Juried show basics


Dear Artist,

Having heard from many of you with juror experience, a theme has emerged around the very basics for artists submitting to a juried show. While one regular juror may hinge all on technical merit and another cruises for signs of imagination, a few fundamentals stand out as universal. They’re so simple they serve as a gentle reminder for anyone at any stage of the submission game:


Hope Always Sees Beautiful Things
by Fiona Rae, 2012

As well as providing important archival protection, most paintings benefit visually from a coat of final varnish. For acrylics, this means UVLS varnish cut 50/50 with water and brushed on or poured and then wiped off with a lint-free rag. Gloss varnish picks up and highlights brushwork, intensifies colours and gives depth to your strokes.

A messy, mishandled or poorly-sized signature steals polish from work that’s otherwise special. It’s worth establishing good, clean calligraphy and style for your final, identifying stroke.

Use the best and most appropriate frame you can afford. Beautifully made, hand-built frames fly too.

Paintings that look like other people’s paintings may not make the cut — I’m talking about techniques picked up in workshops, then replicated in the instructor’s style and subject matter. Do your own thing and take as much time as you need to get there. The same goes for paintings derived from photo reference that belongs to someone or something else.

Can they tell it’s yours? Works that employ an overbearing style or popular technique of the day can get lost in a sea of others doing the same. This goes for a landscape depicting the obvious view of a popular landmark, too. What else is possible? What can be?


I’m learning to fly!!
by Fiona Rae, 2006



PS: “Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort.” (John Ruskin)

“Hell, there are no rules here; we’re trying to accomplish something.” (Thomas Edison)

Esoterica: Regarding clubs and juried shows — love them or hate them — I notice that when artists get together to advance knowledge and appreciation of their calling, to share exhibition and learning opportunities and to support one another as amateurs and professionals, a few basics can go a long way. Open calls aspire to shake the art tree for jewels and celebrate an ever-blossoming potential. Jurors have a responsibility to stay open to new ideas and systems while upholding standards so that all may rise. They also learn by looking at the triumphs and mishaps of others on the same path — by experiencing new and old ideas, applied. Organizations looking too inwardly, or that operate too narrowly in genre, personnel, region or technique risk homogenizing. In the attempt, we strive together for something greater than what we might achieve on our own. “We must have ideals and try to live up to them, even if we never quite succeed. Life would be a sorry business without them. With them it’s grand and great.” (Lucy Maud Montgomery)

In 2011 Fiona Rae was appointed Professor of Painting at The Royal Academy. Tracy Emin (professor of drawing) and Rae became the first women professors to be appointed in the history of the Academy.



  1. Dear Sara;

    As an emerging artist I appreciate this letter very much. Trying to find one’s way in submitting to open calls is a challenge. I recently submitted to a local non-profit gallery call for 2016 for the first time. I attended a talk earlier in the year by the gallery manager on this process. I prepared a glossy folder with all the requested information including a proposal for a theme , bio, etc and artist cards that were laid out open beside the two paintings [ best frames, etc]… in other words a professional presentation. When I picked up my work, it seemed to me no one had even looked at the requested materials . There was simply a thank you, and try again next year.

    My question to you is whether it would be appropriate at some time after the call to talk to one of the jurors to seek input – i.e. without feedback of any kind it is difficult to know whether to try again next year . I will go to all of the shows for 2016 to see the work that was accepted and gain more knowledge in that way.

    My second question is in regard to pricing. Since I am an emerging artist, my pricing is significantly lower than many , more experienced artists . When galleries are trying to make money to support their endeavours, is it a factor in deciding which artists to promote in any given year?

    PS I attended the Painter’s Key Prize reception at the FCA last evening and met the winning artist . She is a talented artist and a lovely person. Thank you to Painter’s Key to carry on this award in Robert’s memory . Will we see her work on this site?

    • Robin… I am in the same boat as you. Even though I’ve been creating art for years, I’m just now getting my website set up in preparation of marketing my art. Entering contests is another challenge. Like you, I’ve entered contests and have received no feedback as to whether my work was worth looking at. I’ve often wondered if anyone even bothered, only because I received no feedback at all. Again like you, I plan to attend shows and learn from those who are more advanced in the art business. Still, it would be nice to have a mentor or some inkling of guidance.

      • To respond about mentors, I recently signed up for the mentoring program with the Federation of Canadian Artists , online …. check it out … find an artist that inspires you and sign up for on-line mentoring on your own work.

