Wednesday, January 9, 2013

10 Things...about Competitions

Greg Manchess

Lots of art competitions coming up again. You can still enter Communication Arts for a small fee per late entry, and there's Spectrum 20...due by January 25th! Again, here's a few thoughts to keep in mind about this frustrating and rewarding endeavor...

1 You have to enter to get in.
It’s surprising how many artists complain about not getting into shows, but haven’t entered them. You read that right: many artists prefer to whine about not getting into shows without having sent any entries any of them. Don’t be that guy. The only way you’ll ever get accepted is to actually enter your work. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s a pain. We all want to get accepted and we build such fear about it. You’re not alone. EVERYONE feels this way. Get in line.

2 Advertising you can’t pay for.
When you do get accepted in a show, it’s the best kind of advertising for your work. It’s so good you couldn’t possibly pay the amount of money it would take to get that kind of response. Competitions instantly put a spotlight on your work. Getting a medal? Priceless advertising.

3 They are fair.
I’ve judged every major competition but one. I have watched and studied the individual processes and I can say without doubt that even though each method is different, all of them are interested in fairness and respect. The process allows judges to see what they need to see, and to think about their decisions. From there, it’s a matter of whether or not your individual piece grabs their attention and causes them to react in your favor. Remember: some people just won’t like what you do. Period.

4 Learn to weather them.
Again, as with other parts of the illustration business, you’ve got to build up a very thick skin. You’ve got to take it as a process of showing off your work and getting better. Loads of us don’t make it in. Professionals and amateurs alike. Let the disappointment be temporary. Take it in stride and continue with your work. It’s not about what’s in vogue. It’s about how you can compel judges to be excited about your work. Any style, any approach, can become popular if you are the expert at it. That expertise will turn heads.

5 Keep trying.
Giving up, giving in to the madness and frustration is easy. It’s exactly why so many don’t enter, and create less competition for those of us that continue to strive for it. There’s a reason why only 2% ever stay with this business. It’s because 98% GIVE UP.

6 Pay attention to what gets in.
But don’t write the experience off to nothing. Pay attention. When you don’t get your work accepted, take time to study why it wasn’t, then start to work smart and study what does make it in to a particular show. Make your very next piece show-worthy for your portfolio.

7 Work smart, show smart.
Now that you’ve researched what’s out there, what’s getting accepted, what’s interesting to judges, you can make a game plan. You can gain attention by following that crowd for a while. Then, as you build interest in your work, you’ll also watch your style, your approach shift and change and become more unique to you. This is how it works. Those are the pieces you now have to judge whether they are up to your new level of skill.

8 Edit your work.
As this happens, you must be able to pick the right pieces that show your particular thinking. YOU must judge first. It can be a slow process, but a richly rewarding one. Don’t be distracted by the artists that get instant attention. They’re in store for a different kind of wall down the road. At some point, we are ALL forced to persevere.

9 Stay positive.’s ok to whine and complain a little. Just do it with your close friends and make damn sure you cut your complaining off before you get to that point. You know the one. The point at which you start hating the process, the people, the business, and start seeing the world as out for your demise. It’s not true, and never has been.

10 It’s difficult.
Gaining attention for your work so that you can get the kind of jobs and so-called glory that you want, crave, hunger for has never, ever, EVER been easy. Those that say it is don’t understand life on Planet Earth. Some of my first pieces got accepted into the Society of Illustrators. Bang, bang, bang. Then....8 year dry spell. But I kept entering, kept paying, kept striving, changing, evolving, growing, and finally breaking through into what had become my way. That’s when people recognized my work.

This process has never been different, and never will.

ps....I didn’t get anything into the Society show this year. Talk about irritating. But one of the rejected pieces managed to get a gold medal at the Society of Illustrators of LA. Different judges, different day. Go figure. (This piece: )


  1. Hi Greg,

    Love the post, I do wish to know your thoughts on the economics side of these competitions. I wish I could enter all of them, but I find myself picking and choosing wich ones because of how much they cost, but I do enter.

    For somebody who is just starting out, it's incredibly tough to pay for the costs of promo material to send out on a constant basis and the entry fees to enter these competitions which can easily cost up to $200 a pop(and that's with a minimal amount of entries).

    I think it's a lot of money to ask out of people who are starting out and who on top of that are paying for rent, student loans, etc.

    I think the money that I feel like I am "throwing away" is more disheartening than being rejected by the judges.

    1. personally, I'm dirt poor and trying to "make it". I think of it as a business expense, a necessary evil, then I don't get so sad when I "throw it away". The fees just fall into the same category as tax, credit card fees, supplies; Something you have to pay if you want to keep doing what you do.

