Art review: RSW Annual Exhibition, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh

There’s much to enjoy in this year’s 141st annual exhibition of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour, writes Duncan Macmillan, although the question of what constitutes a watercolour remains problematic

Clearing Mist by Jackie Stevenson

RSW Annual Exhibition, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh ****

With over 300 works on show, the 141st exhibition of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW) occupies the main galleries of the Royal Scottish Academy. It is hung elegantly and with a sense of light and space that befits the medium of watercolour to which the society is nominally dedicated. The annual show always raises a question about that dedication, however: when is a watercolour not a watercolour and does it really matter?

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As you go in, for instance, you are struck by a big, brilliantly coloured work, Navajo Dancers, by Ian Cook. It has the scale and quality of oil, but being in acrylic, a water-based medium, it qualifies as watercolour. There is more of the same, but then you find a work like A Thin Place by Janet Melrose that looks similar, but turns out to be a collage of delicate paper in transparent whites and greys.

North by North West, by Gordon Mitchell

There are however also plenty of works that do show off what is special about watercolour, its luminosity as we see it in Alison Dunlop’s Nah-Eileanan Siantu, or in Jean Hill’s Flooded Again, a study of trees standing in flood water, and its wonderful precision as it is seen in Victoria Braithwaite’s study of a red onion, or in Gordon Mitchell’s amazing North by North West, a big painting of a boat sailing on a sea inside a boat.

There are more adventurous works, too, that are also definitely watercolour, Pascale Rentsch’s freely painted study of the Lammermuirs, for instance, or Ann Wegmüller’s glowing abstract Colours by the Sea. John Kingsley’s Don’t Get Me Started is a vivid piece of abstract expressionist ink drawing. (Is ink watercolour?) But a star to my mind is one of the smallest works on show, Will Maclean’s dark and intense Night Sea. Painted on a nice, ragged-edged piece thick paper, it is definitely a watercolour. But in the end the range of work is such that you do wonder if the society’s identification with watercolour is not outdated and it is time for a change.

Finally, the last year has evidently seen a sad thinning of the ranks. Memorials to departed members include works by Elizabeth Blackadder, Brenda Lenaghan Allan Robb, Pat Semple, Tom Shanks, George Mackie and David Evans.

Until 27th December

Glacier Hunt by Reinhard Behrens

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