Friday, November 12, 2010

Review: Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2010

View of works in the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2010
1st prize went to the painting top row penultimate painting on right
photo copyright Katherine Tyrrell
A week ago I went to see the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2010 at the Mall Galleries.  I was really looking forward to it having seen some good work in previous shows.

Truth is, this year I wasn't that impressed and consequently have been putting off writing this review which is, in any case, only of real benefit to those thinking about applying for next year.

In the end, I decided to tackle it by seeing how many of the paintings I could remember in a week's time.  Which really goes to the nub of it - there were incredibly few "wow" paintings.  In fact I don't think there were any at all.

View of works in the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2010 #2
photo copyright Katherine Tyrrell

The exhibition included:
  • a good variety of different styles 
  • lots of different subjects
  • perfectly attractive work
  • artwork which would look very nice hanging on walls at home.  
  • technically skilled work
.......but nothing which really stopped me in my tracks. When I came to look through my photographs today I realised that the main problem was that there were an awful lot of "same old, same old" paintings.  You know the ones I mean.  If they weren't painted by a famous artist who always paints the same way, then they were painted by somebody who wanted to be that artist.  The same subject matter which shows off virtuoso realism can also get really boring after a bit - how many New York fire escape staircases can we look at?

There was very little genuinely original work or work which I really wanted to look twice at and none which really wowed my socks off and made me want to pull up a chair! 

View of works in the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2010 #3

photo copyright Katherine Tyrrell

In the end - a week later I can remember just three paintings!  (You can see the winner in this post - Emma Haworth wins Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2010)

These were (1) the winner of the Smith and Williamson Cityscape Prize - Toledo by Gordon McDowall, who is a lecturer in art and design at Glasgow Metropolitan College.  There's an interesting tale behind this one.  It was inspired by art historian Graham Dixon in his BBC4 documentary The Art of Spain in which he highlighted the views of Toledo viewed from the road (I remember it well!)

You can see more of Graham's watercolour paintings of the urban art hot spots of Europe in this article about The Renaissance in detail in which he discusses his techniques and approach to painting the urban landscape.
Toledo by Gordon McDowell
watercolour on Fabiano Artistico (see article)
photo by Katherine Tyrrell
(2)  This David Prentice painting of Snow Melt (which I'm afraid is both distorted and has reflections in the top part).  I'm assuming this is The David Prentice as he often has a painting in this show.  This had a really strong graphic quality which grabbed me as I walked past - and then made me feel very peaceful as I studied it and realised I'm standing in the middle of a very peaceful country lane in winter looking at snow melt in the sunshine.  (You can see more of his work here)

Snow Melt by David Prentice
Everything in the Kingdom shall be ruined and destroyed by David Forster (£1,750)
acrylic on paper
photo by Katherine Tyrrell
(3)  This painting by David Forster was just plain intriguing.  It felt like it broke break so many 'rules' of composition and yet it drew me into study how it was constructed.  Of all the paintings this was technically one of the best.   I didn't like where it was hung - right in a corner (albeit on "the best wall") - and thought it would have benefited from a lot more breathing room.  His website indicates he likes painting trees - and trees certainly seemed to be one of the recurrent themes of this exhibition (intentional or otherwise).  He was also one of the few artists to have a second painting in the competition. You can see more impressive paintings in what is obviously a series at this gallery.

I have absolutely no doubt that the show was successful in terms of sales and had lots of visitors - and I for one will certainly be visiting again next year.

However I have to say that I've seen watercolours I've preferred in other exhibitions this year.  Which is sad.  One never quite knows whether the fault lies in the people who submit work or those who judge it.    The bottom line is I always go to this exhibition hoping to see the next Turner or even the next Arthur Melville.... It is after all, at the end of the day, supposed to be a competition about watercolour painting - and it would be really nice to see more paintings that celebrate the medium and what it can do!

