Thursday, September 19, 2019

10 Best Paintings in the Sunday Times Watercolour Exhibition 2019

These are the 10 paintings in the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2019 which impressed me. By which I mean
  • They caught my eye on my first turn around the gallery - from a distance of some 6 feet+. 
  • Then kept it on my second go round - when I'm looking more closely at the paintings. 
  • Then survived the cull as I went around for the third time to work out my.....

10 Best Paintings - Sunday Times Watercolour 2019

These three looked good together. The two on the left made it into my top 10.

The official statement in the Call for Entries for this competition was that
The judges will be looking for work that makes the most imaginative or otherwise impressive use of a water-based medium. (ArtOpps: Sunday Times Watercolour 2019
My criteria for my best paintings has nothing to do with imagination.
I find it difficult to remember the last imaginative artist who lacked skill in painting make it as an artist - with the possible exception of Tracey Emin.

The criteria used by the Judges of the Sunday Times Watercolour 2019 was, in my opinion, entirely the wrong way round. 

In my view:
  • impressive use of watercolour in a competition like this MUST be an imperative and an absolute - if you don't understand the properties of watercolour, if you don't know how to use a brush and if you don't know how to exploit watercolour properties to the max then you don't make it on to my list! (and you shouldn't make it on to the walls of this exhibition either!)
  • innovative is good - I'm always interested in seeing new ways of working with watercolour. Back in 2010 when reviewing this exhibition I said
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!
  • great painting must be 'an absolute given' - ie people who know how to use a brush and create a design / composition 
  • well presented must also count for something - why are paintings being hung which are frankly scruffy? How do paintings where the artists have failed to keep their paper clean (where left unpainted) make it on to the walls of this exhibition? 
In other words in my criteria "Imaginative" is for the fairies! By which I mean it ranks fairly low on my criteria for what makes a painting worth exhibiting.  I'm not saying it doesn't have a place in art - but it certainly should not be the premier criteria for a watercolour competition!

My criteria is entirely about impressive use of watercolour - and making "a good picture". 

I've tried to work out how to order them - and decided the prizewinners were very definitely not going first as you've seen them more than once.  In the end I plumped for something akin to reverse alphabetic by surname - with the prizewinners at the end.

That's because those with surnames in the second half of the alphabet always get a raw deal when it comes to the display of paintings in an exhibition!


The first two paintings demonstrate why sometimes something really simple can have a lot of appeal.

1. Christopher Wallbank - Frozen Heather

Frozen Heather by Christopher Wallbank

This painting by Chris Wallbank SWLA is very definitely one of my favourite paintings in this exhibition. I immediately recognised the humpy splodges before I read the title (on my second turn arund the gallery). This is mostly alla prima watercolour painting. You put the brush in the paint - and create a shape - and then you leave it well alone except for a few small marks. It actually takes quite a lot of skill to paint clumps of heather in perspective under snow - and to let the paint drain to create a deeper shadow!  Plus the fact he's painted it in purple reminds us of the colour when the heather is in bloom and also the very odd shadow colours you can get in snow in certain light.

Very simple and very effective and beautifully presented - with care. It's a painting I wouldn't mind having hanging on my wall.

As an artist he's also had previous mentions by me on this blog. I'm actually rather pleased that I picked him without remembering his name - although it is a bit embarrassing too! That's because I well remember talking to Chris about his wonderful drawing of a Loomery which was exhibited in 2015. I also gave his "The Urban Black Kites of Delhi" project and his drawing of the Macaques of Modnigar a feature within my blog post about last year's annual exhibition of the Society of Wildlife Artists.

This is an artist who is skilled in using watercolour plein air. He's an artist who is going places and I commend his work to you!

Website: Chris Wallbank

2. Sara Lee - Departure

Departure by Sara Lee
Gouache and Japanese woodcut

Those of us who have spent time sketching around the streets in Cannareggio in Venice - and ended up on the Fondamente Nove will know this view of the island of the dead - of the Cimitero di San Michele on the island of San Michel (where both Igor Stravinsky and ezra Piound are buried) in the lagoon around Venice.

I'm a complete sucker for artwork of places I know - particularly when they don't shout it and instead indicate in a discrete way for those who will recognise.

