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I've been doing art contests for a long time.
Not only have I run a bunch, I've also entered and won several!
Part of that is due to my skills, but I'm not an artistic wunderkind. There are a lot of better artists.
When I win, it's not just because of my art skills. My strategy plays a big part.

I'm going to share that strategy with you.
As someone entering an art contest, this will help you win even bigger prizes.
For people holding art contests, this can help improve the entries.

If you're wondering why I'm doing this guide now, it's because I'm leaving Gaia.
I don't have need of this knowledge any longer, but it might help some of you with an interest in art contests.
Even if you don't have an interest in art contests, you'll find plenty of general tips in here to improve your art!

Let's get started!
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xx My Credentials

I'm one of those people who hates it when others try and offer advice or brag when they don't actually have any qualifications.
What makes me qualified to say anything about art contests?

I've run a lot of art contests.
I know what I look for when I'm running a contest.
Many other people look for the same things.

I've also won top prize in most of the art contests I've entered.
These were the last five contests I entered.
I won top prize in all five by following the tactics described in this guide.

The Lattice Grimoire - 1st place
Hell & Haydevils - Overall First
Eden Project - Grand Prize
Destiny Knights - 1st Place
Sisters - 1st Place (Note: previous username. You can view the entry here.)

Each of these wins demonstrates different elements of my art contest tactics.
Let's break those tactics down!


xx The Very Short Version
You know those really big art contests that happen every now and again?
Yes, they are usually won by the most talented artists on Gaia who can create amazing pieces of art.
But that doesn't mean you can't give those folk a run for their money and snag a top prize yourself, if not the grand prize.
It boils down to this:

1. Color. Don't submit a lineart, don't submit a sketch, don't submit a piece that's black and white. B&W pics look unfinished next to colored ones.
2. Multiple characters. The more the merrier. If you do a lot of characters, you don't need much in the way of a background. If you do fewer characters, some background elements might be a good idea.
3. Do one big entry with lots of characters, and a couple smaller entries with 1-3 characters.
4. Use dynamic poses. If OCs, depict characters with expressions that match their personalities. Dynamic poses can make a world of difference!

If the contest organizer is an artist themselves, chances are greater that they will enjoy a wider variety of styles and media.
If the organizer is not an artist, anime CG is your best bet, unless they specifically mention liking something else.

For more details and plenty of tips and tricks, read on!
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xx Contest Selection

This some of the most useful information I can give with respect to winning good prizes in art contests!
It may seem silly, but how big you win can be a direct result of what contests you enter.

- SIZE MATTERS -
Really big contests tend to attract the best artists.
They also get the most entries.
Look for contests that aren't quite as big.
The top prize is usually the best and can be worth twice as much as 2nd place.
You are more likely to be able to win that top prize if you enter a contest with a lower level of competition.

You also don't have to work as hard to win smaller contests.

- EXAMINE THE THREAD -
Most art contests are decorated with art of the characters or avatars.
People running contests will generally use their favorite art as decoration.
This can help you figure out what sort of art the contest organizer likes best.
If you see a lot of chibis, or bright and shiny images, chances are an image like this will perform better in the contest.

You can also ask the organizer what sort of art s/he prefers.
Do they prefer bright and shiny images, chibis, or dark, gothic art?
Cutesy anime style, or semi-realism?
Some organizers will not award big prizes regardless of how good an image is if they don't like that kind of image.

- CHECK YOUR NUMBERS -
A lot of contests only have a few good prizes.
The Destiny Knights contest, for example, only had 15 prizes.
In a contest with only 15 prizes, only 15 images can win.
Look for contests that offer a large number of prizes.
You should always try to aim for the top prize, but assume you won't win first place.
It sucks to create a nice image and walk away with nothing.
More prizes = more chance you will get something for your effort.

One thing I sometimes do is count the number of prizes I think are worth winning.
Then count the number of entries submitted so far that are good enough in your opinion to win a prize.
If there are more awesome entries than awesome prizes, you may wish to look elsewhere.
If there are more awesome prizes than awesome entries, this contest is probably a good bet.

- EXPLOIT THE CATEGORIES -
Many contests have specific categories with nice prizes.
You can use this to your advantage.
Find a category that does not have a lot of strong entries and make a piece for it.
If your piece is particularly good, you could always win a bigger, main prize, but if not, the category prize is a backup.

