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:

Call for Entries 2018

Chris Baker, ‘Portmeirion’, shortlisted 2017

Rewarding excellence and originality in contemporary watercolour painting

 Deadline: 25 June 2018, 5pm
Enter online:

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:

For further details please contact Parker Harris: T. 020 3653 0896; E.

For press enquiries, please contact Iona Rowland: T. 020 3653 0896; E.

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  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  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 watercolour illustrator Michael Frith, in conjunction with HORSE, a Frith/Mort Collaboration

HORSE, a thoughtful and dynamic exploration of the connection between two linked but independent industries – art and fashion – opened today at Asia House, Cavendish Street.  Featuring selected items from Jenny M.’s first menswear capsule collection, strikingly displayed against the large-scale watercolour paintings of Michael Frith (the source of inspiration for the new collection) the show is as culturally as it is aesthetically resonant.  Shortly after the show opened, I caught up with watercolour illustrator Michael Frith, best known for his depiction of court cases and public figures which have appeared in a range of popular national and international publications.

How did Frith & Mort London come about?

Jenny and I are friends. I gave Jenny a sketch of a horse for her Birthday. A discussion about an art/fashion collaboration ensued…

Michael Frith, Preparatory sketches for the HORSE series

Frith & Mort London explores the connection between two linked but independent worlds: art and fashion.  How important do you think the link between these two worlds is – specifically, what value does it bring to the cultural sphere?

There is a significant link. Two vital and visual mediums. Images moving upon fabrics. Wearing art. The everyday essentials with cultural and creative overlaps. All very exciting.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your portfolio.

I have a background in illustrating and designing for newspapers. I have a long association with The Sunday Times – I produced weekly watercolour portraits for the ‘Profile’ page and I was on the Judging Panel for the Singer & Friedlander Watercolour Competition/The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition for over five years.

My illustration work afforded me the opportunity to pursue my own paintings: marine paintings, larger-than-life portraits (Robert Maxwell at the National Portrait Gallery) arboreal pictures and equestrian watercolours ensued.


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For many people, illustration is about explanation, even decoration.  How do you see illustration?

My own work is more about reportage and observation. The hand-crafted illustrations/portraiture etc. provide a change of perspective and pace within a publication, a situation currently not in vogue what with the immediacy of the iPhone culture and the 5 minute attention span.

Your watercolour work is characterised by immediacy and freshness, an atmosphere created through the use of subtle brush splatters and bleeds.  Tell us a little bit more about the techniques that you use to generate atmosphere.

I think that the work has to answer for this one.


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The watercolours which you will be exhibiting as part of Frith & Mort London are large-scale pieces, a format that is unusual for the medium.  Why did you choose to challenge the boundaries of watercolour in this way, and how did you find the process?

I developed the technique of using watercolour at speed whilst working for a daily newspaper. Then, in my personal work I wanted to get away from the established convention of watercolour being a sketching medium usually thought of as an afternoon pursuit for Victorian ladies! Subsequently, the power of large watercolour work on paper became more and more enthralling.

Does fashion imitate art far more than art imitates fashion?  Why?

I wouldn’t say ‘imitate’, rather ‘influence’. There is a symbiosis between the two – they influence each other. Art has always reflected society’s nuances and fashion responds, as do all of the arts.  Vice versa is true also and so the circular process continues indefinitely…

Frith/Mort London, Install Shot

HORSE, a Frith/Mort Collaboration, is on show at Asia House from 5 – 9 December.  The venue is open daily from 10am – 6pm and admission is free.  For further details, please visit

Watercolours come to Trowbridge!

Tracy Sullivan from Trowbridge Arts.

Exhibition of the Sunday Times Water Colour Competition at Trowbridge Town Hall
Photo: Diane Vose

The exhibition of abstract, figurative, contemporary and traditional pieces are currently lining the walls of the town hall, giving locals a chance to gaze upon the impressive works until December 27.

“We are really fortunate to have these wonderfully impressive paintings in our town hall. It shows that we are becoming an appealing and sought after venue,” said Tracey Sullivan, Trowbridge Arts director.

“It took a good week to set it all up, carefully putting everything into place and making it safe and secure.

“We have worked with Parker Harris before, who co-ordinate all of this, so it is great to work with them again. There has been a steady flow of people coming in since we opened the exhibition.

“Hopefully this can encourage local people to enter their own works in competitions as you could one day be involved in this too.”

For further information please visit :

After the Trowbridge exhibition, the show will open at Guildford House Gallery from 13th January to 10th March 2018.