small travel sketchbook and sketch by Elizabeth R. Whelan of Cinque Torri ski slope.Each year, hundreds of artists enter competitions like the Martha's Vineyard Drawing Prize. And per the nature of a competition, more artists get letters or emails of rejection, than get letters announcing that they have won. Just knowing that reality never makes it any easier on the artist, though!

Artists who aren't the winners often contact me after competitions to ask for input – why was their work not selected? It’s a great question, and as an artist myself, I know very well the annoyance and let-down of getting that email! Even the most seasoned professional experiences the feeling. The decision can seem very arbitrary.

I thought it would be helpful to share overall how the MVDP jurors have made their selections over the years, to help improve your odds when you enter this or any art competition, and to help you bounce back if you didn't win.

1. First, judging art is very subjective. It’s one of the reasons we rotate jurors every year. Even the most fair juror will still tend to gravitate towards work that resonates with them personally. There’s not much an artist can do about that!

2. Second is the question of whether the artwork addresses the theme of the competition. And sometimes, it’s the compelling story accompanying a work that allows a juror to look a little deeper. Another challenge of judging a competition is when a beautiful piece of art really isn’t on the theme and must get eliminated for only that reason.

3. And third, often we get work that is on theme, often with a great concept, but perhaps more than one artist had the same idea, or perhaps the technical ability of one artist was just a little greater than another’s. Our competition also concentrates on drawing, so we look at line quality and other drawing-related criteria, which are different from those of painting, for example. These are particularly hard decisions to make, as often a sketchy piece is just as technically good as a very detailed piece, and once again, a subjective decision must be made.

All this is to say, never take the results of a competition as a reflection on your ability, concepts, or artwork. We love all the work that is entered, it is always amazing to see the wonderful ideas and drawings of every kind.

And it seems that the quality of drawing across the board goes up every year! What a great result, and kudos to you for your hard work. Keep on drawing and sketching, that's the most important outcome!

- Elizabeth R. Whelan


I see a lot of competitions that I think would be really fun to enter, and I mark them down on my calendar. I get all excited about doing some piece of art, but at some point in between now and whenever the contest deadline is, what usually happens is that life overtakes my good intentions and I never end up entering the contest.

So I want to help you avoid this particular problem by running through this brainstorming process that I would use if I were going to enter the Martha's Vineyard Drawing Prize. If you follow these stages now, you will be ready to enter in no time!

Each year there's a theme for the competition. I am using the 2019 theme 'The Ties That Bind' for this example.

Rather than hoping inspiration strikes out of the blue (or if I have too many ideas), I brainstorm the theme with some word association to get them all down on paper. I'll take a page in my sketchbook and I'll just start writing some stuff down without worrying about specifics. As I write, some ideas will seem better than others but I keep going. Here's an example I did for you. Some ideas will be terrible but I just keep going.

Usually as I brainstorm, one or two of these ideas will start to form into something I can work with. I put a star beside my favorites, perhaps flip over to a fresh sheet of paper and work out the details of my idea, but what's most important is that I make a decision and move on.

No need to overthink it! There are always going to be more ideas than time to draw them all. Just pick the one you like the best right now, and get started. Enter the competition and no matter what the outcome, you will have completed a piece of artwork and explored an idea. It's a talent and a blessing to be able to enter new worlds of our own creation, through drawing.

- Elizabeth R. Whelan

sketch and thumbnail in preparation for larger artworkWhen you're ready to start working on your drawing for the Martha's Vineyard Drawing Prize, you may be wondering how other artists get started on a larger drawing. The way I get going is by doing a couple of very small sketches. The first one is a thumbnail sketch, and in my case it's typically about 2" x 1" -- very small. (See upper left hand corner of the sketchbook page in the accompanying photo.)

In this thumbnail I do a very, very quick layout of how my idea might look on a page. And I concentrate mostly on what I see as the light and dark areas of the idea I am going to draw, without any detail at all. What I am looking for is a good design in the relationship of dark to light values, and when I do the larger drawing I am going to want to maintain a good deal of that contrast. (This approach is often refered to by the Japanese name 'notan'.)

That takes me only a couple of minutes. Once I get that little thumbnail right, I usually do a larger sketch (about 4" x 5") also without much detail. These stages are very useful when it comes to helping me eliminate unnecessary detail, or move things around for a better composition. It's a lot easier to make those changes in a small rough sketch than it is when I am working on the final drawing.

And that's it! If I like what I see at the small scale, it will usually work on the large scale as well, as long as I stay true to the overall pattern of light and dark that I established in the thumbnail.

- Elizabeth R. Whelan