Thursday, March 04, 2010

Exhibition review: RWS Open Competition

RWS Open - a selection of Landscapes
all paintings copyright the artist
all photographs copyright Katherine Tyrrell

I went to see the 2010 Open Competition Exhibition held by the Royal Watercolour Society at the Bankside Gallery last week.
The RWS Open Exhibition, previously called '21st Century Watercolour', is an exhibition of successful entries to the annual open painting competition organised by the Royal Watercolour Society. The aim of the competition is to encourage innovation in the use of water-based media on paper and to stimulate fresh approaches to what are considered to be watercolour’s traditional strengths.
This exhibition has been redesignated as a competition rather than an open exhibition and from what I could see now does not include RWS members works whereas I seem to recall it did in the past. Making it a real open - as in all work is by non-members - makes it an attractive proposition both for the artist submitting work and the exhibition visitor. First work by non-members is not going to be squeezed for space by work by members. Second, the visitor is almost always going to see a goodly proportion of work by artists not previously seen - as well as ones who have been trying to become members for some time.

The exhibition also
supports artists of any age and is not prescriptive about size or subject matter.
All water-soluble media (watercolour, acrylic and gouache) is admissable. The selected work is also available for purchase at Bankside Gallery during the period of the exhibition.

Unfortunately, the exhibition has not been loaded on to either the RWS website or that of the Bankside Gallery website which is a pity. The images which are on the Bankside's site aren't even in the exhibition. I'm afraid I'm one of those who simply don't understand why it isn't possible for an art society's or gallery's website to show something of the work which is in an exhibition.

My impressions

I sat and made notes about my impressions of the exhibition while still in the gallery and this is a recap of my notes.
  • there are a number of very impressive landscapes and some extremely well painted atmospheric effects. These varied hugely in size, format and approach but there was a very nice group hung in the prime position in the gallery - which you can see at the top of this post.
  • If you want to see some impeccable graded washes by contemporary artists you can find them here. Gerard Stamp's work was particularly strong in this respect. I'd describe him as a traditional watercolourist. Norfolk Saltmarsh (which can be seen on his website) is in the exhibition (as is St Mary the Virgin, Shrewsbury). I took a good look at his saltmarsh painting (middle of top row of photo at the top of this post). It's on rough paper and there is terrific subtlety of colour and tremendous control over his washes.
Section of Winter Greens by Tessa Shedley-Jordan
  • there are some very impressive works of the 'not quite botanicals' variety - very attractive portrayals of flowers and vegetables. The 'standout' example for me was Winter Greens, a still life of winter vegetables (see below) by a lady called Tessa Shedley-Jordan. The painting of all the different colours and textures was simply impeccable - as you can see from a section of the painting on the right. I very rarely post sections but I was hugely impressed by this painting which achieved a high standard of botanical correctness while at the same time being a very pleasing still life watercolour painting. Tessa received the Royal Watercolour Society Friends in East Anglia President's Award in 2008. As luck would have it the painting was bought while I was in the gallery and I'm very sure the new owner is going to enjoy it a lot.

  • I thought there were too few works including figures. However there were two pieces which demonstrated how it is possible to paint figures both realistically and very effectively in watercolour. One of them was Scottish artist John McKerrell's painting The Anniversary II which won the David Gluck Award (£1,000). It's a landscape painting which is full of atmosphere and pathos - which includes an excellent figure - and is painted like a miniature painting except it's actually quite large. You don't often see watercolour painting of this quality.
  • Another were the two paintings Crabbing I and Crabbing II by Robert Cunnew which are hung behind the reception desk. They reminded me of Sir Stanley Spencer's paintings. They were animated, interesting and kept a potentially complex subject accessible through the use of a simple palette. They were also an excellent example of how and why two paintings on a theme can have much more impact than just one! You can see larger images of these two paintings on his website.
Crabbing I and Crabbing II by Robert Cunnew
  • There was much less abstract 'contemporary' work than in the main RWS shows. I wondered if this is maybe there are more artists in the open exhibition who are painting in watercolour for pleasure as opposed to trying to satisfy the market.
  • Interestingly the only work of this sort which absolutely whipped my eye across the room was by Sarah Armstrong Jones who has two still life floral paintings Still Life November I and Still Life November II in the exhibition. They are painted in a very contemporary but considered way. Both are heavily pigmented (maybe with some use of gouache?) and the very wet strokes across the paper are impressive. I also particularly liked the way they were presented with the works on paper floated inside a frame with a narrow and simple distressed silver gilt frame. A very contemporary take on floral art - they looked very good.
Still Life I and Still Life II by Sarah Armstrong Jones
  • The exhibition does however include some watercolours which to my way of thinking are old fashioned, some which are boring, some which were copying the style of other artists and some which are just plain bad! Which rather suggests to me that many more people should be encouraged to enter this exhibition next year! Do get in contact if anybody wants guidance on size of works in the show and/or prices being charged.
Prizes and Awards

I've got a note saying that some of the prizes really left me wondering what the judges saw in a work - with the picture which won the RWS Award being the main prompt for this thought. However I very much agreed with the judges about some of the others although I was left wondering why some of the other works had not won a prize - compared to some that did.

The prizewinners were:

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer Purchase Prize

St Cuthbert’s Mill Prize

  • 1st Prize: Mending Orange Nets Against Black Sheds by Judith Dobie
  • 2nd Prize: Quayside, Newcastle by Janet Kenyon, who's from Bolton and now lives in Carlisle. This artist also won the new Smith & Williamson Cityscape Prize in last year's RWS/Sunday Times Watercolour Competition. She seems to excel at painting light at night when there's damp in their air. Not quite Atkinson Grimshaw but of the same ilk! I liked her painting.
  • 3rd Prize : L’Arret Lazarre, Paris by Peter Blodau.

Winsor and Newton Prize

Daler Rowney Prize

The Artist Prize – an article in future issue of The Artist Magazine

Royal Watercolour Society Award

David Gluck Award

and finally......

Fellow bloggers who can get to show should make a point of looking out for Sarah Wimperis's (The Red Shoes) excellent painting of a palm.

Palm by Sarah Wimperis


  1. Thanks for this wonderfully informative article, Katherine. Some very interesting artists, several of whom are new to me. I particularly liked Bella Easton's work in the link you gave.

    I wonder why there was so little figure work? There are so many fantastic artists in this genre.

  2. A good review K, are you going to the RI private view? 20 april, I shall be there with my eldest son, also an artist. I am looking forward to seeing that show even more that the RWS.

  3. I wondered what you'd think! :)

    I hadn't planned to be but I certainly can be Sarah.

    Do they know the connection between you and the RI?

  4. good review and the mix of standards is typical of open exhibitions I think - also the sometimes odd selections for prizes.

    I don't think people do 'contemporary' with an eye on market forces necessarily though - merely exploring ideas.

  5. the 'exploring new ideas' I understand - but wouldn't you see that in entries to both exhibitions?

    I've seen MORE 'pure traditional watercolour' in the Open this year and (I think) in revious years


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