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Judging Criteria for Art Shows

October 6, 2010 by davidslonim

The judging of art shows is a crap shoot.  You never know what to expect.  I’ve heard horror stories, as you probably have.  One judge here in Indiana eliminated all landscapes on principle.   Another one ruled out any painting with the color green.  (These are extreme, but TRUE examples from actual shows).  Another told me privately he was coached by the show committee to give awards to the paintings that had the best chance of selling, since it was a fund raising event, after all.    But even if you leave out weirdness and political shenanigans, art show judging remains highly subjective.  In many cases, judges simply gravitate toward work that appeals to their personal taste.  So the award-winning work all ends up looking like the judge could have produced it.  This is more than unfortunate.  It is stifling to the creative impulse, and teaches you nothing about how to improve your work in the future.

So what can be done?   When I judge a show, my goal is to be as objective as possible.    I want to give awards to the best work, not to the work that I personally like the best because I paint that way, too.  Here’s a judge’s statement I wrote recently, along with the checklist I used to evaluate paintings.  Yes, I literally tallied up numerical scores, just like they do for disciplines such as diving, gymnastics or debate.     The subjective element is balanced as much as possible by a set of objective criteria that can be given a numerical value.    This checklist is just one guy’s attempt to be fair.  It can be improved.  But it’s a starting place.

Ok, here it is.  If you have any suggestions for modifying or improving the checklist, please let me know.  If you have your own that you are already using, feel free to post a link so others can check it out.

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Judge’s Statement

Nobody makes a picture or sculpture and walks away from it without saying something about it, good or bad.  The creative process always ends with evaluation.   In the beginning, God declared creation to be “very good.    He was evaluating his artwork.   We do the same thing all the time.  The last time you finished making something, what went through your head?  What came out of your mouth?  We can’t help ourselves.  Even a toddler will show scribbles to a parent in order to get feedback.

The question is – what standards are we going to use to evaluate our artwork?   How can you judge your own work in a way that will help you improve?  How can you offer feedback to a fellow painter that will be based on more than personal taste?

My focus as the awards judge was on the arrangement or design of the entire artwork.   Did the artist create a harmony of form that conveys one visual idea? I looked at the elements of design- line, shape, space, value, and color -  in light of universal principles of design- hierarchy, rhythm, balance, unity.

Each contender for awards was evaluated using this checklist.  Awards were given based on the numerical scores.    You may not agree with all the selections, but you can be sure the choices were not made on a whim.    And more importantly, if you evaluate your own work using fundamental principles of good design, you will know where the next step on your creative journey lies.

David Slonim

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(If the checklist below is too small to read easily, you can click on it to see a larger file)


Posted in A Work In Progress Blog, Featured Blog Posts, Instruction, Instruction-Featured | Tags: | 7 Comments »

7 Responses to Judging Criteria for Art Shows

  1. Amy Brock says:

    Gee, I really wish some of my RISD professors had this same philosophy. I had quite a few professors critique my work based on their own style and sense of the aesthetic. Students with similar styles to that of the professor were praised and got good grades. I would’ve thought I wasn’t very good, but I had enough fellow-students and illustration professors commending me for my work to know that I wasn’t all washed up as an artist.

  2. davidslonim says:

    Here’s what Robert Henri said – “To award prizes is to attempt to control the course of another man’s work. It is a bid to have him do what YOU will approve. It affects not only the one who wins the award, but all those who in any measure strive for it. It is a check on a great adventure of human life.” (1923, The Art Spirit, p. 139).

    It’s easy to be elated or discouraged based on the decisions rendered by professors or juries, when usually they don’t mean much at all.

    Since juried shows aren’t going to go away, I’m hoping to do my small part in trying to promote some level of fairness and criteria into the mix.

    I’m glad you didn’t get discouraged!

  3. davidslonim says:

    The cool thing about the shows I’ve judged with this method is that the winners usually surprise me. I can think of two shows off the top of my head – an abstract collage piece won best of show in one, and a drippy watercolor won best of show at the other. They happened to be the most harmonious expressions of a single visual idea. As an oil painter, it was very satisfying to know that I had given the top awards to the strongest visual statements, instead of work that resembled my own. So there is fun in this for judges, too.

  4. Jerry Points says:

    David…thanks for posting. So true, if we could just take the politics out of judging. There is a well known paint-out in the Southern part of the state (you know where) that usually stinks of favoritism and pay-backs. Truly a shame.

    Good points on the elements of review. You talk around it, but I like to consider design and good editing. How many times have we seen the same tired compositions.

  5. Mary Ann Nusbaum says:

    Thank you, thank you.

  6. Francoise Webb says:

    Thanks David. Your analysis is quite informative as well as refreshing! New to this whole juried-events-choses, subjective judging can be discouraging especially when constructive criticism is lacking. Your “judging-sheet” actually becomes a great review of your workshops!

  7. One judge would not choose a realistic watercolor because he said it looked like a photograph.

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