Monday, March 11, 2024

Review of the RWS Open 2024

This morning I visited the Bankside Gallery on the South Bank to see the RWS Open Exhibition. 

Entrance to the Bankside Gallery - and the poster for the RWS Open

The RWS Open is run by the Royal Watercolour Society (RWS). It was formerly known (until recently) as the Contemporary Watercolour Competition.

You can see all the 144 artworks in the show online as well as at the Gallery. Each has a page all to itself - if you click the right link!

The RWS chooses to invite open entries for an exhibition at the Bankside Gallery via a separate open competition rather than, as most art societies do, via an annual exhibition dominated by artwork by members. I think, in part, this is determined by the space for an exhibition at the Bankside Gallery which, while excellent as an exhibition space, is not overly large thus limiting the number of works which can be shown.

Despite my comments in previous posts, the RWS are still claiming that 

"the RWS Open is the largest open-submission water-media exhibition in the world, attracting thousands of submissions nationally and internationally each year."

Although, speaking frankly, I simply do not believe that claim. 

  • Mostly because of the calibre of the work in the show but also because I've never ever seen any numbers to support this claim. 
  • It's also wrong because the RI Annual Open Exhibition has many more artworks and more artworks by non-members. Around half of the 465 artworks on display in their 2024 Exhibition - which opens to the public on 28th March - are by non-members. The RI also had the highest ever number of entries from non-members for this exhibition. (See Presidents Introduction in the RI 2024 e-catalogue)

I think the RWS would be well advised to read and study carefully The UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing (CAP Code) is the rule book for non-broadcast advertisements, sales promotions and direct marketing communications (marketing communications).

(I'd emphasise the same point applies to all other UK art societies inclined to make ambitious claims that they have not validated - I've got a blog post started in draft on this topic!!).

The need to choose

One of the interesting aspects of the two national (in England) watercolour societies 
is that you can only be a member of one - and the route to entry is generally via exhibiting in the open exhibition.

An open exhibition is a reflection of the outlook of its members - particularly those who act as jurors for that particular exhibition.  
  • You can see the type of artwork produced by member of the Royal Watercolour Society on this webpage
  • I'd point out and emphasise that:
    • The more conventional traditional watercolours are typically by artists who have been members for very many years.
    • Those who lean heavily towards what might be called 'contemporary / abstract art" are more recent additions.
I'd always counsel artists who ask me which society they should apply to for membership (as has happened in the past) to look very carefully at the type of artworks hung by members in their exhibitions. It's a big clue as to who they will ask to join in future. Then to look at the number of sales - as that's a clue as to which is most likely to attract serious art collectors and buyers of art.

Review of the RWS Open 2024

There is a very distinct international flavour to this show.
I noted very many artists with Chinese names - but it's unclear whether they have lived here a long time, are studying here or have submitted from abroad - as there are no statistics.

There is for me a very simple rule about going to see a show of works in water colours. I should be able to tell that these are water colours. Not some media pretending to be something else.

I'm also a big fan of the late Leslie Worth and David Prentice is you want to know which recent watercolour painters I revere. Quality of ideas and quality of finish are things I like to see.

I find it very difficult to review this show without making some very critical comments.  A kinder way of saying what the issue is for me is that "not everybody likes every style".

However I'm going to stick to my "tell it like it is" and these are the notes I made.

General Observations

The exhibition contains some excellent works. Unfortunately they are not representative of the show as a whole

watercolour & gouache on paper 81 x 61cm
Stephanie Nebbia (Instagram)

I think I like the skill demonstrated very clearly in this painting and the questionmark about what it is and/or portraying.

Qualities of Great Beings (Tolerance) 
watercolour on paper 43 x 44cm 
by Anna Aruna Radha Kotova

I've seen plenty of geometric art but not many which have gentle transitions in terms of the colour palette

I like the artworks on the left, at the top and on the right in this view

One of the nicer corners of the exhibition

This monochrome section grabs the eye as you walk into the main part of the gallery

A few people demonstrate great control over watercolour or ink and skill in its use.

Works which got me looking at them "up close" or for some time included

watercolor & acrylic on paper 300g
Bela Branquinho 

Interesting to see the journey of his style over time on his website 

While others are following a road well trod by others before them e.g. This has a feel of Eric Ravilious about it

Pentlands, Scotland
watercolour 56 x 68cm

While Mussels & Tulips watercolour 40 x 44cm by Jane Walker is very Mary Fedden like. Jane is actually an elected associate of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers. I thought I'd photographed all the artworks to study more at length at home - before I wrote this review - but I can't find this one anywhere. 

a view of the gallery. The sculpture on the right was eye-catching

I've made a deliberate decision NOT to show you the work I cannot stand.

The RWS are still selecting people who 

  • have apparently never learned to draw - or prefer to adopt a quasi-naieve style
  • do NOT know how to exploit the possibilities of watercolor media - or choose not to apply themselves in this way
The question for me with this show is are artworks being selected on the basis of 
  • subject matter / concept
  • demonstrable excellence in the use of water soluble media. 
  • or both. 
Some of the ideas were good but the execution lacked any real skill. 
  • Unfortunately I see a number in the show which are 
    • absolutely nothing new in terms of subject matter and 
    • certainly do not demonstrate any particular skill in the use of watercolour.
  • Brush control is notably lacking in a number of paintings where it doesn't seem to have occurred to the artist that this is a thing people value.
Frankly, speaking in my best "Emperor's New Clothes" voice, some might be OK in a teenagers school art exhibition - but nothing more than that. "Scrubby" and "scruffy" were two works which came into my head as I looked at some of the artworks.

I am also total dumbfounded at some of the prices people are asking for so little work, effort and/or skill. As I often comment, one can only assume that these are works by people who have no idea what price to put on their work - and what else people can but for that sum of money.

In relation to a genre I know particularly well, the botanical artworks in the show are nowhere near as good as those typically seen in exhibitions by botanical artists. I've opined for a very long time that if people like realism and want to see what's possible using watercolour, they can do a lot worse than to visit an exhibition of contemporary botanical art - at major institutions, in national art societies or at galleries in e.g. Chelsea.

Flower paintings and botanical artworks


I'm not going to bother with the Awards - because if they can't be bothered to do a list then neither can I. Especially when most of them produced raised eyebrows.

There was also a very odd Seawhite art materials prize for somebody who float mounted a sheet of paper with a small painting of a CD case and cover. 

Is this now the equivalent of painting copies of LP covers?


I'm trying hard to like this exhibition - but have been disappointed too many times in recent years and often as not have not written a review.

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