Thursday, September 11, 2008

RWS / Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2008 - exhibition review

In this post I'm going to try and give a bit of the flavour of the exhibition of the RWS/Sunday Times Watercolour Competition which opened yesterday in its new home at The Bankside Gallery in London - which is also home of its new sponsor, The Royal Watercolour Society. The exhibition opened yesterday on 10th September and continues until Sunday 21st September.

RWS / The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2008 - catalogue (front)

A quick aside before the review - I hope the exhibition page will be archived when the exhibition ends. Unlike the BP Portrait Award, there is no one archive site for this competition. In my view what it really needs and deserves is its own website - or at the very least a microsite. A dedicated site would have great value through creating an opportunity to:
  • promote the infinite variety of watercolour art in the UK to a wider online audience both in the UK and overseas
  • demonstrate the quality of work in watercolour which has won prizes over the years
  • provide a guide for artists wishing to submit works in future years
Similarly I hope in future that a little bit more detail about both artist and motivation for the painting could be included on the website.

I'm going to try and provide a bit of insight into the range of works in the exhibition - with many thanks yet again to the people at the Bankside Gallery for letting me photograph the exhibition for this blog.

Inevitably, reading about it is not the same as actually visiting and I certainly can't give you the same experience as you get when seeing them 'for real'. You just can't beat standing up close to a painting inspecting the technique! However hopefully this review will provide an incentive for yet more people to visit the exhibition and see the works for themselves. Plus, hopefully, seeing the range of work on display will also give more people the nudge to have a go at entering this very prestigious watercolour competition next year. I have to confess you'll find the content of this review leaning, as ever, towards more representational work which tends to appeal to me more.

RWS / Sunday Times Watercolour Competition - The award winning paintings (left wall)
photo copyright Katherine Tyrrell, paintings copyright the artists,
courtesy Bankside Gallery

I'm not going to focus in particular on the winners - as you can see the images which won prizes on the RWS website - and above. The website also includes those which were highly commended.

On the perennial question of "Does size matter?" it's unfortunate that the RWS site does not provide any details at all about dimensions and media in either the catalogue or on the website - and hopefully this can be remedied. It's certainly information which I know is valued by artists who are thinking about entering work. However you can see the relative size of the prize-winning works in the above image - note that my benchmark chap is of medium height! Most were large.

My own view, for what it's worth, is that quality inevitably is the main criteria but larger works tend to be more noteworthy in the prizewinning stakes and smaller works tend to sell more easily to more people at the moment. I'm including prices below but merely to indicate something about the price range of works shown.

RWS / The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2008 - catalogue (back)

There's a huge variety of works in the exhibition - as highlighted by the Sunday Times, arts correspondent and juror Frank Whitford in his article about the works selected for exhibition and the prizewinners. The overall selection of works exhibited is impressive in terms of the demonstration of the versatility and range of ways that people can work with water based paints - conventional watercolour, gouache and acrylic - all on paper.

If I were to strike one 'less than enthusiastic note it would be that there was very little that stopped me in my tracks and made me go Wow! Maybe that's me rather than the work!

However I do want to be emphasise that this is an exhibition which is well worth seeing - there are lots of paintings to like. Liking work is made easier by the excellent hang done by the staff at the Bankside Gallery.

The far end of the gallery and in particular the end wall (see below) have been given over to more intensely colourful and abstract or more abstracted or strongly stylised contemporary works.

RWS / Sunday Times Watercolour Competition
(top) the end wall
and (above) a group of townscapes
photo copyright Katherine Tyrrell, paintings copyright the artists,
courtesy Bankside Gallery

Groups of paintings similar in subject and style have been created and the effort that is put into this is always appreciated by me as each then adds value to the others and no jarring notes are struck.

One of the paintings I liked a lot was previous Sunday Times winner David Prentice's painting of Southwark and Tate Modern (nfs). This is the one with the silver frame in the middle of the above photo. He has the capacity to paint in a way which creates a painting which looks real and doesn't look like a photograph. He's a master when it comes to the use of colour. In this painting he's used a lot of colourful neutrals, and detail is masked through the used of subdued tone with more intense colour notes placed sparingly around the painting - all of which work very well within the overall design which reads extremely well at a distance. What you can't see is the quality of his brush work, the calligraphic use of pen and ink to draw in the main shapes and the vaporous texture of his sky and clouds. Next to it, there is another painting of a view of a town which uses some lovely colours but tended towards rendering everything at an equal level of resolution and, for me, this had much less impact as a result.

Note also the beneficial impact of the very narrow double mat on this and other larger paintings.

RWS / Sunday Times Watercolour Competition
a selection of still life paintings
photo copyright Katherine Tyrrell, paintings copyright the artists,
courtesy Bankside Gallery

Paintings included a range within the still life genre - some of which you can see in the paintings above. I particular liked Sue Read's luminous and very simple painting of Two bowls (£750 top left) and, as ever I like anything that Fay Ballard ARWS paints - and this time it was radicchio titled The Contours of Emotion (£1,500 - middle left) - you can see a larger version on her website.

Kathy Lewis's 15 pots (£1,200 bottom right) was very quiet and very pleasing. She rang the changes you can get from a limited palette and a variety of textures and edges. I liked Ann Bridges concept and title used for her painting Not Everything is Black and White (black) (£1,800 top right). Both of them for me demonstrated what can be done with watercolour if you have a very clear focus and a fairly limited palette. Showing what you can do in a very focused way is not a bad maxim for people entering art competitions.

