“You’ve got to despise the canvas. Shout at it: ‘To hell with you, I’m going to do this!’” Frank Skinner, comedian and co-presenter with Dame Joan Bakewell of Sky Arts’ Landscape Artist of the Year, returning for its third series, is teaching me how to paint.
“Fear of the blank canvas is what stops people from painting,” he says, encouraging me to hurl further abuse. “Swine,” I hiss, at the easel. “Scoundrel!” We’re in a studio at Hampstead Art School in north-west London, where Skinner – who studied English at Birmingham Polytechnic, rather than fine art – signed up for night classes when he was presenting the Sky show’s original incarnation, Portrait Artist of the Year.
“After watching the painters, I wondered how good I could be,” he says. Now I’m about to find out. “Generally speaking, with landscapes most of the artists would do a bit of pencil stuff first,” he says. “But I wonder if we should just begin?”
Being inside, I suggest, might put us at a disadvantage if we are aiming to paint the scene outside. But Skinner is undeterred, pointing to a large tree in the window. “It’s probably the most legitimate landscape item there is – a tree.”
As this tree has a big brown trunk, I mix red and green on the palette. Skinner doesn’t. “The important thing I’ve learnt,” he says, not without a hint of superiority, “is that looking is crucial. If you really look, you’ll find colours that you wouldn’t expect in that tree. I’ve already seen some purple.”
Chastened, I reload my brush and make a tentative mark in the centre of the canvas. Again, Skinner doesn’t follow. “Composition is all,” he says. “And trust me, if the tree’s in the middle then the picture will be a bit dull.” Skinner knows about art; he’s led tours around the National Gallery and made a film for the Tate about performance art.
He has vivid childhood memories of the Pre-Raphaelites collection at Birmingham Art Gallery. “I used to be amazed,” he says. “I couldn’t understand why the painting was so luminous. And there were also wonderful Pre-Raphaelite tapestries that were sold off and left the city. There was some controversy and a piece about it in the local paper, but they went anyway. And then, about 30 years later, I went to a dinner party at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s house and they were hanging in the reception hall!”
Yet not everyone thinks a 60-year-old from West Bromwich who is about to embark on a stand-up tour is qualified to present arts television. “People ask me, ‘Why are you doing an art show?’ And that’s about social class. I did Sunday Brunch with a posh lad from Made in Chelsea and he said, ‘I’m a bit hungover because I was at an art fair all night.’ Nobody said, ‘You seem a bit of an idiot, what are you doing at an art fair?’ He wasn’t obvious art fair material, but he had the right accent.”
Contestants on Landscape Artist of the Year visit beauty spots such as Knaresborough in Yorkshire and have four hours to complete their work and impress three expert judges. “In all the series we’ve only had two contestants who have worn berets,” he says. “And seven in smocks.”
This year’s winner will pick up £10,000 and a trip to Jamaica to paint the view from Noël Coward’s home, Firefly. Though they shouldn’t expect a hug. “Twenty-five years ago, there was never any hugging on television,” Skinner says. “Footballers would score a brilliant goal and there might be a hearty handshake. Today reality television is built on hugging, and I find that hard to take. So I have developed a level of aloofness, an antihug vibe.”
Frank has moved on to the wall behind the tree; brickwork broken by severe horizontals of metal balconies. “I’m going to do an impressionist version,” he says. “This poor tree is trapped in a world of brick and metal and it would be good to get that feeling across.”
He gets it across by slashing a dark blue line across the top of his canvas, a bold stroke that renders his finished work furiously abstract, its dark energy only kept in check by the margins of the canvas.
On screen Frank’s energy is kept in check by Bakewell, a bona fide member of the intelligentsia, who guides him through those moments when he might otherwise be inclined to say something daft. “I live for that moment when she says, ‘You have four Rs [hours]’,” he says. “We’ve become properly good friends.”
They do work well together, though, as he says, “You can do all the jokes and warm on-screen chemistry you like, but it doesn’t work if the paintings are a bit s**t.”
Which is the situation on my canvas right now. Somehow my off-centre tree and attempts at a balustrade have run together to make one big mess. But Frank is upbeat. “I’ll tell you what,” he says. “I like your flamboyant use of colour.”
Landscape Artist of the Year is on Wednesday 8.00pm Sky Arts
For your chance to win Frank’s striking landscape (below), simply pull up a chair, take a brush and paint us the view from your window. Email us a digital photograph or scan of your work of art to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Competition closes at midday on Monday 23 October 2017. Click here for full terms and conditions.