Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Review: Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2019 Exhibition

Yesterday I visited the exhibition for the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2019 exhibition - currently on display at the Mall Galleries until 22nd September

Below you can read my impressions - about:
I'm going to do a seperate post about the paintings I liked the most.

My overall conclusion is that 
  • this competition is on its way back after its disastrous diversion by forgetting what it was about and losing sponsors. 
  • However it still has a long way to go to get back to the better exhibitions in the past.
That's not to say that there isn't good work to be seen in the show - because there is - and tomorrow I'll show you the 10 paintings I liked the best.

Prizewinners in the Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2019
The London Wall Partners First Prize (£8,000) - Condensation by Leo Davey
Second Prize (£3,000): Aidan Potts (Bottom Left)
Third Prize (£1,000) : Mark Elsmore (right)
Pegasus Young Artist Prize (£500): Katherine Jackson (top left)

It has two new sponsors (for Young Artist and the First Prize) and and the overall content is oriented much more to watercolour again.

HOWEVER, there are still some issues which very much need addressing. It needs:
  • better judges - ones who know a LOT more about watercolour - to keep out the dross and unskilled. There are too many paintings which, in my opinion, are very ordinary and lacking in competence.
  • much better watercolour artists submitting their work - and sponsors and organisers who work hard to make sure they do
  • better leadership to get back proper prizes and sponsorship - which will also attract back the better artists
  • better marketing - including an overhauled website
  • and a less geographically biased exhibition tour
Then it might earn back its claim to being a prestigious watercolour exhibition again. It lost that crown three years ago - and while this is an improvement it's very definitely not there yet.

It might need a completely new sponsor - because a lot of the above seems to me to be about a competition which has been starved of both leadership and resources.

For example, I'm confused as to why there is a new sponsor for the First Prize (London Wall Partners LLP (LWP)) but the Sunday Times still claims the title of the competition.  Surely the traditional way of doing these things is that the title of the competition goes to those who sponsor the first prize?

P.S. Who else besides me remembers the Singer & Friedlander Watercolour Competition (1988-2007) with much affection? I mean it's not as if it hasn't changed its name during its history!
Launched originally as the Singer and Friedlander Prize in 1988, the first prize winner was Tom Coates. Subsequent winners included Stuart Pearson Wright, Leslie Worth, Trevor Stubley, Jennifer McRae and Carol Robertson. Kaupthing at one time the largest Icelandic bank took over Singer & Friedlander in 2005 and sponsorship of the competition ceased. The Royal Watercolour Society took over the sponsorship and the competition was renamed the RWS/Sunday Times Watercolour competition. In 2011, total prize money stood at £18,000 with £10,000 as a 1st Prize. Artist biographies
I spend my time looking for the next Leslie Worth.....

The Good News

The good news is that the exhibition is EMPHATICALLY back into the realms of watercolour. 

I did a quick tour at the beginning and was very struck with how it has come back to where it started - with a very high proportion of artists painting using traditional watercolours - mixed with a modicum of some other related media.  Most look like they created a painting using water!

There's been a marked increase in those labelling their work 'watercolour'.

For those who are interested, I've compared the media listings in the "catalogue" (A4 card folded to A5! Price £2) with those I recorded for 2017 when the major deviation on media started and an acrylic which looked like an oil painting won First Prize.

As you can see there are 10 more paintings labelled just 'watercolour' - and a bigger decrease in those entering acrylic work - it halved in number and there are very few paintings which look like oil paintings this year.

Although there are some artists (and they know who they are and some of them will know after reading this that I also know!) who labelled their work 'watercolour' when there was very clearly some acrylic involved as a base layer(s).

