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Wildcarding… and winning! On Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year

How fantastic is that? Still not quite sure it all happened, but apparently it did! 

I’m the lucky Wildcard artist who won my heat at Royal Ascot on 15th June 2022 for Sky Landscape Artist of the Year (SLAOTY) series 9 (Episode 5) aired for the first time on the 8th February 2023.

If you’ve watched the series in full you’ll see I didn’t make it through the ‘battle of the wildcards’ where the judges select one Wildcard winner behind the scenes to go through to the semi-finals, but I certainly enjoyed my first, unforgettable experience as a wildcard on the show.  

My friend (and assistant for the day) Amber, set out early in our glad rags from her house.  My boot was full to bursting with a new trolley my husband had bought me, a tonne of art materials, a high stool and my big wooden studio easel.  I chattered like a magpie on the way there, trying to calm my nerves.  We got lost at a critical point somewhere nearby and finally found the tradesmen’s entrance of Royal Ascot.  

When we arrived the first thing we spotted was a beautifully bonkers queue of wildcards who had already arrived.  People had hats, fascinators and weird and wonderful gear carried under every available arm, as we joined the line we heard questions muttered excitedly, producers explaining the plans for the day, and the squeal of friends meeting unexpectedly in line.  

We eventually checked in and walked up to the picnic area where we’d be painting.  

We filmed the classic SLAOTY ‘wildcard walk up the hill’ a couple of times  and then we were told to find a spot to paint in the grassy area in front of, or alongside the pods not far from the white track fence.  I had eyeballed the area on the way past and was slightly unnerved by possibility of fitting so many of us (50 plus our helpers) with all our gear into a relatively small area.  I made for the front corner of the fence so that I could get a good view of the track and face away from the crowd.  The crowd of anxious/excited wildcards began flooding into the area.  

I blocked off a small square of territory, a little like putting my towel on a sacred sunbed in just the right spot and arranged my easel, canvas and paints, put in the stake for my umbrella.  

I had a good spot.  Tick.  I was set up.  Tick.

I reassured Amber that I was now all sorted, and she settled down comfortably with her book and sunnies on.  The producer called out that we’d have most of the day - our four hours plus plenty of time for breaks and she gave us a finishing time that sounded worryingly close on the heels of the first race of the Ascot programme.  She wished us good luck and all around me artists shot out of the stalls, putting pencils, paints and equipment to work, eager to make the most of every minute.  Being contrary, I put in my headphones and decided now was a good time for a very long walk.

After a lovely walk, zoning out from the mayhem a little and tuning into my own frequency, I returned ready to roll.  

I knew my quarry was beyond the fence and away from the jamboree of artists sitting behind me, but I wasn’t too sure what I would focus on.

I’d never been to Ascot before and to be honest, despite it’s glamour and shine, I found it hard to connect with.   Where I was I could see the helipad, the lines of rolls royces and the families picnicing in a car park in pristine clothes, sitting on foldout tables pulled from the back of their cars.  It was strange, happy and very British, but didn’t call up that inspiration that I take from nature, challenge or survival.  I was a little lost.   Given I was also in the midst of an art competition, where there was definitely an element of intensity if not competitiveness with everyone sitting so closely together, I felt a little like a rustic on a fancy day out. 

My eye kept being drawn back to the tall dark trees beyond the enclosure, which anchored me back to a beloved touchstone - landscape.  There was a gap in the branches and the blue sky beyond broke through in a beautiful way.  The eastern style pointed marquis’ were a lovely contrast in bright cream against the navy green depths of the treeline.  There was a strong composition there and I decided to take it and spend the day seeing what I could make of it.

I was shocked and delighted when Tai Shan Shierenberg, judge (and renowned artist) came over to chat to me on camera about my early choices.  He asked me about my orange ground colour and why I chose my view.  We talked about whether or not horses would feature and I explained that I’d like to include them, I’d come prepared for horses and I thought they brought life and movement to the scene (something I could get behind).  It was a good chat and I was incredibly touched that Tai saw promise in the early stages of my work for the day.  I continued.  

Tai and the other judges popped by and chatted again at some point, however I knew there were other fantastic artists in the field around me so didn’t dare to hope.

It’s worth adding that I knew that I had several advantages in taking part in the competition…namely:

1. I paint quickly - I’ve always been the same.  

2. I paint outdoors (en plein air) regularly and am used to the faffery of gear and therefore had prepared fairly well for the painting conditions on the day.

3. I have painted in front of people and within time limits before, having volunteered for live painting sessions as part of art fairs and gallery events I’ve been part of.  It helps a lot to shed some of your self-consciousness and you learn to build confidence in your decisions and go with them, in a way totally different to your process when working alone in a studio.

It’s obvious, but I think fair to say that somebody who takes a long time to create is not going to be showing what they can do in a mere few hours, but having not been in that position it helped me to be less stressed and allowed me to enjoy painting on the day.  

I didn’t go out of my way to look at everyone else’s artwork, I tried to stay focused on my own work but passing by for breaks and a stretch of legs I saw some fantastic works being made by the wildcard and Pod artists and was really impressed by the various ways in which artists were capturing the scenes and feelings that were present for them.

The Queen Anne Stakes - the first race finally arrived.  Many artists had completed one or several pieces, as there was only about an hour remaining.  I readied my phone to take a video of the horses coming past, determined to include them - but I heard cheers before I saw them and as they flew past they were visibly relaxing, riders standing in the saddles, horses tails and heads high with relief and enjoyment.  

The race was a mile long, which meant the finishing post by the main grandstand was the end.  It was unexpected, to see the horses and riders running with freedom, target past, but I realised it was an alternative and almost hidden story element to include in the work.  

I painted in the horses in spare, abstracted marks, their riders vibrant, physical appendages.  Distant shapes were added as people leaning in sorrow or joy against the rails - it was all over.

‘After the race’ 

To finish on time, to my satisfaction was a great relief.  To have Tai walk towards me to give me the winning handshake was like something out of a dream, not quite real.  The words of encouragement and support he gave me on the day and those the judges shared on screen, will stay with me for a very long time.  

I met some lovely people too, fantastic artists who produced some incredible work on the day.  It was great to share the crazy-amazing experience with some other talented wildcard artists and make some fantastic new friends in the bargain.   

The whole experience has given me more confidence in myself and my work and that’s worth a lot.   

I feel like it’s also a bit of a tribute to all of the wonderful people who have supported me, bought, liked, commented on my work, encouraged me (and read my blog!) - thank you all x

Thank you for reading x

Check me out on Instagramfacebook or keep in touch via my bi-monthly art journal here.

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