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The International Watercolour Masters, a 10-day festival featuring visiting artists from around the world, returns to Shropshire’s Lilleshall Hall in May. The event has been organised and hosted since 2018 by local watercolour master David Poxon, who here explains what visitors to this year’s show can expect to see...

David Poxon’s work in watercolour has taken him around the world.

Since 2018, he has also been gathering expert painters to Shropshire, his home county, on a regular basis for the International Watercolour Masters (IWM) event, which he hosts.

The idea for the Lilleshall Hall-located get-together was born in a Shanghai hotel bar, following David’s attendance at a prestigious art show.

“I was having a couple of drinks,” he explains, “and one of the big watercolour stars from Argentina - his name is Alvaro Castagnet - asked me what my plans were for the following year.” David was already planning to exhibit his own work at Weston Park, near Telford. “I told him all about it, and the venue, and he said ‘That sounds great - but with me in it, it would be fantastic!’ He’s not shy!”

Before he had left the bar, David’s initially modest exhibition had grown even further, as more watercolour masters showed an interest in joining him. “I left Shanghai thinking ‘What have I done? I’ve invited all these people to be in a show - so I’d better organise it!’”

Fortunately, in a previous incarnation, David worked in the music industry, a fact which meant he had the necessary skills to plan a large-scale event. The show was an incredible success, with nearly 17,000 visitors in a single month. “It was a prototype. It became obvious to me that I had a great format, but I needed a much bigger venue, and I needed to expand it.”

In his hunt for a more spacious location, David discovered Lilleshall Hall, again situated in the countryside around his home. “Lilleshall is the UK’s national sports & conference centre, so Britain’s elite athletes are always wandering around the place. I thought, now it can be the home of the world’s elite watercolour painters as well!

“When you walk in the hall, there’s this beautiful atmosphere, with ambient light, a nice bit of jazzy music, and everybody starts floating around. There’s nothing like it in the world - and it’s coming here!”
Watercolour became known as ‘the English style’ of painting thanks to the 17th and 18th-century artists who developed it - including Midlanders David Cox and Walter Langley.

“They used to go on what is now known as The Grand Tour. They would get a sleeping bag and a bag of equipment, and wander all over Europe - Italy, Switzerland - gathering information and subjects to bring back to their studios to paint. Just like when we go somewhere, we might take photographs, they would do quick sketches.”

Watercolour has since become one of the most popular painting disciplines in the world. “It’s the easiest to start, but the hardest to master. It’s like dealing with a wild animal - you never can quite tame it.”

The artists featured in the show have certainly mastered the craft, however. “The tonal depth, the definition, skill and detail, emotion, drama - there’s everything in these paintings.”

While painting might appear to be a solitary activity, IWM 2024 is very much a group effort. David compares it to playing in a football team: “No one in the team is more important than the team itself. That’s the kind of philosophy that I try to have with this show.”

The event has gained a reputation around the world for its organisation, venue, and top-class presentation, as well as the unique presence of the artists themselves. Multiple live demonstrations are scheduled each day, with attendees able to watch a master at work. “There’ll be a sit-down audience, and each side of the stage will have giant monitor screens which capture what the artists are doing. The audience will be able to follow every brush stroke - and they will be amazed. Last time, you could hear a pin drop. People were sitting there with their mouths open in complete awe at what they were seeing.”

There are also workshops with different artists: “So if anyone wants to spend some real quality time under a master’s tuition, they can book in on the IWM website.”

As well as the activities taking place on site, the event will find an audience much further afield - in a bid to reach fans of watercolour who can’t attend the event in person, the 10-day festival is being filmed. “This is the equivalent of Glastonbury - but for watercolour!”

There will be interviews with artists, a tour of the exhibition, and plenty more besides. “I’ve made a little series called Watercolour Basics - five-minute modules, without any jargon, aimed at people who want to get started painting.”

IWM tickets should be bought in advance - there’s a limited capacity, in the interest of audience comfort - and all of the 150-plus paintings are for sale.

In addition to IWM events, Lilleshall Hall’s cafe, restaurant and Italian Gardens will be open as well. “It’s not just for people who may be interested in painting - we want everybody to come along. This is something completely different, and the atmosphere is very therapeutic.”

Alongside paintings from global masters, IWM also hosts a watercolour competition, which this year brought in nearly 3,000 entries from people all around the world.

“People say ‘It’s not the winning that’s important, it’s the taking part,’ but actually, winning is nice! When you do win something, and you get the acceptance of your peers, it gives you a good boost, and it enthuses you to do more.”

Judging the competition was no mean feat. David collected 20 masters and four industry professionals to judge the entries remotely.

“The amazing thing was, when all the results were in, the same 10 people had got the most votes from all these judges. You could see the pattern. These are judges from China to North America, to Brazil, to Europe, and they were all voting independently.”

In addition, the top 200 entries will be given their moment in the spotlight, broadcast on a giant screen in the main exhibition arena.

David has been blown away by the skill exhibited by his fellow masters. “The artists in the show have taken it to a new dimension. The watercolour paintings at IWM 2024 are all museum quality.”

The International Watercolour Masters 2024 offers visitors the chance to enjoy fantastic artwork, insightful workshops and fascinating demonstrations in a beautiful setting. Whether you’re an established or aspiring artist, a fan of watercolour, or just somebody who wants to see true artistic skill in practice, this is definitely an event not to be missed.

International Watercolour Masters 2024 runs at Lilleshall Hall, Shropshire, TF10 9AT, from Wednesday 15 to Friday 24 May. The exhibition is open daily from 10am - 4pm and admission is by advanced ticket only. Prices cost £10 each and group discounts are available.

For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit: IWM2024.com

By Jessica Clixby

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