Beginner Oil: A Guide to Entering Art Competitions

11 Sep 2008

0808beg1_600x486_2 Entering one’s work in art competitions can be intimidating, and many find it difficult to choose the best venue for sharing their art with an audience. However, there is more to be gained from entering competitions than prizes and awards.

by Naomi Ekperigin

As one develops as an artist, it is important to find a network of people who share a similar passion for art. It is also useful to show your artwork to others and receive criticism, feedback, and inspiration. Entering art competitions is a great way to achieve both of these goals, and many artists submit their work during various phases of their career. However, many beginning artists are fearful of having their work judged, and unsure of the best ways to go about it. “It’s best to enter competitions where even if one loses, there is still something to be gained,” says artist-instructor Ephraim Rubenstein, who teaches at the Art Students League of New York, in Manhattan. He suggests entering competitions that offer a critique or some form of feedback for entrants. In some instances, one can pay an additional fee to receive written feedback from a judge or juror. “The mystery of not knowing why your work was rejected can be frustrating and slightly damaging for artists,” Rubenstein says. “Thoughtful criticism from a judge can help you improve.”

31 Marbles and Mouse by Lisa Dinhofer, 1997, oil on panel, 18 x 22. Courtesy Denise Bibro Fine Art, New York, New York.

Dinhofer entered this piece in a contest sponsored by the National Academy Museum, in New York City, where it won the award for Best Animal Painting.

There are several internet sites that list local and national art competitions, providing artists with a quick and easy way to find venues that are most suitable for them. The Art List offers fine artists and photographers hundreds of lists of exhibition and competition information, and is continually updated. A free membership provides access to their database as well as a monthly newsletter with up-to-date listings. For a nominal fee, artists can access organizations’ contact information, and set reminders of entry dates.

Another useful site, Art Deadlines List contains information on competitions, jobs, and internships, as well as art scholarships and fellowships, for artists of all ages. A paid subscription guarantees artists that they will be the first to view announcements and have access to all information the site receives. If entering several competitions in one year is likely, subscribing to sites such as these ensure that artists never miss an opportunity to share their work and take home a prize.

Although winning a major art competition seems to be a lofty goal for a beginner, you can increase your chances by doing some research beforehand. Viewing the work of past contest winners can provide insight into an organization or art publication’s style or preference. “Think about it this way: you wouldn’t submit your best sculpture to a painting competition, would you?” says artist Lisa Dinhofer. “Read the prospectus carefully, and make sure you know what they are asking for. If there’s a particular juror listed, you might want to do research on him or her. If it’s a gallery owner, maybe look at their gallery’s website and see what type of work they sell to get a sense of the owner’s taste.”

Making sure your work is a good fit for the contest gives you a greater chance of being chosen for exhibition or awards, and helps you form connections with likeminded artists in your area. In addition, it can help you contact artists you admire. “I entered my first competition when I was 17 or 18,” Dinhofer recalls. “I entered because the juror was one of my favorite artists. Having him see my work was worth the investment.”


CaFE allows artists to view national and local calls for entry and enter multiple contests through one system.

The connection with fellow artists, dealers, critics, and other tastemakers in the art community is the major appeal for many artists who submit their work for exhibitions and juried shows—in many cases it’s more valuable than any other prize. “Getting your work seen is the most important thing for an artist,” says Dinhofer. “Any way you can do that, you should. Everything else—prizes or critiques—is extra.” She also recommends that beginning artists first enter their work in local and regional art shows, where there is a smaller pool of artists and they can learn the ins and outs of exhibitions and competitions. It can also be easier to form working relationships with fellow artists when you are part of a smaller community. Many artists have remained friends with those they’ve met through exhibitions and contests, and go on to split the costs of hiring models, renting studio space, and even traveling to other shows.

Entering subject- or theme-specific competitions is another great way to increase one’s chances of winning. In these contests one can assume the participating judges have a preference for the style of work submitted. If the contest later includes an exhibition, fair, or festival, this allows participating artists to meet with those who share their passion and interest.

Many beginning artists shy away from contest opportunities because the idea of competition seems contrary to their artistic nature. However, those who seek to pursue art professionally realize the importance of taking such risks. As Dinhofer notes, “Everything is a competition. Sending work to galleries, applying for grants—even sending in a job application is competitive, so submitting your work to shows is one part of a larger process in any profession.” Most art competitions charge some kind of fee to enter, sometimes less if those entering are members of a sponsoring organization. Many organizations require online submissions or the use of an online entry system. One such system is CaFE, which was specially designed for use with public-art projects, artist fellowships, and juried visual-arts competitions. Artists who use this site can apply online to multiple calls for entry through a central Web site, www.callforentry.org. Registration is free, and hundreds of organizations list their calls for entry on the site, making it an excellent resource for artists who may find the process of entering contests too laborious.

Along with the entry fee also comes the cost of framing a piece and later shipping it if it chosen for exhibition. These expenditures can add up over several competitions, but it is an investment in one’s career and improvement as an artist, which is far more valuable than out-of-pocket expenses. However, many artists feel that the risk of rejection outweighs the rewards—especially those who are just gaining confidence in their skills. “I tell my students the same thing: ‘There’s no point in rejecting yourself,’” says Dinhofer. Dinhofer has been painting professionally for years, and has a large collection of work to choose from when submitting to competitions. Although a beginner may not have this luxury, the artist offers useful advice for those who are starting out. “For a Biennial several years ago, I entered three paintings that were very different and showcased my range as an artist,” she said. “Regardless of how many paintings you have, you want to represent what you do best, and what has gotten the most positive feedback.” This feedback can come from friends, colleagues, or art teachers.

Self-portrait in Gold
by Lisa Dinhofer, 2005, oil on panel, 12 x 10. Collection the artist.

Dinhofer entered this piece in the 2008 Biennial Contemporary American Realism, sponsored by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, in Indiana.

When an artist doesn’t submit their work to a competition, they automatically eliminate their chances, deciding for the judges that their work is not adequate. This is unfortunate, because in most cases, even when an artist doesn’t win a show, this is not an indictment of their skill or talent. “When I judge artwork, I’m giving my personal opinion; I assume that’s why I’ve been asked to participate,” says Rubenstein. “When I’m looking at the top entries, which are all fine works of art, my final decision comes down to what speaks to me, what moves me—it’s a pitfall for all jurors.” Rubenstein counteracts this by taking his time when judging, and keeping in mind the various perspectives and backgrounds of artists. “I acknowledge that a piece of work is done in a style very different from my own, but I can also recognize when it excels in that style, and I give them credit for that.” However, not all jurors can be as conscientious as Rubenstein, and it’s very important for artists to remember that ultimately, the final decisions are a matter of personal taste.

Regardless of the outcome of entering a competition, artists who take the risk and share their work with a larger audience do themselves a great service. Whether the prize is art supplies, a monetary award, or membership into a sponsoring organization, artists who submit their work learn about current art trends, expose their work to major players in the art world, and, at the very least, thicken their skin to prepare for the difficulty of pursuing a career in the arts.


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