One of the great things I enjoy about watercolour painting is, with practice, being able to see demonstrable progress and improvement. This, combined with maintaining this brushes with watercolour blog, means that I have a ready means of being able to trawl through my archives to look back on and chart or reflect on my progress. (I need to remind myself of this benefit whenever I’m having one of my many moments of doubt about the value or purpose of my blog!)

However, before I move on to anything remotely positive, I feel duty-bound to share some rather disappointing news first. You may recall that one of my new year resolutions for 2018 was to enter some watercolour competitions. It was great then to be able to kickstart the year in a positive manner by submitting three paintings to the annual Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colour exhibition at London’s Mall Galleries. I was particularly keen to submit to this exhibition as it’s one that I often enjoy most in terms of the range and quality of work displayed. It’s also the one that I felt I had the strongest chance of being selected for!

The first stage of the selection process was online and the deadline for submissions was Friday 5th January. Any work that is pre-selected from this electronic submission then has to be delivered to the Mall Galleries where a second selection process takes place. Everyone that had submitted their work was invited to check the website from midday on Friday the 12th January to see whether their work has been pre-selected. In the run-up to checking the website, I must confess to experiencing a mounting sense of excitement and anticipation of ‘what if’. It felt like a great shame then to have this dashed so quickly when I logged on to see the results:

Disappointing news…

Quite naturally, this did leave me with some mixed up emotions. I was conscious however that, if I am committed to putting myself out there more, I’m also likely to experience a lot more rejection and disappointment and I need to make sure I can deal with it. So, with that in mind, here’s where’ I’ve got to so far:

  • In all honesty, of the three paintings I submitted there was only one that I felt had any likelihood of being selected. If I’m not convinced by the work I’m submitting then surely I’m just wasting my time and money submitting hopeful extras!
  • I need to accept that there are a great many excellent painters in the world. Competition, especially for these major national exhibitions is very high. If I’m going to take the view that I need to be ‘in it to win it’ – then I must also accept that I’m more often than not going to plain old lose it!
  • I also need to accept that my style and choice of subject matter may count against me as much as it may count for me – but I definitely don’t feel that I should try paint explicitly for exhibitions.
  • I need to take the positives where I can. This time last year, I would never have contemplated submitting my work. A year on, I feel that some of my work may have sufficient merit to be in with a shout.
  • I did also make the time and effort to submit my work – a process that in itself would have deterred me in the past.
  • Finally, I’m really looking forward to visiting the exhibition in April to see all of the works that did get selected – and hopefully be inspired to enter again next year.
  • Not to be discouraged. I fully intend to be into painting for the long haul, these are still very early days.

Taking just some of these learnings on board, I’ve already submitted one work for the Royal Watercolour Society exhibition. I say ‘just some’ because the RWS exhibition is one that I feel even less confident about meeting the selection criteria for as I find it tends to favour artists that are pushing the boundaries of watercolour.

There’s a brief gap now before the submission deadline for the next exhibition that I’ve earmarked so I can breathe easy. What this process has highlighted is that ideally, I need to have a large body of work that I can select from to have the greatest chance in different exhibitions. Also, should I be selected for any one exhibition, I also need to have other works that I can submit to other exhibitions – although I admit this is possibly me getting a little bit ahead of myself!

If anyone has any other advice, suggestions or recommendations in relation to submitting work to competitions, please do get in touch as it would be great to hear from you!

In yet more disappointing news, it was my birthday again in early January. I use the words ‘disappointing’ and ‘again’ in quite purposefully as I’ve reached an age in which my birthday comes around with alarming regularity. I can usually count on some watercolour related gift but, as my loved ones found other (equally) wonderful gifts that I wouldn’t ever have thought of, I decided to treat myself. Actually, ‘treat myself’ is a bit of an understatement as I actually decided to completely spoil myself!  So much so I’m only going to mention one treat here so that I can save the others for future posts!

