Art competitions, and how to survive them

Beauty (eye of the beholder) by Celandine

Beauty (eye of the beholder) by Celandine

Art competitions might not sound like a particularly controversial issue, but they are. On the one hand, when a coveted brand publishes an art competition and you imagine your work getting printed and sold by them, it feels kind of like when you fantasize about winning the lottery, except a lot more achievable. You just have to be better than a few hundred other artists, right? You’ll never know unless you try, right?

On the other hand, a lot of competitions really don’t offer particularly great benefits to the winning artists. There are competitions where the only ‘prize’ you get is having your work printed and sold, with your name on the label. This means you have given your artwork away for free, hoping that whatever publicity it brings will be worth it in the long run, while the company is collecting both their and your own fair share of profit. More often competitions come with a lump sum prize of a few hundred dollars for the winner. Almost always you have to sign away the full rights to your piece, meaning that piece does not belong to you in any way any more, and you can never sell it to anyone else again. Some competitions even have rules by which the rights to every entered piece are transferred to the competition organizers – this effectively means that they can run the competition, give out a single low prize, and then proceed to use as many of the submitted artworks as they please, at no additional cost. This also means that you as the artist get badly burned.

Many experienced artists are fervently against the concept of art competitions, considering them a type of spec work and as such fundamentally immoral and harmful to the art community as a whole. While I agree with their viewpoints, I have to admit I really enjoy taking part in competitions. Here’s how I avoid getting burned:

1. READ THE TERMS. Seriously. Seems obvious but it’s not just once that I’ve rushed into submitting something for a fun-sounding competition before I actually thought to check their terms and conditions. Read all of them. There will be many, they will be in boring legalese language, and the font will be small. Don’t be deterred. If there’s something that sounds suspicious or something you don’t understand, try to google the terms and get a clear view on it. If all else fails, ask them for clarifications. Better safe than sorry. Never sign up for something if the terms sound unfair to you.

2. SET YOUR GOALS. What do you want to gain from the competition? Are you after the main prize, or just experience? Will there be a public online gallery of submitted pieces that can give you some exposure? No matter how small the competition, each artist’s chance of winning is always relatively small. We are many, we are forever hungry, and many of us are pretty damned good. If you have secondary goals or benefits in mind, the competing process will be more rewarding for you. I personally am yet to win anything, but I do find that working to set deadlines and professionally defined design briefs gives me an excellent practice ground and helps me produce quality work I’m happy with – even if the competition organizers don’t bat an eye at it.

3. PICK YOUR BATTLES. There are a lot of art contests out there, and not all of them are for you. When you’re first starting out in art there’s a great temptation to try EVERYTHING and just see what sticks. This carpet-bombing approach wears you out pretty soon. While it can be good practice to try your hand at a number of different art markets as you’re trying to discover your strengths, there are some things that will just not click with your style, your personality or your current mood. Let them go. There will always be a new one rolling around the corner. Instead of trying to get better at things that you’re not great at, play to your strengths and always keep working to get better and better in those areas where you’re already doing great. It seems counter-intuitive but you will grow much faster that way, moving towards that clear and unique artistic voice we all want to reach.


1. Threadless – not a competition in the most often used sense, but a great tee shirt site that crowdsources its designs. You submit work, people vote on it or pledge money for it to get printed, and if you’re lucky and persistent, it does. Then you get to wear an awesome tee with your name on the neck tag and you feel like a million bucks. A lot of great artists got into art by learning the ropes while hanging out on the Threadless blogs.

2. Lilla Rogers’ Global Talent Search – this year’s search is currently underway but it’s always something you can bookmark for next year! Lilla Rogers is a hugely influential art agent and she uses the GTS competition to choose new artists to represent. You’re unlikely to win it (999 entries this year in the first round, 1500 last year) but as she likes to say, someone has to! You pay a small fee to enter but you get a great design brief and a chance to be seen by her panel of judges, who are all high-level industry professionals. You keep all of the work you make. It’s definitely a learning experience.

3. Tigerprint/ Marks and SpencerĀ – it’s an ongoing competition with a new brief each month. Tons of people enter. If you win they give you Ā£200 and a possible placement in their studio, though I’m not sure what exactly that means. They keep exclusive rights to your artwork for two years, after that you own it again. Even if you don’t fancy the terms of submission, their briefs can be a source of inspiration.

