Monday, March 23, 2009

Spectrum: Back on the Other Side

The first volume of Spectrum: the Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art appeared back when I was still in college. As a juried compendium of the year's best-of in genre art and illustration, it quickly became a much-anticipated release, both for fans of the art who happily scoop up each volume, and for every genre artist, who looks to it as a quick way to stay abreast of the competition, as well as to measure themselves informally against it. It's also become the de facto standard in the field of illustration annuals--books that historically have required big bucks to advertise in, that are sent to art directors all around the country. These still exist, and they still perform their job, however, for art directors interested in fantasy genre art, Spectrum seems to have become the preferable choice.

So as you can see, Spectrum serves a few very important purposes. It's also the source of much anxiety every year for many artists--will they get in? If for the first time, will they get in and earn the credibility associated? If they've gotten in multiple times, can they then keep up the streak which further establishes reputation, or will they be out a year or longer, and feel like they might be slipping? When they don't get in, is it because they haven't merited inclusion and don't have an accurate perception of the work, or is it just bad luck given the jury selection and any number of variables that insert themselves into the process?

My recent stint of jurying happened while I was eagerly awaiting the results of this year's Spectrum submission. Of the 16 or so years (inclusive), I think I have submitted maybe 6-7 of those years, mostly recently, and have been in twice and a half (I was selected for one of the earlier books for a piece I collaborated with another artist on, but we couldn't organize getting a reproduction to them in time, as I didn't have a good scan of it). So I was mindful of my own struggles with juried competitions as I participated in jurying one, myself.

Well, I was informed that I got in again this year, and I was greatly relieved and cheered by that news. I'm not sure yet what image(s) got accepted, but just being on the list with so many talented artists makes one proud. Other artists whose work is truly worthy did not get in. Some years, I haven't gotten in and felt a little bitter about it when I saw the book and noted a couple of pieces I honestly felt my work was objectively better than. This happens to everyone that doesn't get in. Of course why my piece should have filled that spot and not someone else's instead, isn't something I ask myself in those moments. Because when I'm upset, I'm usually at my most selfish. Taking a step back, I could probably name a dozen or so artists who might actually deserve that extra spot. I mean, those at the top of the game might produce 30 pieces of art in a year, every single image of which deserves to be in the book, and all of which might eclipse my best entry. So, when I get in, I consider it a little act of charity that the book isn't 20 images each by the 15 best illustrators. I'm glad the rest of us get a shot, too.

So this year, I'm in. But already, the pressure is on as 2009 is a quarter over already--where do I stand for next year's submissions? Is my work improving? Is it improving fast enough compared to the other guy? What will I do to bump it along? To which I can only respond in what I will do today.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Something Else

I don't get the opportunity too often to do portraiture, but enjoy it. It's a natural extension of other things I do and the type of art I create, namely, representational realism. So, here's something I did a couple weeks back. I actually worked from video vs. photo or life. I found it interesting, and preferable in some ways to photographs. Photographs freeze an instant, but the slight shift of expression a moment or two before or later might've been preferable. As well, one holding a face is often a bit more strained than if they did so with less stress, knowing that they don't have to freeze for the one moment the shutter clicks. I'll keep this in mind for future use.

9x12" pencil on paper

Friday, March 13, 2009

Do the Right Thing, Kellogg's

Apparently these existed as a flavor from '86-'88, but I certainly didn't see them in my neck of the woods. Bring back the PB&J Pop-Tarts® Toaster Pastries, Kellogg's!! Until then I will have to make do in a non-handy, non mess-free, non-the-go manner.

Yes, there are two pictures of Pop-Tarts in blog posts within 2 months.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

SI Student Scholarship jurying, pt. 2

Yesterday was the day of decision. During the past few weeks, finalists were notified of their acceptance into the show. They then mailed in original art and prints of digital work (in the case of three-dimensional pieces, sometimes the actual 3d pieces were mailed in, other times good photos of them were in their place). These 140 pieces--all of which will be hung in the show this May--were then laid out in preparation for round 2 voting.

Before the madness began

12 of the original 25 jurors were present for final jurying--though all were invited, some had come in from out-of-town, or they were not available for a second missed day of volunteered time. One had been a last-minute replacement from Europe who was here at the time but was no longer in NYC. This meant that each juror now had twice the voting power as before. This I was fine with!

