The Big Painting Challenge started on BBC One last Sunday and art fans around the UK tuned in to watch ten amateur artists take on some pretty tough challenges. The first show was all about introducing the contestants and learning more about their skills and techniques. As the group tackled landscape art for their final challenge of the show, some struggled to adjust to the changing light and environment whilst others flourished under the pressure. Alison Stafford, a freelance designer and mum of two from Cheshire, instantly impressed us with her bold approach to colour and her ‘in it to win it’ attitude. She did well across the three challenges, with judge Lachlan Goudie even describing her painting of Alnwick Castle in the first challenge as having a “lyrical magic to it”.
Excited to hear more about the show and her artistic preferences, we caught up with Alison for an exclusive interview about all things art.
Hi Alison! So tell us, what or who was it that inspired your interest in art?
As a child, I found one of my Mum’s old school art sketch books which I used to try and copy onto scrap paper. That was my first memory of being really excited about drawing and art. She was I suppose the one that I have followed in creatively as she is also a great seamstress which is how I got into Fashion Design. My Auntie is very good at painting and I remember my parents asking her to paint a mural in the bathroom. It was of a reclining nude in blues and greens and I remember my Mum saying it was time to paint over it as soon as me and my brother started asking awkward questions about it. My Dad was a good artist, but it was only ever his hobby. He painted a wonderful kingfisher in oils once and the smell of the turps still takes me back to that time.
How do you think your time in the fashion industry has influenced your art?
I think having a background in fashion has made me aware of colour and it’s importance within a limited palette. When designing a collection, you are always encouraged to use no more than 5 colours – (3 commercial ground colours such as black, navy, or grey and then 2 fashion/pop colours to make it relevant and eye catching). This is especially true when designing a printed fabric! This is so that it ties together visually when it is on a rail in store, but also because it is costly to develop when you go over that amount of colours. Painting is similar. I try to use no more than 5 colours on my palette (sometimes only 3) and then all colours are mixed from a combination of those.
What motivated you to apply for the show?
I had to try and prove to myself and my family that I was serious about my art, and so made it my mission to push myself out of my comfort zone by painting tricky subjects and entering competitions to see how I fared against other artists. The BBC’s The Big Painting Challenge was actually the first thing I entered, and as the entry was sent I merely crossed it off my list of to do’s and never dreamed I would be picked out to take part!
What’s the most interesting advice or skill that you’ve learnt on the TV series so far?
The most useful thing I have learnt on the show is to observe, look and then look again! BUT not to a point where it kills the interest in the subject. I found my passion for the subject at times hard to find – it is difficult when you are told to paint something to the best of your ability if you don’t find anything about it that really lights your fire.
How have you found painting with a time limit?
Painting with a time limit forces you to get your eye in early on and make every brush stroke count. You have to describe something convincingly and also so that it speaks to the viewer. I found that at times I struggled to resolve the work I did in the challenges, especially since you could realistically cut the actual time you had to paint in half because of the constant interruption from the presenters, judges and cameras! I also found myself allotting a certain amount of time to each portion of the painting, and if I went over that then it had an impact on the areas that I just didn’t get around to.
Who is your favourite artist and why?
It is difficult to come up with just one, but I guess the one that I have carried in my heart since being a teenager, is Frida Kahlo de Rivera. She was born in Mexico and was my age when she died having spent much of her life in excruciating pain after being hit by a bus when she was 18. She endured over 30 operations and took up painting during her convalescence. Painting for her was cathartic. Deliberately naive in her approach, she used colours and symbols from Mexican Folk art to describe her feelings which were often turbulent due to an on off passionate relationship with her husband. Her bold and colourful style had a massive impact on me and I always have her self portraits up in my studio.
If you could paint any person, who would it be?
Mick Jagger! He has so many stories to tell and to capture that in a portrait would be amazing!
What is your favourite medium to work with and why? Do you have any tips for working with it?
My favourite medium is oils, although I spend a lot of time playing with acrylic. They both do different jobs for me so it depends on my subject, the time and the required outcome of a painting. Acrylics allow you to work like watercolours with pale washes when mixed with glazing medium, which I use to create layers of colour. It allows you to build up texture to create an almost 3D impasto effect when used with thickening gel, or you can use it straight from the tube – I favour a dry brush technique to create softness – especially to depict fur in my animal portraits.
Do you prefer painting animals, people or places?
Am I allowed to say all of them? I guess that I am a bit of an animal lover so there is nothing better than capturing the character of a pet in a painting. That’s how I started my A-Z of dogs! I am still woefully in need of finishing it off as I am only up to Q (any dog breeds that begin with a Q please help me out!!). I ask people to post photos of their dogs onto my facebook page and then paint them – it’s all a really good way to experiment and push the boundaries of the medium without the pressure of painting for commissions, where the client is usually after a more photo-realistic representation of their pet! That said I love a bit of drama so look for something that has the wow factor when painting landscapes!
Which painting do you consider to be your masterpiece and why?
I think my painting of Bamburgh Castle is one of my favourites. It was the largest canvas I had painted at the time (100cm x 70cm) and was commissioned by a friend who wanted to capture the feeling that Bamburgh gave, it being a place that she often visited as a child, and now takes her family back to. She had commissioned a photographer to take the source photo, and then asked me to paint it from that. I used oil paint throughout and it took me about 3 months to complete!
What advice would you give someone considering taking up art?
Don’t consider it! Do it! It is the best form of relaxation! Start simple – maybe a pencil sketch of an apple – really look at the subject and keep saying in your head, “Draw what you see, not what you THINK you see”. It is all too easy to make assumptions about a subject, and that sadly is where it stops looking like what it is that you are trying to replicate! Also look for local art clubs – they are a friendly place to meet like minded people and a lot of them need your support. They are also a great place to get advice, and often have demonstrations from professional artists which are a fantastic way to see an artist at work and pick up top tips!
Take a look at the official Big Painting Challenge book for a guide to painting and drawing. We have all the art supplies you’ll need on our website to help you get started.
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