National Watercolor Society – Tradition and Innovation at 98th International Open Exhibition

  • 11/16/2018
  • Reporters Desk

By Leslie Belt, Contributing Writer

 Our planet is bathed in 326 million cubic miles of water. Whether in the throes of the moon’s heady allure, falling from the sky, or mixing it up with pigment and paper, water is always moving — somewhere…something…someone.

Throughout history, artists have leveraged the immediacy, beauty, and translucence of watercolor paint to create images that move people to take urgent action and experience complex feelings. Think about it. Nothing screams ‘run like hell’ like a crudely-depicted predator scrawled across a cave wall. Or whispers ‘mourn this loss’ like a softly-rendered portrait of a once familiar landscape or face.

These days, or at least until Dec. 16, you can experience the power of some of the finest work in contemporary watermedia first-hand and in the comfort of your own hometown at the San Pedro-based National Watercolor Society’s 98th International Open Exhibition. Heads up, we are not talking about the kind of wispy and yet murky watercolor paintings often associated with garage sales or folks with more time than creativity on their hands here.

In fact, competition for inclusion in this prestigious, international, juried exhibition was beyond fierce. Of the nearly 1,000 paintings entered, only 90 were ultimately selected on the basis of a range of objective and subjective criteria. Objective measures included uniqueness, relevance, authenticity, transcendence of medium, design and composition expertise, and technical skill.

“Some pieces [we selected for this show] made us laugh, some made us think, and some were disturbing and controversial,” Carla O’Connor, chairperson of the Jury of Selection, recalls, summing up the subjective “feel it factor’ that separated the winners from the losers in this year’s high-level clash of artistic titans.

Since its inception in 1920, the National Watercolor Society has been considered to be among the most acclaimed of the numerous regional, national and international Watercolor Societies that have followed in its footsteps.

So how has the National Watercolor Society managed to distinguish itself from these organizations despite the similarities in name and mission? While it is true that most of the others are smaller, younger and less influential watercolor societies, they are, nonetheless, watercolor societies.

“We like to think of San Pedro as our super power,”  said Beatrice Trautman, vice president of publicity. “Seriously, light and color are like breath and heartbeat when you work in watermedia. I’ll put the look and feel of the sun bouncing off San Pedro’s majestic coastline, old-world charm in small-town drag, funky, street carnival/cultural mecca thing up against that gray sky, bouncing off gray buildings, where gray people dressed in black hide inside them look the East Coast Watercolor Societies have going for them. All day. Every day.”

Clearly, the National Watercolor Society gets that it is lucky to be in San Pedro. The  question is does San Pedro get how lucky it is to have one of the most venerated and influential powerhouses in watermedia right here on Pacific Avenue?  If not, the 98th International Open Exhibition provides a compelling opportunity to get schooled.

New Signature Membership Awards

It’s not easy for artists to become signature members of the National Watercolor Society. In fact, being chosen for inclusion in the 98th International Open Exhibition was just the first step. Of these, just 19 artists have been subsequently chosen to receive this honor. The rigour of this process reflects the fact that Signature Members are entitled to add the post-nominal letters NWS to their work.  It’s a powerful signal of artistic excellence and significantly increases the value of a painting.

More than $40,000 in purchase awards and cash and merchandise awards have been presented to support the work of many of the artists on exhibit.

As you will see, these are not your grandma’s watercolor paintings. I’m not saying  she lacked talent;  it’s likely the paint was holding her back. Since the 1990s, evolutions in water-based paint technology have resulted in brighter hues, thicker textures and more stability overall. As well as an array of powerful new water-soluble tools including pencils, crayons, charcoal and ink. Put them all together and you get the kind of eye-popping, media mixing, genre bending experimentation that is transforming watercolor painting into watermedia art.

The National Watercolor Society’s 98th International Open Exhibition offers visitors the very best of the diverse, creativity emerging from the explosive disruption of one of the oldest artforms on the planet.

The NWS Gallery, 915 S. Pacific Ave., San Pedro.

Details: (310) 831-1099;

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