Do You Have a Competitive Side?

written by Sophie | Art Business

​The art world is full of art competitions. Art competitions for amateurs, professionals, competitions for oil painters, pastel painters or portrait painters. Do you have a competitive side?

Most art competitions are very popular and get many entries. Perhaps we all love a bit of competition and hope for a little luck to come our way?

Choosing the Right Competition for You

​Getting the right Artists

Most art competitions result in an art exhibition and for most artists being selected is the aim. Some are online but many (most?) are actual exhibitions in brick-and-mortar places.  So you would think the organisers of an art competition probably want to end up with a great looking exhibition, right? They probably have something in mind already, and in order to attract the type of works they have in mind they need to name and advertise their competition appropriately.


I personally would not submit to ‘Contemporary Australian Art Competition’ as I am not Australian and the word ‘contemporary’ often refers to conceptual art (strangely so, as if we’re not all by definition ‘contemporary’, but that is a different story). So I would at least double check what they mean by the use of that word.

Check whether you Fit In

It always pays off to check what a competition looked like in the past, whether your work fits with what they had in the show in previous years.

Find out if the judges change every year or whether they are the same. Find out as much as you can about a competition and weigh off whether you stand a chance, otherwise you risk wasting a lot of time and money entering competitions your work would never get in.

Find out as much as you can about a competition and weigh off whether you stand a chance

Royal West of England Academy of Art, Bristol. 164th Open Exhibition, autumn 2016
Royal West of England Academy of Art, Bristol. 164th Open Exhibition, autumn 2016 

Five reasons I’d enter a Competition

Big prize money attracts big artists. It is as simple as that. If the main prize is £50 you will not attract artists that sell for thousands of pounds. Unless, of course, the competition has other attractions for these artists. If you sell for lower prices or are not professional then competitions with lower prizes might be extra appealing as you know you are not competing with the top end lot.I personally would consider entering competitions if there are one of five boxes ticked:

​1. Money

A big financial prize is attractive for most of us. It would mean your art business can continue to grow, you can keep working a little longer.

2. Fame

Some competitions attract much more press attention than others. That alone is often a good reason to try and get your work selected. After all, fame equals more sales and more sales equals more work. All good!!

3. Respect

Some competitions might not make the front page or have fancy sponsors but only the best are selected, the judges are highly respected (or contain one of your heroes) and the competition is high. Who wouldn’t want to gain the respect of their peers?

4. Love

There are competitions or exhibitions that are just close to my heart. They might not attract big names or big money (yet) but I might love the goals of the organisers, I might love the charm of the exhibition location, or the topic of the show.

5. Niche

A competition gets my attention if it aims to show exactly what I do. So for me that means portraits, textiles and art history. For you it might mean animal sculptures or multi-media stuff.

PiSandy Nairne opens the BP Portrait Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, 2014cture
Sandy Nairne opens the BP Portrait Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, 2014

Big Prize Money Attracts Big Artists


​Is it all About Taste?

Some artists hate competitions. I am not one of them so I can only make an educated guess as to why. I often hear that art is too subjective and cannot and should not be judged. After all you cannot compare apples with pears and each art work is different. You cannot debate about taste, and ‘different strokes for different folks’ are the common arguments. I must say I do not agree with this at all.

Even Experts’ Taste Differ

Of course taste differ, even amongst knowledgable experts. But I think we all agree that Rembrandt was pretty good at painting. We all agree that Turner made stunning work. You might not like Turner but it would be hard to argue he was a really bad painter.I do believe that a person can become an expert (loaded word these days in the UK). You can develop ‘an eye’, become a connoisseur if you like, after many years of study and practice.

If you study art long and hard enough you will be able to see whether an artist can draw, has a sense of colour, knows about composition, edges and values, has a vision.

Judges can probably agree on these things but will no doubt still endlessly argue about matters of taste, preference, etc  as we cannot cater for differences in age, experience, background, culture etc etc which will all influence what you might find good art and what not.

Current open exhibition organised by magazines The Artist and Leisure Painter
Current open exhibition organised by magazines The Artist and Leisure Painter

It is great when you get selected, but it means nothing if you don’t.

