‘I’ve had dreams about it. Where if you get bad comments you’re dropped into a pit of snakes...’ Will Claire Parker, from Chelmsford, win the BBC Big Painting Challenge this weekend?
- Credit: BBC/Dan Prince
The moment of truth looms for Claire Parker – the youngest finalist in the BBC’s Big Painting Challenge. She tells Steven Russell about the year that’s made her stronger… and being mistaken for a cartoon character
Sunday night marks the end of a surreal year for Claire Parker. “It’s been a weird one,” she admits with a smile. She was always sketching as a child and teenager – was clearly talented – but never wanted anyone to see her drawings. Not even her parents. No, no, nooo.
The Cambridge University student was still hyper-sensitive about her art until relatively recently. She remembers a college friend suddenly picking up her sketchbook, “and I literally jumped up to stop him looking. It was a reflex action. I couldn’t let anyone see it”.
But then, early last year, came a turning point. Her supervisor, Dr Timothy Chesters, is a language specialist but also keen on art history. He was organising a small exhibition, in one room in Clare College, for anyone who painted. He knew of language student Claire’s almost-private passion and convinced her to take part, after much umming and aahing.
She’s so glad she did. The world didn’t stop turning. In fact, Claire enjoyed it.
“I was asked to talk about my work, mainly portraits, and was really surprised that people came up to me at the end. One girl said ‘Hearing you talk passionately about art has made me want to take up creative writing again.’ That was just a really lovely feeling.”
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At the shop where she buys her canvases she spotted a poster seeking contestants for The Big Painting Challenge – a televised search for Britain’s best amateur artist.
Amazingly, this undergraduate from Chelmsford – who as a schoolgirl would sometimes even leave her sketchbooks at home so her teacher wouldn’t be able to see them – threw her hat in the ring.
Well, for a start, that mini-exhibition at the college about a month earlier was pivotal. It proved it wasn’t so scary to have people clap eyes on your endeavours.
“I thought ‘Why not?’ It was such a good idea for the BBC to be giving art a profile.”
Not even a teensy bit frightened? “No. I didn’t feel the pressure because I didn’t have anything to live up to,” she says over tea in the city where she grew up. “It was just something I was doing for me, and didn’t expect for a moment to be on TV.”
The audition process began almost exactly a year ago, sifting more than 6,000 applicants. Claire remembers being part of a group of amateur artists in a room in London, given two hours to produce a still life. Many were beset by nerves, stressed and crying. “I was absolutely loving it, because it was a break from my essay-writing. I was having the best time!”
The process followed its course, including a talk with a psychotherapist, “just to check I was OK!” Claire (shocked and excited in equal measure) found herself one of the chosen 10.
She was the youngest by eight or nine years – she turned 21 only this month – hadn’t been to art college and was probably one of the least-experienced painters.
Last summer the amateurs were whisked away for a series of filmed challenges, critiqued by judges Lachlan Goudie and Daphne Todd.
Tasks ranged from painting self-portraits, and capturing the likenesses of EastEnders stars Rudolph Walker and Pam St Clement.
At the Tate Britain they were confronted by two semi-naked men and charged with recording the “anatomically-correct body shape, proportions and flesh tones of two loincloth-draped Greek god life-models”, as the Beeb’s publicity machine put it so poetically.
And so it went on, until the 10 were whittled down to the four finalists, including Claire.
The ups and downs have been played out on Sunday teatime TV for five weeks now.
Tomorrow night’s final asks our hopefuls to catch a sense of the nation’s seafaring heritage at Dartmouth’s Royal Naval College. Then there’s the last quick-draw challenge: capturing a platoon of naval cadets marching in formation.
Finally, a last painting – of Dartmouth harbour.
We’ll discover from 6pm tomorrow, on BBC One, if Claire takes the crown.
SHE watched the first episode in a cinema, before it was aired on TV. “That was absolutely my worst nightmare, seeing my own face on a big screen,” she grimaces.
What was it like once it aired on the BBC? “I’ve been abroad, luckily, where no-one watches it and no-one knows, so I secretly sit with my laptop, with my headphones on, and psyche myself up for it.
“Watching yourself is strange, especially as I avoid photos like the plague. I tend not to like being in the limelight very much.”
It’s been a busy 12 months for more than the painting challenge. Claire’s studying languages, and this academic year takes her out of the university. She’s spent time in France and, now, Italy.
The episode on March 15 was the first she’d watched with her family, “which was quite scary. My sister’s always making fun of me at every opportunity” – Sophie is 17 – “but we have a laugh about it, so it’s fine.