You can beat entries that are better than yours by drawing something that fits a category.
No matter how good someone else's entry is, if their image does not fit in a category, they can't win the category prize!
Your entry, which does fit the category, will therefore win a bigger prize than an entry that is better overall.

If you are a talented artist who likes to draw whatever pops into your head, look for contests that DON'T have categories.
Most people who get upset by art contest results get upset because they created a piece of art that was technically strong, but wasn't strong enough to win a main prize, and weaker entries won nicer prizes due to categories.

- SCOUT THE COMPETITION -
Most contests offer links to all the entries.
Check out the competition!
Find the best entry so far, consider how you might create something just as good or better.
If there are categories, don't forget to see what categories have the fewest entries.


Don't forget!
Just because you don't win first prize doesn't mean you can't win big.
Aim for first prize and you'll be more likely to at least place.
You can win more art contests by being smart about contest selection than you can working hard on a single entry.
You can win the biggest prizes by being smart and working hard! (:
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xx Multiple Character Entries

Let's be honest, most contests have more than one character or avatar.
You can score a lot of brownie points just by including more than one character.
Multiple-character entries are especially effective in OC Art Contests!
Single-character images can win, but will only beat multiple-character images if they are really skillful.
Even if you don't win, you will place significantly higher than others with similar artistic skills.

You may think a multiple-character entry is a lot harder to make, but it doesn't have to be!
Because there are more characters, you can spend less time on individual characters.
Work quickly and cheaply!
The fact that there are multiple characters will help balance out the quality. XD


I have a few specific tips and tricks to help you.

- DIGITAL COMPOSITING -
Trying to draw all those characters together may be making your head hurt.
So don't draw them together!
Draw several figure sketches and use Photoshop to put them together.

See this?
These were all random pose sketches on different sheets of paper.
I scanned them, set them to multiply in Photoshop, and moved them around.
The end result was my Eden Project entry. I used the same technique for the Lattice Grimoire.

It's okay if you don't decide beforehand which poses will be which characters.
If a pose isn't working, you can get rid of it and not worry about losing an important character.
(Obviously the deer boy's pose was specific to the character, but all the rest were random!)
You can also save unused poses for future contests!
I never finished this entry, but because it's not specific, I can reuse it.
Another example of pose sketches thrown together.

These three sketches would be good entries individually, but combining them results in the kind of image that could win a top prize.


- SINGLE-LAYER SHADOWS & HIGHLIGHTS -
You could spend a lot of time painting/shading each element of a character individually.
Or you can put all the base colors on one layer and make a multiply layer for shading.
This is actually how I did the Eden Project and Lattice Grimoire entries!
(If you've got a lot of overlapping characters, I recommend shadow layers for each character, rather than just one layer overall. XD)

Try not to pick black/grey for your shadows.
How about purple for shadows, or blue, or green!
You can use a screen layer to add highlights.
Try yellow for highlights, or white, or experiment!
Play with gradients for more dramatic and impressive effect!

Change your highlight and shadow layer settings, try out color burn, or hard light, etc.
Add a second shadow layer for added depth.
Add a rim lighting layer or two for added effect.

This technique is highly effective for cel-shading.
(It's what I use on my quickie character references.)



The fact that you've put 129387345 characters in your image will outweigh artistic shortcuts and small mistakes.
Try to be accurate to the character references, embellish where you can, and you'll do fine!
Don't get hung up on details, it's more important to finish.
It's okay to rush it, just get it done!
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xx Multiple Entries

Sometimes, you can impress someone running a contest not just by making one awesome entry, but making a number of decent ones.
Case in point: the Destiny Knights contest.
I drew four entries in total, and this one won top prize.
I don't think it's the best entry of the bunch, but it was the recipient's favorite.

All three top winners in that contest were people who entered multiple times.
The first place prize recognized my overall contribution, not just the one image.
Some people who run contests think in this way.

A word of warning!
Part of the trick to doing multiple entries is to submit multiple -good- entries that you actually spent some time on.
Submitting a lot of really quick, bad entries will not impress.
Quantity is not better than quality!
Find a balance that contains both quantity and quality.

