This post is by guest author, M. Stephen Doherty. This article has been edited and published with the author’s permission.
About the Author: M. Stephen Doherty earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Cornell University and served as editor-in-chief of American Artist magazine for 31 years. He has written a dozen books, hundreds of magazine articles, and he has judged art competitions for the National Watercolor Society, the Winter Park Art Festival, The National Oil & Acrylic Painters Society, the International Association of Pastel Societies, the Salmagundi Club, Arts for the Parks, and Plein Air Easton. He is now a consulting executive editor, a painter, and workshop teacher.
During more than 30 years of judging national, regional, and local art contests, I learned that the results often depend on completely arbitrary circumstances. What that means to you is that the artistic merit of your painting is only one of the factors influencing whether it is rejected from the exhibition or wins the top award. The more you understand these circumstances, the more likely it will be that you can achieve your goals.
The results of an art contest depend on the number of judges, the experience those individuals bring to the process, the categories of awards, the way entries are presented, the quality of your photography, the information provided to judges, and the time allocated for the review process.
For example, last year I judged a show in which many of the artists didn’t format their digital photographs so they could be viewed on the judging website and I wasn’t able to consider their artwork. And I was once given a notebook defining what work could be considered for each of the prizes and my choices had to take into account all those definitions. In both cases, a significant number of artists didn’t have a chance at winning prizes because they didn’t pay enough attention to entry procedures and prize categories outlined in the prospectus.
So what can you do to increase your chances of getting into a juried show and winning an award? Here are some suggestions I can offer based on my experience:
Enter Your Best Work
Judges will reject all three entries by an artist if one of the pieces is not as strong as the other two. If you only have two great paintings available to submit to a contest, then only enter those pieces.
Enter the Maximum Number
If you have several outstanding pieces to submit, it’s always better to show judges that your talent is solid and consistent by allowing them to review three great paintings instead of just one.
Enter Pieces that are Unusual, Not Safe
Collectors may buy artwork that is safe and typical, but judges prefer works that are exceptional. When you are trying to decide which pieces to enter, ask for advice from an experienced artist or teacher, not your mother.
Don’t Assume Judges Will Like Artwork That is Similar to Their Own
Judges are often more critical of artwork that is similar to their own. The standards they apply to their own work are much higher than those they use for judging other subjects or styles.
Enter Work That Can Be Quickly Understood
Judges only look at digital photographs or slide entries for a few seconds, and they are more apt to respond positively to images that are immediately understood rather than those that are so subtle and require careful study. Make sure the artwork you enter is well defined and that the contrast between the values is distinct.
Don’t Enter Pieces That Push the Limits of Good Taste, Humor, Scale, or Presentation
Very few judges want to offend exhibition organizers or the viewing public by selecting work those people might consider offensive, too big, poorly framed, or politically incorrect. If you want to challenge the norms, make sure the organization, venue, and judges will welcome those challenges.
Consider Entering Work that Fits Into Less Competitive Categories
You are more likely to receive recognition for your drawings, sculptures, or acrylic paintings than for your oils in competitions in which most of the entries are oil paintings.
Don’t Take Contest Results Too Seriously
A friend of mine keeps paintings on the fireplace mantel in his studio that he has entered in several contests. On the backs side of the frames, he records the results from each submission. One painting was rejected from three competitions and won prizes in four others (including “Best of Show”), and the other paintings have similar track records. “I keep the paintings on display so I remind myself that art contests are based on completely subjective reviews,” he explains. That story is worth keeping in mind the next time your work is rejected from an art contest or it wins the Best of Show award.