Jackson’s interview 2017 exhibitor Claire Sparkes

According to Jackson’s writer Lisa Takahashi, The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition ‘celebrates the very best in watercolour painting today: from abstract to figurative, contemporary to traditional; there is no house style of the exhibition and every year brings its own surprises.’

Ahead of this year’s deadline (5pm, Monday 25 June), Lisa interviewed 2017 exhibitor Claire Sparkes.  A snippet of their conversation is published below; head to the Jackson’s Blog to read the interview in full.

What is the most memorable exhibition of watercolour works that you have ever been to see? What was it that made it stick in your memory?

Graham Dean, ‘Prayer 2’

In the late 1980’s, on a school trip, I saw an exhibition of Graham Dean’s work in a venue just outside Canterbury in Kent. It made such an impact on me and consequently I still have the catalogue. The scale of the pieces struck me, and the way he illustrated with human condition through his depictions of people. I admired how he employed loose wet into wet techniques, but retained a level of control over the figurative imagery. The layering within the paintings allowed him to combine dreamlike suggestions of the past with the everyday. I rediscovered Dean’s work in the mid-90’s in an exhibition in Brighton. I decided to return to watercolour after seeing this exhibition, having painted with acrylics for some years. He inspired me to begin experimenting with a looser style.

Define watercolour or describe what it means to you in one word.

Flow. Most notably, the way the water carries the paint and flows in its own way carries so much meaning. Essentially, I think it’s magical that although I can guide the medium, I cannot entirely control it. Additionally, I like how colour can be layered and lifted from the surface. It gives me the chance to respond to the behaviour of the paint.

Claire Sparkes, ‘Hyakinthos’

The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2018 is now calling for entries. Open to all UK-based artists, the competition offers a generous range of prizes including a First Prize of £6000, Second Prize of £3000 and Third Prize of £1000. Apply online by 5pm on Monday 25 June: sundaytimeswatercolour.artopps.co.uk

Top Tips from a former Selector and First Prize Winner

Kathryn Maple, 2017 selector and 2016 First Prize winner, shares her top tips for entering art competitions in the July issue of Artists & Illustrators.

‘No tip will guarantee you a place in a competition because there are many things beyond your control. After many failed attempts, I’ve learned you should never see being unsuccessful as a rejection of the quality of your work.’

Kathryn Maple, ‘Sandy Shoes’, First Prize 2016


Keep trying to reinvent or push your ideas and mediums so the work feels fresh.


Working alone in the studio can feel isolating at times but your self-belief will allow you to recognise if a work has the potential to be shortlisted.


I find it refreshing to have chats about my work with friends who aren’t artists because they can see something obvious that doesn’t work. Fresh eyes with no bias can be useful.


Creating opportunities for work to be seen and working to deadlines keeps your work energised. This translates into your voice and forms the heart of your practice.

Kathryn Maple, ‘Hiding in the Woods’

The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2018 is now calling for entries. Open to all UK-based artists, the competition offers a generous range of prizes including a First Prize of £6000, Second Prize of £3000 and Third Prize of £1000. Apply online by 5pm on Monday 25 June: sundaytimeswatercolour.artopps.co.uk

Spotlight on Ishbel Myerscough, 2018 Selector

Ishbel Myerscough studied at both Glasgow school of Art and Slade School of Fine Art, graduating from the latter in 1993. Just two years later, she won the National Portrait Gallery BP Portrait Award and has since completed two commissions for the Collection. A London-based artist who has moved her studio back into her childhood home, Ishbel teaches at the Royal Drawing School once a week. Of her teaching style, she comments ‘I can’t teach them how to be an artist; I can show them how to look but not how I do it.’

But what of Ishbel’s painting style? Sarah Howgate, curator of Friendship Portraits (National Portrait Gallery, 2015) comments that ‘Ishbel paints painstakingly slowly on a relatively small, sometimes miniature scale, and with a clear, unflinching vision.’ She ‘…is interested in pimples, not only pimples also wrinkles, puckers, tattoos, moles, freckles, bulges, veins, hair, skin colour, stretchmarks – all the things, in fact, that we edit out of our body images. Her work, very often, constitutes a sort of journey to the surface of the human being and everything she finds there she records.’ (Flowers Gallery)

Ishbel Myerscough, ‘Self Portrait in a Flower Dress’ (2016)

For Ishbel, then, character exists in physical flaws: her portraits ‘journey to the surface of the human being’ in order to access the deeper relationships that are too often lost within processed images of a beautified reality.