  2. So true, so true. When I was young and starting out, even though a good part of art school was to help you learn how to take criticism, it was hard to not take constantly not making it into competitions personally. But when you sit back and look at the final outcomes of these annuals and competitions, it's really the best of the best. You've got to bring it big time to get noticed, and being chosen is an honor, not a comment on your quality one way or the other. I agree with Cas, it's not a throw-away. It's a fee you can put under promotion and advertising expenses. While entering every single competition probably isn't realistic, enter those that make the most sense. As you continue to grow as an artist, eventually those fees will pay off.

  3. Hey Greg
    I think you touched on the most important aspect of competitions. YOu need to be in it to win it. But the last line was the key to this whole competition issue and the most frustrating. A piece not getting into SI on the east coast but then is good enough for a Medal on the wast coast?! You never know who your competition is and that the art they choose is all based on what the judges like. It's all subjective. There is no right or wrong way to make art, so just make art you love and promote the hell out of it.
    FYI I do enter these competitions but still grumble about them. I have gotten into all of them at one time or another and won a medal from SI LA but never recieved work from any of them. The best response I ever got was a letter from an inmate somewhere in PA after seeing my work in Spectrum. I'll keep that story for another time.
    Keep these 10 things list coming. they are PURE GOLD!!

  4. If you do enter competitions, the bigger and more exposed they are the better, I have put my art in a few local competitions and been burned, some small ones are nothing more than a group of close friends who form a "contest" that is realy just a way to self promote their own art. Enter contests to be sure, but research who is holding the "contest" first, just a heads up, if it is a group of retired folks who have self declaired themselves some kind of local "artists guild"? Save your time and money for real contests held by real institutions.

  5. As you know Greg, I used to work at the Society... I've seen pieces fail to get in the student show that wind up get ting accepted into the professional show. Speaks to your point about different jury, different day. I always keep that in mind when I'm not accepted into a show. It doesn't necessarily mean your work is not up to par... just that it didn't peek the interest of those particular people on that particular day.

  6. the problem with competitions is that you need to create something that the judges will like even if that means using a different style than your own. lets say you win and a publisher loves your work but then sees that your portfolio looks nothing like the winning piece. will the publisher think to himself, ' well, he can create winning art but was it a fluke?'.

  7. That's the spirit you guys: it's part of the business. It's such a process that if you can make it into a kind of step-by-step procedure, you'll be able to take the hits and continue striving.'s a bear, I know. I've been there. It's part of it. Everyone has been at the same place you are. Man, do I remember: During that decade of not getting anything into any show, I spent a ton of cash trying. At least $300 a pop for a bunch of entries.....and that was for each major show per year: CA, Society of NY, Print Regional Design, How Magazine, and Step by Step. Right there is $1500 a year--for years.....and nothing.

    If it was easy, we wouldn't be talking because so many would have come before us. Snapped it all up.

    Couple of helpful suggestions. Consider NOT sending out promos all over the place. FOCUS where they are sent. Don't send so many, and keep after the places you really want to get work from. After all this time in the biz, I realize that one doesn't need to conquer the entire field, to win over every art director, in order to have a career. You need about 5~6 steady clients at any one time to maintain an income. It is a false idea that sending mailers and getting 20% return of interest is a good thing. Sharp-shoot the business.....not shotgun.

    Also, when you enter a show, be very VERY critical of your work and only enter the best of your very best. Don't send a ton and try to beat the odds by showing up all over the judges' table. They will ignore you after about 4 to 5 pieces. You must capture their attention. You can do this with just a handful of pieces. I use 10 as a general amount, but that's if I'm spreading them amongst different categories.

    if the same judges see all the categories, then you have to par that number down.

    That should help. Don't give up. As you get down the road, and you will if you don't quit, you'll see what I mean.

  8. Allen...I imagine you've seen a LOT of how the judging goes!!

    Anonymous (and do you really have to be anonymous? Works against you already...), this is an interesting point. If you paint something that gets in a show and it's different from what you do normally, art directors will expect to see an entire portfolio of JUST THAT STYLE. if you don't have it, they can spot it immediately.

    Again: authenticity. Paint the way you feel right about painting. Getting clever in order to get into a show is not the best way to approach it. Unless you can paint 15 new pieces with the same quality almost overnight.

    You have to be real about this process. Paint what you love. As you get better, people will respond positively.

  9. Hello, Greg. I'm not an artist, just a would-be writer, but your advice here applies to all creative endeavors, not just painting and illustration. Thank you!

    So what's the name of the painting at top? It's very striking, especially the juxtaposition of the detailed eyes with the painterly, impressionistic quality of the rest of the image -- it really makes the eyes leap out at the viewer. And those distressed, Chuck Close eyes in a Monet world bring to mind a number of writing themes... but I've got a hopelessly didactic brain. :)

  10. Thanks again for a wonderful post, Greg.

    Is there a resource that lists most of the big shows going on each year? I know of a few, but would like to see what else is out there. Mostly I find them by stumbling across them in magazines and websites by fellow artists.

