Observations of a Three-Time SPECTRUM Judge

-By Michael Whelan


Taking off from the tarmac at MCI, I leaned back in the seat and closed my tired eyes with a sigh. They had been through quite a workout in the previous 24 hours, examining literally thousands of images submitted by artists the world over, each one hoping to snag a spot in the next SPECTRUM annual. Behind my eyelids, however, my thoughts were awhirl with the fabulous images I had taken in the previous day. There was enough sense of wonder and masterful technique on display in that room to impress anybody, however tired they may be.

All the more reason, then, that I harbor a sense of regret for the occasional works on display which made it hard– if not impossible– for judges to fully appreciate their quality. Some of the defects on view came from simple things easily rectified, so for what it's worth I thought I would note some of them for anyone interested in making sure his or her work gets the attention it deserves.

1. Size Counts

In the submission guidelines, a preferred size is mentioned but not strictly adhered to. You can stretch things a bit as necessary, and no one is going to disqualify you if you add an inch or two to your printout's dimensions – to accommodate unusual proportions, for example. Yet I seem to recall seeing panoramic landscape images [for example] shoehorned onto an 8.5x11" sheet of paper. When such a piece is placed next to a larger scale image of equal merit, which one do you think will get a higher response?

Even worse were the few examples that didn't even take advantage of the full paper size to expand out to the maximum width of the paper they were printed on. Unless you are painting true miniatures and are hoping to dazzle the judges by  exquisite detail squeezed into a small space, this serves you little good. Especially when you keep in mind that some of the judges are creaky oldsters carrying two pair of reading glasses to even see the works submitted [I'm talking about myself here!].

Now all the judges are aware of this tendency, and I know from talking with each of them that we strove to guard against such instinctual responses. But human nature is human nature after all.  Just sayin'.


2. Quality Counts

This seems so obvious it hardly needs mentioning, but I can scarcely see the point of going through the trouble of entering if you aren't going to submit the best representation of your art that you can provide. It might be helpful to remember you are showing your work next to examples from many of the best fantasy artists alive.

And I'm not just referring to the color accuracy alone. It is inadvisable to submit overly shiny or curled prints as well. You wouldn't believe the glare in the judging room, especially when a glossy piece curls into a tube. At times I had to use two hands to flatten out a print on the table just to be able to tell what i was looking at. With so many works to review that gets old, quick.

In short, if is very much to your advantage to make it as easy as possible to see the work.  Though it's natural to go for a glossy look in order to achieve higher saturation and contrast in your art, keep in mind it's going to be laying on a table, not propped up on an easel.

I'm as guilty as anybody when it comes to putting things off until that last minute, and I know how frustrating it is to get a good quality reproduction out of a work. Speaking personally, I'm pretty bad at it myself. Fortunately I have opinionated friends who aren't shy about telling me a print sucks and needs to be done over, no matter how much groaning and whining I do. You might seek out such people for yourself if you don't have one or two already.  Spouses are unusually good at this job, if popular wisdom is correct about such things.


3. Originality

A big plus for me this time around as a judge was the notable absence of character portraits from movie stills culled from the most popular franchises; Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, and so on. There were some to be found among the entries, but those I did take note of were largely real standouts, showcasing remarkable skill and technique, or a new treatment of the subject, which made the best of them well worth considering.

With SPECTRUM, command of technique and materials is a given. It's the unique vision that stands out, so even if you are doing a piece that involves a familiar subject , it sure helps to have an approach, style or treatment that we haven't seen before. Even better is a new idea altogether, masterfully rendered.

Though we'll all maintain a fondness for the classic themes of our genre, it often seems that some things have been over-represented. I know I saw a LOT of the following:

(Need I say?) Dragons
Tentacles
Perverse little girls with big eyes
Pierced n' punky tattooed girls with big guns.
Glowing eyes
Winged women
Cats
Wolves
Finally, the ever-popular "absurdly huge armored galoot fighting side by side with an elfin female in scanty but strategically placed chain mail". Usually standing on a heap of bodies.

Fashions and fads come and go, and this list will doubtless change with time. And yes,  I suppose there are new avenues to explore or ways to update elements in all of these themes. Perhaps you could be the one to do it.

One last observation: For some reason there are always submissions that seem to have fallen into the mix from some other dimension, a place where fantasy and SF [or even imagination] don't seem to exist. In other words, pieces of art without any discernible fantasy element. I always find this puzzling. Some of them are admirable pieces of art in their own right and worthy or notice in some other show. It makes me wonder if the person submitting them made a mistake, put the wrong prints in the wrong envelopes or something.  But hey, the entry fees they pay help to support the event, so who am I to complain? It's just weird, is all.

Well, good luck to everyone who entered and here's to the next SPECTRUM annual!

-Michael

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