The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2018 is now calling for entries. Open to all UK-based artists, the competition offers a generous range of prizes including a First Prize of £6000, Second Prize of £3000 and Third Prize of £1000. Apply online by 5pm on Monday 25 June: sundaytimeswatercolour.artopps.co.uk

Ishbel Myerscough, ‘Mothers and Daughters’ (2014)

Cass Art interviews Young Artist Award Winner 2017 Elizabeth McCarten

Are you considering entering The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2018 but feel a little overwhelmed by the application process? If so, then take a look at Cass Art’s interview with Elizabeth McCarten, in which the Young Artist Award Winner 2017 talks about her prizewinning piece and considers the submitting existing work/creating new work conundrum. See below for a snippet and visit the Cass Art Blog to read the interview in full.

‘Forests of Sandim’, Elizabeth McCarten

Entering an art competition can be a daunting process.  Opinion seems to be divided as to whether you should submit existing work or produce work specifically for a particular competition.  Where do you stand on this and is there any additional advice that you would give to prospective competitors? 

Entering a competition such as The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition is a fantastic chance to get your work out to a wider audience and if that is an incentive for you to make new work or try out a new medium I think that is wonderful and would definitely support other artists to do so – whether you get through to the exhibition stage or not! I do not usually enter many competitions however The Boboli Gardens piece was something that already existed and I felt would be appropriate to put forward to the competition and this is generally my approach to applying or entering competitions or other opportunities!

‘The Boboli Gardens’, Elizabeth McCarten

The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2018 is now calling for entries. Open to all UK-based artists, the competition offers a generous range of prizes including a First Prize of £6000, Second Prize of £3000 and Third Prize of £1000. Apply online by 5pm on Monday 25 June: sundaytimeswatercolour.artopps.co.uk

Call for Entries 2018

Chris Baker, ‘Portmeirion’, shortlisted 2017

Rewarding excellence and originality in contemporary watercolour painting

 Deadline: 25 June 2018, 5pm
Enter online: sundaytimeswatercolour.artopps.co.uk

Now in its 31st year, The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition is the largest and most prestigious prize for contemporary watercolour painting in the UK. Whether it be through abstract or figurative, contemporary or traditional, the competition aims to celebrate and redefine the beauty and diversity of watercolour and water-based media.

Open to all UK-based artists, the competition offers a generous range of prizes including a First Prize of £6000, Second Prize of £3000 and Third Prize of £1000.

Approximately one hundred works will be selected by a panel of leading figures from the art world including Louis Wise, critic and writer for The Sunday Times.

The shortlisted works will be shown at the Mall Galleries, London from 17 – 23 September 2018 and the Winners will be announced in the Culture section of The Sunday Times.

Artists are invited to submit up to four works in any water-based medium by 25 June 2018, 5pm. Entry is £15 per work. Apply online at: sundaytimeswatercolour.artopps.co.uk

For further details please contact Parker Harris: T. 020 3653 0896; E. watercolour@parkerharris.co.uk

For press enquiries, please contact Iona Rowland: T. 020 3653 0896; E. iona@parkerharris.co.uk

Keep up to date with the latest competition news @WatercolourComp (Twitter) and @SundayTimesWatercolour (Facebook). Join the conversation: #STWC18

Q+A with 2017 Exhibitor Paul Gadenne

Paul Gadenne’s paintings are defined by an element of narrative and the everyday – he is interested in the stories – often overlooked or brushed carelessly away – that make up the narrative fabric of day to day life.  His ability to see depth and potential in places that we might not necessarily look for it is embraced not only in his paintings but also through his role as a SAA Professional Art Teacher teaching ‘Art for Everyone’ – art lessons for adults of all abilities at venues in Dunkirk and Sandwich, Kent.  Ahead of the launch of the 2018 edition of The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition, I spoke to Paul about his career background, his favoured painting techniques and the value of the supposedly unremarkable.

What was the first piece of artwork that you created that you were happy with?

No.3 Caisson, Chatham Dockyard

I find that as an artist I am very rarely 100% happy with any of my paintings. There always seems to be another level that I’m still trying to reach. However the painting that probably fits this best would be No.3 Caisson, Chatham Dockyard, a watercolour of a submarine in dry dock at Chatham Dockyard.

To what extent has your background in commercial Interior Architecture and Exhibition Design influenced your practice as an artist?

I was trained in a discipline that required accuracy both technically and in the manner in which information was illustrated and presented to a client. A client expects the finished product to look exactly the same as the presentation.

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Designing for manufacture has left me with a fascination for the manmade and the built environment. This is often the subject of my work. I find this especially fascinating when expressed in watercolour with its softness and fragility.

