Art competitions: why they matter and how to win

Every July, Atomhawk runs an art competition, giving fresh talent the chance to share what they’ve got. Ours isn’t the only competition out there; our long-time competition sponsor 3dtotal also hosts regular art challenges throughout the year, with killer prizes to boot.

Aside from the possible glory of winning, there are solid advantages to entering art competitions:

  • Practice focusing on a brief and systematically answering it
  • Practice following a logical workflow and trusting your artistic judgement
  • Practice working to deadline, training you to focus your efforts and make artistic decisions in a proactive way
  • Introduce yourself to industry peers and recruiters

Just entering competitions is a good idea, then. But how do you go about winning too? We’ve teamed up with Ben and Glenn from nDreams Studio Elevation to bring you insider tips and tricks to impress the judges.

Know the brief, know your idea, know what works

An art competition gives you boundaries around your art. This demands a different type of research and planning from creating your own free-flowing artwork. Entering lots of competitions ingrains the discipline of breaking a brief down and making sure you’re covering all its requirements.

Understand and shape the nucleus of your core idea in response to the brief. Get that right and you’ll be able to take it further. Sometimes it’s clear that an idea has great potential within working developments, but it loses its edge in the final execution. You’re looking for refinement through iteration of a strong, well-considered concept, not necessarily more.

One good tip is to read a previous competition brief and look at how different artists responded to it, from every conceivable direction. Sift through them and consider why the winners, runners-up and honourable mentions won their places. Take the time to observe and understand the strengths of each composition.

Make the judges notice you

Start with the obvious rule – answer the brief! Reviewers are actively paring down entrants, so if your work is off-brief it’s unlikely to go further.

Everyone brings their own flair and creative ideas. The entries that show good judgement across the board stand out. That means artists with a solid understanding of their own work and its strengths, underpinned by good technical basics. Stand-out entries may have a dynamic composition, compelling emotional narrative communication, or impressive colour wielding. An excellent image demonstrates a conscious choice to apply just the right amount of effort in the core areas, to help round off the whole piece.

Show us your working out

In a competition like ours, demonstrating process is as important as the final image. Good practical and aesthetic judgement give an insight into your decision-making and innate creativity. This will attract attention as much as an eye-catching final piece and goes a long way to making the viewer more connected with the final image as they buy into the journey.

As a side note, this applies to portfolios too, as well as to competition entries. Good, well laid-out presentation makes viewers more receptive. Don’t overfill pages. Just select the best work, clearly labelled, with the most important images called out as focal points.

Give us the feels

Creating an image that triggers emotions is a winning move. Look for novel ways to instil emotions like nostalgia, awe, humour, sadness, or delight.

For many reviewers, technical prowess is not the primary virtue. Instead, they’re looking for the key emotional and narrative takeaway. Concept art is a visual language that conveys ideas and emotion. The range of expression, markings, texture, and detail is not fixed or set, so use it to your advantage. Make the viewer discover and interpret your work, be clear and specific where you want to, and more ambiguous elsewhere.

Know the discipline of a deadline

Like a real-world brief, a competition has a hard deadline. Working creatively to a deadline takes practice. The more competitions you enter, the better you will understand what works best for you when it comes to delivering on time, every time. Focusing on the right areas of your work and making effective artistic decisions, working to deadline will help you control your creative output in new ways. Pacing your work will leave you time to avoid rushing and submitting anything substandard. This method will look different to everyone, so you must experiment to find what unique approach works for you.

As the art competition deadline approaches, ask yourself a few questions and answer them objectively:

  • If there was one take away, what would you want that to be?
  • Is the focus obvious, is there any fussy detail detracting from your visual message?
  • Is your vision / message faithful to the brief?
  • Are you covering the bases of good composition and execution?
  • Do you know what your composition or execution ‘spike’ or ‘device’ is? Is there magic, innovation, or simple excellence in your work?

Push forward and be seen

Entering competitions gives you valuable exposure, putting your work in front of professionals, some of whom will be looking for talent to recruit. Also, competition success looks great on your CV and dramatically increases the chances of landing professional work.

Creative growth is an ongoing journey. Taking part in multiple competitions helps you explore the possible routes, execution styles, leftfield ideas, narrative, emotional messaging, and more. The experience should widen your outlook, exposing you to a diverse range of influence and possibilities, which in turn will improve the quality of your work.

The Atomhawk Art Competition is run every year in July! If you would like to be notified of this year’s theme 24 hours before everyone else, join our Art Competition Early Access mailing list.