        For me , its not a question of whether one’s work is “good enough” – painting is not about that – keep painting and finding inspiration ….. with a call, it is just more about understanding what the gallery /jurors can offer in the way of their decision process for the particular call …. cheers

      • I’m interested in how to go about finding a mentor. I’ve inquired with a couple of different artist’s. Seems they are too busy or just not interested. Any suggestions? I’m also wondering if there’s an artist’s mentoring group in the USA. I may be sensitive, but it seems it’s easier for males to get mentors. You were so very lucky to have your father’s support and teachings. It must be difficult without him.
        Many Blessings

    • I am the director at the Art League of Daytona Beach and as such have the responsibility for selecting the judges for our juried exhibitions. In working with the judges, I have found on many occasions that in selecting awards, the judges tend to veer away from what they do themselves – media, style and so on.
      A judge who works in a very realistic style recently selected mainly abstract work for the awards, and that’s just one example.
      For that reason, we don’t publish the names of the judges ahead of time. We find that people often get too hung up on trying to please the judge, rather than just going ahead and doing their own best work.
      I can see the reasoning on both sides of the issue, just my 2 cents worth, 2.5 cents if you allow for inflation. Cheers! Robin Moore

  2. Well before I recently entered a show, I looked up who the juror was and visited her website. From what I saw, I decided to put a lot more effort on finishing one of my paintings. It seemed to me that she would not only like the work but also wish she had painted it. It turned out my intuition was correct and won a first place. So maybe it makes sense to find out something about the juror beforehand. During the opening reception I also noticed some savvy artists making an effort to get to know the juror. I didn’t and think I missed an opportunity to find out how she made her decisions and what specifically she saw in my work. It is rare to have a chance to have a serous critique of one’s work. Plus a connection with someone in the arts field can help in the long run.

  3. Entering juried shows has been a bit discouraging for this beginning/intermediate artist. Our art group doesn’t publish who the jurors are, so the excellent suggestion to visit their website never applied. I did notice that one juror gave prizes to all the artists who had taken her workshops. Any suggestions?

  4. Two points. I belong to a local group that will not disclose the juror prior to judging the work for awards. So obviously it is not possible to check out their leanings. I wish this were not so. I agree it is helpful.
    I am on the Board of this group in a small town in North Carolina. The club is 50 years old and recently lost several members. We have gained a few new members but are finding it increasingly difficult to get workers…committee heads, etc. I and another former New Yorker think we should open membership to 3 neighboring counties. We are re-buffed with lame excuses. We think the older members are afraid of competition. I am 81 and certainly feel differently. I have been in big city organizations so my outlook is different. Any ideas? An article on membership and scope of talent might be helpful. Thanks!

    • The only reason at my stage to submit to a juried show is to either hope to get the work in front of someone you respect or in a venue you respect. I’ve been accepted in shows juried by people like Peter Schjeldahl and Lucy Lippard which I found flattering. Nothing has ever come of it but it’s flattering.
      Recently I sent off for admission in the Butler Institute of American Art 79th mid year exhibition and was accepted. I crated up a biggish painting and sent it off to the Institute in Youngstown Ohio where it hung for a couple of months and then was crated up and sent back to me. It’s now back on my studio wall. I asked it well did you meet anybody interesting or make friends with any other paintings? No was all it said, kind of an empty feeling. All for a resume line?
      Be strategic. Good things can happen but seldom do.

  5. Sara, This column and the comments following it are a relief and troubling at the same time. We live in a small town and live in a rural suburban area. After supporting two arts organizations for five years, I quit both earlier this year to devote time and effort to art, poetry, writing and music. I feel happier, more creative and at piece for the first time in five years! Yes, I am planning a second solo show a year from December and am already painting. I still attend an art critique once a month and did a solo show and a university show earlier this year (you kindly promoted that January show !) Without the busy-ness of art, I feel much more at peace with myself, instead of in pieces. Instead of feeling stuck in the parochial and local, the artistic horizon is lifting for me.

    • I have been a member of an art guild for eleven years and have been on the board of directors for eleven years. I have always tried to contribute time and energy to do my part in this cooperative. Currently I am in charge of the website and of training new members in gallery procedures. I seldom have time to paint, and haven’t entered a show for a long, long time. This wasn’t what I bargained for and I know that my own growth as an artist has suffered. It was encouraging to read about your decision to go it alone. I think it is time for me to do the same. Thanks1

  6. Dear Sara,

    This is an excellent letter! You have distilled the essential information that an emerging artists in a typical workshop / art-club / group-show environment needs to know. Some of it can be difficult to hear and may take years to sink in, though, so it’s a good idea to safely store this letter somewhere where if can be periodically revisited.