Murray Tinkelman, weighing the finalists for the grand prizes

After a leisurely period familiarizing ourselves with the work we were told to start making selections. Prizes were awarded greatest to smallest, which meant the first ones to be chosen would be the two $5,000 prizes. We were each to grab two pieces we would personally have awarded the prize money to, and bring them to another space in the room. One of my two choices was grabbed by someone else, so I grabbed a third pick, and took my two pieces over. Once these ~20 or so pieces were separated, the poker game began.

I simply mean that SI-branded poker chips were dealt out, 2 per person. These represented our votes. I was a little concerned that there'd be verbal debating, and that winners might be decided on the strength of rhetorical persuasion by enthusiastic champions of particular works. This was not at all the case--the vote was strictly democratic, with a few ad-hoc organizational suggestions as the morning wore on. Chips were collected and redistributed between rounds, varying in number depending on the round and prize pool available.

The ground rules were as follows: no turning over the artwork to see name/school, which made voting anonymous again. I was glad for this, as I'm sometimes a little suspicious of competitions on precisely this point. This rule was obeyed faithfully. You could not double-or-triple down your chips on single works. I might've preferred this personally, but what it allowed for is for a more democratic selection of winners--if something got 8 votes in a particular round, that's because 8 people favored the work. Otherwise, 3 people could've provided 8 votes. It spread the power around. Allowing it would've allowed for greater individual power for strongly favored pieces, and more pressure to counter-vote similarly. I was completely fine with this decision, and think it reduces grounds for criticism since winners were chosen by a larger quorum of votes.

So, with ~20 pieces in the running for two $5000 prizes, voting began. At this point a bit of strategy comes into play. You can vote purely on your preference, but if you see that some pieces have 3 or 4 votes, putting a lone chip on another piece will likely do nothing for it. However, of three pieces tied at four votes, a chip placed on one of them could break a tie in favor of your chosen of the tied pieces. So most rounds I was able to spend votes on preferred pieces, but I always held back a "kingmaker" vote to the end, in the hopes of propelling a worthy piece into a prize bracket which it was in the running for (even if it was not strictly a favorite of mine overall). This was often done because the last vote I might've wanted to place would not have caused that piece to proceed to a prize bracket anyway.

I was happy to see that all 3 initial pieces I championed eventually qualified for prize money in various brackets. None of them, however, took top prizes, although one of them was a strong contender each round until it did win.

As pieces were picked for prizes, they were removed. Occasionally, the stack was refreshed and we were allowed to bring in single additional works if we wanted. This changed the dynamic greatly. I think I only did this once--so long as my initial favorites were still in the running for prizes, I did not choose to give them additional competition. Single artists could not win multiple cash prizes. Each juror likely had their own voting strategy. Or none at all.

Another factor was how quickly you spent your votes. For instance, quickly placing chips down caused other jurors to take a second look at a voted-for piece. Some rounds, there seemed to be a definite shift in opinion based on first-placed chips. I noted this as other jurors' strategies, not my own.

On occasion there were ties with fewer slots in a given prize bracket than there were pieces. When this was the case, a simple hand-vote was used to remove a piece from the running. As pieces won, we were then told the artist's name and school. I was happy to see San Jose State University well-represented among the winners. Though I didn't go there, it is after all my hometown!

Jurors who had conflicts of interest were gracious in recusing themselves from voting in certain brackets. Once again, the fair and respectful atmosphere gave me a very positive feeling towards the competition. There was no collusion among judges in the sense of vote-trading, and people respected the one-vote-per-piece rule.

Choosing next year's Call For Entries poster: (L-R, holding art) Scott Bakal (Chairmain, Student Scholarship Competition), Anelle Miller (Director, Society of Illustrators), Leo Espinosa (Juror)

At the end, there were a few special prizes given out. Some organizations had prizes of expense-paid workshops that we could award. One such was a full-paid scholarship to 2009's Illustration Master Class (a $1850 value), chosen among finalists which were broadly speaking within the fantasy/sci-fi genre. Another of these was a hand vote for next year's Call For Entries poster--a fantastic promotional opportunity. These were chosen from among the two $5000 winners and a third piece which endeared itself to a number of folks for being...unusual.

