How Judges Vote

When I judge art exhibitions with other people, I’m amazed how quickly all of us work and how seriously we take our responsibility. Most of the initial reviews take place at such a rapid pace that entries are only viewed in 10 to 30 seconds. That pace becomes slower and more considered during the final rounds of evaluation, but decisions are still made more quickly than the entrants would prefer.

If the judges are experienced at evaluating artwork for a gallery, museum, art center, or magazine, they probably have firm ideas about what they like and dislike and their quick decisions are reasonable. If they aren’t so knowledgeable, they tend to get pushed around by someone like me who wants to see more of his choices in the final exhibition.

My 30 years of experience in judging shows leads me to make the following recommendations to artists who want to have more of their pieces accepted for juried exhibitions:

Judges look for the exceptional, while collectors look for the predictable
Because judges work quickly, they respond favorably to artwork that presents an unexpected subject, a fresh interpretation, or an exceptional execution. Collectors, on the other hand, play it safe and buy paintings that reflect an artist’s established style or best-known subject. My recommendation is to not to enter the paintings that would sell like hotcakes. Instead, pick the ones your teacher or your artist-friends think is your best.

The faster an image is understood, the more likely it will be accepted
Paintings with strong colors, simple patterns, and distinct value contrasts are more likely to be picked than those with subtle color relationships, complicated patterns, or close values.

Paintings that look important are more likely to win top prizes
Judges tend to think about the visual impact of their award selections, so they pick works that are large, professionally mounted, and that attract viewers’ attention. When was the last time you saw an 8”-x-10” sketch win a gold medal?

Enter the Maximum Number of Images
If you have a choice of entering one, two, or three images in a contest, always send three. Judges are more confident about selecting an artist’s work when they know he or she paints consistently well.

Consistency and Quality Matter
When judges review two or more entries by the same artist, they respond more positively to artists who present a consistent body of work rather than those trying to prove they can paint a variety of subjects and styles.

Remember, it really is a subjective process
The Florida Watercolor Society recently mounted a separate exhibition of work that was rejected from the organization’s annual exhibition. It included masterful paintings by some internationally known artists who are members of the society. Seeing the show reminded me that the judging process depends entirely on the taste of a few people. What one judge considers worthy of a best-of-show award might be rejected by another expert.

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

5 thoughts on “How Judges Vote

  1. Hi Steve,
    I too have served as a juror for countless competitions throughout a period of 30 years. Everything you have mentioned in your blog is absolutely correct and falls dierectly in line with what I have seen take place during the jury of selection. A seasoned juror can determine in an instant whether a piece is accepted or declined. Jurors with less experience seem to take much more time and that is when I take the lead as you do to make the choice. The decision making process is practially immediate and takes place in less than a minute. The selection process of giving awards does differ in that much more time is taken when deciding how the awards are distributed. It is a great honor to be asked to participate in the jury of selection as well as giving out the awards and it is a matter that takes a great deal of consideration. A juror must act responsibly and needs to be serious in making a determination for selection an exhibition.

  2. A couple of things that concern me about jurors relates to ‘training’.

    While I agree with the points you’re making I do think people new to jury duty could perform more effectively if they were given a chance to experience the process before finding themselves undertaking the duty.

    The second point concerns a matter which i won’t comment on directly for legal reasons. But I just wonder what training jurors get in what is possible using digital technology and how to recognise when an artist is attempting to pull the wool over a juror’s eyes. Such as submitting artwork created over the top of a giclee print or maybe even submitting a giclee print.