Art vs. Art: The Decision to Compete

I’m not an aggressive competitor by nature. I don’t spend long hours playing mind-numbing video games or watching every sporting event that happens to be on TV though I do like to watch a great matchup. There is nothing inherently wrong with the competitive spirit but I have known people who live to compete regardless of the game. How and why you compete speaks directly to your character and determination. I like to think I compete against myself. It has been said in the art world that you are only as good as your last painting. I can’t verify or deny that statement but it might be a good place to start.

Before you say it, yes, there is a place in this world for those who like to compete otherwise progress would not have been made in just about any field you can name. Careers are made—and lost—through competitive efforts. Where would we be if the epic battle between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had not been fought? Not literally, of course, but fought with inventive products masterfully designed, manufactured and promoted. The art world is not immune to this type of competitive nature and has thrived on it as well.

In my opinion, there are many levels of competition in the art world. Let’s consider the scads of art competitions which are generated by the popular fine art publications and prestigious online arts organizations that can augment a career. Let me be clear: I have participated, and will continue to participate, in select competitive opportunities provided by these venues. In some cases, I have been successful and in others, not so much. Such is the nature of competition. An artist should evaluate each opportunity for its merits and potential career benefits before hitting the submit button.

Competitions from these venues have one distinct advantage over a lot of other exhibition venues. They are exclusively in print or online. We don’t have to frame or pay shipping on any entry to these competitions. Woohoo! You don’t even have to be in physical possession of the artwork! As long as the entry is current work (generally within the last 2 years) you may pay the entry fee and enter it. It is a win-win situation if you happen to be selected. Your out-of-pocket expenses are low but the potential for reward is great!

There are several important factors to consider before entering: One of the most important is to know if you are ready to enter competitions. Is your skill level high enough to compete? Do you understand your personal and career objectives for entering? Are you in a good financial position to compete? In other words, can you afford the entry fees and the expense of scanning or photographing your art in a professional manner? These are professional competitions and your work should be presented professionally. Making art is very personal. Know yourself well enough to realize if you are willing to take the hit—emotionally—if you are not selected.

Judging is a critique process. A judge, using his/her personal aesthetics, will make judgments on your artwork among other specific show criterion. You can help yourself get out in front of that process by knowing how to critique your own work. It is a learned skill and takes time, practice and confidence. There will not always be someone else available to give you an objective opinion or in-depth critique. You must develop these skills on your own. It takes a thick skin to enter any competitive endeavor and you must be ready for the downside. Have confidence in your abilities and be willing to take “whatever comes down the pike” in terms of results. Remember, those results are usually only opinions of a few and should not be too discouraging. I know, it feels like a slap in the face sometimes but, reframe it, it is a growing and learning experience. Grow and learn. Then move on. I have many artist friends who have entered beautiful paintings only to be rejected by one show but enter the same piece in another show and win an award. I’m just sayin.’

So what if you do get in and maybe even win an award? What next? How do you use that great new resume entry to promote and boost your career? I have been fortunate enough to win awards over the last several years for my drawings and paintings. I don’t say that to boast but rather to illustrate my frustration with trying to figure out how to use those career positives to generate more sales and move my career to the next level. It is a daunting task to coordinate all of the moving targets (mostly social media) and have them align and play well together for a positive result. As I mentioned in a previous blog, I sometimes struggle with self-promotion. (You would think with 40 plus years in the advertising and design business I would have a handle on it.) The point? Figure out how to get the maximum return out of your inclusion in any show—competitive or otherwise. Develop a promotional strategy you are comfortable with and can manage well. And, as in my case, promote with confidence and humility.

Entering competitions is always a good thing. It means you are trying to grow and improve your art. Choose carefully. All competitions are not created equal. All awards are not created equal and, especially, all judges are not created equal. Paint what you love and not what you think the judge will love. Big mistake. That is the best way to be excluded!

I have posed many questions—which I have asked myself—that hopefully will help you think through the process of entering competitions. The answers are up to you and your research and how much you want to bring to the table to boost your career.

And like I say, I’m just tryin’ to make small talk.


Here is a website that lists many competitions in various disciplines:

There are many organizations that sponsor annual competitions. Here are a few:

American Watercolor Society

National Watercolor Society

Art Renewal Center

The National Society of Painters in Casein and Acrylic

3 Responses

  1. I love to compete, Nick. I was a long time athlete, so I’m sure it’s in my blood, but I find it fun to be accepted into a really good competition and take a chance at some prize money and another “notch” on the resume`. I don’t compete often, because I’m particular about what I enter, and because I abhor the frequent ruling imposed that work be less than two years old. It dictactes that an artist be prolific to have value, and that a piece with age is unworthy. So, the Mona Lisa’s to old to have value??!! NOT.

    Competing or not is a personal thing. I know artists who sell fairly well in a number of galleries and are terrified of sticking their necks out by putting work on the line in front of a juror. If they don’t win something, is their work less valuable? They don’t want their client base to have that rejection information. And, if just selling is enough for the soul, some feel spending on the chance of a competition is not worth their dime.

    Some arts orgainizations won’t even consider an artist who doesn’t compete. Some teaching positions are looking for that, too. Some… which means to me, that we should all find balance in all the possibilites and opportunities and set a course that make sense, and hopefully feels good too.

  2. Thanks for your insights, Nancy. I, too, like the thrill of competing and hoping there is prize money involved. I feel validated under those circumstances. My point was to compete for the sake of competing without a career goal in mind. My philosophy for competitions has always been that the juror is only one voice with one opinion. The worst he/she can say is “no” and then you move on.

  3. Great Art Talk, Nick. You mention interesting facets of the subject of entering competitions. I especially agree with your point that it is one person’s opinion so keep it in perspective. You added a side to the discussion that I hadn’t considered; why we enter competitions and how we should think about the results we are handed. Thank you for opening the discussion. It is food for thought.

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