It is not an uncommon circumstance that an artist will be invited to place a single painting in a group show or submit a single painting into a contest. Larger shows like the BP portrait competition get nearly 2,000 entries. At BP, the top 50 paintings get exhibited and four finalists are picked by tweedy British judges.

Is there any strategy you can use to help yourself psychologically or productively in this situation?

The big problem is that all your wonderful talent must be distilled down into this one painting. It alone represents you. No viewer is giving you extra credit for listening to your clever podcast talk or studying your dense sketchbooks. Judges can’t see the 573 paintings you did previously that got your talent where it stands. Nobody can see any of your tear-stained hard hours of lonely labor. The A+ you got from your beloved art teacher who set you on the path is invisible. All your good intentions for dolphins and trendy politically-informed ideas for radical justice are hidden from the viewer as well.

All we can see is the one painting you did.

BOOM!

GOOD OR BAD?

We are jolted awake or bored. Love it or walk on by. Sorry. “It didn’t work for me.” Or “I don’t like it.” Or “Who would hang that on their wall?”

Obviously, if award-winning painting strategies were easy, people would be grabbing awards like greedy children snapping up free chocolates. Actual winning strategies are few, but I will share four thoughts (and I welcome any comments if you have a good strategy I overlooked).

1) Do a lot of paintings. If you can only enter 1 painting in a show or contest and you only have 1 sad lonely painting in your studio you are severely limited at the outset. All paintings do not come out equally good and we all know this. Some remain failures no matter how hard you try to revive them. If you can challenge yourself to do the extra work and paint three, seven, or nine paintings for the contest and then select your best favorite one, you have already given yourself a huge advantage. Human nature tends to resist this approach because we are such lazy dull horrible beasts.

2) Figure out what wins before you start. This is a slightly corrupt strategy untrue to the higher realms of art but still a good cheat. If you look at the last twenty winners of the BP contest you can see a clear trend in the kind of subject, approach, and style that wins. At BP the judges will immediately look fondly on you if you paint a representational single figure soberly seated in a venerable chair.

3) Never paint an idea. Viewers respond to ideas slowly and poorly if at all because their brains are weak and seldom challenged. If you think you can win by painting about ecology, post-colonialism, or quantum physics it is an unlikely proposition. Winners paint “things” and ideally important things. Important painters paint important things like the pope, the queen, Elvis, Hitler, JFK, Stalin, and Marilyn Monroe. Painting a human being or the human form is always an advantage because the homo sapiens primate species is endlessly in love with watching itself.

4) Leverage what exists. If you are entering a show of floral paintings, pick an existing floral painting you like by Klimt, Monet, Haverman, or whoever floats your boat. Be willing to stand on the shoulders of dead art giants. No one will care if you try to flawlessly copy a vase by Matisse (I guarantee you can’t.) But take some inspiration and maybe even borrow some composition. This is the idea of starting from something already great. And you can never go wrong making “art about art” because that is the work that museum directors love best.

Seeking awards is a terrible reason to paint in any case, and can only be a sign of a fragile ego that seeks sustenance sipping from a golden cup filled with the milk of vanity. If you never win any damn award but your art fills you with deep private joy, this is the only true victory.

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