Recently, I’ve been really enjoying painting with the Da Vinci Casaneo 498 synthetic mop brushes. The range comes in sizes 2, 4, 6 and 8. As I already had all but the size 8 I thought I’d treat myself and complete the set. When it arrived I had to seriously question the wisdom of my indulgence. It’s undoubtedly beautiful, but it’s also unashamedly enormous! Here are some pictures below:

The Da Vinci Casaneo mop brush, size 8
The Da Vinci Casaneo mop brush size 8 (left) next to an Escoda Ultimo mop brush size 18

To help put the size of this into context, the second image shows the new size 8 Da Vinci next to a size 18 Escoda Ultimo mop brush. The Da Vinci really is a delicate brute of a brush and I was both thrilled and nervous and the prospect of painting with it!

Back in July of 2017, I tried to tackle a scene from our family trip to Barcelona. I made two attempts at the view, which you can read more about in the post ‘From a distance’ (ie, if you stood far enough away, it might just about look alright…. but we’re talking about quite a long distance here!). I wouldn’t expect anyone to remember this as both the post and the paintings were pretty unremarkable, but here they are again for reference:

First effort – July 2017
Second effort – July 2017

In revisiting my stock of reference material, the source photo surfaced again and somehow stuck with me. After much contemplation (but without ever referring to my previous attempts) I decided to tackle this painting again, but with a much clearer sense of how I might tackle it. I spent quite a bit of time drawing this out as the ellipses in the foreground and scale of the everything needs to work well if it isn’t going to end up distracting from the finished work (definitely something I remember learning from my earlier attempts at this scene). I also had it in mind that the whole thing needed to be simplified and stripped of any unnecessary detail.

I’m aware that this post is turning into a rather epic amount of content to wade through, so I’m going to cut straight to the finished painting. Plus, I didn’t have exceptionally high hopes for this one so didn’t bother taking any work in progress photos!

Watercolour painting of a sunlit square in Barcelona by John Haywood
Sunlit square, Barcelona

This is painted on a half imperial sheet and I’d say that about 80% of what you see was painted with the new Da Vinci mop. It may be a beast because of its size, but it can also be used for some delicately detailed work and it can carry, quite literally, buckets of water! This enabled me to cover the sheet quickly, with lots of water and lots of pigment. Painting large expanses with this brush is a wonderful joy, seeing the pigments separate and granulate, mix and run. I’m sure I’ll become more proficient with this brush with practice but, for a first outing, this was great fun.

I feel I should apologise for the length and the many meanderings in this post before bringing it to its long overdue conclusion, and back to my original starting point. I really hope the difference between these paintings is as evident to others as it is to me – and that with some focused dedication, progress with watercolour painting is within the reach of all of us.

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23 thoughts on “Watercolour painting progress

  1. lovely work, and article! some of the upscale art shows are difficult to get into especially on the ‘first go.’ They have entries from around the world, etc. It is a tough, competition. But your work is good. And, You’ve set a fantastic target goal.
    Just keep on it, until you do, GET IN! cheers, Debi

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    1. Thanks so much for your kind and encouraging words Debi, they really are all very much appreciated. I get notice of the next exhibition I’ve entered on Friday so my fingers are firmly crossed (albeit in a slightly non-hopeful fashion!)

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      1. my pleasure. I had to ‘try out’ 3 times for well established art association before they’d take me seriously. Plus, didn’t give up. Took me 3 years and a lot of practice; research on the members as well Helps!!

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  2. Do they offer any critique at all of why your paintings were not chosen?

    Our local water society has now offered this for an additional fee. I haven’t entered anything yet but when I do I probably will spend the extra money for the feedback.

    I don’t know how big those societies you submitted to are, but you might consider starting a little smaller/more locally and working up.

    Congratulations on the new acquisition. It is a monster but sounds like it is really versatile and worth the money, especially if you can express what you want with it. I too bought some brushes over the holidays as a treat for myself. Not a DaVinci, a Cheap Joe’s. I don’t know who makes his brushes but there was a rumor at one time that DaVinci made them. But there was also a rumor they were made by Escoda. I doubt either is true as all they say is Germany. Mine is smaller than yours and says it’s a 12. I don’t think quill wash sizes are standardized.

    I really can’t decide whether I like the second or third attempt best. There are aspects of both that I really like. I know for me painting the same subject over and over helps me to improve each time. I simply haven’t gotten to the point I can do it just once and it’s the best it can be.