Sunday Times Watercolour Competition: MEDIA Frequency 2017 and 2019
2017 2017 2019 2019 +/-
Watercolour 42 49.4% 52 54.7% 5.3%
Watercolour and ink 5 5.9% 9 9.5% 3.6%
Watercolour and gouache 11 12.9% 8 8.4% -4.5%
Watercolour and pencil / graphite 3 3.5% 6 6.3% 2.8%
Watercolour and acrylic 3 3.5% 3 3.2% -0.4%
Acrylic 10 11.8% 5 5.3% -6.5%
Ink 2 2.4% 3 3.2% 0.8%
Gouache 4 4.7% 3 3.2% -1.5%
Gouache + mixed media 2 2.1% 2.1%
Gouache and acrylic 1 1.1% 1.1%
Gouache and Japanese woodcut 1 1.1% 1.1%
Gouache, collage and pencil 1 1.2% 1 1.1% -0.1%
Watercolour pencil 1 1.1% 1.1%
Acrylic and pigment 2 2.4% 0.0% -2.4%
Watercolour, Japanese ink and gilding/metal powders 1 1.2% 0.0% -1.2%
Watercolour and water based mediums 1 1.2% 0.0% -1.2%
TOTALS 85 100.0% 95 100.0% 0.0%

That's really good news. I'd begun to think this exhibition was going to die a death through judges not understanding the nature of the medium!

It's earned the right to a Call for Entries from this blog next year.

The number of paintings

This exhibition is advertised every year as having a 100 paintings. It has never ever had that number in recent years and if I see that claim one more time I shall protest to the Advertising Standards Authority and the one that regulates competitions.

HOWEVER this year there are 95 paintings - which is a HUGE improvement on 2016 when there were only 75 and last year when there were just 85. In fact it's the most paintings it's had for a long time. 

I do however think this competition needs a minimum size for every unframed/unmatted painting! Enough said?

The Prizewinners

I highlighted the prizewinners on Sunday in Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2019 - Prizewinners & Exhibition (which also includes a list of the selected artists).

To my mind the painting which won first prize is well justified. It's unusual, it demonstrates a good appreciation of techniques and colour palette and it's also watery!  (I never thought about this before - but why not go for a watery subject if you have your eye on the main prize!)

Condensation by Leo Davey

I'd have personally given Mark Elsmore the second prize - it's a very compelling piece which works well at a distance in a large gallery as well as close to.

The Not So Good News

Judges still need reminding this is a WATERCOLOUR exhibition

As soon as you put watercolour into the title of an exhibition/competition, then it stops being just "a contemporary art exhibition".

At least this time watercolour has come back to the fore.

However I wonder if the selected Judges (how do they get selected? That's the real question!) now need to recall what the best in watercolour actually looks like.  Maybe they should try going to exhibitions of watercolour painting? However that's quite difficult these days since acrylic sideswiped traditional watercolours.

What this competition SHOULD BE is 
  1. first and foremost an exhibition which celebrates the BEST in watercolour painting i.e a display of the MEDIA in all its glory
  2. within the context of contemporary art and more traditional art
  3. in that order.  i.e. this is a competition about watercolour painting - not contemporary art which involves watercolour paint. It's only rationale for being singled out and getting attention is the WATERCOLOUR. There are a number other contemporary art competitions and this is NOT a contemporary art competition per se.
In other words the emphasis should be on 
  • a display of the very best and SKILLED use of feasible techniques using watercolour
  • excellent art of any genre made using watercolour paint - and a smidgen of other media, but not much!
The word that needs to be big on the end wall is WATERCOLOUR not Sunday Times - which can't even manage to synchronise its article about the competition with the opening of the exhibition!

PS I woke up this morning (19th September 2019)and wanted add this postscript. 

When the sponsor's name is BIGGER then the purpose of the competition - you just know this is a competition with continuing problems. The Sunday Times needs to get over itself and get them sorted - or pass the baton to somebody who will.

the end wall of the Sunday Times WATERCOLOUR competition 2019

Still NOT a prestigious exhibition

This competition claims to be a prestigious watercolour exhibition but in my view it continues to fall short of this.  

In other words it's living off the acclaim from the past and is not yet generating similar exhibitions in the present.

