Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Review: RWS Contemporary Watercolour Competition 2015

The exhibition for the 2015 Contemporary Watercolour Competition run by the Royal Watercolour Society finishes today. This post is for 
  • all those who might be thinking of applying next year
  • members of the RWS.
The images selected by the judges have been online on the RWS website since the exhibition opened at the Bankside Gallery (click the link above to see them) - but these never give you a sense of size or what the exhibition looks like in reality. Which is a major reason why I like to do these reviews for the artists who might next year be submitting work.

Also one of the other benefits of going to an exhibition late is you can see how well it has been received by the buying public. Let's face it, the only reason art competitions like this can run at a reasonable entry fee to the artist is if they actually generate sales and commission for the gallery where the exhibition is held.  So sales are really important and it's can never just be "art for art's sake" unless you have got really significant sponsorship!

I'd like to say I had a grand plan to visit late - but in fact with other commitments it's just the way things worked out.  I had originally aimed to go last Friday but was just too tired after flying in from my Ulster Festival of Art and Design "gig" last week.

Below you can read:
  • who won the prizes
  • what the exhibition looked like - on the walls of the gallery
  • why I think this competition and exhibition has lost its way
  • PLUS details of two NEW watercolour exhibitions opening in London later this month.


First, here a list of the  Prizewinners - and images of some of the paintings
The places she paints are magical, full of secrets and hints of stories. (Statement: Emma Haworth)
(left) Paradiso After Dante by Emma Haworth
‘…plants behave in much the same way as humankind, strangling and smothering rivals in the rat race for position and food…all that struggle behind all that beauty.’
Grandfather's Chair by Jenny Matthews
(watercolour) £2,750
  • DAVID GLUCK MEMORIAL AWARD - Cat Hill Field and Tuscon by Iain  Nicholls
Cat Hill Field and Tuscon by Iain  Nicholls
(acrylic) £1,000
  • ST CUTHBERT'S MILL PRIZE - Shouting Loudly at Each Other by Joanne Hummel Newell (see below for image)
    • 1st PRIZE - Curzon Soho by John Duffin
    • 2nd PRIZE - Carolina in Gold by Aine Divine  (see below for image)
    • 3rd PRIZE - Mischief Makers by Mark Elsmore (see below for image)
  • DALER ROWNEY PRIZE - Beaumont Creek II by Simon Carter (see below for image)
  • THE ARTIST PRIZE - Olive Fig Garden by Tessa Pearson  (see below for image)

  • HEATHERLEY'S PRIZE The Story by Sue Barnes (You can see more of her collage work on her website)
The Story by Sue Barnes
(collage of painted paper) £875

Overall Impressions

So - what did I think of the exhibition? I went to see it yesterday afternoon and I've liked other exhibitions for this competition a lot more.

My overall impression is that this exhibition has lost its way. I'm beginning to think maybe the RWS has too.

In saying this I'm comparing the works to the open entries associated with the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition and the Annual Exhibition of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour which are exhibitions which I enjoy a lot more than I this one.
This year it's going to be particularly interesting because there are going to be two watercolour exhibitions running at the same time. I can see a lot of art societies making the trip to London to see both shows! There will also inevitably be comparisons.
    It was suggested to me that maybe the image used for the call for entries this year may have had an impact on the nature of work submitted. It's entirely possible. However there's nothing to stop RWS members from encouraging young watercolour artists who they know to be good from entering - so long as they are NOT part of the selection panel! In fact since new members often come through this route I'd see it as a duty of members to make sure that good artists are putting their work forward for the competition.

    I also think somehow people have got the idea in their head that maybe "contemporary" means abstracted and entirely without any evidence of draughtsmanship - and that is simply not true.  The definition of "contemporary" which should inform this show is
    belonging to or occurring in the present
    That actually means it should represent the complete gamut of art being produced today - because otherwise the exhibition just reflects what gets submitted and what gets selected according to the personal tastes of the judges:

    Extract from criteria for entries

    Any work in watercolour, acrylic, gouache and ink are eligible on a paper based support
    There are no limitations on style or subject matter
    The judges will be looking for ideas, competence and integrity – as long as the materials conform to those stipulated on the application form, they will be interested in how you choose to use them and will be excited by both innovation and expertise in traditional methods in using water-based media.

    What I liked

    Not a lot. I can't say there was very much at all which made me want to take it home - in contrast to previous years.

    One painting I really liked was by the winner of the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition Winner (2012) Mark Ellsmore . This won the Winsor and Newton 3rd Prize.  For me it won the prize for "best people painted in this competition".

    Mischief Makers by Mark Elsmore 
    (watercolour and gouache) £1,000 SOLD
    Profile of part of Diptera 2 (£1,100) by Julie Ball 
    I was also intrigued by one painting by Julie Ball - and here's a closeup of a section of it. (The image of the work on the website in no way does it justice)

    However it's not one I yearn to have on my wall although I do like it.  I just really want to know how the artist did it!  To my mind it's a serious contender for hanging on the wall of one of those 'white on white' apartments down by the riverside!