To cover all bases, enter one entry you think is awesome, and a few smaller, decent ones.
The person organizing the contest will award their favorite, but also be influenced by the presence of your other entries.
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xx Know Your Characters

Most people will just draw a random image of a character.
You will beat them more often than not if you draw something that reflects the character's personality or background!
In OC art contests, this will give you a HUGE advantage.
Even if you aren't a great artist, you can distinguish yourself by paying attention to the characters.
It's easier than you think!

In Hell & Haydevils, if I had just made a random piece of art, maybe I would still have won, but there were a lot of very talented artists just as good as me.
The reason I won was that I read the character descriptions and made a piece reflecting the relationship between two characters.
See what I wrote in my entry comments and then check out what Glampanda said during the awards.

The entry that won top prize in Destiny Knights also showed the relationship between two characters.
The girl is a slave of the man whose boots you see.

There are three very easy methods to incorporate character details effectively.


- RELATIONSHIPS -
Find two characters that are related in some way.
Note how they are related.
Are they enemies, do they make each other happy, does one annoy the other a lot, do they turn to each other for comfort when sad?
Create an image that reflects this.
Don't just draw the two together randomly, draw them together in a way that reflects their emotional bond.

- BACKGROUND -
This one requires reading a little bit more in-depth, and can be a bit more work.
Read over a character's history.
Can you picture any of the events you are reading?
Draw that scene.

- PERSONALITY -
In-between background and relationship in terms of the effort required.
Read about the character's personality.
Look for key words that jump out: happy, depressed, angry.
Hobbies are also an excellent source of ideas -- does the character enjoy gardening, play sports, spend a lot of time drawing or on the computer?
Draw the character expressing this part of his or her personality!


The overall key here is EMOTION.
You want to evoke an emotional reaction in the person running the contest.
They will then attach a stronger feeling to your image than they would to a random piece of character art.
Your chances of winning are increased.
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xx Lighting

Lighting is an important part of creating art.
It can give your artwork depth, or make it look flat.
This isn't one of my areas of expertise, so I'll try to keep it simple. ^^;

How you light your image can reinforce the tone of your image.
Bright, vibrant, and warm colors can look happy and lively.
Dark, cool colors can look more melancholy and scary.

- LIGHTING THE FACE -
These tutorials are good reference for how light falls across the face.
Use your lighting to reflect the emotion of your subject.

You can use a lighting scheme that is counter to a character's emotion to convey a completely different feeling.
A happy image that is edge-lit, for example, can convey a sense of the past or a memory.

- EMBRACE SHADOWS -
It's the shadows that really define your light!
A lot of artists shade every area like it is perfectly lit.
You can save yourself some time and effort by using more shadows.
Shadows can be used to increase visual depth, like with the legs in these three pieces.
Shadows can also make your art more dramatic.

A multiply layer can be used to quickly work out your overall shadows.
Use this to determine your overall lighting before you start coloring or painting individual areas.
This will help avoid that "everything perfectly lit" result and help make your lighting more consistent.
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xx Backgrounds

I will admit, this is not my area of expertise, I am not very good with backgrounds. XD;
But images that have a background will tend to outperform images that don't.
If, like me, you are not particularly good at backgrounds, a half-assed background is still better than none! <3

- COMPOSITION -
Taking a moment to think about composition is good when doing a background.
Making a thumbnail can help immensely.
You can work out your composition and backdrop quickly and painlessly.
You can enlarge your thumbnail to working size in Photoshop and go from there!

I picked up a few compositional tricks in film school.
First, the Rule of Thirds: imagine your image is divided into three sections horizontally and three sections vertically.
Put important elements on the third lines, particularly in spots where third lines cross.

Diagonal composition makes your images more dynamic!
It's really easy and extremely effective.

Having a foreground, midground, and background will make your images have more depth and dimension.
This one is somewhat more advanced, but might be helpful to you. ^^

- PHOTOGRAPHS -
A filtered photograph is always an option.
Take your own photographs, or look online for free stock photographs to use.
Remember to credit the source if it's not your own photo!
You can also paint over a photograph with impressive results!

If you cannot take your own photos, find stock photos -- do not use copyrighted photos without permission.