“It’s really nice when my dad likes what I’ve done. That’s been one of the best feelings. I never used to show him anything, and for him to see me on TV, doing well, that’s really nice.”
Vince is a long-time art teacher at a high school. Bet he’s proud.
“He’s not one to shout about it but yes, I can tell. He always thought I had some potential, and has been encouraging me, but going for the audition was completely my own decision. I didn’t even tell my parents at the start.”
Mum Pat, a journalist who often writes for ealife, is also proud, of course!
Claire says her liberal upbringing, which encouraged creativity, allowed her to be what she wanted to be. She also credits some inspiring teachers at Chelmsford County High School for Girls. “The mantras of my art teacher, Owen Lennox, were constantly going through my head as I was painting. He was very quirky but great.
“He favoured proper painting from life – having something in front of you, whether it be a person or an object – and that was great, because I think that’s what painting ought to be about.
“With the rise of photographs and selfies and smartphones, it’s becoming rarer to sit in front of something and draw it. When you do that, you have a relationship with what you’re drawing. What you’re feeling comes into the painting or drawing. If you’ve just got a photograph, you’ve just got pixels.”
At school, she’d find herself sketching her teachers. “When I was doing my revision, later, I’d be wishing I’d taken more notes about what the lesson was on!”
Claire would also sketch other students – rather than concentrate on lesson tasks such as designing “Your Own European Hat” – and would get told off for that.
Sometimes she’d paint or draw in a different room, away from the gaze of students and staff.
It did cause a bit of grief. “At one point my art teacher predicted a D [grade at A-level] to tell me I really needed to change.” In the event, she got an A*.
All those guarded sketchbooks were like diaries – invariably filled in Biro, as she’s left-handed and would smudge a runnier medium. “I can tell how I was feeling by looking back at those drawings. I’d always drawn my sister a lot – we’d had a bumpy relationship, though it’s a lot better than it was – and looking back at the drawings and paintings I can tell what the relationship was like at that time.”
Why was art so important?
“It was purely because when I was drawing I felt most alive. It’s the feeling people get when they’re doing whatever they love most – listening to music, or cooking. For me, it’s art; and I know it’s the one thing that will never go away.”
Why didn’t she do an art degree? “Sometimes I ask myself the same question!” Claire did look at them. She remembers one renowned college, where the emphasis was very much on conceptual art. Definitely not her bag. “I just feel it’s time for a renaissance of figurative art. [Based on real objects.] The further away we can get from art being about money and the market would be good!
“It’s strange for me being asked by people ‘Where can I buy your paintings?’ I’ve never thought about it like that before, and I hope that’s not what I start thinking about.”
People will actually be able to buy her paintings soon. “The other artists and I are putting on an exhibition at Lauderdale House in London from April 15 to 26 and I’ll be including some new work, as well as stuff from the show.”
Would it change the way she feels about art if what’s essentially a hobby becomes a semi-commercial operation? Might it dim the magic?
“It’s hard to say. I think I’ve learned my lesson, in a way, because I changed my style to try to please the judges, and it didn’t feel quite as alive.
“If you’re not going to do an ‘honest’ painting there’s no point doing painting. If I’m going to be an artist, honesty is the trademark to have, and that’s when a painting starts to work – when there’s honesty and humility behind it.”
SO: how was it all for Claire? Well, exhaustion is one of her over-riding memories from the Big Painting Challenge experience.
“I’m really glad I did it, but I’m not sure I’d do it again! Now I feel I’m on my way. I’d never been to art college and, because I wasn’t that confident or open-minded, I stuck to what I knew. Now, I’m not scared by it any more. The paint is not my enemy – it’s not trying to work against me any more!”
Claire is at heart a portrait painter – “the landscape of the face is the most beautiful one there is” – and rather less keen on physical landscapes.
“I’d never painted outside; I was always too scared to do that in case people looked. Now I love doing that.”
There’s a story about her one previous attempt at painting en plein air, sitting by the Cam and painting the river. The mother of a toddler said “Look at that painting, darling – isn’t it lovely?” “Oh yes, mummy,” replied the girl. “I wonder what it’s supposed to be…” Painters do need a thick skin.
The programme also helped Claire develop her skills with watercolour painting, but she still hate acrylics!
There were a few worries early in the TV process when she felt an interview filmed in Cambridge was trying to make her sound competitive – “which I’m not!” – but everything quickly settled down and the episodes have been a fair reflection of what happened during the challenges. “I think I come across as myself. They’ve done a good job.
