Realism in Watercolour

A selection of artists shortlisted for The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2016 have employed realism to convey their subjects, from intimate portraits of family members to delicately rendered beach scenes, the subject matter is diverse but united by a strong sense of craftsmanship and technical proficiency.

What is interesting is that these artists have depicted extremely realistic imagery in a medium which is typically difficult to control due to its fluid, sinuous nature. This is a true testament to each artist’s understanding of the physicality of water based paint. The intricacy of each piece demands that viewers stop and look, and look again. We are left observing the meticulous detail in these works but also the sheer spectacle of the paintings in their entirety.

As we hone in on individual works, we become acutely aware of the smaller elements that make up the whole, these fragments of paint suggest a fragility which may not be considered or detected from afar. It is the notion of distance which makes the works so intriguing – the aesthetic of each painting shifting according to where the viewer is stood.

Artist Vincent Brown whose piece ‘Artist’s Mother’ was selected for The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2016 said ‘I am inspired by artists such as Rembrandt and Velázquez and seek to represent what I see in front of me with some naturalism, honesty and sensitivity.’

Artist's Mother by Vincent Brown - watercolour on card, 60 x 60 cm
Artist’s Mother by Vincent Brown – watercolour on card, 60 x 60 cm

Whilst there is immense detail in the face of Brown’s subject, the brush strokes become looser in the figure’s clothing as if to communicate the materiality of the medium itself. Speaking of the expressive elements in his work, Vincent explained ‘the large, bold brush strokes in my portrait clearly make it appear as an obvious painting not pertaining to photography’. This approach is very much aligned with Expressive Realism – a term more commonly associated with literature, it denotes an imitation of reality fused with romantic conviction.

‘Charles’ by Simon Turvey, also selected for this year’s exhibition, is a portrait of the artist’s nephew: ‘I had wanted to paint my nephew, Charles, for some years. The long-awaited spark which starts a painting came when I first saw his cockatiels, which are free to fly around his family’s home and frequently perch on any available human.’ Whilst this painting appears almost photographic from afar, its textural quality provides an indication of its medium and suggests a sense of depth, which is otherwise difficult to achieve in photography.

Talking of his creative process, Simon disclosed that ‘watercolour is not the favoured medium of most portrait painters, principally because oil paint has the advantage in that any mistakes or changes of mind can be easily remedied by removing the paint and starting again. Watercolour is unforgiving in this respect. Once a mark is made, it can’t be totally erased.’

‘I approached my painting “Charles”, by drawing out the image first, then building up my layers of paint (not too wet, so as not to dissolve work already laid down). I tried not to concentrate on every pore, to allow space for the imagination, and something of his essential character to come through.’

Charles by Simon Turvey -  watercolour on paper, 35 x 50 cm
Charles by Simon Turvey – watercolour on paper, 35 x 50 cm

With the rise of abstract art in the 20th century, realist painting ceased to be the dominant mode of art-making. Yet such traditional methods have continued to have widespread appeal, and contemporary artists continue to use these more conventional techniques and genres in dynamic new ways.

Take Mark Elsmore’s painting ‘One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor’ which is a mix of sharp observation and social commentary: ‘Beneath the pier in Aberystwyth, a mysterious light ushers a new day. We look out towards a sea that is as yet invisible. Distance is endless, aspiration the same. There is a taste to the pallor, the taste of coastal wilderness. The rigid Victoriana of an 1865 pier becomes a metaphor for self-imposed limitations. Mighty ferrous legs surround us, but in this location at this unearthly hour we have embraced nature and can do anything. We raise our eyes to the weighty construction and realise that one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.’ Mark Elsmore.

The artist’s use of water-based glow in the dark paint means light forms within the piece change throughout the day, challenging the perception of realism as a static and traditional art form; the transformative nature of the painting further communicating its inherent metaphor.

One Man's Celing is Another Man's Floor by Mark Elsmore - gouache on paper, 92 x 72 cm
One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor by Mark Elsmore – gouache on paper, 92 x 72 cm

Each artist offers a contemporary take on realism whether through subject, technique or medium and we are very much looking forward to seeing these pieces exhibited in The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2016 (19 – 24 September).

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