Tonya Nieman writes: My question is  whether or not I should be entering art shows. It seems like I end up spending a lot of money on entry fees, but never place. I have a realistic style and focus on wildlife as my subject matter. I’m accepted into the shows, but the judges tend to always pick still life, folk art, or impressionistic work that is lacking in details. I always submit art that follows the theme of the art show. Wild life shows are scarce where I live and I am trying to build my artistic resume.  It would be nice to actually place in one of these shows so that I could show people that my art is worthy.  I’m just concerned about entering lots of shows but never placing in the show will make people wonder why I never win a ribbon.

There are so many factors here. I will start by telling you my experience. I found something very similar to you when I used to enter shows. The abstract/impressionism/looser styles were awarded and realism and wildlife work was normally overlooked. Don’t even get me started on how badly surreal work was ignored. And it wasn’t just me being blinded because I wanted to win, none of the realism (work that put mine to shame) was ever given a second look at most of the shows I attended.

I found that art shows are very much like dog shows. Do your research and know what the judges like. There would be no reason for me to enter studio assistant #1 under a judge that was known to prefer flat toplines (incorrect for the breed) or only awarded red dogs (also not right for judging but that’s the dog world sometimes). Dog show people learn what judges award what, and choose their shows (and entry fees) accordingly.

The one show I was actually awarded at was one where the judge himself worked in realism. A coincidence? I doubt it. He appreciated what it took to create work in our style.

Now here is the next thing to keep in mind. Please note that I’ve not seen your work, so I’m not talking about you specifically, but artists in general. Most artists when they start off, start with realism. I’m not sure why that is. When we start, we’re not that great. Let’s be honest. We are still getting the hang of what lines to soften, when to use harsher lines, how to blend our medium, perspective, drawing skills in general and hardest of all, lighting, value and contrast. So many that I saw at shows were very new to painting so they had not yet mastered these things. I was absolutely included in this bunch. I look back at some of my entries that I thought were amazing back then and kind of laugh now. Sure I may have been above average, but I hadn’t come close to understanding the techniques I listed.

Artists who work in a looser style don’t normally start there. They normally start with realism, and as their skills progress, they start to loosen up their work and focus on values and contrast. Two of the most important things in creating a strong piece in my opinion. They aren’t depending on their details to make something look realistic but on that light/contrast. This is a BIG factor in why I think you will often see different styles awarded. The realism is so often the least refined of the entries given so many of the artists are newer.  Now I can’t say this is always the case, but I have seen it often enough that it should be mentioned.

I’ve also seen soooo many art shows where work that made no sense what so ever to me was awarded and pieces I thought were stunning both in design and execution were looked over. Art is very subjective. There is no right or wrong,  which goes back to researching who your judges will be in deciding if that show is worth your time.

I’ve not had time to enter juried competitions in a very long time, but after a couple of years early in my career, I did decide that it would be best for me to back off for a while. I was finding myself getting more discouraged by what people were interested in and having the realism that I loved so much generally ignored. I was doing better with online sales.  I wasn’t having fun anymore, and really that is what it comes down to. If you enjoy being a part of the show, and don’t go with serious aspirations of winning, then it is worth it. Sometimes just knowing you’re a part of a show is a very fun experience.   At one of the last shows I participated in that always awarded still life and looser styles, as usual, I was not awarded…but my painting sold for FAR more than any of the other work that sold that day, including the awarded pieces. At the end of the day, that was more important to me than a $0.50 ribbon. I don’t think that the $0.50 ribbon is what determines if your work is of value. It’s fun, but it’s not the end all of creating valuable work.