Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Natural Eye - the sort of wildlife art that gets selected

The Natural Eye exhibition at the Mall Galleries finished at lunchtime today. If you aspire to submit your work and get selected next year - read on!

cover of the catalogue is Red Admirals and Passing Hobby by Darren Woodhead
This post is all about:
  • the selection process
  • eligible artwork
  • eligible media
  • how to help get your artwork selected
  • how to become a member
Images in this post are of artworks from this year's exhibition not featured in the posts to date - see list at the end of the post

The SWLA Exhibition in the Threadneedle Space
- note some of the very contemporary treatments of wildlife

What Selectors are looking for

You can see an interesting interview with the current President (Harriet Mead) and the immediate Past President (Andrew Stock) on London Live. This:
  • provides a good view of The Natural Eye show 2017 and 
  • highlights what the selectors are looking for 
I've had various conversations with the President Harriet Mead over the years about what they look for in terms of the open submission.

We also had a long chat on the phone after I'd seen the show as I wanted to be clear how the selection process works and also what sort of criteria are employed in selecting artwork.

What follows is a summary of that discussion.  I hope the London Live Video (above) and this summary are useful to those who are
  • unclear why their artwork didn't make it through to the exhibition and 
  • want to know what to focus on re. future submissions via the open entry

Eligible Media

If you work in either watercolour or are a fine art printmaker you're in very good company!

However, the selectors are not averse to new media - albeit this is still an exhibition limited to drawings, paintings, fine art prints and sculpture - thus eligible media includes....
all forms of three and two dimensional artwork in any medium*
The SWLA is keen to embrace new and innovative mediums and will accept computer-generated images as ‘original prints’. However, a digital print is only considered an original print if it was created by the artist to be realised specifically as a print. Reproductions of paintings or photographs will not be accepted.
So, for example, the exhibition this year included a digital print made using an iPad - and included because of the quality of the image - see Sketches of Kittiwakes in a snow storm at Ekkeroy, Finnmark, Norway. April 2017 by Malcolm Ausden - who is the Principal Ecologist at the RSPB.

Sketches of Kittiwakes in a snow storm at Ekkeroy, Finnmark, Norway. April 2017
by Malcolm Ausden
Digital iPad image £200 (sold)

How does the Selection Process work?

I'm going to start with the SWLA members!

The reason for doing so is I was curious as to the significant disparity between some members exhibiting 8 pieces in the show while others only have one or two - notwithstanding that some will of course only entered a few!

What I learned was that ALL artwork is reviewed:
  • The artwork of every single member is peer reviewed on submission every year. 
  • The member, if on the selection panel, has to leave the room for the discussion. 
  • Not every member gets every piece they submit selected.
In terms of the Open Exhibition and submissions by non-members:
  • Initial selection from digital images is done by members of the Selection Panel (who are all members of the SWLA Council) at home. So there is no scope for groupthink - however there is agreement about basic principles of what to look for!
  • Discussion between panel members is limited to the works submitted to the second stage of selection - when work is seen in front of the panel. 
  • SWLA do NOT select work on the basis of whether or not the artwork is likely to sell - although every year they have one of the best selling exhibitions at the Mall Galleries.
  • By and large, the SWLA expect to hang work they invite to submit - so if it doesn't end up in the exhibition, there's generally going to be something that's "an issue" e.g. poor presentation or framing. 
  • There's no totting up of the number selected for exhibition - there's no limit. However they manage to hang everything they want to hang across the galleries as a whole.
There is every incentive to submit work in 2018 because the SWLA wants to do two things:
  • encourage more good quality submissions, and 
  • recruit more associates and members.
In 2017, the ratio of hung artwork was 80% from members and 20% from non-members. However that's partly because
  • too many of the c.800 submissions did not meet the standards required for this exhibition
  • so many previous non-members were admitted to Associates last year - reducing the number of artworks regularly selected from non-members
Last year SWLA elected FIVE new associate members which is why this year there seems to be rather more work by members than usual - which is where my queries and our discussion started!

How to help your artwork get selected 

SWLA are aware that wildlife art is a very popular form of art and that people like to exhibit their work. They'd also like to be able to exhibit more work from people who submit via the open exhibition.

Much of what gets submitted has some merit - but, at the same time,
  • either does not reach the standard demanded by the SWLA 
  • or has not been as developed or resolved as much as the artwork that they like to hang.
Consequently, the SWLA has decided it needs to be much clearer with non-members about what the Society is looking for.

You can expect before 2018's Call for Entries that much more precise and informative submission criteria will be published - and I recommend everybody study it closely.

This is an ART exhibition - not a photographic exhibition
Fine art prints, drawings and paintings
In terms of what I know about what the Society wants I'd expect it to focus on the following - although I guess I'm going to put this a bit more bluntly than the Society might!