The painting/print also has very refined and gradated washes in the background - for the sky and the lagoon - in colours one might not expect - unless you've not seen Venice in different seasons.

It's only when I saw what I assume is the woodcut element that I knew exactly what the painting was about as the separation of colours is very discrete and easily missed. The lighter colour is the wall around the island and the darker colour are the trees which grow around the cemetery.

I admire this one - and would love to know how it was created.

Again I am more than delighted to read her bio on her website - which I found five seconds ago! I didn't know her work at all before seeing this work yesterday - but will be looking out for it in future. She is very obviously a lady who is absorbed by the meeting of the sky and the sea.
Sara Lee predominantly works with drawing, film and print, including woodblock in the ukiyo-e tradition. Her practice involves working from site-specific landscapes, followed by extended studio-based work. Her images are a response to the ephemeral nature of landscape and question our emotional and physical relationship to an evolving environment.
She exhibits widely and her work is held in public and private collections internationally. She has written for Tate and has advised and spoken on print processes for various individuals and institutions including The Art Fund, Dulwich Picture Gallery and National Portrait Gallery.
Sara Lee trained with Master Printer Hugh Stoneman and together they developed a photogravure practice and co-published, under the imprint Print Centre Publications. Over many years she has worked closely on etching and relief print projects with Eileen Cooper RA, with whom she shares a print studio space and the imprint Blackbird Editions.
Born in Wales, she lives and works in London. She studied Fine Art at Ravensbourne and Postgraduate Printmaking at Central School.
Website: Sara Lee


I like to see people exploiting what is possible with watercolour.
It's my belief that I ought to see a lot more of this in this competition.

3. Linda Saul - Pendeen Clifftop

Pendeen clifftop by Linda Saul
watercolour collage
This painting by Linda Saul is unusual in more ways than one. I really like it - not least because of its moody analogous palette of marine colours and the granulation which emulates the rocks within the cliffs.

I can never ever understand why I don't see more artists exploiting the granulating properties of some pigments in watercolours. The effects which can be achieved can be quite spectacular- as in this painting

This painting is also unusual in that it emplots collage. This year there are a lot of paintings employing collage - and I am often tempted to think of collage as the refuge of the artists who has yet to learn how to paint in watercolour (i.e. they cannot yet control flows and mixes!). However that's very definitely not the case with this artist who has used collage to restate the buildings on the horizon.

Linda Saul enjoys creating themes for her paintings 
based on are the interaction of the elements with the built environment, the structural geometric forms of buildings, the passage of time - decay, weathering, adaptation, repair or ruin.
also I love people who have spent hours and hours developing their techniques in water-based media.
I am largely self taught - developing my own techniques and style from countless hours experimenting with watercolour and other water-based media. I have also learnt a lot from attending painting workshops with many leading contemporary artists.
I am an exhibiting member of the Reading Guild of Artists and have exhibited with the Royal Watercolour Society and the Discerning Eye.
You can see more of her coastal paintings on her website 

4. Sandra Doyle - Cardinal Pole's White Fig Ficus Carica "White Marseilles"

Cardinal Pole’s White Fig Ficus carica ‘White Marseilles’ by Sandra Doyle
watercolour on vellum
Sandra Doyle exhibited this painting in the Annual Exhibition of the Society of Botanical Artists in June where it won a Certificate of Botanical Merit.

However my reason for choosing it is that this is one of the very few paintings in the exhibition which demonstrates how dry brush work in watercolour actually works. If you get a magnifier out and take a look at the fig or other parts of the painting you'll see how both tone and colour have been built up using many layers of stippled and hatching marks.

This is something I only rarely see in exhibitions of watercolour paintings - except if they are about botanical art when I see it all the time!

Note the very fine stippled marks of watercolour paint applied using a dry brush to build the colour
In the background you can see how a painting such as this might start out.
Sandra does not have a website. However she does have a blog post from last year detailing how she approached the development of her painting of another unusual plant - the European Spindle by Sandra Doyle

I appreciate paintings by artists who take the trouble and skill to developing their painting using traditional methods. It counts far more for me than "imagination".


More paintings of people this year - which was good to see.  These are very different but both excellent in their own way.

5. Mark Entwisle - two Primavera paintings 

(I cheated - this counts as one choice!)

