Thursday, April 28, 2011

Juried Show Success and Failure

I start this entry with a simple question.  If you've submitted your work to a juried show or annual, have you gotten in?  Depending on your answer, you may wish to read the appropriate entry below.  Or you may wish to read both.  Or neither.

Yes. Yes I have gotten my work into a juried show.
Congratulations!  Welcome to the club!  (Breaks out smoking jacket, puts on monocle.)  Clearly you've made it to the big time and you won't have to work quite as hard any more.  After all, hard work is for suckers and the have-nots.  Now, the successes will start snowballing, the cash will finally start rolling in, and you can finally begin to relax.  Right?  'Cause that's what happens, right?

Well, no, actually.  Not for most of us.  I've heard tales and rumors of art directors using Spectrum or the Society of Illustrators Annuals as catalogs for finding artists.  I've heard that there are illustrators out there who have gotten endless work from being honored in the pages of such tomes and hit it really, really big.  Thing is, that doesn't happen to most illustrators — and more than likely if you're reading this, it's not going to happen to you.

While getting into these competitions and winning medals are feathers in your cap, they're just that: feathers.  Light, airy feathers.  Sure the competitions will raise people's awareness of you, and that whole getting work thing might even become less of a problem — who knows?  However, tomorrow you'll still be working just as hard as you did yesterday.  You'll still be the same person you were before, and the product your putting out will not suddenly have gotten better just because you've managed to get into one of these shows.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't want to belittle the accomplishment.  Obviously a lot of hard work has gone into getting to this point.  I'm just trying to caution you to not let the success go to your head.  You can't start handing in B-game illustrations to clients who you formerly deemed worthy of your A-game work just because you might have a little name equity now.  It doesn't work like that.  The expectations will still be high and may have even gotten higher.  People will still be looking for the best you can give them, and at the end of the day it's always in everyone's best interest to do just that.

Still, I congratulate every one of you on your accomplishments and the great work you've been doing.  Great job.  Keep up the good work.  Etc., etc., etc.  Now, get back to work!  Next years entries aren't going to paint themselves.

No.  No I haven't gotten into one of those stupid shows.
The first thing I'm going to tell you is not to give up.  Easy for me to say, having gotten into a show or two.  True.  But, like so many, I spent a lot of years submitting to shows and never getting in.  I threw countless work hours and more money on entry fees than I care to think about at the problem, hoping my fortunes would change.  They did eventually, but it was a very frustrating process along the way.  However, it was because I didn't give up in the face of repeated failure that I managed to eventually break through, and I encourage everyone who reads this to keep at it as I once did.

I know several folks who I consider to be more skilled than I am who have been wildly unsuccessful at getting into these juried books and shows.  What anyone has against their work is beyond me.  These are guys whose names many of reading this would recognize, and are also some serious fan favorites.  So what gives?  Simple.  Subjectivity.

The jurors for these shows — like all human beings — have their own tastes, prejudices, and preconceived notions.  And while ideally the jurors should do their best to toss these feelings aside and look at things as objectively as possible, they're not always capable of doing so.  At least not completely.  Some jurors may dislike stuff that's too "cartoony" or too realistic.  They might love something because it's made with actual paint and dismiss something else because it was rendered on a computer.  They may gravitate toward stuff that looks or feels like their own work, or reject it for the same reason.  I know.  I've juried shows before and had discussions with other jurors after the fact where some of these very truths dribbled out of their mouths.

So what can be done?  Well, until someone invents the Art Jurorbot 9000, things are unlikely to change.  Even if someone did invent the Jurorbot, things still would not be ideal.  After all, the prejudices of its programmers would invariably destroy its soulless objectivity.  Plus, according to the laws of robotics in television, should anyone manage to put some sort of artistic paradox in front of it, it's CPU would explode causing a complete breakdown of the process and costly delays.

Clearly the system just isn't going to change anytime soon.  Subjectivity happens, and there's little you can do.  In fact, the little that you can do is to wait it out.  Next year, it'll likely be a completely different jury with all new prejudices that you cannot account for.  So, while the system as a whole stays the same, your circumstances will not.

How do I know it'll change?  Simple.  I've known lots of folks who have submitted a piece one year and fail to get in, only to submit the exact same piece to the exact same competition the next year and get in.  Sure, I know that the rules say to stick to only work you've done the previous calendar year or some such, but resubmission is a common practice.  The reason for it is simple.  The illustrators in question believe in a piece so strongly, that they'll toss it back out there waiting for the right eyes to see it.  They're doing their best to deal with the very subjectivity I've been talking about.  Once again, the important thing here is that they kept at it, and so should you.  I give this same advice to both neophytes and hardened veterans alike. 

Sadly, some of the big names I spoke of earlier have given up.  They've stopped submitting.  The books are worse for it, in my opinion.  But on the other hand, they're doing pretty darned well in the most important competition there is in this business: getting work.

At the end of the day, whether you make it into these competitions or not, it's all about the work.  It's about making a living doing what you love.  If you've successfully managed that, then you're already winning.  Not in the Charlie Sheen sense, but in the real world, gotta' put food on my table sense.  There are many folks out there — big names, small names and no names — who haven't made it into the hallowed pages of Spectrum or the various illustration annuals who do a whole lot better work-wise than some of the folks who do.  And that is not feather in the cap, but the cap itself.


  1. Well written sir, in both instances. You bring up a variety of points we should all remember and many that I would do well to remind myself of more often. Good Stuff bud!

  2. Thanks, Ben. It's a tough one and I've seen folks make mistakes on both sides. You're one I hope never gives up.



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