Tips From Six Well Know Jurors

Feb 18, 2023

By Sarah Love
Published 2018, Just Prior to the NWWS 75th Anniversary Celebration

Have you been painting away, going to workshops to learn how to paint better and wondering if you’ll ever be brave enough to enter a juried show? Or you’ve already entered a show without results and want to know what you can do to better the outcome?

As a novice watercolor artist, I was wondering the same. With the encouragement from members of the Northwest Watercolor Society (NWWS), I interviewed four former jurors of their Annual International Open Exhibitions and two jurors who will be jurying the 75th – Thomas Schaller, Carla O’Connor, Mark Mehaffey, Donna Zagotta, Judy Morris and Alvaro Castagnet.

I discovered that all six of these amazing artists have a deep understanding and reverence for art and a willingness to help others along the way – no matter where they are in their art journey. All are teachers and offer their expertise from both sides, as an entrant and as a juror.

Thomas Schaller, an architectural artist for 20 years says, “I thought that entering juried shows might dilute my interest in art – or even the quality of my work – if I were to become obsessed with the competition for awards or trying to please a juror. I was 100% wrong!” he humbly found out. “By entering shows, I became a better painter.” Tom has a collection of rejection letters. “Enjoy your rejections. You’re not going to get into every show. Sometimes it’s the luck of the draw. There’s always another show.” Tom has, however, won many awards and honors.

When Carla O’Connor started to teach workshops, she felt she needed credentials after her name to get hired. She went about entering shows in a businesslike manner by starting locally, then regionally, and finally nationally. “Every time you enter, you move up the ladder. With each step your work starts to become recognizable. Challenge yourself along the way. You’re building a whole work of qualification.” Carla got her credentials plus many national awards and is now an AWS Dolphin Fellow.

After you’ve read the prospectus for the show you want to enter, hire someone to get the best digital image possible, recommends Mark Mehaffey, who has been teaching painting for 46 years, 30 of which were in public schools. “[Photography] that matches your painting. Project it on the wall to see what the judges will see.”

Carla O’Connor agrees. “I forego a lot of other things to pay a photographer. There’s nothing worse than seeing grass growing up at the bottom of the painting or a fireplace behind, or fingers or bad lighting. Because that says to me the artist doesn’t even respect their own work well enough to give it the best possible presentation that they can afford. Stop eating steak and get a good photographer.”

Something to think about, smart phone users.

Enter Your Best Work
You can try to figure out what a juror wants to see or paint like the juror but that would be a mistake. “Enter your best work,” says Mehaffey. “Don’t second guess judges.” “I don’t expect people to paint the way I do,” adds Schaller. “Paint your thing; paint your joy.”

As a professional artist for more than 20 years who has won many awards, Donna Zagotta looks for something unique. “I want to see the artist’s personality in the painting. I’m looking for something that is about the artist and not the subject.”

Alvaro Castagnet, wants to see paintings of daring, adventure; paintings with integrity, paintings with confidence and authority – being oneself, not being somebody else. “I love to see naïveté instead of being smart.”

“The main thing is getting the juror’s attention. Submit something you love and are proud of,” advises Judy Morris. Judy has been teaching professionally for 48 years, of which 30 years were in the public schools.

The Judging Process
Jurors have hundreds of photos to go through when judging a show and they view the photos several times over a period of time before making any selections. Those paintings that are unique or ones that grab the juror’s attention will make the first cut.

“The thing that matters most at first glance is the value of the painting. There’s something that captures your attention and makes you want to look at that painting longer,” says Morris.

Once you have the juror’s attention, does your design/composition enforce that connection? Does your technique or technical skills showcase the risk syou’ve taken in your work. With the added criteria the juror’s number of selections grows smaller.

Most jurors like to have a well-rounded show. If 14 sunflowers have been submitted but the juror wants only two or three florals, they are going to pick the one that ‘speaks’ the loudest to them or the one they connect to the most. That doesn’t mean that the other 11 or 12 aren’t good or aren’t well executed. It means the juror could only pick a few. Another reason not to give up on entering shows.

The Award Process
When jurors are ready to pick the award winners and they see the paintings live, up close and personal at the hanging, they all start to look for the WOW factor or AWE factor. There’s a story that comes through the painting. The WOW factor doesn’t have to hit you like a sledgehammer. It can be an indescribable spark or unnamed subtlety.

Other things jurors look for:
1. Interesting surface treatment
2  A surprise element
3. The juror says to himself (herself), I wished I’d done that.
4. A finished work of art

“It’s less about competition and more about sharing that communication between two people or more,” adds Mehaffey.

You can ask yourself what’s unique about your painting or even put it before a critique group for feedback. Does your painting have a voice? What does it communicate? Is it work that you’re proud of?

So beginners, myself included, get your “brush miles” as Mehaffey would say. Develop your skills to have a visual voice and show up and do the work. I’m ready. Are you?