Art Licensing

Read This Before Entering Your Art in a Contest

April 13, 2022


I'm a full-time artist and online educator. You can find my watercolor designs on products all around the globe. This blog is where I share all of my latest art business tips for you!


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A few months ago, I entered my art in an online contest. I did not win as a top finalist, but I kind of did win (more on that at the end of this post!). Today I’m sharing what I learned from this experience and from contests I’ve entered in the past.

Not all competitions are equal, but let’s talk about some of the major points to look out for before you decide to enter your art into one.

1. Read the Contest Rules

The very first thing you will want to do is read every single detail of the contest rules before entering your art. While there are other factors to consider besides just the rules, the rules are essentially a contract between you and the host of the competition. So you’ll want to make sure to read them thoroughly AND make sure you understand what you’re reading.

If you’re ever not sure, you can reach out to a qualified legal professional to help you out. Remember that I am not a lawyer, and none of this information is meant to be treated as legal advice.

Sometimes, inside the contest rules or contract there will be some sneaky sections that control how your art can be used — even how YOU can use your own art. Some things to look out for include:

  • Who owns the artwork after you submit it, either during or after the contest?
  • What happens to the artwork you submit if you DON’T win?
  • Who owns the artwork if you DO win?
  • Can you use or share the artwork elsewhere during and/or after the contest?
  • Are you guaranteed any kind of payment if you DO win, and is the payment worth it to you?

Personally, I stopped entering my art in an online stationery competition because I no longer owned the artwork if it won, and other various issues that I found with the rules.

2. Understand the Contest Structure

Some contests are based purely on audience votes, some are based on selections by the host like through a juried process, and some are mix.

If there is any sort of voting involved, are you comfortable with asking your audience and community for votes?

I find contests that are based on votes to be pretty stressful. I don’t like bothering my audience multiple times asking for votes and I don’t like obsessing over the numbers. There is also unfortunately an issue with people cheating in voting-based contests, and using bots or “buying” votes. And with voting-based contests, it could end up really being about who has the bigger audience, vs. the quality of the art itself.

Make sure you understand what the structure is, and that you are comfortable with it.

3. Reconsider Creating Custom Art

I am not a fan of contests that require you to create new, custom art for them without any guarantee of compensation, period. This to me feels like a way for the contest host to take advantage of artists’ time without much or any cost at all for the host.

This is called “spec work”. Spec work is basically creating artwork(s) or designs for free before any sort of payment, so the client or customer can decide if they want to use it, and pay for it, or not. I don’t design any custom work without a contract and upfront payment.

4. Weigh the Value of Winning

Let’s say you fully commit to the contest and you win, woohoo! Really consider what you are getting by winning. Is all of the effort you put into the contest worth it? Maybe it is! I just want to make sure you think about the reward at the end before you spend time entering. If you create a handful of brand new custom designs, and only end up with a couple hundred dollars and lose the rights to your work, to me, that is NOT worth it.

I mentioned that I entered a contest recently. I decided to enter this contest because I found the rules to be reasonable after taking a close look at them, and it was a product type that was new and exciting to me.

Ultimately, I did not enjoy asking my audience for votes and was honestly fairly stressed out about it. Even though it wasn’t a big deal if I won or not, I tend to get very committed to any project I take on and it basically zapped my energy.

But while I didn’t win the top prize, I DID end up with two licensing contracts from the same contest host after the competition wrapped. So despite everything, it felt like a win. This was a smaller brand though, and I feel like any larger brands likely wouldn’t have the same outcome because you may not get noticed among the many entries.

After reading this, I hope you’ll at very least make sure you take a look at and understand any contest rules completely. And instead of a contest, you may want to consider pitching your work directly, instead!

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  1. Andrea says:

    I love reading your blog posts! I always learn something new 🙂

  2. Julie C says:

    Hi Juliet, Great article! I had a bad experience a few years back, where I basically worked for free for a few months and I promised myself I would NEVER work for free again, and that’s why I hesitate to enter contests. Just wondering, do you have any concerns about sharing artwork in FB groups and platforms like Instagram?

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