    I'm not a big fan of Emma H aworth's paintings but I can readily appreciate their appeal for others - and also the effort that goes into the creative thinking behind them.

    What I disliked

    The bad paintings.

    There are some seriously bad paintings. Some of them would look boring and bad on the wall of a sixth form art show.  One of them won a prize.

    I also really wish people would learn how to mix colour! I'm not a fan in any way shape or form of people who use black or Paynes Grey for shadows - it's just plain lazy in my view.  One of the wonderful features of watercolour is its ability to show us the beauty of coloured darks and greys mixed from complementary colours on the palette or the paper.

    There were also some paintings which displayed poor standards in relation to presentation. For example, if you're going to stick a painting on top of mountboard (not even float mounted!) rather than behind it then you've really got to learn how to cut a straight line! Even better learn how to mount art on paper properly!

    I absolutely despaired at the standard of some of the paintings of flowers - selected - but that might be to do with the standard of work submitted.

    I bang on and on at artists I know who have excellent technical and design skills and do wonderful paintings of plants and flowers in 'proper' watercolour - including ones which are "very contemporary" and others which usually sell very fast for significant prices - to enter their work in this competition. To date I have had no success. I'm now telling them that they are so much better than the paintings in this exhibition that I will be sending out regular reminders next year!

    One bay had paintings of people - I was not impressed.
    Carolina in Gold by Aine Divine, winner of Winsor & Newton 2nd Prize, middle of the right hand wall
    Where are all the decent portraits and figure paintings in watercolour? Where's the next Jennifer MacRae coming from? I remember vividly years later  the wonderful portrait of Maggie by Sue Rubira in the 2007 competition. It delighted the eyes in terms of her use of watercolour!

    I guess a generation of painters who have never been taught to draw will generate cartoon figures. How come other watercolour painters - who do know how to paint people - do not feel encouraged to enter this competition? I know they're out there.  What's stopping them from entering their work?

    I also saw a few too many paintings by artists trying to be like other artists.

    What I found odd

    Some of the pricing was very odd. Some artists either don't have a clue or seriously overestimate their ability to achieve a price. Others are pricing well below where they should be for a gallery in central London. Others are pricing right for their status as an artist but that's seriously out of synch with the prices for a lot of the work in the show.

    Overall the prices in the exhibition were all over the place. In my view, people typically find this confusing since it makes it difficult for people to relate the value of one to another. This could also explain the low level of sales.

    Something to ponder on - the RWS might like to consider:
    • a minimum price for all works for future competitions.  
    • providing advice to artists if their indicated wall price is likely to be problematic. I know other competitions where artists are told when their works are priced too high or too low. 

    What was missing

    I didn't see any painters who will replace artists of the quality of Leslie Worth PPRWS (paintings)  (1923-2009) and another Sunday Times Watercolour winner David Prentice RWS (paintings)  (1936-2014). In fact I saw absolutely nothing that came anywhere near their standard of their work.  It's very sad.

    I wouldn't mind but I also saw extremely little that came anywhere near the standard of work by current RWS members who are very skilled and really know how to use watercolour - such as Turner Medal winner Paul Newland, James Rushton and Angus McEwan.

    I could make a case for maybe two or three of painters as future RWS members - mainly on the basis of originality (e.g. Emma Haworth and Gerry Baptist ). That's if they've not already opted for membership of the RI (you can only be a member of one or the other but not both) and assuming they're interested in being members. Mark Elsmore could be a contender but I'd expect to see more of his work in the show - but there again maybe he only submitted one.

    The most significant observation? 

    Two walls of the gallery - the end wall and the long wall opposite the bays were dominated by paintings which leaned hard towards abstraction and the use of media other than pure watercolour.

    In fact they looked like any other contemporary art gallery.

    The end wall - the only ones which stood out for me were
    Gerry Baptist's two paintings (second from left) from his series Mysteries of an English Garden
    They're still recognisably figurative despite the extravagance of the palette
    and the calligraphic mark-making which are somewhat reminiscent of Dufy
    Gerry Baptist is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter/Printmakers and a former Council member
    With very few exceptions, the paintings selected certainly did not look like an exhibition of paintings in a watercolour competition - in very marked contrast for example to the paintings which are regularly and consistently seen in the Sunday Times watercolour competition.

    On these two walls, there were NO SALES of contemporary abstracted work. The only two paintings which had sold were two figurative watercolours which could have been hung in any gallery showing more traditional figurative artwork.

    Above is the end wall. Below three sections of the long side wall. Only two of these paintings sold.