In an article written for The Artist in September 2017, you advised watercolour artists to work on a sloping drawing board.  Why is this?

I always recommend using a sloping board so that the movement of the water on the paper has some controlled directional movement. To produce a perfectly flat wash, the best way is to simply continually feed into a puddle of watercolour as gravity takes it down the slope of the paper. The angle and direction of the board can be used to great advantage to generate denser pigment on the leading edge of a wash, or it can also be used to channel colour into linear marks or runs.

In the same article, you talk about the colours that you use when painting shadows.  Can you tell us more about this process, in particular, the somewhat paradoxical importance of capturing light in the depiction of shadows?

There is an old maxim that goes something like ‘you can’t paint light but you can paint shadow.’ I have always found that bluish colours work better for shadows than just a flat grey. All light has a colour cast whether it be artificial or natural. Generally speaking, tungsten has a yellowish cast, fluorescent greenish and natural light bluish. Our eyes have the ability to adjust for the changes in colour temperature, making the differences less noticeable, but a camera will often show these differences quite distinctly. We consider natural daylight to be white and in direct sunshine it is, though at sunset and sunrise we know that even this changes to warmer colours. Light wavelengths falling on an object will be absorbed by the object; however, some colour wavelengths will be reflected back and these are the colours we see. The shady side of an object in natural daylight will be exposed to blue sky which has a tendency to cast a faint bluish light that is then is reflected back in the shadow.

Canterbury Colossus

By adding some blue and violet to daylight shadow colours I find that, especially with warmer subjects such as buildings, the complimentary nature of the colours makes both the buildings and the shadows work particularly well together.

What is the most interesting story behind any painting that you have created during your career?

I have a bit of a fascination for painting buildings and objects that may be demolished or modernised. I try to capture these relics in paint before we lose them forever.

This was the case with the old gasometer in Canterbury. I drove around the city until I found a rare view with the gasometer at the end of a street. My wife laughed at the final result: “great painting but who will buy it?” I was prepared to add the work to my growing collection of paintings that like this one, were produced for non-commercial reasons.

Six months later, on its first showing, it sold on day one. It went to an elderly couple who came into the gallery to escape the rain. My painting of the gasometer was the view from the window in their first home when they were newly-married fifty years before.

Heaton Road

Why did you choose to enter The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2017?

I successfully entered the Competition in 2012 and was thrilled to find my work hanging on the same wall as two artists for whom I have always had enormous respect, namely Kurt Jackson and Nathan Ford. The fact that these two artists were selected told me everything I needed to know about the importance of the Competition.

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As I am now teaching art every week, I find this leaves little time for serious painting; however, I simply could not resist doing it again!

Define watercolour, or describe what it means to you, in one word.



To view further images of Paul’s work, please visit gadenne.co.uk.  The 2018 edition of The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition will be opening for entries in the Spring.  To keep up to date with all dates and news items, follow @STWatercolour on Twitter or @SundayTimesWatercolour on Facebook.

Q+A with 2017 exhibitor Debbie Ayles

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Debbie Ayles, who exhibited as part of The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2017, uses water-based paints to explore the varying effects of light and shadow as they play across and within city and vernacular architecture.  In her own words, ‘the calm ghostliness of the structure and the maelstrom and power of the colour blend the concept of abstract and realism’, drawing attention to what is there but often unnoticed and quite beautiful.  Ahead of the launch of the 2018 edition of the Competition, I spoke to Debbie about her inspiration, her process and her experience of watercolour within the contemporary art world.

In terms of subject matter, architecture holds a particular fascination for you.  Why is this?

I’m a pattern-seeker. I see patterns in some of the most unexpected places which is such a joy. I explore the identity of modern architecture that inspires me and where the structures appear to consist of strong shapes, grids, horizontals and verticals.

Debbie Ayles, ‘Exhibition’

I see how the environment softens the impact of the building by reflections caused by the weather and the presence of people. That’s when the momentary shapes appear, due to the sun, cloud movement and reflections of surrounding structures or trees which are then reflected or absorbed by the building in question. My paintings aim to create a new perception designed to awaken the imagination of the viewer.

You describe a typical painting as ‘a distillation of months of observations and experiments’.  Can you tell us a little bit more about this process?

My choice of subject matter and the way in which I want to represent it has always entailed a detailed analysis of source material. I take a number of photographs, capturing the different light effects as the weather changes and as the movement and passage of time alters what I am looking at. Returning to the studio I deconstruct the image, reducing it to forms and structures that hold it together. There becomes a vibrant interplay of organic and geometric shapes that are at once figurative and abstract.

