Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review: Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2016

Earlier this week I visited the 29th exhibition of Sunday Times Watercolour Competition at the Mall Galleries and this is my review of this year's selected paintings.

This post is about:
  • the exhibition of selected works - there are 78 paintings in total in the exhibition (12 less than last year and 22 less than was advertised in the Call for Entries)
  • which artwork I liked the best
  • aspects I think can be improved
If you want to see the exhibition you need to hurry up and do so this week as the exhibition closes at 4pm on Saturday 24th September. Admission is free. After that there are two more chances to see the exhibition:
  • 24 - 29 October 2016 Parabola Arts Centre, Parabola Road, Cheltenham GL50 3AA - Monday - Saturday: 10am - 4pm. 
  • 10 December 2016 - 28 January 2017 Guildford House Gallery, 155 High Street, Guildford, Surrey GU1 3AJ. Monday – Saturday: 10am - 4.45pm.
You can also see the works online on the exhibition page of the website (it takes AGES to load) - and compare them to those in previous years (scroll down).  Each painting also has an individual page on the website.

Viewing the exhibition - prizewinners on the left.
This is my fourth blog post about the competition. The first three were:
The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition Prizewinners - on the wall

Review of the exhibition

Before I start.....

Why the big reduction in number of paintings selected and hung?

The very first comment I wrote in my exhibitions notebook was "smaller than in previous years?".

I'm very puzzled as to why the number of paintings exhibited has dramatically reduced.
This art competition is advertised as follows
Approximately one hundred works, which reflect the true breadth of the medium, will be selected by a panel of leading figures from the art world. (Sunday Times Watercolour Competition website)
Now the difference between the advertised 100 paintings and the 78 paintings actually in the exhibition is 22 paintings. That's a reduction of more than 20% compared to what those entering the competition were told.  That's very considerably more than rounding down approximation might allow for.  (For example last year , only 90 were shown and I remember thinking then that this was a bit too low.)

I'm very sad that we haven't been able to see works by 22 more artists.

This year several artists have had two works selected (Jacqueline Abel, Bob Aldous, Lucy Austin, Louise De La Hey, Kate Hunt, Chloe Le Tissier, Robert Offord and Jenny Ross)

That means the number of artists being exhibited is considerably below 100.

Just 68 artists have work in the exhibition - not 100. Which means while we could have seen work by some 32 more artists, the judges in their wisdom have decided this is not to be!

I'm firmly of the view that if the number of works that can be hung are limited then the number of artworks selected should also be limited to just ONE artwork per artist. The reasons why are because:
  • artists enter art competitions is to raise their profiles and develop their careers - so every artist eliminated from the exhibition is a very serious issue and one the judges ought to be mindful of.  
  • If you start reducing the chances of an artist getting their work selected then artists begin to think very hard about whether it's worth entering.
To my mind, if Judges start undermining the raison d'etre of art competitions from the artists' perspective then they begin to undermine the quantity and quality of work entered - and that's an unrewarding strategy for all concerned.

I'm left with questions:
  • Were the Judges even aware that 
    • the competition had been described as having 100 paintings? 
    • Kathryn Maple (the first prizewinner) had won the competition two years earlier? (I love her work and she's very definitely worthy of a prize - but the question remains.)
  • Should we deduce that if 100 artists' paintings were not show that:
    • there weren't another 22 paintings worth selection and hanging?  
    • or another 32 artists whose work was worth seeing?
I've taken issue in previous blog posts about the way an open art competition is described to potential entrants and how it actually operates in practice.

Bottom line everything said in marketing an art competition needs to be accurate (i.e. "legal, decent, honest and truthful") otherwise taking entry fees from artists and not delivering what is promised begins to look like "taking money under false pretences".

Next year, if there is no revision to the marketing, I'll be commenting on this topic - and the chances of an artist being selected - in my annual Call for Entries blog post . By way of comparison, it will include a countback and record of just how many paintings have been actually hung in recent years. That's the big bonus of a blog - I have an archive! ;)

The Exhibition

This is  good exhibition with a good range of different styles - but it doesn't quite have the impact of some exhibitions I've seen in the past.

That said it's probably the best watercolour exhibition I've seen this year in terms of:
  • range of subjects
  • range of styles
  • diversity of techniques
  • levels of demonstrable expertise 
The exhibition is also colourful without being garish. It's very definitely not dark, sombre or murky!  This gives it a feeling of being young and contemporary.

The small works wall

It's also nicely hung which made for some nice photographs of paintings on the wall.

There's a good representation of members of the two major UK watercolour societies - but it's by no means overwhelming - just 7% of the exhibiting artists. I expect the percentage is higher once Scottish watercolour artists are added in - if anybody spots one do let me know!
I'd love to know who entered but didn't get selected but I rather suspect people keep quiet just in case their entry doesn't make it! (But I guess all artists know that particular strategy!)

Interestingly people who get selected for the exhibition on a regular basis - like Mark Elsmore and Varsha Bhatia are not members of either watercolour society.