I also rather liked Alban Low's graphic portrayal of an Aster (£250) which suggested a modern variation on the watercolour floral work on Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Looking back, I think I saw more figurative work including people than I did straight portraits - and even the winning work David by the Window, Spencer's Belle Vue by Jennifer McRae turns out to be more about painting than it is about portrait. She also demonstrates huge skill in various ways of painting from the 'one hit' brushwork on the lines of the jacket (in both sense) to the very subtle glazing of the face.
The painting is all about quality of light in this particular room. It is quite unique, gentle and opaque. I found myself focusing on on this element and being less concerned with small features and small detail. Watercolour is the perfect medium to explore the subtleties and play of light and shadow
Jennifer McRae - 1st prize - catalogue profile
I also particularly liked the portraits at the entrance to the exhibition, you can see two small ones on the right - the top one being another painting by runner up prizewinner Cameron Galt.
Look also at the work of Cameron Galt. There are two of his paintings in this show. One is a small self portrait, a masterly work of great seriousness
Richard Sorrell, President RWS
RWS / Sunday Times Watercolour Competition
(top) Cameron Galt - self portrait with black collar(£500)
(bottom) James Rushton RWS NEAC Claire (£950)
photo copyright Katherine Tyrrell, paintings copyright the artists,
courtesy Bankside Gallery

I like all of James Rushton's work, portraits and landscapes, watercolours and oils. He has a unique and impressive style which is deceptive in its apparent simplicity

I very much liked Roger Allen's large painting of Lose Hill and the Vale of Edale (£1,500 below right) no doubt partly because it's of a part of the world I knew well when a child.

RWS / Sunday Times Watercolour Competition
a selection of landscapes
photo copyright Katherine Tyrrell, paintings copyright the artists,
courtesy Bankside Gallery

He usually exhibits in the Midlands and the North - but of course a lot of us migrate south and do like seeing reminders of home! Landscapes which take you back are very powerful and this one worked its magic partly through strong design and carefully observed use of colour.
Usually working 'en plein air' he follows the Pre Raphaelite precept of truth to nature as can be seen in his closely observed work.
Roger Allen website
John Twinning's small painting of Low Tide(£650 SOLD - above bottom left ) sold on the preview night. John is now not only the only artist to have his painting highlighted on the front page of his website (as I highlighted in my last post) - he's also the only one with a website which is displaying a painting which sold in the exhibition. Who knows whether this helped the sale? Who can say - but my guess is it won't have hindered a sale. There's a moral in there for all artists - artists need to make sure their websites support the marketing of their work in galleries they're exhibiting in! It's made me think about changing how I format mine!

Other landscapes I liked were Wladyslaw Mirecki's large painting Cold and Damp (£4,250) painted using very muted colours in a close tonal range. I love the work of Paul Newland RWS, NEAC - although I would have preferred to see Floating Jetty, River Ouse (£1,700) to be rather larger.

Of those were more impressionistic I particularly liked David Pearce's Five Bar Gate (2,950 right), although it did appear to have been painted on brown paper which made me wonder about longevity.

I's also like to give a special mention to Lancashire artist Geoff Waterhouse's Icedscape(£375) which greatly amused me. There's nothing in the rules which says work can't be humorous!

The exhibition continues until 21st September and entrance is free. The catalogue is £2 and includes images of the prizewinning works only together with a listing of artists and prices selected works.

Finally just a reminder that you can see the names of all the artists who won prizes or were selected for the exhibition - plus links to websites where I could discover them in RWS/Sunday Times Watercolour Competition - prizewinners and selected artists.

A Footnote: For those intending to submit work in future, do review again how works are presented and framed. Note the understated and restrained frames and the float mounting of some of the works on paper (so that it is suspended within in the window of a mat and the paper's raw edges are visible). Also note that gallery prices for works relate to individual artists rather than size of paintings per se.



  1. I'd love to visit this exhibition - thanks for the next best thing!... I like the Kathy Lewis work, and her website - lovely. The display on the walls looks much more appealing than on the catalogue, the hanging and framing really adding to the works.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it Cathy.

    The sign of good framing is when the work looks even better when framed - and you notice the work rather than the frame!

  3. Had a great day out on the South Bank. Thanks for information about the exhibition. It's the first time I've been to the Bankside Gallery and I was most impressed. I thought the exhibition was very well arranged, and apart from one picture all deserved to have been chosen. I really liked Fay Ballard's radicchio and have just enjoyed looking at her website. Other paintings I noted were Parliament Sunset by Emma Haworth, Ian McDermid Head Study by Stephen Shankland and Woman in a Green Dress by Christopher Prewett.
    Incidentally, did you notice that there were no animal portraits?

  4. Glad you enjoyed it Jenni. Fay Ballard's work is great - I'm a huge fan!

    I very rarely see animal portraits in any of the exhibitions of the major national art societies - except of course for SOFA and the Society of Wildlife Artists.

    The occasional cat creeps into the picture - a bit like they do in Elizabeth Blackadder's paintings!

  5. Thanks for sharing this. Wish I could see the show.


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