JUDGING ARTWORK, 10 Points of Reference

Judging artwork. A photograph of award ribbons.

JUDGING ARTWORK: As a previous post notes, I judged a recent watercolor show for the Watercolor Artists of Sacramento  Horizons (scroll down). This activity provides an opportunity to share with readers of this blog  my approach to the jury process.

JUDGING ARTWORK is not an easy job It’s a bit like asking the meaning of life. Attempt to define art is a question as old as the ages. Ask a hundred people, experts or not, and we come away without a definitive answer, other than “Than the trouble with art is it is subjective. The beauty of art is that it is subjective.” That’s a catchy phrase, but does little to help in the way of an intellectual attempt at objective evaluation. Gracho Marx put his spin on the question this way:

Well, Art is Art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know.

So … after the laughter clears … might there be a reasonable way for us to narrow gross errors in artistic judgement? I don’t claim to have all the answers. However, these ten points do help identify specific areas in an attempt to evaluate or judge artwork. Eliminating all subjective judgement is impossible, but we have to start somewhere.

Over the years I have made numerous notes of what might constitute a basis for evaluating my own work as well as that of others (during my role as juror. These notes include my own thoughts as well as those of others. Many suggestions  come from numerous sources, books, videos, magazines, periodicals, letters, e-mails, peers, teachers, instructors, etc. I am indebted to them all.

What follows is a compilation of notes into a list of ten reference points for evaluating works of art. Of course, as noted earlier it is humanly impossible to apply every item in every instance, nor is it possible to rule out all subjectivity, but these ten points are definitely useful as a basis, a guideline with which to make informed selections. This list is a work in progress and is by no means complete, however I share it as it is and with the best possible intentions: I hope you find the list as helpful as I do.

(In no particular order of importance)


Does the work challenge the mind as well as the brush? Does the work encourage the viewer to exercise his imagination? Does it cause the viewer to bring something to the work itself, to ask questions, to invite an intellectual challenge? In judging artwork, does the piece tend to help “educate,” or somehow engage or promote discussion? Is there something about the work that, despite obvious flaws still captures one’s attention or imagination?

Is the work original and/or creative? Does the painting have something special about it that is important to note? Does the artist use the medium in an unusual, personal, imaginative,  or unique way?  In judging artwork, ask yourself if does the work show evidence of a strong personal viewpoint? Is there some aspect of the painting that breaks the mold, or makes it stand out from what might be considered the norm? Is there evidence the work was done “free hand,” without the aid of technological projection (the exception would be the projection of one’s own free hand preliminary work). 

Composition can be accomplished either scholastically or intuitively. Is the main rectangle well designed? Does the work make use of generally accepted compositional approaches such as steel yard, silhouette, diagonal, L-shape, cross, S-shape, etc? Does the viewer’s eye seem to move over the composition in a manner consistent with the overall design of the work? Does the movement throughout the composition have a pleasing or demanding rhythm to it? Is the composition devoid of confusing tangents such as antlers, fused edges, half shapes, etc? All the above are items that can be helpful factors in judging artwork.

Effective communication usually requires the receiver to receive the message in the manner in which it is intended. If the painting is the message, is the message effectively communicated to the intended audience? If the message is ambiguous is it intentional or accidental? Is the message important or relevant to the audience? These are additional factors to consider when judging artwork of all kinds.

Is the work engaging, with strong emotional appeal? Is there evidence of passion, of caring deeply about some aspect of the work? Is the piece emotionally challenging, whimsical, surreal, imaginative, or seductive? Does the work have a poetic or spiritual quality about it? These are certainly useful question to consider when evaluating artwork.

Does the painter play it safe, or does the painter display a willingness to take a risk, take a chance, or effectively break the rules (transgression). While evaluating the artwork, does it exhibit some form of spontaneity, with or without an attempt at mastery of a medium? Does the painting somehow seek new ground or show evidence of making good use of a serendipitous event? Read on for more suggestions with regard to judging artwork.