My recommendation to those thinking about putting in for this exhibition is to be genuinely innovative and display what watercolour can do.  I suggest that all those people whose talents lie in the direction of the use of transparent glazing and mixing colours which granulate should step up and have a shot - because you've got a lot of space to make an impact!

I normally link to the Sunday Times review of the competition but since I won't pay Murdoch for news I can get for free elsewhere I can't give you a link to it.  Besides which you couldn't read it anyway unless you paid your money over to Mr Murdoch and I refuse to ask readers to do that.

The exhibition is now on tour and will be be on display between 6th - 31st December 2010 at Smith & Williamson's office at Old Library Chambers, 21 Chipper Lane, Salisbury, Wiltshire, SP1 1BG (open 9am to 5pm)

Note: If you want "wow" watercolours, take a trip up to the Royal Academy and go and see the Arthur Melville watercolours in the Glasgow Boys exhibition.  Now those are what I call watercolours which stop you in your tracks!  They were also painted at the end of the nineteenth century - but wouldn't look out of place in any contemporary art exhibition today.


  1. Well, I entered this one but failed to get in, it's interesting to read your impression of the chosen few. Not sure if it's any comfort that you were not impressed!

  2. Thanks for an interesting article, I have been waiting to see who won etc - still nothing on the competition website! I also entered and failed to get in, very disappointing and not sure if I will try this one again as it is hard to tell what they are exactly looking for - think I will have to try acrylic and call it a watercolour - would be easier to paint with for sure!

  3. Amanda - there is a link to my post about who won already in this blog post. See "Emma Haworth wins Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2010"

  4. Hi Katherine, thanks for that but I meant that I read it here in your articles and NOT on the Parker Harris site!

  5. Hi Katherine
    after very many hopeful journeys to the back door of the Mall Galleries, to enter the various open submission shows, I finally had a piece accepted for this year's Sunday Times Watercolour comp so read your article with interest! Your review is an honest opinion which I respect but I found the comment "If they weren't painted by a famous artist who always paints the same way, then they were painted by somebody who wanted to be that artist" a little harsh and unfair. We all like to think we are genuinely innovative in our work but the more I work as an artist the more I realise there is little really new under the sun and we are all conciously or subliminally influenced by the styles and trends of other artists and art movements as can be seen throughout art history. BTW I too would heartily recommend the Glasgow Boys show!

  6. Marie - I'm sorry if you were disappointed with my comment.

    I certainly didn't indicate that ALL paintings could be characterised in this way. Just that rather too many could for my own personal taste. I was genuinely disappointed.

    However I go to an awful lot of exhibitions so maybe I get to see too much "same old, same old"?

    I haven't got the slightest problem with people being influenced by a painter. I totally agree with you that many of us are "conciously or subliminally influenced by the styles and trends of other artists and art movement". However that's not the issue.

    It's when they're copying the style AND the same sort of subject matter that I begin to think that it's looking more like copying than innovation. Artists trying too hard to be like other artists are - to be completely honest - very boring. That's because I always know the original artist always tends to do it so much better!

    It does however help me to understand why people applaud anybody showing any genuine originality - even if they can't paint or draw! ;)

    I also really like a number of artists who are have been genuinely "inspired" by an artist - but have found a way of making the original artist's 'way of doing' things into their own style and their own way of doing things. That takes real skill - and I applaud that!

  7. I do agree with much of what you say Katherine, but speaking as an artist whose work was in the show, I suppose what I am trying to say is that, I felt it unfair that you seemed to imply that you KNOW when an artist is 'copying'. They may actually be genuinely inspired by a similar subject and style and, rightly or wrongly, may not be consciously aware of a direct influence. But in the end you can only report how it appeared to you :)

  8. Marie - you must come round an exhibition with me some time - and I'll show you what I mean. :)

    For example, I've lost count of the number of "would be Ken Howards" I've come across in my time - doing 'contre jour' people sat on a beach in Cornwall with windbreaks and sparkling light on the tips of the waves!


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