The reasons being:
  • it's certainly NOT the largest exhibition of juried watercolour paintings on display in the UK. That honour lies with the annual exhibition of the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours which manages to display some c.160 paintings selected from the Open Entry and displays 400+ paintings across all three of the galleries at the Mall Galleries.
  • the prize money is reducing rather than increasing. Quite why is beyond me other than to assume nobody has been tasked with bringing in a new sponsor that is prepared to back this exhibition properly
  • far too few paintings which display top level skills in the use of watercolour i.e. what watercolour can do that other media cannot.  There are some very ordinary parochial art show paintings in this exhibition which IMO should have been weeded out.
  • top level artists are VERY notable by their almost total absence. There are some - but by no means enough. That includes young, innovative painters who bring a new perspective on how to paint in watercolour as well as the current contemporary master painters. 
At the end of this blog post are a list of links to past exhibitions for this competition. I started looking at the better ones in the past and immediately noticed the marked difference in the calibre of the artist entering the competition in years past compared to those in more recent years. The reality is nobody wants to be associated with an exhibition which took a wrong turning and brought much criticism upon itself as a result.

I wrote this on Facebook today
The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition is NOT the biggest watercolour open exhibition in the UK. Nor does it have the best watercolour paintings.... although it often had some of the best in the past. It's claim to be prestigious is shaky unless it gets more top watercolour painters entering again.
I for one will be trying to ensure that far more painters using watercolour media who produce quality work enter the exhibition in 2020.  It is one of the main ways back for this competition.

Too many works which are questionable

There's far too many paintings on display which wouldn't look out of place in a sixth form art show.  Indeed some demonstrate rather less than adequate skills with a brush as well as a lack of familiarity with what you can do with watercolour!

Seriously. The point is a prestigious competition exhibition has GOT TO LOOK VERY GOOD as a whole. It's MUST look lot better than a very parochial art show or one by a sixth form or it totally loses all claim to the notion of being prestigious!

I won't embarrass the artists by identifying which - but I did take photos of them if anybody is interested.

I strain to work out why some of the works got past the Judges.

Unfortunately this year, not all the paintings are on the website. It looks very much like somebody got given the job - and then resigned after a few paintings!  The very few you can see are on this page of the website which has images of work in the competition.

If the competition sponsors and organisers back the Judges I suggest they get all 95 images into the website pronto!

The small works on the mezzanine wall 
- including some very sketchy sketches and very small works
and some works which have very little claim to being considered watercolour paintings.

The damage ill-chosen Judges can do to a competition!

In my view,  it just goes to show the sort of damage which can be done when Judges from a particular persuasion (heavy on the contemporary art and lightweight on watercolour) can do to a competition.  

What we need to see in future are 
  • rather more people with a PEDIGREE in watercolour painting (as artists or galleries) being invited to be Judges in future years. 
  • Or at the very least a Chair who has got that pedigree and can keep flights of fancy reined in and selection focused on the objective of the competition. 
Making a much better effort with the Judging Panel would also go a very long way to attracting back the best watercolour artists.

The website

the Home Page of the website
Somebody really needs to be tasked with keeping the website up to date. For example the Home Page
  • announces that the entries for 2019 are now open 
  • still contains last year's images
  • has no link to this year's exhibition
The link to the pictures of paintings in this year's exhibition is rather confusingly called 

In addition, the blog has died a death.

No competition is going to get decent sponsorship if its media marketing is so very poor.  
Nor is it going to get a decent set of entries which deliver a top quality exhibition.

The Touring Exhibition

This competition is crying out for a tour which gets it out of the south and south east of the UK.  There are people living north of Watford Gap - says this Northerner not quite believing she has to haul out that old chestnut!

The exhibition will be on display the following galleries
  • 17 – 22 September 2019: Mall Galleries, The Mall, London, SW1 - Open 10am-5pm daily, free entry
  • October – November 2019 (no precise dates): Town Hall Arts, Trowbridge, BA14 8EQ
  • November – January 2019 (no precise dates): Guildford House Gallery, 155 High St Guildford, GU1 3AJ

This wall includes some paintings using some unusual treatments - well worth a look

Sunday Times Watercolour Competition: Previous Posts

2019 - 95 paintings
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