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Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages and Linguistics


The Big Year Abroad Challenge and the fine art of humiliation

The Cam from Clare Bridge

MML student and 'The Big Painting Challenge' finalist Claire Parker writes about art, the year abroad and finding yourself.


"The year abroad is not a year in your life, it’s your life in a year” reads the tattoo around the waist of a fellow Erasmus student here in Verona. The pressure that this third year should be unforgettable, and not just because it’s been indelibly inscribed on your body in purple ink, is a palpable one for every prospective year abroad student. You are acutely aware of what tanned, confident fourth-years have told you – that “You’ll really find yourself without expecting it, you know?”. Six weeks in to my own year abroad, and I very much didn’t know; the only thing I’d found without expecting it was a dead cockroach on my washing up shelf in Paris.

But during the infestations, as during the tribulations, examinations and celebrations that the year abroad has brought me, I have turned to art to respond to and make sense of it all. As some keep diaries, I keep sketchbooks, and have always found drawing from life to be a strangely liberating experience. Even at school I would get told off for sketching the other students instead of working on what I was supposed to (“But, Claire, what is it about the “Design your own European hat” project that you don’t find inspiring?”, my teacher had asked me). I had never really asked myself why art meant so much to me, but when I arrived in Cambridge, something Dr. Martin boldly told us in my first ever French translation class really stuck with me: “You can’t reproduce the original”, he said, “so you might as well make it better”. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t go around brandishing my paintbrush like a magic wand purporting some kind of reality-enhancing talent – but it’s the aspiration itself, be it unattainable or not, of “improving the original” that keeps me going. After all, if art meant merely reproducing exactly what was in front of us, we could have it at the click of a shutter button. 

So when I saw the little notice in Tindalls art shop on King Street looking for amateur painters to take part in a figurative art-based BBC series, I had to give a go. I sent off a few sketches and paintings, not expecting for a moment to get through to the final auditions in London. “This is going to be a really positive show”, the producers had told me at that time, “We’re going to do for paint what bake-off did for cake: it’s all about celebrating amateur art and getting people inspired”.

Which is why, three months later, filming the first episode of The Big Painting Challenge at Alnwick castle, I found myself in tears, covered in oil paint, and heard the producer behind me say into his mike “Claire’s having a wobble, let’s bring in cameras 1, 2, and 3”. The experience was positively surreal – I was used to painting in my bedroom (my “studio”, if anyone asks) with a cup of tea, but here were cameras 1, 2, and 3 leaving me nowhere to hide and Richard Bacon asking me whether I was at all concerned that my first ever plein-air landscape was only half-finished with only ten minutes left to go. It was in that moment that it suddenly dawned on me that the BBC was not necessarily helping us make art – we were helping them make TV.

Fortunately my tears were wiped definitively from the final edit – but a lot of the judges’ (Daphne Todd OBE and Lachlan Goudie) rather harsh comments were not. My still life painting, for example, received wholly negative feedback from both judges, save for one comment that I’d inadvertently (and apparently successfully) left a blank space in part of my composition. I imagined being told by my supervisor back in Cambridge: “I mean, the ideas are terrible, and I don’t like your writing style, but I tell you what, that’s one heck of a paragraph break…”. Because I was by far the youngest and among the least experienced of the contestants, and had entered primarily to learn, the negativity didn’t bother me very much. But if you already make money from your paintings and have a reputation to uphold, as some of the others did, only to be told that your piece of artwork is a “kaleidoscope of calamity” or that it induced a “snort of laughter”, that’s got to be at least a little bit crushing. Comments often felt so sharp they could almost pierce straight through the canvas, leaving it, and our confidence, in tatters. When I was at my lowest, I decided to approach Daphne, one of our two judges, and tentatively fish for a compliment in unchartered waters. “I feel like I’m getting worse”, I said, resignedly. “Everyone’s getting worse”, she replied, and walked off.

But I kept on keeping on, sometimes striding, more often stumbling through the rounds until I found myself in the final. For every episode we would go to a new location, one week life drawing in Tate Britain, the next doing architectural watercolours at Blenheim palace. I particularly loved seeing Liverpool for the first time, the jaunty angles of the radically different old and new architecture somehow coming together as a whole like a cubist painting. But when we were told where the final would take place, my heart sank. As I said in a recent blog, it’s hard to be inspired on cue, and harder still if that cue happens to be Dartmouth Royal Navy College and you are a twenty-year-old languages students with a striking disinterest in boats. I did badly, failing (perhaps unsurprisingly) to draw thirty marching naval officers in as many minutes, and embarrassingly trying my hand at “abstract art” – but did manage in the last round to do an honest, if unfinished, oil painting of Dartmouth Harbour. I didn’t win, of course, but given that a few months before applying for the show I’d been terrified that anyone should see my work, and would never dream of exhibiting it, I had to remind myself how far I’d come.

In reality, The Big Painting Challenge taught me more about pressure than it did about art, more about putting things into perspective in my own head than on the canvas. Most invaluably of all, though, it taught me the fine art of humiliation. For if there’s one thing you need to know on your year abroad, it’s how to make mistakes and learn from them. Revising the French imperfect subjunctive before I left did not stop me walking into a Parisian stationery shop and accidentally asking for a thong, just as analysing Dante’s Inferno didn’t stop me walking into a pizzeria in Verona and asking if I could order a margherita “to throw away”. But when you’ve already painted a rectangle on national TV and claimed in crazed sincerity that it encapsulated Britain’s sea-faring heritage, how much worse can it get?

In all honesty, it’s taken me a while to get back into painting, to find my style and believe in it again. But recently, on a painting course in Trieste, I suddenly remembered why I love it so much. It made such a difference painting without a time limit, without someone trying to judge objectively something intrinsically subjective, and it was great to actually be taught, encouraged, and told how to improve in the language of art itself. Like learning a foreign language, art is about understanding the world around you and making yourself understood within it - but what I’ve realised, and what The Big Painting Challenge misunderstood, is that you can’t become the finished article overnight. As for whether I’ve “found myself” or not, I don’t know. But I do know that over the past year I’ve found some wonderful friends, a degree of self-confidence I lacked for a long time, and the best gelateria in Verona. And, keeping an art blog of my experiences, I’ve both drawn and drawn from what I’ve found.

The year abroad is a blank canvas waiting to be painted. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find the nearest tattoo parlour."


> Claire's blog and artwork can be found at:



Words and pictures all (c) Claire Parker.


Click here for more information about the MML Year Abroad