The Sunday Times newspaper article, about the young artist Carl Randall winning the 1998 Sunday Times Watercolour Competition.

New Faces, Fresh Fields.
FRANK WHITFORD on the winners of the 1998 Singer & Friedlander/Sunday Times Watercolour Competition

The character of every art competition depends on the quality of the work submitted. And this year it was higher than I can remember in the 11-year history of this unique competition. All seven judges, including two first-timers - the art historian Dr Brian Allen, who acted as chairman, and the distinguished watercolourist David Curtis - were equally impressed by the variety of the styles and subjects of the 1,200 paintings they scrutinised during two marathon sessions in July.

Some things don't change. Given the importance placed by the competition rules on "the finest traditions of British watercolour painting", the perennially high number of submissions in acrylic used to look like oils is inexplicable and regrettable. Gratifyingly, however, 50 minutes elapsed before the first view of Venice was brought in by the tireless picture handlers. Indeed, no subject, whether rusty tractors, fishing boats or houses with peeling walls, dominated this year, and there was far more evidence than usual of painters' willingness to look further than conventional and hackneyed subjects and styles. Not only were more abstracts submitted, but also more paintings that tackled imagery drawn not directly from nature (or photographs) but from the imagination.

Although the subjects favoured by most of the prize winners fall, perhaps regrettably, into familiar categories of landscape and portrait, the prizewinners themselves do not fall into any obvious category at all. The names of most of them will be unfamiliar even to those who have closely followed the competition from the beginning. Only two of them have won before, and four have never previously entered. More surprising still was the extraordinarily and, frankly, unexpected quality of the work submitted by young artists. Five years ago, the judges were unable to award any student prize and lamented the apparent lack of interest among young in the medium in which British artists have traditionally excelled. Now they have cause for celebration. A student, Carl Randall, has been awarded the first prize of £15,000. This is without precedent and doubly deserving of congratulations.

Carl Randall
First prize: £15,000
Studies for an Alleyway

Reproductions are always a poor substitute for the real thing, and this is doubly true here, since the illustration conveys little or no idea of the most important aspect of Randall's painting. It consists of two images intended to be seen as one. They were built up in relief from layers of board, each cut and arranged a bit like the flats in a stage set, before painting began. So the picture printed below doesn't give a clear sense of the truly subtle ways in which space and distance have been depicted. The relief technique could so easily have looked like a gimmick, entirely unnecessary and introduced merely to impress, but it really works and is obviously the result of serious thought about tackling traditional problems in fresh ways. Randall, the first student to win first prize, is 23 and about to enter his fourth and final year at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London. Before coming to the Slade he completed a foundation course in South Shields - he's a Geordie. "Nobody does watercolour there except me," he says, "although I by no means use it exclusively. In fact, most of my work is in oils, and on a much larger scale - up to 4ft high. This painting is nevertheless characteristic of all my work in every important regard, although I do have sketchbooks full of drawings of people. Buildings, architecture generally, provide me with most of my subjects, which I approach with a view to creating illusions of light and space. As you can see, I use board and sometimes metal elements so as to build up and away from the surface, before adding to the real depth the illusionistic perspective of painting. It's not so much that the tutors at the Slade specifically encourage the use of watercolour, more a case of them encouraging you to try whatever appeals to you. They'd probably be enthusiastic even if you started using jam on canvas. I've got to admit, though, that there's still a bit of a stigma attached to watercolours generally - old ladies, Sunday painters, and that kind of thing. But it doesn't worry me. I've always been interested in watercolour and have been following and admiring this competition for several years. The outright winner not so long ago was a panorama of nothing but houses. It was marvellous, and made me want to enter, although I didn't think I'd get anything accepted, let alone win a prize. I want to work full-time as an artist once I graduate, so the money will help a lot"

Carl Randall's work, together with that of the other artists selected - 157 paintings in all - can be seen at the Singer & Friedlander/Sunday Times exhibition, which starts its national tour at the Mall Galleries in London on Wednesday.