Competitive Art

Competitive Art
competitive art, art competitions,
Each week I write a new article for members of our three wonderful art groups on Facebook, The Artists Exchange, The Artists Directory, and The Artist Hangout. This week we take a look at art competitions and a few of the reasons you might not be picking up the prize.
In my younger days I entered a heap of art competitions and I realised when a new email popped into my inbox a few weeks ago inviting me to enter yet another one, that the last art competition I entered was more than twenty years ago. 
I’ve been tempted to do the odd one now and again but this latest one just wasn’t for me or my art. If there’s one thing I learned when I did do them it was that not every piece of art or artist has a fit with what the judges are after. 
I had managed to bag a handful of first places in the early days and a couple of runner up prizes and plenty where I didn’t get placed at all, but for the most part art competitions weren’t really something I wanted to continue doing. They need to have some time committed to entering them and it’s just not always possible. 
There are though a million compelling reasons to do them and artists certainly can get some great exposure out of entering the right ones. But for me I’m just less stressed by not entering them and I think I’m at that point in life where I’m less stressed by not having to judge them either!
Any art competition can be stressful for an artist. There’s a pressure that comes from putting out your work in public that I can’t quite describe. Putting your work out there even on social media, can make you feel vulnerable and exposed. Equally those are also two very good reasons to enter competitions too. Any artist who puts anything out in front of the public deserves some serious respect. 
What I have done over the years though is step over to the other side of art competitions and get a different perspective. Not too long ago I was asked to judge the UK heats of an international Adobe Photoshop competition. I’m not a natural judge, I knew what I had to do and I had to go around the room and close the lids on the laptops displaying the work that just wouldn’t make the grade to get the number of entrants down to a more manageable number. 
Then I had to select one work from each of the tables, make sure what was left behind matched the design brief, and not feel bad too about doing it and that was essentially my judge’s brief. Once that was done I would need to pick out the best one from each of the tables, and then dwindle the final number down to six by closing even more lids. It felt like I was shutting the lids on careers, so of course I felt bad.
I had with one movement of my hand literally shut down the hopes of some young artists of moving on to the next round. I felt really bad about it for weeks and all I wanted to do was explain to them why they hadn’t quite made the grade and give them some hope that next year they could come back and have another go. 
Those who got the lids closed hadn’t met the design brief despite some outstanding examples of work being on display. A missing bleed area or two files presented instead of one, just the tiniest things made a difference because the brief was rigid and it was for a real life client so it needed to be met. It was also necessary because if anything that didn’t meet the brief had been let through to the final round, those who had met the brief and played by the rules would have been disadvantaged. It was also necessary because the winner would go on to an international final where the competition would be even tougher, not meeting a design brief at that event would have certainly not helped the designer. These heats were happening around the world.
Judging art competitions is just as stressful for the judge as it is the artist or at least it was for me with this last competition. I’ve judged entries in other competitions before and never felt as bad as I did this time because these were young people who had given everything to getting where they had got. There’s a huge responsibility to get things right so there’s a need to take an almost cold business-like approach. If the rules aren’t adhered too and the winner goes through to another round, there’s a real risk that you are setting them up to fail.
I’ve seen both sides of these competitions and both sides have their own issues to fret and worry about. As an artist it can cost big money to enter some competitions, and as a judge you have to make sure that the work makes the grade. My experience of judging this recent  competition really made me think hard that I should probably stick with only entering them in the future. 

art competition rules
What you need to know…
We have to be frank here, some competitions are just worthless and not much more than vanity events. They carry no real currency in the art world but sorting out the good from the bad is usually a combination of reading objective reviews, word of mouth and doing a fair amount of research both online and offline to work out if the competition is legitimate, and if it will do anything positive for your career. 
Wherever possible you should talk to artists who have previously entered the competitions and find out what they thought about how the event was run and whether or not they got any benefit out of entering. It’s also worth doing comparisons around the costs too, is it worth paying a little extra if it’s a legitimate competition that will have greater currency in the art market if you win or take a runner up prize, or even simply just getting through in the first place?
Follow the rules of entry…
Often some really stringent rules are in place but it’s surprising how many people either give them only a cursory glance or never read them at all. If you are given a design brief for graphic design for example, there will usually be some very small things on the brief such as saving in a specific file format. In the real world outside of competitions and events it will be the little details such as this that will be hugely important to paying clients.
If the rules say that the competition is for acrylic works and you submit an oil painting then it’s very unlikely to get past the first hurdle of being selected. The upshot is that your work never gets through the door and you have probably lost out on the entry fee so there’s often a real financial incentive in making sure you’ve read the small print. 
It’s worth looking out for any specific details, will the art need to be presented in a frame, is the competition only open for specific mediums, and never try to stretch the boundaries by entering something that you know sits outside of the rules. It’s really all about common sense but to this day I’m surprised at how many entrants forget about the small details such as the rules! If in doubt, get some clarification.
