Saturday, March 19, 2016

How I Judge a Show

Some of the paintings I juried into and then judged at the
Northeast Pastel Society's exhibition in 2015.

I want to expand on my last post, "Painting in the Spirit of Plein Air."  A question I am often asked is, How do I judge a show?

There are two things that happen before awards are given.  First, a Juror of Entry juries paintings into the show.  These days, jurying is done by looking at digital images.  Second, the Judge of Awards views the work and identifies those most deserving of praise.  This is usually done by viewing the actual paintings.  Sometimes Juror and Judge are the same, but most often not.

Jurying in Work

I like to receive images on CD so I can import them into my own software for viewing and sorting.  (Sometimes, I am asked to view them online through a site such as  This is always more cumbersome than my system, but I don't let it affect my judgement.)  The show committee often gives me a spreadsheet on which to record my decisions.  The images are coded so I don't know the names of the artists.

The committee tells me how many pieces to jury in.  Sometimes they have specific guidelines such as "no more than two entries juried in per artist."  Otherwise, I'm allowed to use my own judgement.  Sometimes after I've made my choices, the show committee may make adjustments.  If there's a dedicated volunteer who needs recognition, or if the organization is young and trying to build membership, a few may be added to my list.

But before I go to the spreadsheet, I make a quick pass through the images, sorting them into three categories:  Yes, Maybe and No.  I go quickly for two reasons.  One, I think my initial reaction to a painting is very important; although this may seem subjective, my reaction actually comes from a broad base of experience.  Second,  it gets the process going.  Of course, I will go back several times to re-evaluate my decision.  I always keep this fact in mind:  Behind every painting is an artist who loves what he does and works hard.  And for some, this may be the first time they've ever submitted to a show.  Each painting deserves respect and consideration.

Next I go to the spreadsheet and add columns for Design, Drawing, Color, and Handling.  For these categories, my decision is deliberate and founded on skill basics.  I award up to four points for each category.  I also add one more column where I can note my subjective response.   Some paintings possess an inscrutable quality that appeals to me immediately.  For these, I award an extra point.  I then tally up each row and sort on score.  I go through the images three or four times to make sure I haven't misjudged a painting.  It's not uncommon for me to change my mind as I do this.  Finally, from this spreadsheet I select the top paintings.  Quite often, they are the same ones in my initial "Yes" pile.

By the way, looking at images on a screen is far from ideal.  As much as the artist may have adjusted his image so it looks true to him, the appearance may vary from screen to screen.  The best we can do is look at the images relative to one another on the same screen.  Still, an image that looks warm and inviting in person may look cool and less inviting on a screen with slight blue cast, and it may suffer in the scoring.  Another issue is size.  Large paintings tend to look better on a screen because they are reduced; small paintings, worse, because they are enlarged.

Judging for Awards

If I am both Juror and Judge, I always get a treat when it comes to award time.  I finally get to see the works in person.  I'm often pleasantly surprised when a piece is even better than it looked on-screen; though once in a while, I'm disappointed when the craftsmanship isn't what I'd expected.  When this happens, it's usually at a micro-level where the mark-making, an aspect that is hard to discern on-screen, shows a lack of skill with the brush or pastel.  But this is why we give awards usually after inspecting the work in person.

When I enter the exhibition space, the doors are shut behind me and I am alone.  Armed with a yellow pad and a list of paintings, I make several rounds.  The first round is to see what appeals to me immediately, just as I did in my initial pass as juror.  I put a yellow sticky note on each one so I can go back to it.  I make a second pass through the gallery looking at all the works again, keeping skill basics in my mind.  Sometimes the yellow sticky notes get shifted around.  I then make a third pass, paying special attention to the more subtle paintings that I didn't select in the first round.  I don't want to overlook a painting that whispers beauty.   I may go back again and again, re-thinking my decisions.

Once I'm satisfied that I've found the best, I need to narrow down my choices to fit the number of awards.  Giving awards is always difficult because those under consideration often rise above the merely well-crafted.  Sometimes they rise into the realm of the genuinely masterful, and are true showpieces made with compelling artistry.  When two or three vie for the top award, I have to go with what appeals to me personally.  There's no other way to choose.

I prefer having one award, a Best of Show, followed by Merit Awards.  Discerning between First Place, Second Place and Third Place is often a coin toss.   By giving Merit Awards instead, the judge isn't forced to make up a reason why he chose one painting over another.  By the way, Purchase Awards, which are sponsored by local businesses, are an excellent addition to any show.  Sales are guaranteed to the artist this way.  It's a win-win situation for everyone.

I've judged many shows and events over the years.  If your group needs a juror or judge, please feel free to contact me as I charge a reasonable fee.  I am also happy to teach a workshop for you in conjunction with your event.  If you'd like a consultation on the jurying and judging process, I'd be glad to do that, as well.

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