​What does it Mean if you get Refused?

Art competitions are not the best of places to decide who is a brilliant artist and who is not. We will leave that for history to decide. If an artist is not selected for a show it means nothing about his or her value as an artist. But if an artist does get selected for a show, it does say something about what those particular judges saw in the artwork submitted. Those judges (and only you can decide whether you value their opinion or not) thought the work worth looking at. That might (or might not) mean something. In other words: it is great when you get selected, but it means nothing if you don’t.

Who was my Winner?

​Enjoy the Debate

I love a debate. A friendly debate. And so whenever the BP Portrait Award or the Royal Academy Summer Show comes round, many artists get excited, get geared up (for rejection) and when the final selection is published we fall over ourselves attacking or defending the judges decisions.I personally love going round the BP and seeing which one I would have chosen as my winner, wondering why on earth that one got selected or what the judges thought of this one. I discuss with fellow artists (often via Facebook) which ones we love and which ones we hate, although not so much the latter as we hate criticising fellow artists and at the end of the day we are pleased for them to be in the show.  We tend to stay nice and polite!

Crowds gather to hear the award ceremony and speeches at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in London
Crowds gather to hear the award ceremony and speeches at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in London

Pick Yourself Up

I have entered many art competitions. I think it is a great way to get started, to get your art out there and see how it is received. It is also a great way to get out of the studio, to meet other artists, to see what others are doing and to socialise.We all get many rejections. Some artists know themselves very well and hate the disappointment and so do not enter many competitions. You must figure out yourself how much rejection you can handle. Most artists I know, including myself, enter many and get rejected for most. We moan a bit and feel a little down, but soon enough we pick ourselves up and get back to the easel, determined to ‘show them’. But it can be hard. And rarely getting selected can get you down. It is so important to keep the spirit up. After all, none of us are painting for competitions. We are painting because we love it. So if competitions are spoiling it for us, it is time to get out of the game and get back to the studio to do what we love.

“How Dare you Refuse Me!”

One of my pet hates, however, is the attitude you sometimes see in tv talent shows; “if you don’t think I am good enough you, the judge, must be mad”. “How dare you refuse me? Who do you think you are” and “I am so much better than all of you”. You sometimes hear these words on tv shows like American Idol or the X factor and they are vile. Unfortunately I do hear them also amongst artist.It is sad that some think it ok to call judges all sorts of awful names, use swear words and what-not, because they got refused for a show. Judges are humans. They do their best. Heck, why am I even saying this, it is obvious.

The BP Portrait Award 2013 on tour at Wolverhampton Art Gallery
The BP Portrait Award 2013 on tour at Wolverhampton Art Gallery

Competitions Worldwide

BP Portrait Award

I try and check out most portrait painting competitions, competitions that favour figurative and/or realistic art work, oil painting shows and pastel competitions. There are many portrait painting competitions all over the world. I do believe that the BP Portrait Award, held every year in London at the National Portrait Gallery is one of the most famous.It attracts artists from all over the world and the first prize is a whopping £30K. That sort of prize money, location and the press coverage that comes with it, attracts top artists. It is a huge honour to get selected for it. And, not coincidentally, the deadline for submissions is the day I publish this blog post.

The show has a history of selecting a certain style of work. Although judges vary every year there seems to be a tendency for hyper-realism. I don’t really mind that. All shows and competitions have their own emphasis and that is just how it works. The last BP show, however, showed more painterly works than I have seen before, so perhaps there is a shift going on – which is very welcome too.

BP Portrait Award 2017: Call for entries poster
BP Portrait Award 2017: Call for entries poster

Different Strokes for Different Countries

Each competition has their own flavour and style. It attracts artists that feel at home with that flavour or ones that want to challenge it and rock the boat. The same applies for different countries.The biggest portrait painting competitions in the US such as the Outwin Portraiture competition and the highly classical and technically skilled Portrait Society of America International Competition show completely different work than the (although international) British BP Portrait Award.

The Australian Archibald Prize again has a different type of work, often very varied and creative. The Irish Hennesy Portrait Prize has many confronting and unusual portraits, while the British Ruth Borchard Self-Portrait Prize often selects painterly introspective works.

