Daphne Todd has entered and won many open competitions during her career. Like most artists – including the amateur artist entrants to the BBC1 competition – she measures her work against that of her peers and artists she admires.

‘Even amateurs who’ve taken up art later in life and who will always see themselves as amateurs, want to know if what they have done is any good. What do they measure themselves against, or what are they expecting you to measure them against? It’s partly what they’ve painted and whether or not it’s like the subject matter, but it’s also partly about whether it’s any good compared to the artists in the past; is it any good as art?

‘But I don’t think winning a competition means you’re a great artist, because having been a judge many times, I know there’s a huge amount of luck involved and it’s very dependent on who is on the panel, because we inevitably have more appreciation for work that we can understand or admire, even if we are trying hard to evaluate work as good of its kind.’

What inspired Daphne to be a judge on the programme?

Daphne’s invitation to become a judge on the programme coincided with standing down from her work with Heatherley’s as teacher and trustee for nearly 40 years. ‘I’m still connected with Heatherley’s, but this offer came along and I thought it would be a way of continuing teaching in a sense. It seemed a ready extension of whatever skills I had acquired while teaching. I’m a passionate believer that figurative painting and all that painting from observation involves is a very special thing and ought to lead to far more interesting paintings than mine, but there’s a whole generation of people in art schools who are not getting any of this sort of instruction or exposure to the experience of painting from life.

‘This series showed everybody involved how very difficult it is to paint from observation; they were also surprised by the simple practical difficulties of painting from life, such as the fact that easels blew down in windy conditions, for example. I certainly couldn’t work under the conditions imposed on the contestants by the demands of the series. I think it will make everybody, even non-painters who enjoy viewing paintings, look at a landscape painting in the future and wonder how it was made.’

Daphne approached her role on the programme as that of an art tutor: ‘I think I behaved exactly as I would have done when I was teaching. We set the contestants challenges and we commented to camera on how they were doing, without them hearing, but at the end of each challenge we gave a criticism, which everyone heard. That’s exactly how it used to happen in art college. You learn from hearing what is said about everybody’s work. Lachlan (Goudie, Daphne’s co-judge) and I often agreed, sometimes we didn’t, or we had a different take on some things – he’s much younger than I, and a traditional Scottish colourist. I did wonder if I would come up with something to say, but of course the moment I saw what the contestants had produced there was always plenty to say!’

The painting challenges

Regarding the challenges set for the contestants, Daphne’s expert input was undoubtedly invaluable: ‘There was a general agreement as to what the art challenges should be. It’s a big glossy production, and there were seven camera crew involved, so there was a lot of background help as well. Lachlan and I were involved in every single aspect, so if ideas came up that we didn’t agree with, they didn’t happen. We ended up with challenges that we thought were do-able, although one or two of them I perhaps wouldn’t have included.

‘For example they were encouraged in one or two challenges to use photography as well as sketching to gather information, which is a perfectly valid thing to do, but the greater emphasis by far was on working directly from observation and I would have preferred it if we’d just stuck to that.

‘The challenges ranged over portraiture, landscape, still life and movement and flowers and gardens; all sorts of things came into them and some of the results were surprising. There were interesting and exciting results from each of the contestants. Sometimes contestants who were good at one of the challenges and who you thought would be good at the next one, weren’t. But it was interesting as to why they found particular things difficult. And I think the final result was surprising; there were also people who flowered in some areas as we went along and then sank again. So in terms of a series of programmes, it keeps you on your toes, but it also kept all of us on our toes because of all these surprises’.

Filming The Big Painting Challenge
Filming The Big Painting Challenge

An educational experience

Whilst she enjoyed her visits to the various painting locations, chosen by the BBC for their visual impact for the viewing audience, and to represent all parts of the UK, Daphne was mostly interested in the educational content of the series:

‘Although the producers were making Sunday evening entertainment, I thought the most worthwhile thing in terms of my involvement was the teaching aspect, so that the viewing public would know a little more. Hopefully our critiques were also of use to the contestants; I certainly tried to say things that would help.