4. Printed Village – ongoing competition with monthly briefs to design scarves that get offered to/ sold through Anthropologie and a few other biggish names. They give you 300$ if you win and you sign over full rights to the piece to them. You can’t use work that’s previously been shown/ sold elsewhere. If you sign up to receive their mailing list newsletter, they’ll let you know about closed competitions that aren’t publicly announced. After the end of their last closed competition, their main designer offered personal feedback to anyone who wanted it. I learned a lot from his insight.

5. Front Row Society – for scarves and occasionally other garments. Great briefs and mood boards. They give you 200 eur when you win plus an additional 200 eur every time your design sells 500 pieces (Or rather if it does. That’s a pretty huge run. Also that means they’re effectively paying you 0.40 eurocents per garment, which is whatever goes even lower than peanuts on the low gains scale). If you don’t win, you need to ask them to remove your design from their archive before the rights are returned to you – they don’t release non-winning designs automatically.

6. Spoonflower – Spoonflower prints fabrics on demand, so you can use them to buy fabric with your own design, or you can offer your designs for sale to the public (you have to buy a swatch of each design you want to put up for sale). The amount they pay the artists is ridiculously low so you’re unlikely to make money there unless you’re really willing to go heart-and-soul into building your presence there and build up a lot of sales volume. they do however have a weekly design contest that can gain you visibility and possibly land your work in front of that special someone’s eyes within the textile industry. Winning designs get 100$ of Spoondollar Credit (not redeemable for real-world money) and they get put up for sale free of charge. The prize is nothing to write home about unless you’re into sewing, but the exposure could be good.

This is the stuff I know about, I’m sure there are tons of others out there. As you can see there is something for everyone, and if you’re the sort of person who lacks inspiration and can’t decide what to draw next, just browsing through these ever-changing briefs might spark something and help you create a great piece – whether or not you decide to sub it into the contest. And don’t forget the first rule of Art Competitions – No Crying!

Have you taken part in any art competitions, and how did they work out for you? Does it break your heart when you lose? Do you ever sit there looking at the winners and think ‘what, this thing won?’ šŸ™‚ Let me know in the comments.Ā 


8 thoughts on “Art competitions, and how to survive them

    • Good luck!!! And definitely no crying!!! Each piece you make for a competition is a new piece you have for your ever growing and ever improving portfolio. The prizes usually aren’t enough to cry over anyway, and our egos can use the challenge šŸ™‚

  1. What a helpful, clear-eyed overview of the whole art competition thing. I wish I’d known all this stuff about a year ago. I’ve fallen into some of these pitfalls, especially not reading the terms closely enough.

    This is developing into a seriously brilliant blog.

    • So glad you’re enjoying it, Mary!! šŸ™‚ If you have any question or topic you’d like to see me discuss, let me know and I’ll strive not to disappoint!! I have a really great interview with an industry expert coming up soon, so look out for that too šŸ™‚

  2. Ah thank for the advice and list of competitions. Knew about some of them but others I need to take a peek. Shibumi is my first “big” competition but I had lot’s of fun with it. I can totally relate when you said “I do find that working to set deadlines and professionally defined design briefs gives me an excellent practice ground and helps me produce quality work Iā€™m happy with” and I believe that is very important to be happy with our word so we can show it with confidence and that will make all the difference. Once again great article! (Going through them all as you may have noticed ahah)

    • Shibumi was a really fun competition, I can’t wait to see what they end up choosing. Yeah, sometimes having full freedom to make ANYTHING you want is actually numbing, and being given a set of rules (and more importantly, a deadline!!!) really gets you into gear. Also I honestly think that the many rejections are great for the artist’s soul – they build character, grow confidence in an odd way (you have to dig deep inside and find ways to really believe in your work, in order to carry on when people keep turning you down) and make the eventual successes that much sweeter šŸ™‚

  3. Perfect timing – I just applied for an exhibition and the work wasn’t selected. I have to remind myself that it’s often down to personal preference – and at least this way I still have the work for an upcoming art fair… Where I’m more likely to find a happy buyer!

    • Absolutely! Sometimes we pine after a particular elusive opportunity (like your exhibition) and we forget to focus on others that seem less glamorous but are actually more likely to put us in touch with our ideal buyers (like your art fair). Reminds me of Owen Garratt when he points out people often choose the art shows they will take part in by which has the greatest number of visitors, when in fact out of the thousands who will be there you can only really manage to have a conversation with around 60-70 people per day, and that’s if you never need to eat or go to the bathroom šŸ™‚ So it makes far more sense to pick the show with the right KIND of visitors, rather than the greatest number.

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