinda gatecrashed the pod artists area early. It’s a long story, but I got chatting to a photographer who was part of the show and asked him if he knew where to go. He kindly took me in the right direction and I followed.
This gave me a view of the area before any of my fellow Wildcards and I figured out where I wanted to paint from before the others arrived. It wasn’t deliberate, but sometimes you’ve got to go with the flow.
I’d practised a 4 hour effort of Hever Castle at the weekend ahead of the main event, and my heart sank a little when I realised that we were not going to paint the Castle. Funnily enough, the following day’s episode was located exactly where my practise painting was located!
After a while I was joined by my fellow Wildcards and we shot the famous “here come the Wildcards” shot for the episode.
I’d already figured where I wanted to paint from so I’d asked my wife to try and get that spot, which she duly did – advice no.1 bring a painting partner to help you on the day!
We quickly got down to business. The Wildcards start ahead of the pod artists, which means that you get to see the end of the main competition and the judges discussions and announcements of the winners.
I’ve been sworn to secrecy on that point obviously, and I can’t share my painting until the program airs in 2024 (NOW!), but I loved seeing the behind the scenes of the programme and talking a little with the judges.
I took on the main architectural element in the view, which was possibly a mistake as it was a challenge that I could have avoided if I’d concentrated on the landscape of the lake and parkland. That said, on the day you feel like you have no time and I’m not a seasoned plein air artist, so I probably rushed to judgement a little bit.
I didn’t ask Tai to move out of my view when he was composing himself ahead of his first bit to camera. It’s kinda weird seeing your painting heroes in the flesh, a mix of awe and inspiration. I didn’t want to let Tai down, so I got my head down and painted.
I wasn’t interviewed by a presenter or judge (I was by a producer on the show), but to my left my painting buddy was interviewed by Stephen Mangan (who seemed like the nicest bloke you’ll meet).
An artist directly behind me was interviewed by Tai. I was worried about builder’s bum every time I bent over to get some paint!
One thing that you don’t realise is that you are open to the public, so visitors to Hever Castle could wander through and talk to us. If I’m honest I had a crisis of confidence a little as both the artists next to me were really strong and kept eliciting praise from passers by, whereas I didn’t get a squeak.
*If you go along to an event give the competitors some positive encouragement as I guarantee you they’ll appreciate that energy, and maybe even need it!
I loved seeing the filming of the show. This was when Stephen and Tai went on a boat on the lake – who doesn’t love their little skits on the show? No spoilers, but they didn’t fall in the lake.
Seeing the judges interact and appraise things is really interesting and makes you remember it’s a TV program first and an art competition second.
Once we’d run out of time, Tai was sent around us to pick his winner. As he started by me I knew I’d not won as he always goes on a little meander, I won’t say who won, but they were worthy winners.
I was hugely impressed with the quality of art that was produced in challenging conditions.
As I said before, the pod artists started after us Wildcards and we were free to go watch them in their nervous final moments.
I loved every moment of the experience. I have to say I think the level of stress for the pod artists is somewhat higher than for the Wildcards. Every thing you do is on camera – there is no place to hide at all.
We watched the completion of the art and then the selection of their top-three artists and eventual winner. By this point the weather had turned and the horrible weather at the start of the day was replaced by burning sunshine.
I’m glad I chose oils as a medium as it really stood up to the conditions.
I loved the experience. There is such a positive vibe about the day and everyone is rooting for one another. Will I do it again? I really, really hope so.
The show airs today (24th January 2024) at 8pm and I will be watching and grimacing!
This was my 4 hour painting to complete the triptych, looking back on the scene.
Here’s my 4 hour practice image of Hever Castle from the weekend before the competition.
…and here’s my 4 hour painting to complete the triptych – looking back on the scene.