“There’s still deep fear every time it gets to 5.30,” she laughs. “You’re constantly remembering what was happening. ‘How are they going to edit it?’ Because, of course, you have this ‘narrative’” – those stories of the artists – “and you’re waiting to see what is going to happen in the next ‘chapter’.”
The artists actually bonded well. “There were people who had made proper money from selling paintings and who really wanted this to lead to a career in painting. I was just there for me, really. Maybe that’s why I come across as the chirpy one! I was just determined to enjoy it.”
The judges were lovely, though their role obviously meant that, in front of the camera, they had to say what they thought.
Claire admits there were many negative comments and she tried to adapt her style to follow the experts’ advice, “to the extent I didn’t really feel there was much of me in it any more! I began to fade away a bit!”
The judges said her work was sensitive and expressive, but that her lines needed to be more decisive. She strove to make them bolder, while trying not to lose her own artistic stamp in the process.
“Having tried to change my style, having tried to develop in ways other people wanted me to develop, I’m now coming out of it and really knowing myself a lot better, and knowing I am stronger and more confident than I gave myself credit for. I think I’m ready to do my own thing, and I feel excited about that.
“I do think of myself as quite a private, closed person. If you’re an honest artist, you put so much of yourself into a painting or drawing and it’s hard to show that to people, because you’re revealing something about yourself.
“When we did the self-portrait in the second show, I thought I wasn’t giving much of myself away, and then the judges see it and say ‘I see vulnerability and defiance’, and I think ‘Yes, that’s pretty much what I am!’
“One of the things said to me is that I’d tried my hand at futurism but Lachlan said ‘Stick to Clairism.’ That was nice. So now I have gone back to my own style.
“I learnt how to put it all in perspective, really – both from a technical/artistic point of view and an emotional point of view. I learned to be a bit braver and believe in myself more, and for that I’m really grateful. Maybe not at the time but definitely in hindsight.
“I’ve changed a lot since that was filmed. I was much less confident during that summer, and since then I’ve had to go abroad, been plunged into a new country, having to get by. I’ve learned so much from that experience.
“I was surprised I came across as more confident than I felt at the time. But that’s what you’ve got to do; and I really wanted to keep it positive. If you’re trying to inspire people, they’re not going to be inspired by people crying over wet paint!”
She feels strongly that art should be given more prominence by schools and universities – to be regarded not so much as a “soft” subject but a genuine intellectual discipline.
“I guess this is a cliche, but it really does help you understand the world around you – and yourself. That’s why they’re called art movements; they do move people in incredible ways.”
So, where does she, and her art, go from here?
“This is what I’m a little bit worried about!” This autumn, Claire will begin her final year at Cambridge. “I just need to make sure I find time. I’m never going to stop painting, but I think it’s going to be really difficult from now on until I get my degree.
“Our marks go on our final year, so I’m going to feel immense pressure from that, and I hope I have time to keep painting. My dream is to have my own exhibition – and studio, maybe, as well.”
She also likes writing. An ideal future would involve combining the two passions.
We’ve drained our cups, said probably all there is to say about The Big Painting Challenge. Time to go. Claire is taking the now-rare chance to go shopping in Chelmsford.
“I’ve been invited to Lachlan Goudie and Daphne Todd’s private views. They’ve both got exhibitions coming up. I don’t know what one wears… I’m guessing it’s not jeans. I live in jeans, so I’m going to try to find something!”
Art and anguish
Creating art might look like a serene endeavour, but The Big Painting Challenge could be pretty tiring and tense.
“I’ve had dreams about it a few times,” Claire admits. “Nightmares. Where if you get bad comments you’re shot, or dropped into a pit of snakes.”
The dreams were triggered by one challenge that didn’t quite go to plan. “I literally had nightmares about it for about two months after. Then I finally got over it and managed to put it in perspective.”
People mistake me for cartoon character Princess Merida!
Since The Big Painting Challenge hit our TV screens on February 22, Claire has been recognised a couple of times in the street, by folk offering their best wishes.
“I’m very happy about that. I was never after fame and glory; I just wanted to inspire people to paint, basically. If I’ve inspired one person to paint, then I’m pretty happy.”
Oddly enough, she was “recognised” more often before the programme started… in Paris.
“But not for being me! Everyone thought they’d seen me somewhere before, but then realised they were actually thinking of a movie with a girl with curly ginger hair – Brave.”
This lass was actually an animated character called Princess Merida who lived in the Scottish Highlands and was pretty nifty with bow and arrows.
“That’s why French people would talk to me: if they’d seen the film. ‘Have I met you before?’ I’d say ‘Have you seen the film? That’s what it is.’ Really strange. And online as well... people posting a photo of me and then of the animation!”