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  • Writer's pictureLucy

Judging Art – Is it a Feeling or Something More?

Updated: Sep 24, 2023

Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year 2015 Logo

[BLOG POST 09/24/23] Recently a friend introduced me to the show "Landscape Artist of the Year" available on Amazon's Prime Video streaming service. It's a friendly competition where in each episode 8 artists paint the same landscape in only 4 hours and then the works are reviewed by 3 judges: portrait artist Tai Shan Schierenberg, curator Kathleen Soriano and art dealer Kate Bryan. The goal is to "unearth a new star of the arts world".

FYI: There is a sister show called "Portrait Artist of the Year" with a similar goal only relating to portraits. It's also available on Amazon's Prime Video.

Both series are entertaining and filmed in a similar manner as to the very popular Great British Baking Show on Netflix.

It's really fun to see the different artists' styles and see their paintings progress in such a short time. Click on the image below to watch a short overview video:

Screen shot of the TV show

The thing that makes me crazy on this show are the judges!

They blatantly object to realistic painting and instead want evocative paintings that show the personality of the painter and/or the "feeling" of the environment. Oftentimes they choose very abstract renditions of the landscape or completely imaginative interpretations of the scene.

For example, this landscape by 2015 Landscape winner Nerine McIntyre:

Painting by Nerine McIntyre

In another episode they wax poetically about how one contestant "didn't have a clue about what to do" and how marvelous it was to watch them stumble their way into figuring out how to make a landscape painting.

BTW that painting ended up being a simply brown angular shape on a small, square white canvas. And it won that contestant a place at the semifinals where he did another small abstract painting that got him into the finals.

In my opinion, these judges value "different" and "experimental" over "good".

I recognize that judging art is inherently complicated. Every act of painting is a unique act of creation completely intertwined with the artist. None of us make marks on a canvas the same way.

In fact, I was once told not to worry about what my "style" would be because it exists wether or not I consciously choose it.

However, follow my logic here, if you only look at a painting as an extension of the artist then they are one and the same. If you judge the artist/painting on their "style" you are very close to telling one artist/painting that they are more valuable than another artist/painting based on a very superficial trait.

To me that is NOT a good way to judge art.

It's the easy way. Perhaps an instinctual way. But not a good way.

And it leads to sayings like, "I don't know art but I know what I like".

There is another way to judge art – on its merits.

Consider things like:

(1) Compositional elements – Does it keep your eye moving around the scene? Is every part of the canvas intragal to the whole? Does it feel balanced?

(2) Value range – Is there a lot of variety in lights and darks creating depth and interest?

(3) Technical ability – How well do they handle their chosen medium? Do they understand and utilize its unique qualities? Did they use it in a surprising way?

(4) Color – do they understand how colors interact with one another, compliment each other, and use at least basic color theory?

These four things are part of every painting wether it be realistic or abstract.

Then, after considering those four items you can add it elements like: the subject matter, the emotional reaction you feel when you look at it, if you know the artist and understand their intent, historical context, is the perspective successful, the mysterious "it" factor, etc.

Personally, I also look at if there is truth in the painting:

  • Truth in rendering something as it appeared (does it "look right"?),

  • Truth in the experience of the artist at the time of the painting (does it reflect an honest emotional experience?), and

  • Truth in the story being told in the painting (is it a believable and relatable story?).

I really wish the judges on this TV show talked about some of these elements to help people understand the complexity that goes into making art.

Instead, when an artist is celebrated for something as vague as "style" and/or the personal preference of the judge (or "gate keeper" as they are often called) there is no way to truly appreciate the intention, planning, training, and hard work each artist brings to their paintings. And there is no clear path for an artist to find success.

On the show you can see the surprise and confusion on the faces of the contestants – they often look completely baffled by the judges' choices.

Me too! I shake my head and roll my eyes constantly. So much so that I think I'm going to stop watching the show. It's just too frustrating--if the success of an artist is based on the whim of a "gate keeper" then there doesn't seem to be much hope.

Success really seems to come down to dumb luck.

So I guess the lesson I'm taking away from all of this is that as an artist it's best to focus on enjoying the act of making art. If you make art for the love of making art and let everything else fall away then you'll find happiness which is way better than "success" any day of the week. ❤️

Artist Lucy Finch painting
Lucy enjoying painting in her studio

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