Dealing With Art Competition Rejection

Many artists enter competitions with the hopes of having their work win one of the prestigious prizes. The acknowledgment alone is enough to make you feel validated in your work especially if it’s a competition you need to be juried into. But what happens when your work doesn’t win a prize or worse doesn’t get chosen to be in the competition at all? This can be a very disheartening moment especially if you are submitting a work you believe to be your best and have spent countless hours on. Some believe this is a direct comment on the quality of their work but that’s not always the case.

There are a few things to keep in mind when you enter a competition so that you don’t get discouraged and can confidently move forward in your art:

NOT BEING CHOSEN DOESN’T MEAN YOUR WORK IS BAD
In the example of a juried entry, there are likely hundreds if not thousands of applicants to a particular show. The odds alone in that case of your work being chosen go down significantly the more people apply. In some cases, you are dealing with a variety of factors that are affecting whether your work will be chosen or not.

In the first round of cuts, works that are perhaps not quite up to par are removed from consideration. Because these competitions are looking for the best representations for the categories, they will likely eliminate anything with poor proportions, sense of lighting, or contrast. The unfortunate part is that you won’t necessarily get that feedback so it’s up to you to be able to critique your work for those basic elements, especially when it comes to works based on realism. Needing to improve elements of your technical skills however doesn’t mean your work is “bad” per se, it just means you need to keep working to improve so that you make it past those initial cuts and beyond.

artist drawing in a sketchbook

There are literally hundreds of works that aren’t chosen for an exhibition that are still incredible works of art, there just isn’t always room for everyone. It’s worth making sure that your work wasn’t selected because you didn’t follow one of the entry rules as well. That is often a factor in why some pieces aren’t chosen or eliminated from being contenders.

ART IS SUBJECTIVE, BUT GOOD FEEDBACK HELPS YOU IMPROVE
Every judge’s opinion on what they feel is “great” work is different so there will be a lot of personal opinions and bias factoring into their decisions. One judge may have a particular fascination with portraits and another with flowers so those pieces may catch their eye first. Sometimes the opposite can be true and they will gravitate towards subject matter that is the opposite of what they personally tend to like or create themselves. The point is, that while some of the decision making goes into the technical skills being displayed by the applicants, there is a whole lot of personal opinion in there as well. That isn’t something you can predict or have any control over. This can also change a lot year to year if you are entering the same completion with different judges. What may work for a judge one year, won’t the next.

Honestly, unless you are sitting down face to face with the person critiquing your work it’s hard to get a real sense of in-depth feedback. That said, it’s also important to be honest about your work. At some point, most artists will reach a level of being able to see the flaws in their work and will be able to identify what they need to do to improve upon it. If you still struggle with this, get someone you trust and respect to critique your work for you. For example, if your goal is realistic portraiture and you get feedback about your proportions being off, perhaps that’s worth having a second look at. What can you do to improve upon that?

man looking and multiple framed artworks on a teal wall

EVEN THE BEST OF THE BEST DON’T ALWAYS WIN
There’s an artist in the colored pencil community right now who has skyrocketed in popularity with his impressive large scale portrait works. I’m pretty sure he has entered almost every art competition I have seen for both colored pencil specific and fine art in general competitions that will accept colored pencils as a viable medium. He’s usually won some level of prizing in every single competition I’ve seen him enter. It almost just seemed like a given at one point when he entered something that he would win.

One day I saw the winners of one particular competition released and he didn’t place as a winner at all, and with a piece he had won multiple awards for in other competitions. How could this be? Clearly many others had felt he was the top of the crop, so how could he only get an honorable mention this time? Were the other works really that far superior? I can’t say I know what goes on inside every juror’s head but the fact that he only got an honorable mention in that competition does not devalue his work. If he had never won any awards,  it wouldn’t take away the time, effort, and skill he put into the piece either.

Maybe that juror thought it was time for someone else’s work to be acknowledged while still giving a nod to his. It’s hard to say what the deciding factor was, but the point is that the piece was still phenomenal whether it was chosen for a prize of not. There are many stories like this of well respected, mind-blowingly talented artists’ work not being chosen or winning a prize. They too may feel upset and rejected, but they have their moment to feel bad and carry on creating.

illustration of the word grow

TAKE TIME TO BUILD YOUR CONFIDENCE
Sometimes it’s a good idea to enter a few open call group submissions first. This means that they will accept every artwork submitted that follows the guidelines they have determined. When you’re new to competitions this can be a great place to start because you can get your feet wet displaying your work in a group show and also get some potential feedback on your work in a relatively unintimidating way. Most group shows will have some sort of opening where you can meet the other artists and get face to face feedback on your work that way.

It’s good to take a leap and swing for the fences, but entering juried competitions in the early stages of your art journey could be harmful to you if you’re in an insecure place with your work.  You don’t need a competition to validate you or your work. If you never enter a competition at all it won’t mean anything less for the quality of your work. It’s true that there is a perceived added value given to works that are highly celebrated and win various accolades, but that doesn’t mean anything less for the ones that don’t. Every year hundreds of hockey players compete together in teams against one another to win the Stanley Cup in the NHL. Some will go their entire career never winning it, despite being exceptional athletes.

artists drawing on a table at a coffee shop

You will likely experience a lot of rejection in your art career at some level and letting it get you down, or worse make you quit won’t help get you any further. If entering a competition is important to you or a goal you have, take time to do an honest assessment of your work. If you are experiencing consistent rejection see if there is a technical area you can improve on. Ask a mentor or fellow artist you respect for feedback on work. It may take a few tries or more before your work is selected, but sometimes the failed attempts help to make the successes that much sweeter.

Have you had your work not be selected for a competition? How did you deal with it? Share with me in the comments!

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