In the end, democracy decided the day. Doubtless most of the jurors did not get favorite pieces highly placed, since only about 4 pieces took the fattest of the prizes. However, I am happy knowing I was instrumental in a couple of pieces getting awards at all by putting them in the running where they were considered and voted upon, and in propelling certain pieces into higher brackets by breaking ties. Each of us had the privilege of so doing, during the various rounds.

So, congratulations to all the winners, and to everyone who made it into the show. Just getting in really is a high compliment, believe me. I look forward to meeting some of you in May, at the opening! Best of luck to future years' entrants--I hope this breakdown helps you understand the process better. Perhaps you can glean some strategic points by reading between the lines a bit and understanding the way it works between both posts.

Monday, March 09, 2009

SI Student Scholarship jurying, pt.1

I was invited to participate as a juror for the 2009 Society of Illustrators' Student Scholarship and Exhibition. It's a fantastic competition, with 5,596 entries from 1,795 participants from 80 schools this year. Prizes vary, from $250 up to $5000, and are cash prizes, which means you can use them for any sort of expenses you want as you continue or finish your education. Supplies, rent, food--or even a respite from your part-time job at the copy shop or art supply store so you can focus on your art--all of these are valid applications for the prize money. Fantastic. I wish I'd known about this competition when I was in school--my school participated this year, and I can only assume it did back in the day. However, I was a drawing major, not an illustration major, and since school administrators are the ones who submit work on behalf of their students, I did not learn about it.

Which is the first point I want to make: if you are in an illustration program somewhere and haven't heard about this, and you think you might have a chance for next year, contact your department administrators and ask them to get involved. If they don't know about it, contact the Society of Illustrators and they'll be happy to contact your school to get them clued in.

First round judging was a couple weeks back. Jurying 5,500+ pieces is a daunting process, and for those who enter the competition blind and wondering, perhaps it will be helpful knowing how jurying works. The Society accepts submissions digitally through their website. Submissions were broken up into a little over 1,100 per day. 25 jurors were broken into groups of 5 each day to view that day's batch, and the panel is different each day. Work seems to be randomized, so multiple entries by single artists never seemed to appear one after another, and often seemed broken up across various days.

Now the fun/crazy part. The jury gathers on the third floor of the Society (which I hadn't seen before), which is the library. There are 3 large, comfy couches arranged in a 'U' shape before a large screen, onto which are projected the submissions, one after another, about 5-6 seconds per image. Each juror is armed with a button (like in Jeopardy!) with which they can register their yes vote. There is no time for discussion during this phase of the jurying, it's simply everyone voting individually. Behind us, the votes are tallied per image--we can't see how each image did, and the person tallying cannot tell who voted for what. Votes are entered into the system, the next image is presented, someone calls out, "vote!" and we do. And on and on.

It works out basically like this: a unanimous yes vote (5), and you pass round 1 instantly. It also worked out that 4-vote images basically all passed round 1. But, you have to understand that only about 3% of the total images proceed to the second round, and only 25% of the students selected for round 2 will actually receive cash awards. It's pretty brutal. I worried, going in, that 5 seconds per image was going to be impossible. It turned out, and my fellow jurors agreed, that 5 seconds was absolutely plenty; often, it was more than was needed.

The reason is this: though this is all student work, quality work is INCREDIBLY good. I was blown away by the quality of what was truly excellent, the pieces that invariably got 4-5 votes. What was good was so good that it required no discussion, and 5 jurors from quite different artistic sensibilities and backgrounds easily agreed. In this sense, talent was truly objectively recognized. When at the end we saw a brief review of what had been chosen, there were no pieces that I strongly felt should've gone through, but which did not. Neither were there any pieces that I strongly thought should not have gotten through that did. Everyone on my day's panel agreed with this assessment.

That said, part of what made the good so apparent was that the bottom of the barrel was...well, there's no way to say it, but it was really poor. Again, these folks are students and presumably they are in school to learn how to make great art. So I can only hope that they regroup, work hard for another year, improve, and try again. And then there was the big, squishy middle--students with some talent, who are still working through all that needs working out on the path of becoming professional illustrators, stuff I've had to work through myself. I saw many mistakes that I have made, many familiar awkward aspects from my own history.

But like I said, the talent among the finalists was phenomenal. There were many students who were doing truly professional work already, and it will be a privilege to award some of them with scholarship money to encourage their growth as illustrators. Since mine was the final day, we were able to get a sneak peek and see all the images that had made it to round 2. It was a quick look, but it looked like our fellow jurors' choices were equally satisfying.