    My resolution this year is to enter a painting. Of course, first I have to produce one I am confident in and pleased with. I’ll just be entering my local watercolor society, they have a show each month, and hopefully by the end of the year I will have succeeded at least once. But time’s a wasting I’ve already missed January and I think I’m going to miss the deadline to submit for Feburary too.

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    1. Thanks so much for this some really sound thinking in here! The exhibition I submitted for didn’t offer feedback. It’s a national/international competition with entries most likely in the thousands so I appreciate that the sheer logistics makes feedback at the first selection unrealistic. I don’t know whether they offer anything at the next stage (maybe I’ll find out next year!) Your suggestion of looking more locally is a good one and I will explore that a little more. I have looked in a half-hearted fashion in the past and not found anything suitable but I should follow your suggestion. Good luck with your progress towards submitting – I look forward to hearing how you get on!

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  3. It is a shame your paintings weren’t chosen John. But as you said you have to take the positives where you can – it’s good you can see progress in your painting from a year ago. Keep going and who knows where you’ll be this time next year… ! The only advice I would offer about entering competitions (I’m working on instinct here not experience….!) is that you should enter paintings that you love and feel passionate about, enter paintings that excite you, fill you with enthusiasm and evoke emotions because if that’s how you feel about your work then there’s a much higher chance that the competition/exhibition committee will feel the same about it. Only enter work that you are 100% happy with. I love your work John, it’s very good. Keep going – don’t give up. Many artists have had to deal with rejections before reaching success. Sorry for waffling on….

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    1. Thanks so much Evelyn – I really appreciate your kind and encouraging words of wisdom! As for your instincts, I think you’re quite right. If I’m not convinced by it, I can hardly expect others to be… (but then the devil on the other shoulder is whispering ‘but beauty is in the eye of the beholder!’ and I’ve got many examples of friends liking paintings I’ve don’t that I don’t!) In essence though I quite agree and, in future, I’ll only submit paintings that I’m happy and confident about! Thanks so much Evelyn – all much appreciated!

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  4. Congratulations on your new and improved attitude and determination! You didn’t expect that, right? I think that rather than a door being shut in your face, it is a push further into more growth and yet more determination. I love how you have taken this obstacle on to a better view. You know how I feel about your painting, bravo! I am thinking that I need that beast of a brush! I have been feeling lately that I need to go larger and paint on half sheets because quarter sheets feel way too constricted. I go through a lot of paper and I am afraid of flying through my supply too quickly. Ugh, but that pull is becoming increasingly difficult to resist. I think if I were to purchase that brush I would have to go larger! Looking forward to hearing more about your future painting decisions. I have never taken on entering watercolor competitions, so I cannot offer any feedback about that, though I will be keeping an eye on this post to learn something. Cheers!

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    1. Thanks so much Margaret – really appreciate these comments and the brimming positivity within them! I quite understand about the quarter sheet half sheet dilemma! I think you’re far more prolific than I am so it would mean taking quite a hit! Maybe you could do a bit of both… going big on subjects and compositions that have gone well smaller? I must confess that painting more on half sheets recently has been pretty liberating for me, and think that it’s probably been a major contributing factor in producing some of my most successful paintings of late. As for the brush, it’s an investment, and possibly a risky one, but at least it’s a fun one! Thanks so much Margaret!

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      1. I was just looking at several of my successful paintings on half sheets and I am thinking that I really like painting larger, very liberating, I agree and I like your idea very much. I think that I’ll take the plunge every now and then and throw out my stinginess. Happy painting! 😉

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      2. Thanks Margaret – I’m already looking forward to seeing your larger works (although I must confess that I always imagined your work to be larger in size – I think your paintings often convey a sense of scale and expansiveness)

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      3. Haha, I’m sure any sense of freezing with thaw pretty quickly once you get going! I feel that I can be much more physical working larger, almost as if I’m painting much more expansively from the shoulder rather than cramped from the wrist, as it so often feels when I’m painting smaller. Only one way to find out Margaret!

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    1. Thanks for this Peg – much appreciated and I think you’re quite right – to keep persevering (hopefully keep improving) and keep developing and building my portfolio. Thanks again Peg 🙏🏻

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