This is a big question. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of online art competitions. Whether to enter a particular competition or whether to compete at all, benefits from thinking strategically. Ask yourself some questions:
• Why do I want to compete?
• What are my goals in competing?
• How does this competition meet my goals?”
There are really only four reasons to enter: A. The hope of validating your work through recognition. B. The hope of publicity. C. The hope of financial rewards (including things like cameras or other goodies D. The hope of learning to be a better artist through feedback from the judges and through studying the work of those who DO win.
Most of us enter competitions for reasons A and B. We all crave validation – we want somebody knowledgeable to tell us that we put our souls out there for good reason. “Attaboy” is worth more than gold to many of us. At the same time, it’s really the least important reason for entering a competition. It’s also the reason many competitions have “honorable mention” and other such recognitions. The cynics say that broadens the pool of entries, earning more for the competition owner. Others say it‘s just good practice to encourage emerging artists. If what you’re after is validation, make sure there are plenty of additional recognitions besides an outright win. Of course “every entry a winner” is BS. Competitions aren’t about a group show; they’re about identifying works of merit – including yours.
B, the hope of publicity, depends on the ability of the organizers to put the word out about your good work. Good competitions will tell you what they do to publicize the winners. If they don’t do that, and you want publicity, you’ll have to create itself – or stay out of that competition. Read the fine print, or send an email to the organizers asking what they do to publicize winners. You can even ask to see samples of press releases they send out.
The value of publicity is huge – and gets bigger according to the prestige of the competition. If Aperture Magazine runs an online photo competition, they will draw from the ranks of thousands of amateurs. But they will also draw from some of the finest photographers in the world. Your odds of winning are low, but the value of winning very high. If you have a picture that has won repeatedly in lower-level competitions, you should consider if it’s ready for the big time. But don’t waste your time throwing random stuff into a prime competition.
C, the hope of financial rewards, draws lots of entries, but it’s like a lottery ticket – somebody wins the thing, but it almost certainly isn’t you. Big rewards draw big number of entries – if the entry fee is low enough. But usually competitions that pay out big bucks also charge big bucks to enter. You’d better be sure your work has a good chance of winning before you ante up. That means you have a track record and, for the entry you do make, have true faith that it is absolutely better than anything you’ve seen recently on the same subject. Your faith may be misplaced, but if you don’t have it, you shouldn’t be entering this level of competition.
D, gaining knowledge through feedback, is perhaps the best reason to enter a competition – but only if it’s part of the set-up that feedback is available, at least for award-of-merit winners and above. Very few competitions provide a way for judges to comment on the entries, but the ones that do will teach you and help you grow. Even a sentence or two on the order of “great composition, needs more of a center of interest” can be helpful – once you get past the pain of critique.
One more important tip for choosing which competition to enter – find out who the judges are. Then go look them up. See what kinds of art they like. If they’re all about acid colors and abstractions, don’t even think of submitting your favorite picture of a kitty done in pink pastels. Judges are expected to put aside their prejudices, and most work hard at it, but we all have a background that guides our judgments and our feelings. Going straight against the grain, if you can figure out what that is, makes a poor strategy.
Another thing about judges – many artists think they are all nuts. Especially if they don’t like YOUR work. That’s why it’s better to work with competitions that have a panel of judges rather than a single juror. Judging is finally a matter of taste. There may be standards every judge will expect you to meet (good composition, compelling story or subject, technical competence for instance), but in the end judges go by feeling first. If a picture grabs them and won’t let go, it will probably win. And what grabs one juror is unique to that juror. That’s why a panel is such a good idea. Panels can be nuts, too – I’ve seen a PPA panel talk a picture from an Award of Merit to Best in Show – but that’s uncommon. Mostly a consensus will find the essential quality in the image and reward it appropriately.
Finally, and very important, consider the “fit” of your work for the competition. That means looking at past competitions hosted by the same group. If work similar to your own has won repeatedly, it’s a good bet yours will be competitive (all other things being equal). If the competition is open to all 2-dimensional media, say, painting, photography, and digital art, that pits YOUR artistic vision – and the ability to carry it out – against widely differing styles and approaches. You can do things in painting that you can’t do with photography – and to a lesser extent, vice-versa. Painters and digital artists have fewer constraints than photographers, so if you’re a photographer, you might want to think twice about entering open competitions. If you’re ambitious and skilled enough, then have at it – but if you’re a beginner, stick to competitions in YOUR media only. This levels the playing field quite a lot and improves your chances of winning.
So, to sum up, think strategically, see how well a given competition fits your goals, whether the costs are worth what you can get out of it, and whether you have a realistic chance of success.
The next installment of this series will be “Improving Your Chances of Winning an Online Competition.”
Eric Hatch www.hatchphotoartistry.com