These are my words not those of the SWLA!
  • This is an ART exhibition not a photography exhibition - hence the emphasis is on making art NOT copying photographs; photorealistic submissions do NOT tend to impress this selection panel
  • There needs to be evidence of observation - which means NOT getting aspects of anatomy or behaviour wrong. Plus it really helps if you can demonstrate that you can draw or paint habitat and if you can combine observation, accuracy with an artistic aesthetic so much the better!
Towards Southwold by Carry AkroydSerrigraph, £885 SOLD
- one of my favourite works this year - not least because I know this stretch of coastline very well
the graphic interpretation challenges on proportions but is truthful about both place and wildlife
  • "the head shot only" approach with a plain background is NOT favoured - mainly because these typically have no context, no habitat and they tend to be copied from photos.  Also because the members prefer to see the whole animal or bird. Note this is an approach I've seen used most often by artists who also draw/paint domestic pets. 
  • credit is given to backgrounds relevant to the wildlife - SWLA really like to see evidence that the habitat is right for the wildlife and it's not just a composition created from two different photos
Michael Warren SWLA includes the habitat associated with the birds in his paintings
- it helps demonstrate evidence of observation in the field
Seas, water, skies, clouds and various landscapes provide the habitat contexts for wildlife
John Reaney SWLA's paintings of badgers, birds and foxes
locate them in their habitat at the size an observer might see them at
  • artwork which is eye-catching and exciting is more likely to get their attention - but it must also be good quality artwork
  • digital images need to improve significantly. They should be both accurate and display the work at its best (i.e. all image and nothing else). Artists must avoid letting their artwork down through digital images which don't help make the case for selection due to:
    • out of focus images
    • artwork photographed under glass - with reflections (always remove artwork from any glazing to get an image)
    • including the mat and/or the frame and/or the interior of the room in which the artwork has been photographed!
    • not submitting enough images for sculpture
I'm somewhat puzzled as to why I can find no reference on the Mall Galleries website as to how to create a good quality digital image which people can reference prior to submitting their work online The Royal Academy provides a good summary
However note that images for the SWLA exhibition must be in JPEG format and under 1MB (as opposed to the 3MB allowed by the RA)

How to become a member

The society is always actively looking for new members. One of the interesting aspects of this exhibition is that non-members can submit up to six works. 

To my mind, those most likely to become members are those who have consistently shown multiple works over time - although obviously the number can vary depending on the media used and the approach taken.

Reference: The Natural Eye 2017

Previous Exhibitions


  1. The link isn't working for me. Interesting read, especially as I got rejected this year - think though my problem might have been the definition of wildlife (and hopefully there is more definition on this next year), as it was one of my butterfly paintings.

  2. Interesting. I am surprised that they dislike photorealism and animals on plain backgrounds.

  3. You might not have noticed that the cover of the catalogue is a painting of butterflies (see top image)

    You start "the link..."

    Which link are you talking about - there are several in the post?

  4. I too was rejected this year. Thank you for this article and observations Katherine. I try to remain optimistic but do feel that despite the stated wish to explore and expand mediums, there is little evidence in the selections made.

    I also feel that maybe some quick tick boxes that selectors/reviewers could use to indicate feedback to people making submissions would not be too onerous. Eg.image quality/content/style/observation//technique/ subject/Jiz marked as ‘liked’....and ‘improvement needed’’in these areas....It would take them twenty seconds and might give people a clue about whether continued submission is worthwhile. Is this just wishful thinking?

  5. It's the interview with the two Presidents.

    Great post by the way!!

  6. @Helen - the reason art societies provide generalised feedback as opposed to specific feedback are as follows:
    1) We're all adults and this is not homework which is being marked. You can't expect to get individual feedback because this is not an educational situation.
    2) For the most part you can get the feedback you want by visiting the exhibition, reviewing the art that did get selected and working out why it's different from what you submitted. Developing abilities in self-appraisal of your art are critical to your development as an artist.
    3) I provide feedback via this blog by showing people every year the art that gets hung - including art via the open entry. That gives LOTS of people a pretty good idea about what sort of art a society prefers to hang
    4) The time involved in providing individual feedback to artists submitting via an open entry is astronomical given the hundreds/thousands of submissions involved. The people who are doing the selection are professional artists giving their time for free. It's unreasonable to expect that they should give more of their time for free as opposed to making art which earns them money.

    Now for three things it is reasonable to expect:
    * generalised feedback on an annual basis after selection has taken place and the exhibition has been hung - this could take the form of a video (as was done this year) or a statement of what they were pleased to see in the open entry and the general reasons why artwork did not get selected (see my blog post)
    * people to turn up to portfolio reviews during the exhibition. I gather only one artist turned up to the portfolio review that was an event during the exhibition. This is an excellent opportunity for one on one feedback - for free - and yet people did not take advantage of it
    * payment for individualised feedback outside the exhibition. If you want an expert to provide you with a service and help you then you need to pay for their time.

    Speaking personally, I'm no expert in wildlife art, but I am very familiar with the sort of art which gets hung and I very often can identify reasons why art does get selected. I've provided that service for people in relation to other open exhibitions and art competitions and I'm happy to do so for others - but I do charge a fee! The last person I helped had a track record of being rejected by competitions and has now been selected for two. Details of how to contact me are in the side column.

  7. It's the first link - London Live - that doesn't work, says page not found

  8. Thanks - I'll see if I can find out if that video can be made available elswhere.

  9. @Linda - the clue is in the title of the exhibition. This is a society made up of artists for are overwhelmingly people who study their wildlife "au natural" in the field. They also sketch, draw and paint wildlife in the field.

    I think the view is (in my words) if you're just going to copy a photograph, why not just take a photo a.k.a. "where's the art?" The emphasis is on this being an ART exhibition.

  10. Thanks for your response. I would have taken my portfolio for review had I known it was a possibility. I do not think it is well promoted - or maybe I missed something? It was in response to encouragement from Esther Tyson at bird fair that I even considered submitting.
    I do see a consistent predictable style in the entries year on year. I suppose that even new mediums would appear to need to fit that ‘feel’. Plenty of time to decide whether to submit next year 🙂


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