Primavera II by Mark Entwisle

Mark Entwisle has been making his living as a portrait painter since 2002 - and it shows. 
He's also one of the few people I know who's comfortable painting people in watercolour and in groups (there are an enormous number of portrait painters who fight shy of multiple portraits in one painting!)

He obviously works from photographs - given the context of his paintings - but at the same time these are HIS photographs because he also takes very interesting photos. Indeed on Flickr you might be hard put to disentangle the photos from the photos of the paintings - but not for reason you might expect!

This is an artist who is not afraid to try new perspectives, new poses and multiple figures in a painting. At the same time his paint is clean and not muddy and much is applied once and left. Definitely worth studying as to the technique he uses and the compositions he comes up with


6. Boon Yik Chung Doctor's Waiting Room (After Lucas Cranach The Elder)

Doctor's Waiting Room (After Lucas Cranach The Elder)
by Boon Yik Chung
This painter had me chugging through Wikimedia's images of the artworks of Lucas Cranach the Elder this afternoon - trying to find if there was one painting which inspired him. I came up with nothing - so I don't get it - but would love to know why.

However this composition intrigues me. Again multiple figures - and I am a champion of those who are not afraid to compose with more than one figure.  Plus it's painted in gouache - which appears to be the coming medium who prefer to paint in an opaque medium but are not too fond of acrylic.  Finally I'm desperate to know the story behind it! I love narrative paintings which keep you guessing.

Boon Yik Chung is Chung is an independent Taiwanese artist, based in Edinburgh who was formally trained in architecture. He won a Bronze Medal from the Bartlett School of Architecture in 2015 and has BSc Architecture (First Class Honours), University College London (2012-25) and MArch Architecture (Distinction), University College London (2016-18) (which is why his perspective lines are spot on!)

Boon Yik Chung's website:

8. Zi Ling - Bridge

Bridge by Zi Ling
watercolour and acrylic
Zi Ling RI has recently been admitted to membership of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours. I liked her painting a lot more than similar ones in their annual exhibition this year. This one seemed more considered and yet at the same time quite loose in terms of the painting of the head and upper torso.

I particularly liked the detailed pen and ink drawing in the background - with the very strong echoes of ukiyo-e - which is slightly odd since Zi Ling is Chinese rather than Japanese!

People often forget that ink is a watercolour medium - and I wish people used it more in both drawing  within paintings and for paintings themselves. Ink can produce some lovely effects.

Zi Ling was born in 1985 in HuangShan, China. She is a visual artist currently based in Beijing and London. She was born to the Chinese painter HuiTao Lin, a pioneer of the 85 New Wave Movement. She received formal training from him in drawings from the age of 4. She has also studied at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Chelsea College of Arts and Central Academy of Fine Arts China.



Regular readers will remember that I don't always like the prizewinners. Indeed in 2017 I took such exception to the one that won first prize that I refused to write about any of the prizewinners and the very first 10 Best Paintings in the Sunday Times Watercolour Exhibition was born!

However this year I liked two of them a lot.

9. Leo Davey - Condensation 

Condensation by Leo Davey
I thought this a very worthy winner. It's unusual and ambiguous. It also uses watercolour paint to convey a very curious feature of water - condensation in a shower. I've seen people painting water droplets thousands of times (and very bored with them) but I'm trying very hard to remember the last time I saw somebody paint condensation - and I can't. I guess because it's not easy - and yet Leo davey has invented a really great way - completely within our normal comprehension of what kids do - which illustrates perfectly how it works.

10. Mark Elsmore - Iron Mighty

Iron Mighty by Mark Elsmore
watercolour and gouache
£ £1,600
I find this a very well thought through and well painted composition. Mark Elsmore RI frequently manages to paint the completely ordinary and mundane (he won with a painting of roofs in The Potteries - see Mark Elsmore wins Sunday Times Watercolour 2012)

It's also an example of a painting which combines watercolour and gouache - which is a very traditional things to do

It's interesting how two of the 10 I've chosen are recent recruits to membership of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours (the "RI") - although frankly Mark Elsmore should have applied years ago!

Sunday Times Watercolour Competition: Previous Posts

2017 - - 87 paintings by 78 artists were selected from 1,057 submissions

2016 - 75 paintings by 66 artists were selected

2015 - 90 works by 80 artists were selected

2014 - 93 works by 73 artists from across the UK