Art review: The RSW Open Annual Winter Exhibition

The definition may have become rather elastic, but when watercolour is done well '“ as it often is in this show '“ there's no medium like it

Saligo Bay, by Chris Bushe
Saligo Bay, by Chris Bushe

The RSW Open Annual Winter Exhibition ****

Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh

The Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour (RSW) is the third and last of the three exhibiting societies to show in the Royal Scottish Academy this winter. They have all been cramped for time by this arrangement – barely three weeks each – and for space too, as a little selfishly the National Gallery of Scotland has taken over three galleries for its shop. Nevertheless, seeing them one after the other does give you a chance to make comparisons and when you do, and you see how different they are from each other, it makes it clear how rich and diverse what you might call the “private sector” – the bit of our art life that has to look after itself – really is. These three exhibition societies all depend on sales to survive and the fact that they do manage, however much it is a struggle, indicates the level of support the artists showing in them enjoy from private individuals. At a rough guess, the three shows together have presented the work of five or six hundred artists. Many of them are beginners, and not all of the art is so very good. Not all are beginners by any means, however, and some of the art is first class; you do wonder how many of these several hundred artists, or indeed if any of them, have been endorsed by representation or even exhibition in our public collections. It feels as though there is a mismatch here somewhere. Although it enjoys the support of the public at large, the vital part of our national art life that the exhibiting societies represent scarcely seems to enjoy any institutional recognition at all.

But what of the RSW show itself? It immediately looks very different from the other two because there is nothing on the floor. So far, watercolour has not made it into three dimensions and that of course is the unique feature of this show. At a time when anything goes, it is still limited, just, to the single traditional medium of watercolour. The net is widened slightly by acrylic which is water-based and so is counted as watercolour, but really that is a bit of fudge. You would need a spectrometer to know that Chris Bushe’s landscape, White Tide, Pale Rocks, Saligo Bay, for instance, or John Kingsley’s abstract triptych, Elemental Landscape, are not oil paintings. But does it really matter? When you can make art out of absolutely of anything at all, such distinctions do seem a little archaic, as indeed does the concept of the show itself, I fear. Still, watercolour is a great medium. Just how great, you can check in the National Gallery next door where the Turner watercolours of the Vaughan Bequest are on display. It is an unfair comparison perhaps, but there is no reason why the painters in the RSW should not be ambitious and some certainly are. Anbangbang Billabong by Peter Davis, for instance, is very striking. Composed of transparent veils of colour against white paper, red above and green below to suggest the freshness of water in the stark Australian landscape, it also beautifully exploits the unique qualities of watercolour. But, as the way the painter has used the white paper shows, watercolour is not just paint. Much more than with oil painting the support, paper, is integral to the finished image. Susan Macintosh demonstrates this dramatically with Movement in Stillness. A big painting, it is unframed and hung instead on paper clips, so you see it unambiguously as paper. It is painted in broad washes of grey and black, light and transparent above, dark and opaque below. Flashes of pinkish red showing through the darkest areas lighten the mood with a hint of warmth. The heavy dark pigment has accumulated at the bottom and become grainy and has at one point even lifted to give a kind of relief. It is very impressive. In Favella III, Alison Paton uses the character of paper equally purposefully. A crisscross pattern of small irregular rectangles evokes the haphazard street plan of a favela, but it is the crumpled texture of the paper that gives a sense of the actual chaotic reality of the place. Lucy Jones demonstrates how flexible a medium this is, using collage with watercolour to nice effect in Bouquiniste Bookshop. In Flirtation, David Mitchell actually paints a tromp l’oeil collage of three headless female torsos apparently cut out of sheet music.

For Marian Leven, the paper itself is a vital part of her image. Breaking Dark, Dark Breeze Before Dawn and Hirta are all small, abstract and atmospheric paintings in dark monochrome and are mounted so that the edges of the sheet are visible. Indeed in Dark Breeze Before Dawn, the torn edges of the paper are a vital part of the image of a transient moment snatched and held.

Alison Dunlop also uses her medium beautifully in Wave and Wave-Study. In both, an inverted arc of transparent blue hovers above a blue horizon. This is essential watercolour. She could not create such a luminous image in any other medium. The same is true of Salad Flowers and Hedgerow Fruit by Ann Ross. It is a small picture, but that only enhances the jewel-like intensity she achieves. The colour seems to have been dropped onto white so it seems hardly to be brushed at all and truly glows. Indeed, you wonder if she has taken a hint from the glowing paintings in Arthur Melville’s marvellous show a year ago. Certainly her picture is exquisite and, again, it is pure watercolour. No other medium can match it when it is handled like this. Summer Window by Helga Chart, a blue bowl with a goldfish and, beyond, a blackbird seen through an open window, all handled lightly and without fuss, is also a beautiful image that makes good use of its medium. Late Pickings, a bowl of apples at a window with green trees beyond by David Sinclair is equally light in touch.


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Watercolour can also be minutely precise. Angus McEwan demonstrates this in Simpler Times. A view through a cottage window across a battered desk, it is observed with Pre-Raphaelite meticulousness, but nevertheless because the light in it is so delicately recorded, the picture is not weighed down by detail. David Evans’s Apples from the Garden are almost edible they are so perfectly observed. David Forster uses a similar minuteness, but to disturbing effect as he subtly subverts our expectations in an apparently straightforward painting of Staffa.

Peter Bourne’s dark abstraction, Nightfall, is sombre in mood, while Joyce Gunn Cairns brings a touch of genuine poetic melancholy in Iona and Spotted Hat, both studies of pensive women on their own. There is much else to commend, though not everything is as ambitious as are these highlights.

*Until 28 January