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Who Am I to Judge?

Recently I was asked by a local art club to judge their annual group show. I was so honored and thrilled that I read the e-mail aloud. My husband is all too familiar with the ensuing few minutes which immediately follows good news of this sort. I can’t speak for everybody but I usually play it cool by jumping up and down while dancing in place saying “Hey look what I can do! Pay attention to me!” My husband ignores me with a smirk on his face. This gets the wiggles out of my system. Eventually my excitement transitions into a more down to earth understanding of what it means to actually judge something. Then like clockwork it happens…the big “What if?”

What if they disagree?

For Pete’s sake, Jaya, OF COURSE there’s going to be a difference in opinion! I’m being asked to do this for a reason. What it boils down to is they trust my artistic judgement. I’ve worked hard to establish that level of value throughout my career. Heck, I’m confident whenever I do critiques in class so how silly is it that I’d be worried about this “What if’?” I contacted one of my mentors and asked his advice. I can summarize his response in two words: Trust Yourself.

We’re all human. Self-doubt happens. What do you do about it?

I was e-mailed a preview gallery of approximately 90 submitted artworks and began taking notes. I spent a few minutes looking at each piece of art and I found that I started seeing patterns in my own judging criteria. I jotted down key points and stored them in the back of my mind. Eventually the day came where I was able to see the art in person. This is crucial for effectively judging awards. Seeing the artwork “face to face” allows the judge to see the subtle nuances whereas a computer screen just gives a general idea. The pieces were positioned around the bright room, prepped for hanging. I circled the room slowly with my clipboard, frequently getting down on my hands and knees in order to closely study a piece. Sometimes I would position two contenders next to one another and think back to my criteria. In the end there must be a decision and when looking at two strong pieces one must prevail, if only by a hair…


Before we continue let me give you a little behind the scenes look into my thought process…

Before one piece of art is compared to another there has to be a watershed break within the individual piece. Ultimately, is the piece strong or weak? Harsh, maybe. Detached, definitely! There are many criteria which help define this decision and each judge is a little different. In this article I am focusing on two key factors which help me to judge which way the pendulum swings: connection and technical proficiency.

How do I judge a piece as strong?

Effortless connection: It is obvious when you freely spend more time in front of a piece. The question that arrises from a critique standpoint is why? What draws you in? If a piece of art makes you feel something I consider it a strong piece. Any genuine feeling – happiness, sadness, joy, anger, anything that stirs inside is a connection. Connection is essential to strong works of art.

Technical proficiency: I consider this a bonus. In my opinion technical proficiency supports the piece, it does not make the piece. Let me explain: You are standing in front of two paintings hanging on the wall. One piece shows extraordinary use of the medium however there is no personal connection to you, the viewer. You look at this piece and admire how well it is painted. The piece hanging next to it is not nearly as technically proficient, however the subject matter tells a story and your mind begins to stir. Your imagination is activated and therefore this piece resonates with you. When I judge, personal connection outweighs technical proficiency. If a painting meets both of these criteria – bonus!

How do I judge a piece as weak?

Lost connection: Again, the question is why. WHY am I disinterested in a particular piece? Am I looking for something that is “missing”? If I am scraping to find a connection I will pass it by to look at the next piece.

Technically awkward: First things first, yes – there is plenty of successful artwork out there in the world that tells a story, has a personal connection and is somewhat awkward. The difference between those artworks and a weaker piece is this: when I sense that the awkwardness is unintentional and stems from inexperience with the medium I find myself trying to “fix” the artwork. I cannot fix a piece and fully connect to it at the same time.

These two criteria were among the most prevalent in my mind when looking at the room of artwork. Of course other factors also come into play as well – maturity of color, texture, composition and movement for example. When making a decision it is imperative to maintain a consistent judging criteria. This is something I can fall back on when looking at multiple strong pieces.


…I made my decision. Moreover I felt confident behind my decision. The day of the art show came and I was excited to say a few words in front of the group of artists. As I began to speak, the initial “What if?” question that planted the seed of self-doubt melted away behind the faces of the smiling crowd. I described what makes a piece stand out above the rest. The difference between art and great art is the connection to the viewer . Without connection, why would someone invest the time to stand in front of your creation? The viewer is looking for connectivity and when they find it they resonate with the artwork. Ask yourself, “What am I trying to say with my art?” Establish this link with your audience and your painting/photograph/sculpture/sonata/poem/guitar solo becomes more than the medium, it becomes timeless.

It becomes a masterpiece.

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