I include all the shadows, reflections, sunbursts, clouds, people or vehicles that describe the building and its environment, captured at that moment in time. The drawing becomes a puzzle to untangle as foregrounds and backgrounds merge. Sometimes I eliminate areas to remove any ‘striping’ that can occur in modern architecture (a factor in photosensitive responses) where the line-up of windows or structural supports conveys a series of tightly spaced parallel lines. I draw, re-draw and consider each result.

Then comes the free-for-all, a release from the concentration of drawing in the studio, when thin washes and thicker layers of paint begin to cover the surface. I love doing this in the garden where I can splash, pour and drip the colours I have chosen to represent the subject matter, with no concerns about annoying any other artists nearby, or creating a massive clean-up job in the studio! The control I impose in the studio is relaxed as the paints find their own levels, react with each other, and embrace the odd blade of grass or passing fly!

I’m at the mercy of the weather conditions which dictate how long or quickly the paint may dry. This creates an energetic need to be aware of decisions and rectify areas that might be losing their integrity. Finally, when the paint is completely dry, I use thin washes of paint to transpose the negative of my drawing carefully onto the surface. At this point the spaces that form the structure and give windows through into the background layers of colour are decided and selected to create a balance of uniting and yet separating the many layers of paint.

 Your paintings are characterised not only by level of detail but also by intensity of colour.  How do you make the two work so well together? 

For many years I was unable to use intense colours in my work. During my Art Degree I began researching with doctors and scientists on the impact of colour on our visual perception and discovered that I was photosensitive and that the use of intense colours in my work at the time was triggering my migraines. After co-publishing a number of scientific papers, post degree I was awarded The Wellcome Trust Sciart Award through which I would collaborate with a scientist to investigate this particular iteration of photosensitivity further. Through the project, which was based at the University of Essex, I learned which colours to avoid and most importantly how to distribute them in ways that didn’t trigger my photosensitivity. We succeeded in designing a computer model that is available to assist in the measuring of both 2D and 3D artworks in the case of there being a suspicion that they could trigger migraines or epileptic reactions.

Debbie Ayles, ‘Architectural Feature’

Consequently, for a few years I painted purely in pastel shades and more neutral colours. However they did not achieve the effect I was looking for so I cautiously returned to more intense colours and found that avoiding mosaic-like striped distributions of strong colour enabled me to return to the palette I enjoy. Using a paler wash to construct the subject on the surface softens the impact of the animated paint below.

How do you deal with mistakes when painting?

Watercolour is a surprisingly forgiving medium. I used to be very concerned about making a mistake and straying from what I had planned to do. But mistakes don’t actually exist as nothing can be perfect. They are just the painting taking back a bit of control, offering me a choice as to what to do, making me see that the painting could go in another direction and lead me on to another journey. When I realised this it was such a release to rethink how I was approaching painting and my vision of how I wanted it to be. The freedom to go ‘off-piste’ was new to me and now every new idea or painting is like setting off on an exciting new adventure.

What is the most memorable exhibition of watercolour works that you have ever been to see?  What was it that has made it stick in your memory?

The Paul Klee exhibition Making the Visible at the Tate Modern back in 2014 had quite an impact on me. I was reassured that strong linear representations of subjects – often with no contouring – is a perfectly acceptable manner of drawing and painting.  Tremendously affirming, as this is the way that I work too.

I like to take a line for a walk and see where it goes. My paintings are an extension of this process of working as I construct the architecture and patterns that I have discovered by leaving the space between the watery pale shapes to become the ‘line’, by letting the eye follow this space inbetween shapes and go on a journey through the painting. I learned a great deal by observing Klee’s varied use of watercolour and of simple shapes to represent objects.

The reproductions of Klee’s linear drawings and paintings in books and the small number of his works I had seen previously did not prepare me for the ‘wow’ factor of seeing in the flesh the colour, style and design that were the life blood of his practice.

 Why did you choose to enter The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2017?

The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition is one the most prestigious competitions an artist can hope to be part of. I thought it was a significant opportunity to have my work judged by a jury and seen by a wide audience.

Debbie Ayles, ‘Escalation’, The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2017

The chance to meet other entrants and hear how they work – discuss processes, materials and experiences – is so valuable. The acknowledgement that your own painting is hanging alongside such top-quality work provides encouragement along this frustrating absorbing thrilling challenging career path that I have chosen!

Define watercolour, or describe what it means to you, in one word.



To view further images of Debbie’s work, please visit www.debbieaylesartist.co.uk.  The 2018 edition of The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition will be opening for entries in the Spring.  To keep up to date with all dates and news items, follow @STWatercolour on Twitter or @SundayTimesWatercolour on Facebook.