Alison Watt established herself early on, winning the John Player Portrait Award—the prestigious National Portrait Gallery's annual award for contemporary portrait painting, now known as the BP Portrait Award—in 1987 while she was a student at The Glasgow School of Art. As a result of the award, Watt was commissioned to paint the Queen Mother, now in the Gallery's collection. In 2000, she became one of the youngest artists to hold a solo exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and three years later she was shortlisted for the Jerwood Painting Prize. Since then, Watt's ever-evolving practice has expanded from portraiture to consider the physicality of materials in paintings of fabric and still life.
Coinciding with Watt winning the John Player Portrait Award, the British art world witnessed the emergence of a group of young figurative painters—dubbed the New Glasgow Boys after the late-19th-century Impressionist Scottish painters lauded at the time for their radical artworks—who also attended The Glasgow School of Art in the 1980s. Compared to the boldly painted work of her contemporaries—among them Peter Howson, Steven Campbell, and Ken Currie—Watt's paintings from this period are more muted in colour. Alison Watt, born 1965. Artist (1986–1987), for example, is a close-up of the artist's face looking directly at the viewer with one hand covering her forehead as if taking her temperature, rendered in subdued tones of grey and peach. In another painting, titled Planters (1986), two figures—one of them Watt, leaning towards the right with her hand over her mouth—sit in shades of brown with subtle touches of blue and green.
In the late 1990s, Watt began to move away from the figure to explore the materiality of fabric in her paintings. Her solo exhibition Fold at Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, in 1997, presented a series of female figures alongside paintings of fabric, while Shift—her solo show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art three years later—only exhibited works depicting cloth. In paintings of this period such as Sabine (2000), which shows a cream-coloured cloth bunched up in one corner, great attention is given to capture the folds and dark orifices created by fabric. The shift in Watt's subject matter was inspired in part by the French painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' portraits of women, such as Madame Moitessier (1856), in which a seated figure wears an elaborate flower-pattern dress with ribbons. Such images' treatment of textiles influenced Watt to interrogate the way the forms of fabric gather and suggest an animate presence beyond the cloth you see.
Other historical painters are additional sources of inspiration for Watt. In 2006, she became the youngest Associate Artist at London's National Gallery; the residency culminated in the solo presentation Phantom (2008), which showcased six large-scale paintings inspired by the Gallery's permanent collection. Watt was particularly taken by the painting Saint Francis in Meditation (1635–1639) by the Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán, in which a hooded figure kneels in the dark, most of his face submerged in the shadows. In Watt's canvases—dominantly white but with ranges of grey, red, and yellow as well—the artist examines the physicality of fabric, in a large knot in Pulse and the almost-abstract forms of fabric that seem to emanate from an unknown centre in Host (both 2006–2007).
Watt further extended her practice into the traditions of still life for A Shadow On The Blind, a solo exhibition first presented at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Cumbria, between October 2018 and February 2019, and later at London's Parafin. Taking the Scottish painter Thomas Warrender's Still Life (1708)—an oil painting of a letter rack—as a point of departure, Watt similarly painted stationery in her own work. In contrast to Warrender's letter rack, however, Watt's objects appear in isolation, against a neutral background, as if each painting is a portrait of its respective subject. Paintings of paper such as Colyer (2016–2017) and Quarto (2017) portray blank pieces of paper that have been folded and unfolded, while the envelopes in Letter and Easter (both 2018) have been opened and show signs of wear. The exhibition also included a number of paintings featuring coils of tubing—among them Helical (2017) and Volute (2017)—inspired by the Scottish-Canadian artist Margaret Watkin's photographs of domestic objects such as a section of rubber shower hose.
Watt has been recognised as one of Scotland's leading contemporary artists. She was awarded an OBE in 2008, and in 2014 she was included in GENERATION—a national programme celebrating the previous 25 years of contemporary art in Scotland. As part of the programme Perth Museum & Art Gallery held a retrospective exhibition of her work.
For as long as she can remember, Scottish artist Alison Watt has had two enduring obsessions: paint and drapery. She was introduced to the former as a young girl by her father, also a painter, and hasn't looked back since. "I feel very passionately about paint as a medium because I think it's unique," she tells AnOther.
One of a series of five fifteen minute essays written and delivered by five artists either born or based in Scotland. This series of THE ESSAY demonstrates how we are continually challenged and delighted by artists working today giving an insight into what lies at the heart of contemporary artistic practice, revealing some of the elements that...