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September 2013



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Art show judging and the eye of the beholder

I was recently asked for permission to reprint this article, originally in Watercolor Magic (now Watercolor Artist) in 2005, by one of the watercolor societies--it is something we all wonder, and I got quite a lot of response when this first appeared.  I thought maybe you'd enjoy it here!


What Do Art Show Judges Look For?

    That’s not an easy question, is it?   As we get ready to enter a show–or go to see one–we often wonder what exactly are the criteria.  What does it take to get in?  Why was a particular painting chosen for 1st Place?  Why not that one over there?  (And why not OURS...?) 

    And the answer, of course, is that art show judges are as individual as the rest of us, and different things strike home or catch his or her eye.  Like most artists, jurors respond to what moves them–why it moves them is as individual as a fingerprint, within certain generalities.

    I’ve judged a fair number of shows myself, so here’s my own experience, for what it’s worth!  I’ve also asked Tony Couch, an artist and writer with lots of experience in judging, so I hope this will give you a clearer picture of what’s involved.

    Sometimes a show may have more than one judge, or even a committee.  They may have different functions, depending on the stage in the process.  The first line judge (or judges) decides what will get into the show–these are the people who look at the slides submitted and decide what fits the show’s criteria.  They also look for good work, but this is not where  prize winners are chosen–slides or other reproductions are too deceiving, and sometimes a painting will even be worked on between sending the slide and hanging the work (definitely to be discouraged, by the way.) 

    It’s hard work, picking art for a juried show–all the judges I know take it very seriously.  They try to be fair, and keep the overall criteria in mind in addition to the quality of work at hand–by that, I mean things like the medium, scope, or theme of the show.  If it’s a watermedia show,  naturally sculpture  is right out, no matter HOW marvelous it is, but sometimes the line’s a lot fuzzier than that.  (Is water-soluble oil watermedia now??) If the theme is flowers or portraits, it won’t work to enter a photorealistic rendition of a shiny automobile–unless there’s a woman holding flowers reflected in the fender!

    Not all shows are juried as to entrants, of course.  Many outdoor shows or fairs offer prizes without jurying individual pieces.  For that, the rest of the process, following, is the same...

    Usually there is only one juror for the next stage–or for open shows with prizes.  The selected paintings have arrived and are arranged for viewing and jurying–they may be hung as they’ll be in the show, they may not. 

    Once a judge sees the whole show, well lit and ready for her decision on who wins what–it’s a daunting prospect!  It can take quite a while to narrow the field and choose the winners.  The last show I judged was in Merriam, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City.  Merriam has a fine community center, very inviting, and the work entered was stunning.  Beautiful.  Gorgeous.  Choosing the winners took everything I had!  There are a great many very good artists in the Kansas City area, and they all seemed to be in that one show.  There were names I had known for years, and names I did not, but the quality of the art was consistently high.  I was in awe, and very humbled by the task before me.

    Generally speaking, a judge looks for good work–that almost goes without saying, but when picking prizes, that’s one of the most important criteria and a judge’s reputation and self-respect depend on her doing so.  Good design, good execution, good technique, good use of color...these things really catch the eye. 

    That’s not to say that the work should be formulaic, anything but!  Your composition doesn’t have to fit within the guidelines of the Golden Third, for instance.  But if you depart from the classical norm, make sure you’re completely comfortable with it, and do it with style and confidence–breaking the “rules” with panache and style can be a real eye-catcher in and of itself.

    Watercolorist and author Tony Couch says that quality of design is what he looks for first. “To put everyone on equal footing when I judge, I concentrate on the design first.  After I round up the better designs, I check these for paintings that also tell a story, or create a mood. Finally I'll look for the better technique among the story or mood paintings, if there are any. Otherwise, the better technique among the better designs.”

    Tony speaks to my most important criteria there, though I might put it differently.  I want to see a painting that has heart, feeling.  It may tell a story or create a mood, but I need to know that the artist cared about his or her subject.  If there’s an obvious emotional involvement, it creates emotional involvement in the viewer, too. 

    I don’t mean overtly sentimental work, or something that hits you over the head with a political message (though that can be effective in some cases.)  I mean something that shows the artist cared, and cared deeply.  Paintings done by rote or as an exercise seldom have that emotional impact that catches the eye, the attention–and the heart.

    Freshness and originality–both elusive elements–grow out of caring about your subject, medium, or whatever.  Generally, you don’t set OUT to be original, it develops naturally–and it shows.  I don’t mean you should paint something outrageous, of course, just to be eye-catching.  But enter something that really says YOU. 

    Naturally, you don’t want to try to second-guess the judge–that’s generally pretty transparent, and might even have the opposite effect.  I’ve known people who have entered paintings they thought were what that particular judge liked, based on his or her own art, but that’s generally a mistake–unless the judge has a HUGE ego, and most don’t!  It may appear manipulative–never a good plan.  I’d feel more likely not to pick something that looked like it was trying to be similar to my work–if I had a recognizable style, anyway. 

    I enjoy and appreciate work that’s very different from what I’d paint, myself.  When I’m judging, an industrial landscape or a gorgeous abstract are as likely to win, if they’re wonderful, as a portrait or landscape that’s more my own genre.  This goes back to not trying to second-guess the judge, of course.  Enter your best, enter what speaks to you, and you have the best chance of catching the judge’s eye as well.

        Some artists imagine that the Big Names win all the prizes, but as a judge I can tell you that’s usually not so–not based on the names alone, anyway. Often art is judged “blind,” without even knowing who the artist is.  In some shows, the signature is covered, so the work truly stands on its own, not on the reputation of the painter.  I like that...

    And of course you would never enter work that copies another’s, no matter how well it turned out.  Learning by copying is a longstanding tradition, but it’s meant for your edification only. (I know of someone who entered a copy, got picked by a judge who was not aware of the situation, and then had the prize stripped when the truth was discovered.  Talk about humiliating!)       

    I hope these insights into what a judge looks for are helpful–most important, to me, is that you remember that you are the artist.  You benefit from what you paint, what you care about.  You grow.  Your work shows it.  Whether or not a specific judge sees that is immaterial, but perseverance DOES pay off, in the heart and soul of your art.

A Quick Checklist for Entering a Show

1. Read the prospectus thoroughly.  That may sound elementary, but it’s easy to overlook small (or large!) requirements.  Make sure your work fits the theme.  (If something’s not clear, contact the show organizers.)

2.  Make it easy on the judge–follow the guidelines for submissions, to the letter.  Put all the information requested on your slide and on the entry form.  When faced with hundreds of entries, there’s no time to guess–good work may be eliminated out of hand. (If you're asked for digital images, the same applies--read the prospectus and answer all the questions...)

3.  Be sure to send in your entry well before the deadline, if you can.  Last minute entries can get lost in the mail, even if you’ve sent it under the wire.

4.  Enter something you’re excited about!  Send something you love.  If you can’t bear to part with it permanently, mark it NFS (not for sale), but enter what you consider to be your best.

5.  Be philosophical–this is the most important item on the checklist.  It’s not necessarily a reflection on you OR your talent if you don’t get in a specific show or don’t win a top prize when you do.  It’s sometimes luck of the draw, and it does depend largely on what the specific judge is looking for.  Kick back, sulk if you need to (but for 24 hours only!) then get right back up on the horse!



you just never know....

I just had the privilege of putting 700 watercolor entries into a presentation for the jurors of the show. All I can say is, enter something! You just never know what pieces of art will get picked. Don't assume that your painting is not good enough. With multiple jurors, this is especially true. Their tastes may be totally different, which definitely adds diversity to a show.

Re: you just never know....

Excellent points, thank you for the input.