    I’ve been around the block myself and loved the journey with all its ups and downs, and I made almost every mistake that could be made, and I did a few things right too. These days I try to write it all down and share.

    Great job with the letters, Sara, and a special thanks for this one.


  7. I love receiving this newsletter and this is the first time I feel the need to write.

    I disagree with the application of a gloss varnish. A Gloss often reflects light which can alter the appearance of a painting and creates problems especially when photographing a work of art. I prefer a matte varnish or a wax varnish.

    And, the signing of my name is especially difficult for me, practicing has never improved it so I have found it works best to keep it subtle or occasionally for larger works incorporate it into the painting. A bit bold, & often frowned on but unforgettable!
    Thanks for continuing your Fathers work!

    • I concur with you, Gwen, on all 4 points. I too read the newsletter religiously; it has been a very dear companion for some time now, and as for you it is also the first time I’ve been drawn into the comment section. The most wonderful surprise is to discover the amazing work on all your web-sites!!!

      This newsletter is probably the only external source of advice I’ve allowed to somewhat mould my painting, because in its spirit it is so thoroughly empowering, encouraging, supportive of the creative spark itself. I believe the topic of this week’s missive somewhat irked me – art contests seem a contradiction in terms to me, and ultimately so self-defeating to the ultimate purpose, the creation of better art.

      I may like a piece more than the next. But how dare I assume my judgement universally applicable? Doing so is akin to suggesting that a giraffe is more perfect than a slug, albeit the latter is indeed more slimy. And should I find those who will accept my judgement what will I achieve? To mould another’s work to my preference? Wouldn’t that be taking the artist away from his/her source, or short-cut his/her path of self-discovery?

      The 100m dash is an event that lends itself to competition, not art. The only possible outcome of such events is to distort outcome by raising or dashing egos.

  8. Dear Sara;
    Your article was good, thank you. As a frequent art show judge I’d like to add a few points:
    1) I know it is hard to believe, but it’s all pretty random. For instance, during a jurying, a lot can depends on what pieces are sitting next to your piece! Your gem may be overshadowed by its neighbors, or it may stand out. If there is time, good judges move things around to look at them in different placements and light but very often there is no time allotted to do this or it is not possible (the show is already hung or else it is a digital judging.)
    2) Try not to take the judge’s decision personally, it was one person’s thoughts at a certain point on a certain day not a judgment from on high on the intrinsic depth of your talent!. We may love your work generally and think you are supremely talented but for all kinds of random reasons the piece we saw did not stand out as a prize winner among its fellows. You may have a piece fail to make the cut for one show and win a prize in the next show you enter it in. Many reasons like the “neighbor” reason above are why this happens. Judges have to judge in relation to the other work they are seeing in that show or field of submissions, and we usually have a limited time frame for pondering as well.
    3) For digital submissions, please please please follow Tyler Stalman’s step by step advice on how to take these shots: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vpj28da03JQ I can’t tell you how often I’ve been unable to get a real idea of the piece in a digital submission due to a flash, light glare, keystoning, obviously out of focus, and etc. Please get this step right if you hope to get in a show.
    4)For real time submissions, please be meticulous on your presentation. Frames that are ill-fitting or overpowering in size or ornamentation don’t generally make the grade. Wrapping a matted piece in plastic as your wall-ready presentation also does not make the grade for a gallery or museum show (it is a fine way to present your work at a crafts fair.)
    5) Craftsmanship. If your piece is falling apart (this is a frequently encountered issue) , say a collage edge peeling up or a flake of paint hanging precariously, no matter how much I like the image I won’t vote for it. I once encountered an installation that incorporated a tank of live fish. Unfortunately the fish had died by the time the judges arrived. We knew they were supposed to be alive by reading the artist’s statement about the piece. This was so sad. We later heard the artist was annoyed she didn’t get a prize; she seemed to think we should have “looked past” that “minor glitch” (of little dead fish) and been able to envision the full glory of her creative vision. But the dead fish killed her presentation pretty promptly. So, watch out for “dead fish!”
    6) Don’t bash the judge. If you don’t get in a show or fail to win a prize, it’s normal to feel disappointed. Judges understand this and agonize over it, believe me. Judges also sometimes don’t get into shows and also frequently fail to win prizes. There are many many people entering shows and only limited spots and/or prizes. That’s life and we all take our turn at bat and we all, on occasion, strike out. Take a deep breath,and move on. Your bad-mouthing the judges just makes you look unprofessional. The pros feel a pang like everyone does and then they shake it off quickly and get right back in the game, knowing sometimes they’ll be in the winner’s circle and sometimes they won’t even be on the walls. Go back to point number 1) if you need to understand why. :-D
    All the best!