- PICK A THEME -
So maybe a full scene is too much, and you don't have any photos you like.
Consider doing a themed backdrop.
You can find a lot of themes in nature, like leaves, flowers, the ocean, the night sky, or a combination.
Pro tip: it's better to draw leaves and flowers rather than just use brushes.
It takes a bit of time, but it's easy to do, and the end result will be much more impressive and integrated with the rest of the image!
So many people just stick moons in the backdrop it's practically a trope.
You may want to check the entries so far before including a moon in your image. XD

- MAGIC CLOUDS -
This is what I usually default to! (;
Just paint random magical energy effects in the background.
Heck, they don't even have to be magical, regular clouds work well too, or even nebulas.
You can combine your magical clouds with textures and various elements.

- DESIGN ELEMENTS -
Failing all of that, you can use some stylish design elements (like frames) in lieu of a scenic background.
It will help spruce up your image.
Even basic design elements are better than nothing!
If you are particularly ambitious, try art nouveau or detailed doodling.

There is one thing to remember with backgrounds.
Art contests are about CHARACTERS.
No one will award you top prize just based on your nice background if the character elements aren't there!

Also, empty white backgrounds are DEATH.
They're fine for references and commissions, but will not help you win!
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xx Draw Different

One easy way to stand out from the crowd is to do things differently from the other entrants.
If everyone is drawing one particular character or avatar outfit, draw a different one!
Draw the character or outfit with the least amount of entries so far.

If you see people doing a similar things in their entries, do something different!
People like to award originality and creativity.
Seeing the same character or outfit over and over again is boring!

When it comes time to give out prizes, the person running the contest probably won't give all the top prizes to images of the same character or outfit.

- DETAILS -
Just because the character references are simple or basic doesn't mean your art has to be!
Clothing folds, seams, ornaments and patterns, detailed hair, there are all sorts of ways to make simple character designs into detailed images.
You can take relatively simple outfits and embellish them to great effect.

- MOVEMENT -
A lot of artists draw images that seem very static, like a character just stranding there.
Find ways to make your image look more energetic and it can distinguish you from the crowd.
Flowing hair and cloth, dynamic , even blur lines can all create a sense of motion.
Be
dynamic!
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xx Finishing Touches

So you've created a piece of art.
Why not give it an extra layer of oomph by adding some finishing touches?

- COLORED OUTLINES -
Colored outlines can sometimes make an image look much nicer.
You can either make all the lines a single color, or color them according to area.
Try not to go too light in your line colors, or the lines will disappear!

- PAINTING ON TOP -
It's very time-consuming to paint a whole image.
You can color your piece using quick, basic CG techniques, then make a layer on top and paint over the lines.
In a short amount of time, you can transform a quickie CG into something painted.
My preference is to use a default hard brush with 100% opacity and 25% flow.

- STRANDS OF HAIR -
Strands of hair are a nice detail you can add at the end.
Add them by making a layer on top and using a very thin brush.
Be careful not to overdo it, or the hair will end up looking a mess!

- TEXTURE OVERLAY -
You can find plenty of free textures online.
I like to use my own photographs.
Just paste a texture, set it to overlay or another layer setting, play with the opacity and color of your texture until you get something you like.
In this entry, I overlaid a photo I took of the bottom of a frying pan.
Here are some more really basic texture overlays.
Pro tip: don't overlay the texture on areas of skin!
There are plenty of tutorials around for more advanced texture techniques!

- OVERLAID IMAGE EFFECTS -
You can add a bit of a extra visual oomph by copying your entire image (SHIFT-CTRL-C), pasting the merged copy on top, and setting the layer to overlay.
Blur it, mess with the opacity, modify the hue/saturation, or change layer settings to get an effect you like.
Pro tip: combine it with the next trick!

- SHARPEN -
Make a merged copy (SHIFT-CTRL-C) and apply the Sharpen filter to it.
Pro tip: you can lower the opacity on your sharpened layer if it's a little too strong.

- LIQUIFY -
So you've just spent several days slaving away on this amazing entry.
Suddenly, you realize you messed up on the proportions and some part of the image now doesn't work.
Have no fear! If you have Photoshop, you can take advantage of the liquify tool to adjust these sorts of issues.
This entry was a tegaki originally.
The head and neck were a tad too big and the forehead was too low, but a quick bit of playing around in the liquify tool, and voila! Much better!
(I also used image overlay effects to soften up the roughness of the original tegaki and make it a little more magical.)