‘A striking thing for me was the fact that the artists managed to operate with all these camera crews and us wandering about and being asked to say what they were doing. I couldn’t do that in a million years and still produce an interesting result. For those that fell by the wayside, it was upsetting. It was sad to lose people and I think we lost artists who were real artists, but it didn’t go right for them on the day.

‘But that’s what it’s really like for professional artists. I’ve had works rejected. And I’ve known people whom I’ve encouraged to enter work into the Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ Open Exhibition who have been devastated because it didn’t get in, but these things happen. What this competition does show is that you just have to get over the disappointment because it’s not the end of the world; there’s another day, another jury, another opportunity.

Keep your identity

One of the qualities Daphne most admired about the BBC1 contestants was their ability to retain their individuality: ‘All managed to keep their own identity. I think that’s important. There isn’t a right or a wrong way of doing something. If we asked them to do something specific then they had to deal with that particular challenge and there was a right and wrong way to some degree, but each artist’s way of getting it right would be different from another.’

Based on a similar format to The Great British Bake Off, The Big Painting Challenge naturally invites comparison. However, for Daphne, ‘Unlike The Great British Bake Off in which you know a cake has risen or it hasn’t, and it tastes good or it doesn’t if you follow the recipe, I don’t see painting in any way as similar. You can have a recipe for making a masterpiece cake, but there isn’t a recipe for making a masterpiece painting. Great works of art are as different from each other as could be. And the artists in the competition were so different, each with their own individual style and approach.

‘There was something to admire about everybody’s work on the programme. They were selected from an initial entry of nearly 6,000 amateur artists so they’d all got ability in one way or another. And I was able to admire work I would have said was decorative, which isn’t my thing particularly, but which had terrific joie de vivre. That’s really what we were looking for, work that was good of its kind.’

All the contestants were amateurs, but did Daphne think any of them would be able to look forward to a future as a professional artist and give up their ‘day job’? ‘The criteria the BBC used for judging whether someone was an amateur really relied on their income; if they had any income from their art it had to be a very small proportion. And yes, I would think some of the contestants could look forward to a professional career. I certainly hope some of them do. Given the right conditions most of them could make a living, some of them on their local art scene. I’ve known quite a few people have secondary careers as professional artists after retiring from their main job as architects, or similar related professions. So there are different ways of being a professional artist. They may not suddenly get work into the permanent collection of the Tate, but then under the current regime, neither will I!’

What affect will the programme have on Daphne’s career?

‘I think the producers think I’ll be the equivalent of Mary Berry in the art world but I don’t agree because painting isn’t like cooking. I guess a lot of viewers will suddenly know who I am, but I can’t see it’s going to make them rush to buy paintings, and it might put off some of the academics from whom I get a lot of portrait commissions. They may not want to be painted by someone who has appeared on a popular TV art programme!’

In some ways, though, the series has helped to reinforce Daphne’s desire to paint more English landscapes, ‘I know I’ve only got a tiny bit of it and I may just have fallen logs in my own backyard, but they’re English logs and English vegetation in English light and I’m only just about ready to cope with painting landscapes in England. I could paint Spain because it’s dry, sunny and the vegetation doesn’t change very much. I could spend a month on the same view in consistent conditions, which is quite a long time to work on a composition. England by contrast is so changeable. The vegetation springs up, dies down, it all waves about, it gets wet, and it makes you look at Constable with greater admiration. I don’t like working away from the subject so I’d like to try and get all that in a painting in situ. I just hope I’ve got enough experience of painting change. My understanding that it’s all about painting change is ahead of my ability to do it unfortunately, but that’s what’s interesting about doing it, it’s what draws you onto the next painting; it’s what keeps you going.’

Ash Trees in High Summer, oil on birch plywood, (152.5x183cm)
Ash Trees in High Summer, oil on birch plywood, (152.5x183cm)

‘These are the trees I that can see from my studio window, although I painted it sitting outside by the gate. I started with a slightly grey ground, washed on. During the painting I realised I needed an extra little bit, hence the combination of two further panels. I started it last year and then didn’t get the right conditions; working from life always takes a long time. But I wouldn’t even contemplate working from photographs. I used a lot of cerulean in this painting, and Mars violet.’