Wednesday, March 09, 2022

The RWS Open at the Bankside Gallery

The RWS Open is back and on display at the Bankside Gallery between 4th and 20th March. This post reviews what I can see online (while sat on the sofa with my post surgery non weight bearing ankle elevated on my knee scooter!)

Jennifer McRae

David: West End Summer

watercolour on paper

63 x 130cm


Why the RWS Open is different

The Royal Watercolour Society has a different approach to open exhibitions when compared to most other national art societies. It has 

  • a special open competition and 
  • an exhibition dedicated ONLY to those who are non-members.

I'm bound to say this is, very probably, because they exhibit at the Bankside Gallery which is smaller than other venues used by national art societies and hence including open entries in a mixed exhibition with members would mean 

  • either fewer works by members (which they wouldn't like!)
  • or the number of non-members who were exhibited would get squeezed - which would mean they wouldn't attract a lot of entries.
Anyway - after a year's break due to the Pandemic (when all the art galleries were closed a year ago) - the RWS Open can now be seen at the Bankside Gallery - except by me. I'm not back on both feet for at least another three weeks and probably not walking until the end of April.

So - how to review this exhibition? Well all I can do is look at it online - so that's what I'm going to do.

The RWS Open Online

The first things I noticed are that 

Formerly known as the Contemporary Watercolour Competition (among many other names during the exhibition's 50+ year history), the RWS Open is the largest open-submission water-media exhibition in the world, attracting thousands of submissions nationally and internationally each year.
  • the Online exhibition is NOT on the Bankside website. Instead ALL the images of the artworks are on the RWS website. That means that 
    • the RWS website can archive ALL its past exhibitions online. 
    • Let us not forget that storage of images is not expensive and it seems crazy to go to all the trouble of putting on an exhibition only to pass up the opportunity to continue selling images from the exhibition or by artists in the exhibition after the exhibition closes! 
    • I think this is very sensible strategic marketing move and one which I wish more art societies would copy!
One thing which remains unchanged is that Selection is down to a small group of RWS members. For the 2022 RWS Open, the selectors were the President of the RWS plus three other members and a guest Judge

The Online Exhibition

Some comments on how the online exhibition works and then I highlight the artists whose artwork I liked.

Display online

The fairly small thumbnails (compared to some other exhibitions) provide name of the artist and whether the artwork has won a prize.

The display scrolls easily on my iPad Pro (i.e. it's not limited by pages) except for the fact it works better in portrait mode than landscape.

However in my opinion, the RWS website makes THREE BIG MISTAKES 
  • the image says absolutely NOTHING (in the thumbnail gallery view about: media used; size - with dimension units being explicit (which is not the case on every image i.e. 80 what - inches or cms?) ; and price). 
  • the images aren't big enough to make you want to look closer. Nor do they provide enough information to prompt a second look. Galleries need to wake up to the world of Instagram! 
  • A large image and all relevant information is forthcoming if you click the thumbnail - BUT you cannot then progress to another image.
  • Plus if you look at the larger image, and then press the return arrow on your browser, you get taken back to the beginning of the artworks - which is really NOT helpful
Hence we have a gallery view which makes the viewer work really hard to find out about the art and progress through what's on the site. 

It's the sort of approach which starts from a mentality of "It's all about the art" and reflects nothing about current retail concepts of how to get potential buyers to buy

Guess what? Most of those who start to look won't keep going to the end. Indeed most probably give up quite quickly when it becomes obvious how much clicking is involved

What is wrong with having larger images and a SLIDESHOW gallery view with arrows to the next image? 

Why can't the exhibition be filtered by the type of:
  • size?
  • price range?
  • media?
I'd very much recommend that those responsible for this juried competition and the website have a very long and hard think about whether they'd like to make more sales of the artwork on offer - and what they need to do to make this happen.

The nature of artwork on display

I remember very well the quality of the watercolour artwork I used to see many years ago in this juried exhibition (see reviews below). It was interesting, high quality and demonstrated skill in the use of water soluble media

Now I see a LOT of very simplistic images produced by artists who have neither spent much time or much effort on the painting.

There's an awful lot of artwork which really looks like it might have been produced by 15 year olds - if that! I know this is current - but it doesn't make it any less abysmal.


Some of the pricing to my mind is naieve in the extreme.

I have expounded at length on this blog about the necessity of doing research and working out 
what are the price points for 
  • different sizes of artwork
  • in specific kinds of media
  • by artists with different levels of expertise and name recognition
  • being sold at notable art galleries in London.
I'm very clear that many of those who submitted artwork have not done that research.

The RWS website provides lots of context for pricing - in terms of artwork produced by members. All you have to do is review past exhibitions and the artworks for sale - and note the nature of the artwork and the experience/expertise/name recognition of the artist.

Those who have been around a long time have learned a few things about what you can ask for artwork made in water colours. Those applying to this competition would do well to be mindful of the lessons learned.

Artwork I liked

The great thing about this exhibition is it attracts entries from people who are very well known for their watercolour paintings and have won significant prizes in the past.

However that's not indicative of the overall standard!

I liked artwork by the following artists
  • Emma Chambers - who demonstrated the effectiveness of simple images of plants on a white background (see more of her very effective botanicals on her website)

Emma Chambers

Canopy of Magnolia Leaves


41 x 41cm


  • Janet Darley - who demonstrates that gouache can be used in an effective and imaginative way to describe landscape and the time of day
  • Jennifer McRae - ( see image at top of page) a (relatively small) gem of a portrait of a prostrate sleeping gent on a sofa. This is simple but demonstrates expertise in both composition and handling of the media - something sadly lacking in numerous other images. There again I like anything by Jennifer McRae!
  • Nicola Gregory - who is a member of the Royal Watercolour Society of Wales. Her two works in watercolour seem quite different to her normal paintings in acrylic.
  • Sandy Ross Sykes - who produced an interesting twist on a still life called The Linnean Collection

As usual, there are absolutely no signs of any potential successors of the mantles of the late great Leslie Worth PPRWS (1923-2009) and David Prentice RWS (1936 - 2014) - both of whom used to exhibit on a regular basis with the RWS at the Bankside Gallery (see my lament in this blog post about the 2019 call for entries)

Indeed there is nobody who gets anywhere near them in terms of expertise in design and handling of water colours. More's the pity.  

The exhibition continues until 20th March at the Bankside Gallery.

My blog posts about the RWS Open in previous years

In recent years it's been my practice to only go and see the exhibition if the online exhibition indicated there was enough good artwork to make the trip worthwhile....

Sometimes I've visited but chose not to spend any more time and effort on this juried open.

I live in hope that it will get back to the standards of the past.
    I've been very ambivalent about this competition in recent years.

    I honestly didn't feel like I could recommend it when it became dominated by what appeared to be type of 'heavily contemporary / very loose mark-making / totally non figurative' paintings by artists who aspire to be hung in contemporary art galleries - but never will because their artwork never sells. That was during the era of the last President. Things have turned a corner with the current President.

No comments:

Post a Comment

COMMENTS HAVE BEEN CLOSED AGAIN because of too much spam.
My blog posts are always posted to my Making A Mark Facebook Page and you can comment there if you wish.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.