There may be some entry requirements that need you to become a member of the organisations running the event before signing up, or that you have previously sold work, and these are the rules that will determine if you even get through the first set of doors. 
Make sure it is the right fit…
Making sure that the competition is the right fit for you, your art, and your career is vital. Competitions can build careers and provide you with a springboard into your chosen market, some competitions will go on to exhibit the winners in major events and shows and  these can then lead to you becoming noticed even internationally. Competitions can be great for your career even when you don’t quite grab first place.
Being strategic about the competitions you do enter can do wonders for your plans to break into certain markets. I’m a big believer in that it only needs one set of eyes, if they are the right eyes with some influence, to see a work and love it enough to surface it more widely in the greater art community. I’ve seen this happen a few times where that one influential person has discovered something they feel is truly exceptional and it has made the artist move right on up the list of movers and shakers and setting them up to go on the bigger and greater opportunities. 
It’s worth making competitions part of your overall strategy to progress your career. If there is a market that you really want to break into then check out all of the competitions that feed into that market and check out who’s likely to be involved or will attend those events. Even if you don’t make the grade in the competition then you still might get picked up by that one person who has the keys to the art world and the market you are chasing.
Is the competition the right fit for where you are in your career right now? That’s important because some competitions are seen as being lesser than others. If you are at point A in your career then entering a competition where the other entrants are at point Z will be a challenge. You absolutely need to push yourself to the limit with your art, but you might want to hold off on some of the bigger events until you have a few under your belt. Equally if you are a veteran artist with a string of accolades then entering a lesser competition can have a bearing on the way people view you and your work outside of the competition. 
Ensuring that you are entering your best work in the category, medium, and genre specified comes back to reading the rules. Entering that beautiful watercolour landscape painting into a competition for oil painted dogs will be a waste of time, money and everyone’s effort. 
Maybe you want to submit a range of your work across genres and styles if the competition allows multiple entries and multiple subjects and mediums, but always focus on the entering the work that you feel best has a fit with the competition and figure out objectively which pieces work. 
It is important to remember that whilst entering multiple works might give the judges more of a flavour of what you do and who you are, there’s also a downside in that entering multiples could give the judges sight of something that they don’t like and mixing and matching submissions might give them a sense of inconsistency. Plan it all out, ask others what they think and reevaluate if you need too. 

art framing, framing art for competitions
The devil is in the detail…
While the detail is often in the rules you need to keep an eye open for the other minor details that can often get forgotten about when you are wrapped up in preparing your work for display. Mislabelling or labelling your work in the wrong format can mean that the artwork could miss out on being entered or even worse, it could get lost.
Some competitions require that works are labelled with exact information which for physical events might mean that it is simpler to get the work into the right exhibition space, or in the event of digital and online submissions, the naming convention for the file might need to be very specific or contain the entry number. There’s no point at all in submitting the file called final_draft_version_33 or final_final_final_finished_99 because our hard drives are full of those already and you can dare bet that the judges hard drives are too.
Size matters…
I learned this when I entered an 8x10 water colour into a competition many years ago where the maximum size allowed was 8x8. I had sent the work over and only realised after sending that it was the wrong size for the category I entered it in. Thankfully the organisers helped me out and submitted it into a different category but that doesn’t always happen. 
Digital works might also be subject to size restrictions, and that one hundred layer Photoshop masterpiece that stretches to over 2Gigabytes might not even arrive if your email system only allows attachments up to 25mb. I’ve been in this position with just an hour to go before the deadline!
There might also be requirements around the resolution and DPI settings for digital and scanned works, the judges will then have similar sized works to make comparisons with and it does make life a lot easier for them to have consistent sizing, especially if the works are shown on a screen. 
So does quality…
Talking of scanning images, sometimes the original might not be available and the work has to be presented as a photo or print. Badly cropped scans and especially if they include unwanted elements such as visible mats and frames will detract from the work and the judges will be less inclined to choose the piece. 
When it comes to presenting your art there may also be some rules around frames. The best painting in the competition might be completely ruined by the wrong frame choice, or sometimes the frame doesn’t meet the requirements. I noticed a few weeks ago that one competition was asking for all work to be placed in plain black frames with exact measurements, presumably so that the judges don’t get too distracted or so that the organisers can fit it into limited space, so having an elaborate frame wouldn’t be the best idea in situation such as this.  
How you present your work also reflects on you. Professionally presented work that follows the guidelines or rules will give judges a sense of how much you care about presentation and good presentation can often swing a judge in the right way. Sometimes just seeing the care taken in presentation can make a huge difference in the judges eyes. 
Document everything…
We know from my previous articles that documenting your work is essential but when entering competitions it becomes even more important. You might want evidence of submission to help prove provenance of the work at some point so it’s really helpful as much as anything else. You will want to keep a record of exactly where and when work has appeared in a competition because that information can go a long way in helping to prove where the work has been shown in the future. 
