BY Susan-Marie Best in Interviews | 02 JAN 00
Featured in
Issue 50

Different Strokes

Amateur watercolours

BY Susan-Marie Best in Interviews | 02 JAN 00

It finally happened! An episode of Watercolour Challenge was scheduled against The Jerry Springer Show. I know what kind of teatime viewing I like - something colourful and contentious - so the choice was an easy one. The compulsive quality that Watercolour Challenge has, and which Jerry Springer most definitely does not, is that the programme is subliminally inspirational. Each 30-minute episode usually involves three committed amateur regional painters who, from Monday to Thursday, are allotted four hours in which to paint a given scene. An 'art expert' is on hand to chat to each artist about their reason for painting in watercolour, their method, interpretation and technique. Contestants range from those who relish tight control to those who cultivate the accidental flow of watery pigment or the addition of other media. The expert also discusses with presenter Hannah Gordon how the viewing public might approach and interpret such a scene themselves. On Fridays, the winners from each of the previous heats compete to become regional champion. The series ends with the Grand Final. The 1999 competition was judged by Ken Howard RA and the vitriolic Brian Sewell - a man to make any painter's hand tremble - who awarded the winner a prize of a tutored painting holiday in Havana.

Throughout the show, the irrepressibly bubbly, perfectly-attired-yet-mumsy Gordon (whom Sewell suggested might enhance any scene as stuffage) offers encouragement and ensures the contestants are not fazed either by being on camera or open to public scrutiny during what is normally a solitary occupation. Gordon's potted, often poetic, history of the location and the scene-matching music lend the programme an appropriate something-for-everyone quality. Everybody really does seem to enjoy themselves, especially if the weather is terrible. On location at Kynancee Cove, Cornwall, the gale-force winds required the easels to be lashed to the ground, yet the conspiring elements served only to add an extra dimension to the task, the whole affair exuding that diffident British sense of camaraderie. It is a world away from average daytime viewing schedules which are packed with programmes that do their best to deny the personal creativity of the general public, who are assumed inept and passive, and bullied into 'expert' makeovers of their clothes, their homes and even their lovers.

One afternoon last August, I switched on to discover an out-of-series episode (a one-off for regular addicts?) set in a location far removed from the gorgeous landscapes 1.1 million viewers are regularly presented with. It was recorded in Pentonville Prison in London, which apparently has a thriving art department. The contestants were two inmates and one ex-offender. Despite the rather dreary outdoor scene of a corner of the prison courtyard - complete with barbed wire and struggling bush - and despite a measly two hour deadline, each put their heart into their work. The contestants were impressive. They had found a way of simply and movingly expressing their world. Hardened criminal minds had been moved by the self-enabling power of painting; pride had been given to men who had had very little hope of creating anything special in their lives. One said that the tranquillity of painting small-scale watercolours had helped him to manage an overly aggressive personality. Another admitted that what had begun as a bit of a lark and an alternative to going to the gym, would hopefully offer an art school degree and the chance to start his own design business.

Prison restrictions (flammable materials like white spirit or linseed oil are prohibited) do not inhibit the medium of watercolour, and the lack of equipment breeds invention - bits of sponge, tea bags and vegetables are employed along with fingers and brushes. Because prison life is so tedious, almost anything can become interesting subject matter for the painter. The stark, monochrome, repetitive design of the interior, with its bars and bolts, massive doors, dazzling lights and cast of inmates, replace the remembered lushness of an external world. If a prisoner is skilled enough he will receive commissions from fellow inmates, and these pay for the sad little luxuries which are the currency of gaol. The 'expert judge' for this edition was an ex-offender, who now specialises in portraiture after studying art history through the Open University and winning the Arthur Koestler Prize - an award created in 1961 to honour the Hungarian writer and social reformer imprisoned in England in the 40s as an undesirable alien.

Although Channel 4's press office liken Watercolour Challenge to Masterchef because it is not aimed solely at the nation's amateur painters, it lacks the ostentatious pretensions of the cookery programme. Watercolour Challenge somehow falls into a strange twilight world redolent of life under the repressive social status quo portrayed in British black-and-white movies, self-consciously updated into the present TV age. Like the medium itself, the show struggles to be contemporary yet achieves a certain Modernity (in the innately old-fashioned sense of the word). Now that Watercolour Challenge has been to prison, and one episode saw the three 'art experts' competing against each other and then judged by a previous series' amateur winner, all I am waiting for now is pro-celebrity Watercolour Challenge to really loosen things up a bit.