Here Comes the Judge

It has been my honor and privilege to judge many art exhibits. Before seeing any entries, I always (in self-defense) distribute flyers explaining exactly what I look for. My intentions are to both suppress those who may resoundingly disagree with my selections and, hopefully, provide new awareness for all. The flyer clarifies that my goal is to evaluate the art and not the artist. I point out that an obvious lack of experience might necessarily disqualify some work as compared to others.

There have been many times when, in good conscience, I have awarded the top prize to a painting I wouldn't hang in my home if it were given to me. Those who read the first sentence on my explicit flyer understand that I am not hired to find something I like. I am being paid to discover work with artistic merit. It isn't always easy.

There were paintings at one exhibit that reminded me of a Sears Catalog with countless, seemingly unrelated objects scattered all about. There were others suspected of being a duplication of a photograph. The accusatorial clues were black shadows, totally void of everything.

The human eye doesn't see shadows that way, but the camera can't always adjust to both brilliant sunlight and deep shade. Processed film often shows one overexposed or the other underexposed. My policy as a juror is, "If in doubt, leave it out."

Then, there were many painters who tried their best to reproduce nature "just like it is," leaving nothing out, but at the same time putting in nothing of themselves. They may have believed that the purpose of art is limited to the recording of natural or man-made objects as accurately as manual skill permits, all in order to make the painting look "real." Technical illustrators may be required to do that, but that approach has nothing to do with Fine Art.

We call what we do Fine Art because it is a literal refining process. Due to the physical limitations of human sight and mental comprehension, we can neither see everything that's actually out there, nor understand it all. It would be humanly impossible to paint it "just like it is." Due to the vastness, profusion, diversity, and complexity of nature, we artists must make choices.

What do we do? We select, simplify, and refine reality. Art is not nature. Only when the painter departs from a strict imitation of nature and imposes a rhythm or order of his or her own choosing can the work attain artistic stature..

As I wandered through the exhibit, I couldn't help but notice what looked like the same painting reappearing on different display stands. I suddenly realized they were class studies. Each of the painters, members of the same "How To" class, had depicted the same subject and point of view with the same color scheme. Well, my function was not to judge how well someone could duplicate another's choices, thinking, or methods, so I hurried on by.

The next painting I saw was totally different from all others. Its merit was instantly recognized as resulting from the artist's awareness, control, and utilization of fundamental principles.

The artist had first established a powerful basic design. It was a division of the picture surface that created four easily understood and distinct areas, varied in measurement and shape. It had the simplicity of a young child's jigsaw puzzle.

The viewer's eye and attention were easily led into and through the composition via illusions of connecting shapes, forms, and patterns of light and shadow that appeared to vary in size and position as they wove their way inward.

The dark and light relationships (value pattern) profoundly described a harmonious mood. The mood was magnificently reinforced by the relationships of neutral and cool color temperatures, creatively arranged.

Soft and diffused edges were strategically placed to subdue peripheral areas while sharply defined and hard edges added astounding emphasis to the compositional focal point, as did the single use of clear warm color. It was an amazing feat of organization. I placed the Best of Show ribbon on it, handed the artist his check, and got out of town as fast as I could.

What I've shared with you actually happened many times. I'd like you to read the last four paragraphs again. Did you notice there was no mention of subject matter? Subject matter, seemingly appearing on a picture surface, is an illusion existing only in the mind of the viewer. If you were to pay money to someone to be an art exhibit judge, would you expect him or her to evaluate something that isn't really on the picture surface at all? Of course not!

What actually is on the picture surface are patches of color. What is evaluated is how and why those patches of color were chosen and how effectively in combination they produced the illusionary effect.

You see, it isn't the end result that's evaluated, it's how it was achieved. In other words, The Best of Show award belongs to the artist with the greatest understanding and control of art principles. I'm proud to say they are what our web site lessons are all about. Take a peek at, and I hope you'll let me stay in town.

Don Foster

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