  11. Michael, There's a new paradigm for art competitions where the vote goes to the people. One is "You Be the Judge" by Brian Neher. Some are also free to enter.

    Most art magazines have regular competitions--I mentioned International Artist magazine's regular competition in a recent blog post on GurneyJourney. Don't forget: Spectrum, Society of Illustrators (NY and West), 3x3, Salmagundi, Allied Artists, etc...there are a lot of them out there, depending on a person's specialty. Also, the ASAI (Architectural Illustration) has a student competition, where you don't have to be a member. Many other art organizations have annual awards and/or publications and exhibitions.

    The blog "Making a Mark" has regular listings of competitions, especially those in the UK.

    Be sure to figure in the costs not only of the entry fee, but also the publication fee and the schlepping and framing of originals if your piece ends up in a show. Not all competitions are a good fit for every artist, and it's smart to use your time and funds strategically.

  12. What Jim said! Thanks, Jim!

    For illustration, I've mostly kept to the major shows. I should broaden out a bit. There are so many.

    I recently entered American Illustration and got an astronaut piece in that I shared here.

    It's also smart to enter the shows that appeal to your aesthetic. Sometimes I venture out a bit though.

    Soozcat, interesting point about "all creative endeavors!" I've been reading books about how to write for a number of years, including 'Writing Down The Bones' from ages ago and have found that if you read 'artist' where they use 'writer' it's practically the same approach.

    Writers take a long time to mature on the whole, and I think artists do, too. We're just so used to people pointing out young artists that get attention early. Or musicians. But some abilities take longer to train. An artist should mature as a long slow curve upward. Attention too soon is detrimental I think.

    But you can read all about that in another "10 Things..." I posted here last year. Whew, do people love the idea of talent! Yikes. They want the easy pill.

    Thanks for the comment. How did you find this?

    1. On Facebook, following the TLCWorkshops feed. Tara is a friend of mine. In fact, you may remember me as the person who tagged along with you at Steamcon II a few years ago.

  13. Your style is rly...wild so to say.And I LOVE it. Never rly seen anything quite like it so I dont know how and from where you evolved, but you have done it :)

  14. Thank you.
    It helps to see this

  15. Soozcat, forgot to mention that the top image was for a series of pharmaceutical ads. I hadn't painted that loosely before on a portrait, but they loved them. It took some time to convince them I could do it, and in the end it paid off.

    I also took the risk to send in a series of them for the CA competition. It's a brutal show. And they are not fond of choosing series unless they love each and every piece. One 'bad' one in the bunch and they kick the series out.

    Luckily, I edited them down to just the ones I thought they might like, and it worked. And the one ended up on the cover.

    Advertising I not only couldn't pay for, but couldn't beg to get either!

  16. Nice Post Greg. I always tell my students and art buddies that the only guarantee you get from competitions is that if you don't enter, you won't get in! I'm feeling good about getting a piece in Society when none of your great work did! But I have learned to roll with it too. That was the first piece in after a couple of really dry years on all fronts. It's always nice to get in again. If I had quit entering after my first dry spell many years ago, I would probably still be complaining.

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I enterd a contest held by a local "Artist Guild" only to find through research that this "Guild" had been awarding the prizes (they used entry fees to get the money for the prizes) to thier own members almost exclusevly for the past 10 years, up to $1,000 grand prize as well as lesser prizes. I did get into the show, but was the only artist featured that was not a member of their "guild". My point being, research, research, research! Cross referance past winners with those on staff of the group holding the contest at the very least, yes, enter many contests, but be aware that some are blatent fraud and keep your eyes open.

  18. The post and the list of shows I'm talking about are illustration shows, not gallery shows. They are a whole different problem, and also have far different criteria for judging. Fair or not. Yes, research those shows because many of their track records are not so balanced.

    You're right, all shows are not fair. This post is talking about the shows I've personally judged, participated in, and support.

    Muddy Colors is primarily a blog about illustration, but we all love and watch other forms of art.

  19. Great post Greg.
    Im hoping to have some decent photos of my recent work to enter Spectrum. Im having some trouble with the lack of colors showing up in the photo. I have a friend with some Professional lights, hopefully I can meet up soon to take some shots using Dan's earlier post. At least until I can afford my own Rigs.

  20. Another idea, Daniel, depending on what medium you use, is to paint smaller for a while. This way, you can scan your paintings on a larger flatbed, or even on a regular desktop scanner. Far less money than the lighting least for now.

    And don't forget using straight sunlight. Dan's article has suggestions for bouncing light, and the sun is always best for color balance.

  21. Great post Greg! Would you mind terribly if I shared this on my blog! Thanks so much!

    -Wilson W, Jr.

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