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Sunday, November 21, 2021

TV: Landscape Artist of the Year

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The "pods" the competing artists work in

“Landscape Artist of the Year” – a rather ostentatious title.  But each year, Sky Arts in the UK awards it to the one artist out of many who survives eight episodes of painting in spectacular properties belonging to the National Trust.   I hadn't heard of this TV show until recently, but once I came across it, I found myself bingeing on the few free seasons available on the All Homes channel on YouTube.  (If you're in the UK, you can subscribe to and see all the seasons. And if you're a UK artist, you can also enter here.)

The concept:  Over six episodes, eight artists – mostly professional but with a few amateurs – must paint a specific scene in four hours.  At the end of each episode, the judges pick the top three.  From this short list, they then pick one artist to go on to the semifinals.  Of the seven semifinalists (a "wildcard" artist is added), three are chosen for the final competition where one will win the title “Landscape Artist of the Year.”  This comes with no mean prize, as the award is £10,000 and the commission to paint an iconic National Trust property.  The final episode is all about the artist painting the commission and its unveiling.

Interestingly, most of the artists chosen to participate in the “heats” aren't plein air painters.  Not at all.  Instead, they tend to be studio painters—and painting the landscape from life is almost always a struggle for them.  And the artists aren't all painters, either.  Over the two seasons I've watched thus far, I've seen etchers and sketchers and fabric-art makers.  One artist even created a large, felted-wool piece.  Artists have brought printing presses, hair dryers, sewing machines, ink jet printers and other interesting bits of machinery to the event.  I wonder how many extension cords the roadies have to run?

Although it's fascinating to see how the artists fail (often comically) or succeed (often skillfully but sometimes accidentally), I find most intriguing the comments of the three judges.   (For the seasons I've watched thus far:  Tai Shan Schierenberg, a portrait artist of high merit; Kathleen Soriano, an independent curator; and Kate Bryan, an art historian.)  Throughout each episode, I'm treated to an ongoing-dialogue between the judges about the performance of each artist and the end product.  Generally, I find the judges working much too hard to sympathize or to find the good in abject failure.  And many times I disagree with their selections for the short list and finalists.  But when one realizes they aren't looking for technically-competent landscape painting but for novelty, their choices become clearer.  They're also looking, they say, for growth in the artist.  Yet it is hard to grow much in a four-hour episode -- or over weeks, should you make it through the heats -- with all the cameras and the judges and the public poking around.  The “growth” is often just another manifestation of novelty. 

Good entertainment, yes.  But it's also a way to see a few truly excellent artists at work and their different approaches.

By the way, Katherine Tyrrell, who writes the wonderful “Making a Mark” blog, has written detailed reviews of the later seasons (as well as of the related show, “Portrait Artist of the Year.”). You can read her reviews here - 

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