I was pleased to find out recently that The Netherlands has its own brand-new portrait competition (Nederlandse Portretprijs, for Dutchies only, I am afraid) which has lots of potential to grow into something great. The Dutch, again, have their own flavour, for often modern(ist) and arresting art (please excuse the generalisations, I hope you get the idea).

Many countries offer national and international portrait competitions, but each reflects its own culture, preferences and taste and that is a great thing to treasure.

Advertising poster for the Hennessy Portrait Prize in Ireland
Advertising poster for the Hennessy Portrait Prize in Ireland

Too many Competitions to mention

Of course there are just as many and probably more competitions in different topics and media. In the UK there is the Federation of British Artists, which is the umbrella organisation for many art societies which all have their own open exhibitions at the Mall Galleries in London (situated at The Mall – yep, same street as Buckingham Palace, pretty cool). There are art magazine competitions, Royal Academy (or their regional partners) open exhibitions, tv show competitions, etc etc. Too many to list! Some attract amateurs, some attract top-end and high earning artists, some attend young people, others attract more mature folk. Each to their own.

To artists reading this I’d say, choose wherever you feel at home and where your work would look good. Some artists choose competitions beforehand and work towards them. They make work especially for the competitions and enjoy the pressure of the deadline. Other artists just work on throughout the year and submit whatever suitable they have in the studio. For me, it is a mixture of both. For competitions I really want to get into, I create works especially. Others, I see what I have and whether it will suit.

Art magazine Artists & Illustrators organises their own competition every year with prizes up to £1000
Art magazine Artists & Illustrators organises their own competition every year with prizes up to £1000

Ready, Steady….Go!

All in all I find art competitions exciting, they give reason for an enjoyable debate amongst friends, and although cause for disappointment there is also great joy and sometimes even pride. When my work gets selected and I make it to the private view I always meet lots of wonderful artists who all just cherish the opportunity to show off their, and others’, work, to put art in the spotlight. We chat about paint and varnish, working hours and child care. Very few artists are really competitive and most will wish the other to do well. Art competitions lead to private views where all artists, judges, art lovers and art works get attention, get together and catch up, before we all go back to our solitary lives in the studio. Perhaps that is one of the main reasons art competitions and open exhibitions do so well.

The Mall Galleries in London, on The Mall
The Mall Galleries in London, on The Mall

Published: January 25, 2017

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  1. Interesting but you don’t mention cost, for many this is really an issue, especially those outside the South East. Entry fees are one thing but adding in delivery and collection makes rejection very expensive, making your comments on choosing appropriately even more important.
    Another point is do you think there is any age discrimination? I notice the Mall Galleries ask for date of birth. A bit off putting.
    Thank you.

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for commenting! No, I didn’t mention the cost and I should have done, shouldn’t I. But I suppose cost are part of the process of really looking at an exhibition and figuring it out whether it is for you. Expensive entry fees will bar poorer artists and attract rich or successful ones. Hopefully organisers are aware of that and artists must think carefully whether it is worth the gamble of entering. I always have to use an art courier to get my work to the London shows and know all about the costs involved!
      I am not sure about age discrimination. I do think many open exhibitions are very keen to promote young artists. There are many prizes for them. That will also be the reason that the Mall Galleries ask for date of birth – so they know which category you can compete in. I don’t think there is any age discrimination (although I can’t of course read judges minds and you never know) but I suspect there might well be some gender discrimination. Women paint differently from men and men’s work is what often gets selected. I think the BP has been made aware of this and things are improving….
      Competitions are only part of the art world and I would not recommend anyone to focus on it too much. Its just one extra ingredient in the soup pot. Keep it fun.

      1. Aaah common your posting isn’t that short either 😉
        Besides the book where it’s from is even more thorough.
        In either case it tells that many art organisation’s are without knowing collaborating with each other, Hans even goes so far
        that some galleries or museums are dealing with market abuse and insider dealing. I’ll guess you can figure out yourself how this could work when being part of a Judge within for example the BP as gallery, …
        But if you are too lazy to read much but arn’t for listening here a link for a YouTube interview:

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