Wildcard Experience

A Wildcard Experience on Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year 2018

This summer, such a long hot summer, was a great one for painting outside. The exception was the day I joined the ‘Wildcards’ at Inveraray on the West Coast of Scotland one day in July. My husband and I stayed overnight in a wooden tent-like shed on the campsite 3 miles away, but still had to get up early at 6:30am to be at the signing-in gazebo by 7:30am. Clutching my newly acquired golf-sized umbrella, I lined up in the huddle to present my canvas for official stamping. After quite a bit of hanging around, looking at all the other competitors for any familiar faces – I didn’t find any – and chatting to a few, I discovered that artists had come from all over the UK for this opportunity. One or two had been Wildcards several times before, and one treated it as a family holiday destination each year. We had driven for three hours or so from the East Neuk of Fife the day before, but others had come up from Bedfordshire and everywhere in between. Some had trolleys of materials, some boxes, tables, chairs, easels and most had waterproofs and brollies – although not all. I had a midge hood and repellent and sunscreen but didn’t either.


Earlier in the summer I learned that although I was not selected by the programme to be a contestant in a plastic covered pod for the second time of entering, I was offered a wildcard place. I applied for a wildcard place within 10 minutes of being notified. I was able to say which venue I wanted and chose the nearest to me, which was listed as ‘Inveraray Castle’. In due course I was sent a postcode to meet at, which turned out to be a car park in Inveraray by the Co-op, and a printable form to say I wouldn’t share details of the experience on the internet/social media until the programme was aired. This was to be signed and handed in at the check-in and we had a brief talk from one of the directors of the programme at the registration point.

I treated the trip as a mini-break and my husband was going to bag a couple of Munros while I painted. However, that morning it was ‘clear’ that visibility was very poor. A mist had come down, with some fine misty rain. Munros abandoned, he went for a full Scottish breakfast!

By the time the crew were ready for the 50 wildcards to start walking to the painting site, the rain had set in. During the evening before, we saw the LAOY painting pods in the castle grounds, but this morning on the way in, we spotted them on quayside of Loch Fyne near the village. A fairground was all wrapped up and quiet on the green around the corner, but I had no idea what we were going to be painting until we arrived as a group and were given the boundaries. I had practiced painting castles in the weeks before, but I needn’t have, as it wasn’t in sight. We had to choose where to set up on the grass aong the banks of the Loch overlooking the Aray Bridge, the loch and the pier around the corner. We could paint any scene we could see from that point, which could also have been the fairground or the village. Having recently moved to live by the sea, I am very happy painting water, so decided on the view of the bridge over the loch with the hillside beyond. A nice reflection was happening but there was just one small problem, the cloud was so low that we could hardly see anything in the distance. I did find it quite atmospheric, so after a few quick compositional sketches on paper in a sketchbook, I began splashing my water-based oils onto my canvas to create a watery background. I coped as best I could with the weather, crouched in a waterproof jacket and a waterproof leather hat crouching or standing in the rain with the large umbrella strapped to a table easel to keep my painting reasonably dry. I lent my smaller brolly to a lady without one at the start and was glad I had decided on oils. There were several artists who had brought watercolours and had problems keeping it on the paper and at least one artist lost equipment and possibly their painting when it toppled over the wall into the loch at one point, but I it was retrieved. I wonder if the cameras caught that?

My painting.

The directors and film crew seemed to select several people from very early on to visit repeatedly. In this way they could show a progression. Filming continued to be pretty targeted later on so it was fairly obvious that the potential wildcard winners were likely to have been already selected, but I could be wrong. I was happy when judge Tai Shan Shierenberg stopped by my easel briefly, looked at my drippy canvas and said, “You’ve certainly captured the mood of the day!”


To be honest, I was focussed for most of the 4 hours on my painting but I didn’t notice Joan Bakewell. The rain and the three inches deep puddle of rainwater collecting in a large area in the middle of us all may have put her off. The crew were, I think, moving between us and the contestants in pods around the corner, and I caught sight of judges Kathleen Soriano and Kate Bryan briefly while I concentrated on painting, although neither came to chat to me personally. Stephen Mangan was chatting to most of the 50 artists and saying encouraging things on and off camera, which was great – he said he liked my clouds.

The rain eased towards the end which was just as well as I was wet through everywhere to the skin. Everyone seemed to remain quite cheerful and worked hard. The cloud even lifted a bit so we could see the far shoreline. Members of the public wandered past and they were lovely and very complimentary. At the end we were all asked to come together, we were thanked for coming along and taking part and the director explained what would happen next. We returned to our paintings, and the winner was selected. I didn’t really get to see the winning wildcard picture, so I’m hoping to get a good look when I watch the episode. We all applauded and then there was a rapid retreat to put away wet gear and paintings. We were invited to see the judging of the pod contestants. I had taken a sneak peak during a brief lunch break and saw that the artists had all tried, maybe even struggled, to find ways to be inspired to capture that misty morning – there was a lot of grey! I think there may have been a change of plan for the judging, perhaps a rush for the warmth of the castle, because when we got there the pod set was empty and the electrics were already being dismantled. The crew were after all making a TV show, and the weather that day must have made it awkward at times. All will be revealed when we watch the show!

The view to inspire?

I enjoyed the experience and would recommend taking part if you are considering it for next year.  My notes-to-self in case they are useful to you:

  • Enter the competition with something a little different – they seem to select a great variety of entry paintings and work in exciting media
  • Pack clothes, equipment and materials for all weathers, snacks and drinks – but you have to be able to carry/push it all
  • Be brave, take chances and be confident in your painting/pictutre if you want to get noticed
  • They are firstly of course making a TV show, and running a painting competition comes a close second
  • Expect the unexpected, enjoy the company of all the artists and be adaptable!