Monday, October 13, 2008

Juried art competitions - does size matter?

Bigger is better. Small is beautiful. Does size matter?

I know - one of those perennial questions which always gets asked but in this post I'm asking this question in relation to juried art exhibitions.

Recently somebody commented (offline) on the photo below of the award-winning paintings in my recent post RWS / Sunday Times Watercolour Competition 2008 - exhibition review. The comment was to the effect that my reader hadn't previously realised the size of some of the paintings being exhibited.

RWS / Sunday Times Watercolour Competition - The award winning paintings (left wall)
photo copyright Katherine Tyrrell, paintings copyright the artists,
courtesy Bankside Gallery

In fact, the same point had already occurred to me. It was also the reason why I included an average sized person in the photo.

Juried art competitions - does size matter?

One of the problems with seeing images from juried exhibitions on a website and in isolation is that you often get a very good view of the image - but you have absolutely no idea as to the size of that image, unless you make a point of also looking at the data about dimensions. Given the confusion over conversions between metric and imperial systems of measurement one might also see the dimensions - and they mean absolutely nothing to you. (Here's a converter!)

It suddenly struck me the other day that jurors who only view digital images to make a selection also have no way of comparing their relative size and impact - and the level of work employed.

View of the Threadneedle Figurative Exhibition in the Mall Galleries
photo copyright Katherine Tyrrell, Courtesy Mall Galleries

In effect if all images are converted to roughly the same size, it's the visual equivalent of the juror viewing at different distances in a gallery - which is not what happens in real life. In real life, I don't think my behaviour is much different from most people assessing a work. I first look at it from a distance and see which ones catch my eye. I then begin to move in closer to look at detail. For work (large or small) which has a lot of complexity and/or skill in terms of surface finish and/or brush work I might end up very close indeed.

I visit, see and review very many top flight juried exhibitions in London in the course of a year. I know what I see and I'd have to say that, on the whole, my impression is that size certainly does matter in juried exhibitions. By 'size does matter' I mean the extremes of both dimensions - both large and small (ie miniature).

View of part of the BP Portrait Exhibition, National Portrait Gallery.

Here are some of the reasons why I think size might matter for some jurors. I'm inviting you to comment and also to suggest whether there are any other reasons.
  • Exhibitions are often held in rooms a great deal bigger than the ones we produce our work in. Pictures which 'carry' across a distance have impact.
  • Larger paintings often have more impact - they're much more difficult to ignore
  • Artists want to make a statement and have an impact in a juried competition - so produce work which is larger and more significant than maybe the size they usually use
  • Some might suggest producing bigger work is a shortcut to getting noticed - take a look at this BBC item about larger works of art Arts gets bigger and bigger (Dear BBC - Grammar?)
  • Larger paintings tend to have a higher value. On the the basis of "high value=good painting" that presumably makes bigger paintings better. (I'm not saying this is true - just that it may well be an implicit assumption in some people's minds)
  • If a juror is also the gallery owner collecting the commission if the piece sells, one might hesitate to think there could also be some incentive to awarding prizes to larger pieces - but it's got to be a possibility!
True miniature paintings can also have enormous impact (I mean paintings which have truly miniaturised the subject matter rather than just paintings in a small format size). It's sometimes said that miniatures require 'a million brushstrokes'. The skill required to produce an expertly painted miniature is frequently admired and certainly attracts lots of collectors. However I'm not sure that miniature paintings do as well in more open exhibitions.

Can you think of any other reasons why size might matter?

Some questions for you

Here are some things to think about and/or comment on.
  • How often do you go to see top quality juried art exhibitions? What do you notice about the work which wins prizes?
  • How often do you view your own work from 20 feet or more?
  • How big is 'big enough'?
  • Is bigger better - or is small more beautiful?
So - do you think size matters?

I'm now off to the Private View of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters, Sculptors and Gravers!


  1. yep, size matters :>)

    I think you'll find that the vast majority of those artists working large do so regularly. Certainly those I know do.

    It is part of a degree to do a great deal of very large scale work - it allows a lot more room for development, visual language of marks and layers and glazes etc and has more impact as you state - this makes us enjoy working large!

    The wealthy who collect tend to have large houses and nice big walls - so smaller pieces look lost and fussy, they need the impact of larger works. So, as with the point you make about impact in the large gallery space -they need the same criteria in their homes.