Got any other quick and dirty image finishing techniques? Please do share! heart
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xx Overall Art Tips

There are a few things that I think will help everyone improve in their art.


- RELAX -
Lots of things about making art are stressful.
For example, sometimes you are working on something, your computer crashes and you lose your work.
It can be very frustrating, but relax, you can draw it again!
You already drew it once, and with the experience you had drawing it the first time, you'll probably do it a little better this time.

If you are getting stuck on something, take a step back.
Browse some art by artists you admire.
Call a friend, do something that makes you happy.

- WORK FAST -
While some contests will award prizes to WIPs, most will not.
It's more important to finish your artwork than to spend lots of time on it.
Use shortcuts, rush through it, just get it done!
If you complete something roughly, you at least have something to turn in.
You can always work on it and refine it more if you have time before the end of the contest!

Rushing is not the same as doing a quickie piece!
Just because you are working quickly doesn't mean you should skimp on the details or simplify anything.
The key is to draw lots of details quickly!
This can lead to the inclusion of more details overall than if you slaved over every little detail.

- FIGURE DRAWING -
Nothing will help improve your ability to draw characters quite as much as figure drawing.
Knowing the human figure can help you develop your own style, and will help you in any style, because you'll learn what those stylized elements are actually based on!
There are figure drawings groups all over.
Local colleges may offer figure drawing classes.
Meetup is also a good online resource.
Just take a look and you may be surprised what you'll find in your area!

- CREATE AN INSPIRATION FILE -
Art is visual. Having images to look at can help you focus your creativity.
Creating an inspiration file is very easy on online sites like deviantART. (This is mine.)
Look for images that have techniques, designs, concepts, or compositions you find inspiring!
It's not just about collecting art you think is pretty, look for images that contain something you would like to incorporate into your own images.
Don't just steal a pattern or costume or copy what you see, try to think how you can do something similar in your own work.

You can create an inspiration file in real life by taking clippings from magazines and putting them in a folder.
A bookshelf can be an inspiration file.
Fill it with books that contain images you find inspiring.
Some examples are books about mythology, fashion, nature, design, and photography collections.

The crucial thing (and this is what I always forget to do myself!) is to have your references open while you're actually working.
If you are drawing your inspiration very heavily from something, please remember to credit properly!

- SKETCHBOOK EXERCISE -
Sometimes it's not just how often you draw, but also what you're drawing.
Try this sketchbook exercise to improve and diversify your skills!

Draw 5 objects, 5 figures, 5 architectural things (structures or fixtures), 5 animals, and 5 items from nature.
Draw from life as much as possible instead of using photographs or magazines.

This is based on a assignment we had in my advanced studio art class, except we had to draw 50 images instead of 25!
As much as we complained, it made the single biggest difference in my skills, and in the shortest amount of time.

- COLORING IMITATION EXERCISE -
Find a piece of art you admire.
Try to color your piece in a similar way.
Keep your reference open while working so you can refer to it.
This will help you improve your coloring and try things you wouldn't think of yourself!

This is the idea behind all those Disney coloring book pages done in the style of the old masters.
Remember, this is about referencing the coloring style, not eyeballing, tracing, or copying! ^^;
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xx Referencing vs. Pose Jacking

Eyeballing, tracing, or "pose jacking" is a serious problem online.
A lot of people don't realize or understand how to properly reference poses.

You should not directly trace or eyeball photos or other artworks, particularly on Gaia.
Doing this in art contests can get you disqualified, and possibly into bigger trouble with the mods.

Referencing a pose can be a great way to improve the anatomy and proportion of an image.
Just be sure you're doing it right, like these artists.
They have used references to help inform on poses, and sometimes lighting and foldwork, but all have used their references only as a starting point for their own creativity.

When pose referencing, it's best to focus on the underlying shapes of the figure rather than trying to draw the contour (outline).
The more you focus on the shapes, the more you will make the resulting image your own.

Do: Always credit your sources.
Don't: Use copyrighted artworks, such as magazine photographs, movie stills, or comic book art.

Do: Look for "stock photography," take your own photographs to use as reference, or ask family/friends to pose for you.
Do: Recreate poses in your own style.
Don't: Draw directly on top of your reference.
Do: Combine references from multiple sources.

More really good examples of referencing: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]
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