People in paintings

There's a variety of treatments of portraiture - with an emphasis on head shots.

A corner for watercolour portraits

Prompts for prospective entrants - and future prizewinners

Works are typically medium/large - particularly the prizewinners.

Although there's a diversity of subject matter but it's far from comprehensive. So here's what's missing for those who'd like to make an impact next year!
  • there are no large paintings of people in groups  or within a context which is not anonymous (go next door to Lewis Hazelwood-Horner's solo exhibition - see Impressive solo exhibition by 2016 Threadneedle Prizewinner - to see what I mean)
  • there's very little peopleing of landscapes
  • there are very few cityscapes
  • there's very little still life
  • there's one wildlife - and the animal is not obvious!
  • there's one painting leaning towards botanical

However there are lots of landscapes!

There's not a lot of competition for the Smith & Williamson Cityscape Prize. This is a very respectable prize of £1,500 however if the artwork selected for exhibition is anything to go by not a lot of people enter cityscapes of merit.   The winner this year is a stunner but it did stand out in more ways than one. I'm actually very surprised given the huge surge in the number of people who now pursue urban sketching - very often using inks and/or watercolour.

Framing is universally restrained. Frames are white, black, light/normal wood or a neutral colour.

Mats are not significant in a fair proportion of artworks - and are often absent. Paintings on whole sheets of paper (and there's more than a few) are typically float mounted.

The Paintings I liked

One of the things I look forward to each year is seeing what Mark Elsmore (a former winner of the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition Winner) has painted this year!

This year he's demonstrating his mastery of perspective, a limited palette and graded washes.

I found the work to be heading towards mesmerising....

Mark Elsmore, One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor – £1800
There was something very effective about the next one because it managed to look abstract at times and then impress me with the realism - while all the time liking the colours. It just kept catching my eye! Not surprising when you find the artist  is described first and foremost as a colourist!

James Judge is a member of the The Thames Group of Artists (who have a wonderful blog about their show and pop-up galleries at various locations along the Thames)

I am however puzzled as to how come this painting is in the exhibition as the artist's name did not appear on the list of selected artists that I was supplied with (and consequently is not on my published blog post listing the selected artists) - although I note his name is now on the website as being one of the selected artists. Maybe there was a late change?

James Judge, Unit 18 – £3500
Deborah Walker won the Turner Medal with another painting in her ever-growing series of paintings of the coastline
(see 203rd Annual Exhibition of Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours #1 - Prizewinners and Events).

Deborah Walker, Tidal Rhythms – £6200
Jayne Stokes has created on artwork from 100 small paintings!  It's very definitely a way to get your painting organised. I was less clear as to why each painting was singed at the edges but the variety of edge treatments made the artwork more interesting.

Jayne Stokes, Wanderlust – £1500

I see superb watercolour painting in every botanical art exhibition I visit - but never ever seen any botanical art in this competition. Maybe botanical artists don't enter?

A watercolour painting of plants by Sophie Charalambous is the closest thing this year

Sophie Charalambous, Boat Club Garden, Kings Cross – £1750

Finally, I loved this little painting - and assemblage by Helen Wilson RSW RGI PAI. I suspect an artist with a good sense of humour.
Helen Wilson, Another Red Herring (£1600)

Judging Panel

The 2016 judging panel were:

Watercolour Media Information

The competition aims to celebrate and reward brilliance and innovation in the medium of watercolour
Eligible media includes:
  • any water-based media
  • including acrylic, inks and gouache 
When a competition is focused on excellence in watercolour it's nice to know HOW that has been achieved. It's certainly one thing that artists like to know as well as many collectors.

For watercolour that means knowing what the media support is as well as what type of water-based art media has been used.

So how do people know observing online or in the gallery know whether a painting has been painted with traditional watercolour, gouache, acrylic inks or acrylic paintings?

The simple answer is that they won't know and can't know. Unfortunately:
  • the catalogue is completely silent on this issue
  • the website is no more helpful
  • the labels on the wall say nothing.
Which, to my mind is a very great pity as an art competition can be hugely educational in terms of showing people what can be done with a particular media. Sadly that educational aspect - and potential gain for all aspiring watercolour artists is not something that has received any priority this year.

I wasn't the only visitor commenting on the lack of information which helps to make the works more meaningful to the viewer.

I live in hope that the message will finally get through......


  1. Thanks Katherine for taking the time to comment on these exhibitions. For people overseas, it's one thing to see the works online and another to hear how someone reacted to the paintings/drawings.

    So thanks again, I really appreciate these posts! I might not always agree with the comments but your comments are always respectful and considered and I really enjoy hearing your point of view.

    I also only just realised that you had a separate site for your reviews - which makes sense now but I thought they were the same blog and was wondering why I couldn't find your most recent posts.


  2. Thanks for your very kind comments.

    In fact all exhibition reviews are on this blog (click the "exhibition reviews" label at the end of the blog to find more. You can also find more labels in the right hand column (scroll down).

    The reviews blog is actually about product reviews and its content will probably be moving to a new site I'm developing.

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