    Loft apartment simplicity requires a statement piece and no clutter of smaller works.

    Even small houses look fantastic with at least one large piece - say over the sofa :>)

    Go into any good private gallery in say Cork Street and you'll find plenty of 6 foot plus canvasses

    Personally I work in a variety of sizes but always some large canvasses too.

    This is not to say small works don't matter - I do those too! but size does indeed matter at times :>)

  2. Having recently juried my first exhibition I found that some work was an obvious yay or nay from the get-go, but to make a decision on others I needed to know the dimensions first so I could better visualize the actual product. (And the quality of the image mattered far more than I realised.) Jurying the awards is next and it'll be interesting to see how size impacts my (and my co-jurors') decision making.

  3. Personally, when I view shows, I admit size does make a difference, but size must be backed up with skill. A big painting does not make it good, but a good painting that's big makes a huge impact.

    On a another note, the smaller pieces in shows that are MAGNIFICENT despite their size, get a boost from the size matter as well, IMO. I'll never forget going to my first CPSA convention in Chicago and being able to see Cecile Baird's work clear across an adjoining room of the gallery and it pulled me to it. When up close it was just as beautiful; that makes a winner as well.

    So in short, yes i believe larger work (if good or up to par) can be a shortcut to success in a show where the winners are juried in person, but that doesn't mean small works can't have impact as well. I just believe the smaller works have to be just a bit better in skill terms to win the prizes.

    IMHO of course!

    Great post Katherine!

  4. Excellent observations!
    Although I don't see a lot on national exhibitions, I completely agree that size matters in them. It is difficult for a national juror to asses thru slides or JPGs, short of having artists submit actual pieces for jurying. Now that I think about it, why couldn't they ask artists to submit JPG size with some formula accounting for actual size?

    I think it's also important to take into account the exhibition space. Nothing like having a huge hall with vaulted ceiling to display little 5x7 pieces (or an intimate space housing biggies). Size of space affects impact of the work.

    Thanks for the insightful questions to think about! (Me thinks I need to think more often.)

  5. Size seems to definitely make a difference. Recently, I attended a plein air competition. Most of the works were small in format with 8 x 10 inch being the smallest and the most common size. The Best of Show and First Place winner of the competition had paintings that were large in size for plein air paintings. In fact, they were the largest plein air paintings in the exhibition at approx. 24 x 18 inch. Since they were well executed and larger in size than the surrounding ones, they did have an impact and were hard to miss even though they were average sized paintings.

    Many contests are now limiting the size of the entries, especially where the final works are shown in a gallery. I am wondering if this has to do with the gallery space and/or the logistics of not wanting to handle larger pieces.

  6. As someone learning to paint I find that a huge blank canvas is incrediably intimidating. It keeps me stuck. So I have found myself using and becoming very conmfortable with a smaller scale (usually well under 10x14"). The smaller the better seems to be my current motto. Since I am not trying to sell my paintings the small scale isn't hurting me.

    I also remember seeing the Lucien Freud self portrait hung at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC last year. It was small (if I remember correctly it was no larger than 10x16" or so) and intimate.

    You had to get close to see it and then move far back to see it again, if that makes sense. It drew you in and you could get lost in the brushstrokes up-close but it was equally amazing from 10 feet away.

    I live in an historic area where most of the homes are very small. On the weekends I love walking the streets in the evening and peeking at the art work on display (if the windows/shades are open). Most larger works are placed the fireplace mantel. There are a number of homes that have a great deal of artwork hung gallery style which are quite charming.

  7. Hi K,
    I posted a comment but I'm not sure if it came through (it sent me back to wordpress to sign in to use open id). Did it come through or do I need to leave it again?

  8. Not on this post Jana. I got your comment on another post though

  9. Such a good topic, thank you! I agree that often an artist's studio can dictate the size. Some years ago I moved my work space from my dining room to a large guest cottage with a skylight. I had been working on a series of small watercolors, collages and canvases up to 9 x 12". As I sat at the table in my new space and looked up at my empty easel I realized how constraining one's environment can be if allowed. I went and purchased a canvas 36 x 60" and painted my first large painting. Although my studio today is smaller than the cottage, I continue to paint large and small. And yes, I am aware that people take my work more seriously because of the larger work.


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