history of rsw


The image of a watercolour Society as a body of 'specialists' intent on conformity and a traditional, cautious approach stems very largely from the period between the wars when there was a much narrower view of watercolour practice than might be believed today. Even 50 years ago, the RSW was a very different Society and concern was shown at what was seen as a threat to traditional values in painting by artists who were prepared to take risks and whose approach was free and forceful. There was muttering about 'preserving the purity of watercolour' and about the inadvisability of 'stretching the limitations of the medium'. Artists of the calibre of Anne Redpath, a superb watercolour painter from her earliest days, William Gillies RSW, perhaps the most naturally gifted practitioner of his time in the medium, John Maxwell RSW with his unique poetry of visual language and such others as Robert Henderson Blyth RSW, Donald Moodie and Adam Bruce Thomson RSW all caused concern when their work came up for consideration, sometimes encountering rejection. The use of white with watercolour or even a pen line, were considered in some selection committees to be straying from some imaginary set of rules. Clearly, precedents from Durer to Turner had been forgotten, let alone, in Scotland, Melville or Walter, both innovative masters of their materials. Fortunately this discouraging period ended when the painters mentioned, by their unswerving example emerged as leaders in contemporary Scottish painting. A succession of enlightened Councils in the Society succeeded in bringing it and Scottish watercolour into the forefront of contemporary practice with the display of precisely these attributes now associated with Scottish painting generally - the confident mastery of materials, a readiness to take risks, the ability to paint with freedom and boldness and a delight in the alchemy of colour.

The advent of new pigments such as waterbased acrylic paint and inks has been a potent factor in the liberation of watercolour and in Scotland the acceptance of a variety of materials, the use of collage techniques and of different paper supports including hand-made Asian papers have all contributed to the vitality of its painting. 40 years ago Sir Robin Philipson RSW, an artist of spectacular range, challenged the concept of scale in watercolour with some altarpiece-sized works and this too has created new possibilities for painters whose ideas and expression can benefit from a large format. Today there are few discussions about what constitutes a watercolour, although there is an acceptance that the basic idea of fluid works on paper is valid and an essential part of the spirit of watercolour. No longer the private domain of 'specialists' with rule books, the RSW is in every sense a 21st Century exhibiting Society, always capable of innovation and surprise. It has built on the influx of talent which has swelled its ranks in recent times and is at a stage when it is as unset in its ways as could be imagined.

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