    • Thanks, Nancy, so much. #1 is the most important thing for all of us to remember, though I sure understand that nobody wants to believe it. If someone is determined to enter, take care of the details of presentation like you said and then I think you should just forget about it. If yours takes a prize it will be just like receiving notice that you won the lottery, except for the money part! Ha!

  9. Jurors need to learn a few basics too. I was once “cc”ed by email that my submission was rejected. Of course, I could see all the emails of the other rejects as could they. Not cool. I complained and the juror had no idea what “bcc” meant.

  10. I have submitted my art to juried shows three times. It may be that I didn’t photograph them very well so I did some self study and will probably try again.
    I have not put a varnish on my acrylics or oil paintings and wonder if I do will varnishing cause too much of a glare when I photograph them?
    Camille Bodey

    • Camille, I’ve been told it is perfectly appropriate to take your photograph before you apply varnish. Jurors are well aware of the glare factor and certainly don’t want to see it on a submission. Matte or cold wax varnish should be okay to apply before you take the photograph but you can always take a photo before just in case.
      Some make sure they don’t send in their digital submission until after they’ve applied the varnish in case some “mishap” occurs with the varnish and their painting is ruined. If you’d already sent in your non-varnished digital photograph you’d have to notify the contest to take your painting out of contention (unless of course you could paint the same, exact painting over again! And I mean exact.)
      I think it is also appropriate to include on your submission the type of varnish applied such as “Mixed-media, paper, acrylic, ink, UV gloss varnish” though you certainly don’t have to.

      • Thank you, Mary. This information is very helpful. I hope to see some of your work soon. I learned how to paint in college years ago and we started with oil painting. When acrylics came out I did those; in recent years I do water colors and mixed media..
        Camille Bodey

  11. I’ve been on both sides and, although the judging process isn’t perfect, please realize that it is truly American and is democratic. (There are no juried exhibitions in Terran!) A juror is chosen because he or she has expertise in the visual arts and not because of a political agenda, unless it is home grown. It is an open field and the submitting artist must rely on the knowledge and experience of the juror/s. Regardless of the outcome — in or out — the artist should visit the show and compare one’s work with what is hung. Take a fellow artist with you to bounce ideas off of. As the late Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Another point is to take pride in entering — an artist that tries is not standing still — you have just begun.

  12. As an artist and juror there are a few important things I have learned and what Sara has mentioned. One juror can be dangerous, two is safe and more than two is unworkable to the point serious compromises have to be made to come to a decision. As far as art goes I personally discount anything that has obviously been traced and painted, which in my estimation can cut out about half of the exhibits. Things also that will be walked passed are exotic subjects in which the only likely source is someone else’s photo or a published – a polar bear playing on an iceberg is a case in point. If I know the artist, then for their work to win a prize it must be one of their best, not just the best in the show. Work must be honest – that is it must the work of the artists and not a product of a workshop. It’s so easy to tell. Even though many may get through the initial judging process it still takes a lot to actually win a prize, or at least it should. I know that only my best work has won prizes.
    Juried shows are good for artists because it allows us to see how we are progressing. This is only possible when we are in with other artists. We see our art in a new light. What looked good at home may seem pretty ordinary in a show and this is a good learning process for those who want to take advantage of it.
    If you really want feedback about your work than the best way is to go to the show and stand back from your work and watch the reaction to the public to it. If the majority walk right passed as if it was invisible then the work is not connecting. If people linger at your painting, it’s a good sign.
    Often there are some confounding decisions as to prize-winners. This usually happens if there is one judge as cavilier choices are easily made by one person without the back-up of another judge to question it.
    Yes, in many ways it is a lottery but if we strive to improve success will eventually come our way.

  13. All the bullshit and politics and ” preciousness” of the entire ” art market world, ” including galleries, juried shows, and the phony judges who deem themselves tastemakers etc etc is what has COMPLETELY turned me off to the whole thing. I paint to please myself and if someone sees my work and likes it, then I sell it.
    There are plenty of places to show, and sell, your work without participating in the corruptness of the ” art world”! Paint on, brave souls! The power is with YOU.

    • Amen to this! When you allow others to dictate your work, you lose originality and authenticity. Being free from the good opinions of others is brave, powerful, and liberating. Thank You for sharing. Peace. :-)

  14. Pingback: The How to “get into more shows” report | sandiegowatercolorsociety

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