    Two paintings sold on this wall - both are realistic and figurative
    Transformation by Jane Anderson Wood - a traditional watercolour landscape sold for £600 (bottom row second from right)
    Tree Series (two paintings) by Evie Schartner £2,000 (extreme right)
    I have however seen very much better painted trees by others att empting the same approach - see the trees on her website

    Very graphic - very lacking in red spots
    Shouting Loudly at Each Other by Joanne Hummel Newell, winner of the St Cuthbert's Mill prize, 
    bottom row extreme left
    Still no red spots
    Beaumont Creek II by Simon Carter, winner of the Daler Rowney Prize is extreme right, top row
    Olive Fig Garden by Tessa Pearson, winner of The Artist Prize, is extreme right, bottom row
    I actually counted the sales. I also made a note of which leaned towards traditional and figurative and which were more up the abstract end of things.

    It was very clear to me that the abstracted and more "contemporary (as in non-figurative)" had almost completely failed to convince and that their inclusion in the exhibition had depressed sales generally. (Or, putting it another way, I hope that the Bankside doesn't think this exhibition's financial performance is OK!)

    My conclusion

    I'm not alone in my views. This is a comment from my Facebook Page
    I was a tad underwhelmed too. Not quite sure I understood how some submissions had been accepted. The lack of sales indicates that the general public felt the same!
    In my view this is a contemporary watercolour competition which  has seriously lost its way. 

    In trying to be "contemporary", to my mind it has completely lost sight of the aspect which makes this competition almost unique i.e. it's a competition for watercolour artists.

    It's quite simple. While looking for originality and innovation is fine and dandy what is overall most important is that these paintings need to look like paintings made by people who enjoy painting in watercolour for the unique properties it offers!

    The problem in part seems to me to stem from this insistence on the competition being about water-based paints. This effectively means that some of the paintings could have been submitted as part of the open entry for the Royal Institute of Oil Painters which also accepts paintings in acrylic!

    I certainly don't want to see all the artwork that I can see in any other art competition.

    I want to see a competition which is being run by an art society which is proud of its history and roots in the use of traditional watercolour and shown by a gallery which is emphatically NOT apologetic about the medium.

    I really don't want to hear people telling me that "watercolour is not a popular medium" when paintings and visitors to other exhibitions shown elsewhere would suggest this is emphatically not true.

    In my opinion, this RWS needs to get back to focusing on what differentiates it as an art society and makes it special. Playing the "me too" game with the very many contemporary art galleries in London is a recipe for dwindling standards and dwindling interest.

    I'd also suggest it becomes rather better at promoting this competition. Extending competition deadlines - as this one did - is always an indicator to me that a competition has failed to generate enough entries of the required quality.

    Exhibiting excellent and original watercolour paintings is what makes a real difference.  Let's hope next year's exhibition is a considerable improvement on this year's.


    1. I was sad to see such a negative review of this exhibition. There are plenty of other watercolour shows exhibiting technically accomplished figurative work ( which I find very unexciting) so the RWS should be commended for choosing work which is pushing watercolour away from the safe and conventional which has given this wonderful medium such an unwarranted reputation. Red dots are not the definition of a successful exhibition . It is exactly the role of societies like the RWS to challenge perceptions of what is exciting in a medium, otherwise we are never going to see more than the same safe and ultimately uninspiring exhibitions. I generally sell very well, so maybe the Bankside just need to stick to their guns and eventually the customers for this kind of work will come to the RWSCO knowing they will find innovative original works in watercolour.

    2. Dear Katherine,

      Unfortunately we could not see the RWS exhibit in person, nor the RI at the Mall Gallery.

      But we went through all the paintings online in both shows, and were surprised at the almost total lack of interesting work in the RWS. The RI was much better. We agree with your comments!
      Lee and Ken Schiring

    3. wow, I don't think I have seen such a negative review from you. Hopefully the exhibition organisers will have similar feedback and make the adjustments you have suggested.
      The images of for Emma Haworth are too small to judge well on the internet, even on her site. I have a feeling I would like them as they remind of some early renaissance work combined with naive work.

      I have no problem with acrylics being included if the rules say water based media on paper and presume that would include water mixable oils which are gaining popularity. However the title of the exhibition explicitly says watercolour which in my mind is a completely separate medium from acrylics and other water based media. As you say, its is a very complex media to master and one that a lot of artists cannot do. I think a lot of the problem might be at art school because even in the 1970's when I attended college, it was very rarely done as none of the tutors worked in that media. I certainly considered it a wishy washy medium associated with a Sunday painter grandma/pa until I saw some excellent examples. Have tremendous admiration for painters who can expertly handle watercolours.
      Having looked through the slideshow, a lot of the work seems lazy but sometimes work does not show up well on the web. However, even this standard of work is several levels up from the work I can see here in the middle of Texas, so I would be grateful to see a faction of good art work you see.Don't get me wrong, its there but you have to search very hard for it.


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