There’s often other documentation that is needed for competitions too and some of this documentation is easy to forget such as adding the dimensions to the statement or forgetting to add details about the medium you used. 
Some competitions will want an artist’s statement to be included, and the artist’s statement should be just that, not a CV of your life. A general introduction, some of the basic ideas, and then go into a little detail about how the ideas are presented in the work. What’s important here is that you don’t over inflate the statement and tell judges that they should take one thing or another away from viewing the work. They’ll make their own minds up about what the painting means, they just need to have an idea of your vision and maybe a little about how the art fits in with the event or a little about the technique. It’s worth clarifying this if you are unsure of anything.
My usual advice is to not make these statements overly complicated, too wordy, or fill them with jargon or anecdotes. Judges just don’t have the time to read war and peace, and be mindful that they may have only a few minutes to decide to carry on looking or reading. 
It’s best to stick to the prescribed guides. Some rules will suggest a full page statement, others might ask for something a bit longer, and others might just want a paragraph together with an abridged version of your artist bio. Rarely though you might find that writing war and peace is needed. 
Added value…
If you think you can swing a judge by adding some value that wasn’t asked for within the rules then think it through and determine if that added value still complies with the rules. Sending in supporting information that isn’t required will more often than not, do nothing for your entry. What it will do is increase the burden on the judges or the panel who might or very likely might not wade through it. If they don’t ask for it, don’t submit it. 
The wrong art…
Sometimes we get it completely wrong and misread what the purpose of the competition is. We’re human and we all interpret things in our own way. You might submit your most eye catching work which is chock full of colour but the event organisers might not select it because it will stand out a bit too much compared to the other art on display, drowning the other work out and not giving the displays a flow. 
Or you might submit a work that’s just a redo of a theme that’s been seen a million times before, or the work is best displayed in a different context altogether. It could be that the frame you chose to show off your work is way too simple or way too ornate and detracts from the quality of the work. If possible stick with neutral tones that complement your work, but make sure that there’s nothing in the rules that say you can’t just use any specific frame. In most instances you might not need a frame at all. 

art inspiration
Don’t expect too much at the end…
Don’t always expect feedback. When I judged my last competition I had about fifteen minutes post-event to get to a meeting and as judges we had only half an hour to decide on the winner from the final two works. There were some rigid timescales involved so that the awards could be handed out on the day, so it’s not always possible to get feedback on your entry.
Some judges will never give feedback unless they are asked for it, and I know some who just won’t enter into discussion at all. It’s not that they are aloof, it might be more to do with not wanting to give you really negative feedback, or not wanting to give you massively positive feedback because they don’t or can’t be seen to endorse you. There are valid reasons for judges to do this, my preference though is that if an entrant asks for feedback I need to set out any justification for making whatever decision I made but sometimes it’s just not a luxury that judges have. 
Good luck…
Competitions can be a great way to advance your career and get your art noticed, they can also be brutal when your work gets rejected. That’s the gig we all signed up for as artists whether we wanted to or not. Competitions really expose an artist’s vulnerability so preparing for any competition should be a big deal and it should be carefully considered and well thought through.  
Which competition is right for you really depends on you, your art, and how comfortable you feel in entering, and often it will come down to the cost of entering in the first place. It becomes a tad more difficult when you start to also consider that there are plenty of competitions set up with the sole intention of making money for the organiser and which are nothing more than vanity competitions or serve no real value to an artist’s career. 
Social media has made art competitions more accessible and the scammers know this. They will play on artists desperate for recognition and take their money in return for a cheaply produced and meaningless certificate or a cheap trophy. They will promise that big names will judge or will attend but those names never turn up. So it is imperative that any art competition is checked out first. You have to do your due diligence and assure yourself that it’s not a scam, that it has value, and that it is what you want to do.
Make sure you follow the rules of entry because you could submit the best artwork and still not get entered at all, even the minutest of details are important, and, make sure you read the small print. This is where you might find out that you are giving away a percentage of future sales to the organisation for any clients that come your way as a result of entry. I’ve seen this a couple of times when artists suddenly get some commissioned work and then realise they need to pay an additional fee to the organisation who introduced that client. For some artists this will be worth it, for other artists it might not be something they want at all.
If you approach competitions through selecting the right ones that do have a fit with you and your work they really can make a huge difference to your visibility. Make sure though that the number you enter is manageable, be selective and pick out the very best ones and focus on those. The cost per entry could be three times the price of another competition, but if that one expensive competition brings you better results, not only do have to stress less, you will get much better value for your money and your time. 
If you get rejected don’t feel bad. There’s no conspiracy against you or your art in legitimate competitions, sometimes the rejection is because of a small yet important detail that has been overlooked. If you lose, well you lose, move on, you ain’t alone. No one likes having their work rejected, no one enters with the sole intention of loosing, but it happens. 
There will be another competition around the corner and if you take your time planning for it you might just end up picking up that prize.
About Mark…
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