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Since 1962 the Koestler Awards have played a unique, national role in motivating prisoners, secure hospital patients and immigration detainees to take part in the arts. The Koestler Awards are simple and powerful – we reward achievement, build self-confidence and broaden horizons for some of society’s most disadvantaged and marginalised people.

Our work harnesses the uniquely transformative power of the arts to help individuals learn the skills and gain the confidence to live creative, positive and productive lives. Each year we receive more than 7,000 entries from over 3,500 entrants across the UK in 52 categories. More than 2,000 Awards are granted by over 100 esteemed judges, and each year culminates in a curated exhibition at Southbank Centre which showcases the incredible power of the arts to transform lives.

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Soft Pastels, Hard Decisions

Almost halfway through our 2018 judging period, we were joined by Royal Academy tutor Maciej Urbanek and returning judge and multi-media artist Angela Findlay to judge the varied and vibrant pastel category. They enlighten us on their experience, discussing the difficulty of pinning down the judging criteria for such a varied body of work and top tips for treating pastels for entry.

How have you found the judging process so far?

MU: It was more challenging than I thought it would be. It was very enjoyable at the same time because the quality of the artworks was really high, and very rewarding because it gives you an insight into so many different approaches and ideas that people in closed establishments might have, and might want to translate into artworks.

AF: I’ve done it for many years so it wasn’t quite as challenging as for someone coming to it for the first time, but it was very harmonious and I think we got a really good system going. We’ve been very unanimous about the decisions that we’ve made.

You mentioned challenging – what did you find challenging about it?

MU: The challenging aspect of judging is that it’s very hard to establish the criteria for judgement, having such a broad variety of ideas, skill-levels, concepts and approaches towards making artwork. Combined with our own personal likes and dislikes it makes it a multi-factored process when you have to consider lots of things in order to make a fair decision.

AF: Yes, you have to decide on technique, originality of idea and execution, because there are some wonderful ones that have been created in a few strokes, and others which have clearly taken hours.

Has anything made you laugh?

AF: Certainly! The black dog, the little one there. It’s so tiny and cute, really, right in the centre of the page and just so well captured.

MU: There is definitely humour in a lot of works, and there a lot of works that exude positive vibes.

What would you like to see more or less of in this category?

MU: It’s hard to say because the works come from so many different establishments and their art programmes and access to the materials must vary. So we might say we would like to see bigger works, more ambitious, more laborious, but we also have to consider that that might not be possible. It’s great that so many people get engaged, and maybe what we want to see, even thought it wouldn’t make our work easier, would be just to see more works. It’s always good to see ambition, in whatever form it might take, but especially the aspiration to do something meaningful, beautiful and interesting rather than generic.

AF: This has actually been a really strong year.

MU: I think that some of these works could definitely stand their ground, and definitely be read not only through the lens of people being incarcerated, but people just making art.

What advice would you give to pastel artists?

MU: Don’t laminate your work. Pastel is quite an unstable, delicate medium, so just fixing it with fixative or varnish, or putting it between two sheets of newsprint or something like that is a good idea to prevent it from getting damaged.

AF: Yes! Definitely don’t laminate, as the lamination really takes away from the artwork – it isn’t a good solution. And don’t stick it to something else – often the colour they mount it on or the way they’ve mounted it can detract from the picture.