Another step in judging artwork is to ask if the piece has cultural, social, or political relevance? If so, does the work choose an approach that is understandable? Is the work accomplished in a manner that easily communicates with its audience? Is the cultural, social or political relevance unique, and/or likely to, in some way stand the test of time?

Some Design Elements to consider in judging artwork might be: Color, Line, Edge, Shape, Space, Texture, and value. Are the chosen elements applied appropriately, and if not, are the reasons consistent with the style and direction of the work? Do the elements take advantage of their relationship with design principles? Are the elements used in a manner that clarifies the intent and maturity of the artist? Do the Design Elements take advantage of their working relationship with Design Principles?

Some Design principles to consider might be: Contrast/Conflict, Balance (formal or informal), Repetition, Alternation, Dominance (Exaggeration, Emphasis), Size, Harmony, Unity, and Movement. Does the painting exhibit a working knowledge of the principles of design? Some examples or guidelines for judging artwork might include obvious thought given to formal or informal design? Are the primary elements effectively repeated? Is there a shape, value, color, or temperature dominance to the work? Can one see evidence of the work moving alternately from lighter to darker, warmer to cooler, etc? Do the Design Principles take advantage of their working relationship with Design Elements?

Does the painting show obvious understanding of the craft of painting? Is the draughtsmanship accomplished by hand, without technological projection?  Does the painting go beyond the photographic ideal (transcription or reporting)? Is the technical facility or craftsmanship consistent? A poorly drawn ear on an otherwise, excellent realistic portrait would certainly lack consistency. Does the work make effective and consistent use of the laws of linear and atmospheric perspective? Does the work exhibit assurance, authority, or boldness of execution?

In summary, the above ten points of reference reflect a reasonable sampling of the many methods used to objectively evaluating artwork.

A final thought: I confess I enjoy experiencing the role of guest juror. I consider any opportunity to judge artwork an honor that comes with much responsibility. However, I agree with artist and teacher, Frank Webb’s opinion that art is to be appreciated, not judged. So, why then do we have art competitions? Why so much interest and time spent evaluating artwork? Well, that’s probably a subject best left to another time and a future post.

Okay, just one more “final thought.” Now, why not have some fun? Go to www.woodyhansen.com and, using the above ten evaluating artwork guidelines put my work to the judgement test? Ouch, my ears are already ringing (grin)!



Bit Of Yeah, But

Red, River Tree, an original watercolor by Woody Hansen
DETAIL – Bit Of Yeah, But. Original watercolor by Woody Hansen
(Click image to view entire painting)

When posting a new image on this blog, I usually show a small segment of the actual painting, a segment often referred to as a “detail.” When the detail image is clicked on, the viewer is taken to a page which features the full image. In this way the viewer gets two images to consider, one a detail image showing a close-up view, and the second image that features the entire painting.

Bit Of Yeah, But, is based on the detail of a previously posted painting titled,Yeah, but … If you look closely, you’ll see that the detail is crated from a … bit … of the lower right hand corner of, Yeah, but … Thus, the tile of this new piece, bit of Yeah but. So, one might say the detail seen above is a bit, of the bit of the original, Yeah, but.. Oh, the convoluted humor of it all?

On a more serious note, my personal point of interest for this piece is the large, white area. I wanted to capture some of the texture I saw in the white area of the original detail image. When I photographed the original, Yeah, but … Painting there was strong light coming from above. The direction of the light highlighted the texture of the paper, particularly in the untouched, white area.

To achieve a similar effect on this painting, I first laid in a gray wash over the intended white area. Once this layer dried, I then used a very stiff, old, abused, one inch house brush to lightly scrub over the gray with opaque, Chinese white. This technique allows some of the gray to show through somewhat mimicking the desired texture. Putting gray over white will not achieve the same effect.

Of course, using opaque white in a transparent watercolor is enough to cause some watercolor afficianados to experience dangerously high blood pressure at the least, or declare a near international incident at worst. Bottom line … I achieved my desired effect. Now, isn’t that more than you wanted to know? It’s definitely more than I intended to write.

To learn more and see the full painting, please follow THIS LINK.