Art is presented anonymously, and the name of the school is not displayed either (lest anyone favor an Alma Mater). These could be seen afterwards, however, which was interesting. Work of all sorts of styles progressed, in all sorts of mediums. I saw no evidence of medium/stylistic prejudice among the jurors, only a prejudice for skill, quality drawing (even if used in non-traditional ways), great ideas, and clear readability. So, if you did not get through this year, I hope that this does two things 1.)Quells any grumbling you might have that the jurying was somehow unfair, and 2.)Encourages you to strive to greater heights. I was proud to be part of the process, particularly because it seemed very fair, and at least my panel of co-jurors were all knowledgeable and insightful when we did talk, mainly between sessions and during lunch. 2008's winners are on view on the Society website, to give an indication of the quality of the final winners under a different jury.

So competitive was the field, that I sat back afterward and thought about my own student work--of all that I did, how many individual pieces of mine would I, now, have even pressed my own button for? The answer, quite honestly: 1. That's it.

Round 2 followed a few weeks later, with students mailing-in chosen original art (or prints of digital work). The hard work started there--deciding between excellent work for the awarding of scholarship money. More on that next time. Thanks to Scott Bakal for providing exact statistics for this post!

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Very Nice

I've talked a little about some of the very nice work that is part of the Society of Illustrators' permanent collection, and which rotates on the second floor. I also mentioned last week that I realized I need to bring my camera with me to photograph these pieces before they rotate out. Case in point, N.C. Wyeth's "Black Arrow" cover was up and gone in less than a month. I was so sad to miss photographing it.

L: The actual painting is taller, with more landscape above and below and a title box painted into the image. Much better color, too.

Of course, my camera is on its last legs, and I'm going to send it in for a repair this week (known issue). Plus, lighting is not great and some of these pieces are a bit dark. Nevertheless, allow me to clue you in on what's hanging right now, as part of a show on the legacy of Harvey Dunn, student to the legendary Howard Pyle and who in turn taught other legendary Golden Age illustrators. Wyeth was not his student; he was however Dunn's Best Man at his wedding! These then are the images I'm currently ogling during drawing sessions, which I attended again this week (I ogle paintings, not women. At least I try). So rather than another week of naked people, I'll show you what some Good Artists do, which I think about when I'm stuck sometimes.

Dunn, here mostly monochrome and very brushy, but nevertheless with a concrete solidity.

The Rockwell I've mentioned, which hangs above the bar permanently. I eat pretzels and salted peanuts as I stare at this one each time I'm there.

Dean Cornwell was another of Dunn's students. This impressive piece is so wonderfully environmental that I can't imagine that he didn't photograph the actual location. If he made much of it up, I think I'd just weep like a colicky baby. If you've ever been to NYC and been to the Warwick Hotel's Murals on 54 restaurant, those murals are his.

Mead Schaeffer was a close friend of Rockwell's and classmate of Cornwell in Dunn's atelier. This piece is rather dark, but exemplifies some compositional techniques that have only in the past few months finally clicked in my head. There is a second Schaeffer on display, of a totally different genre, but the picture came out shaky. Hopefully it's still up next time I'm there. I also need more detail shots, but as I said, my camera was giving me fits.

Most of the black-and-white work is behind very glaring glass, but this nice little piece by Frank Godwin is a great example. He shared a studio for awhile with James Montgomery Flagg, he of the Uncle Sam "I Want You" painting. A fantastic pen-and-ink artist, primarily, his obscurity only shows that the lack of credit given to pen-and-ink artists is long-standing.

I've been spending a lot of time at the Society these past few months, relative to just about any place else, so don't be surprised that a few posts happen to involve things going on there. In fact, another couple of SI-related posts (albeit on a totally different topic) are soon to follow. Hope they're still interesting to you, even if they don't feature naked people.

There are two purposes to this week's post: 1.)to make fellow illustrators jealous who don't live out here and 2.)to perhaps introduce some of you to these fantastic Golden Age illustrators, all of whom are completely under appreciated in the Pantheon of the Arts, compared to folks like...oh, who can I get in trouble for calling out this about Jasper Johns, considered by many highly placed critics (and at least one of my old professors) to be the greatest living American painter. I can't make this stuff up.