The Big Painting Challenge is back and it has left the dreariness behind – review

"My approach to teaching is alternative thinking,” said mustachioed art mentor Pascal Anson in The Big Painting Challenge (BBC One). Anson, who visibly bristles with energy, was one of a raft of lively new faces drafted in to revitalise the BBC’s quest for “Britain’s best amateur artist” and rescue it from the terminal dreariness displayed in last year’s debut series. Clearly, some serious alternative thinking has been applied. 

Gone were the woefully mismatched presenting duo of Una Stubbs and Richard Bacon, replaced by what can only be described as the bourgeois dream team of Mariella Frostrup and Rev Richard Coles. And extrovert art historian Dr David Dibosa joined existing judges Lachlan Goudie and Daphne Todd to add a dash of zestful personality.

But what really invigorated the new format, and distinguished it from other Great British Bake Off wannabes, was the notion that instruction is a key part of learning. This was where Anson and his co-mentor Diana Ali came in, taking the not always obvious raw talent of the 10 competitors, and honing it with some old-school training.

It was all surprisingly absorbing. Especially for an opening episode that focused on the potentially deathly dull subject of “still life” (the French don’t call it nature morte for nothing). Setting competitors the challenge of painting a jumble of inanimate objects and finding new ways to recreate well known paintings of empty rooms by Vincent van Gogh and Roy Lichtenstein, forced them to grapple with basic techniques like perspective and negative space.

As a test of proficiency, this was something any viewer, artistic or otherwise, could get a handle on. And the result was a refreshingly animated format that cleverly used age-old training techniques to put a new spin on that most clichéd of talent show tropes, the competitors’ journey.

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