The phone rang early — it was an artist friend from the other side of Earth. A recent collaboration had left him feeling humiliated: “I compromised my vision, thinking I could get through it,” he said, “and in the end it didn’t pay off; I lost the job anyway.”
An early lesson at the bottom of my parents’ property came to mind, where I was learning to be a painter in a re-configured boat shed. A client, in search of a treasure, found the shed constraining and asked if she could commission something specific. In need of Fall tuition and hungry for the experience, I agreed and set to work on a stranger’s painting. Though the subject and style departed from the summer’s passions, I wanted to believe I could be her treasure-maker.
A few weeks later, the painting was ready to go. Like a beast of burden, it groaned under the weight of its overworking and alien vibe. It gave off, to me, an ineffable stench — a kind of forced phoniness of inspiration and execution. After a long silence, my would-be client said, “Thank you, no” and left painting-less. I never saw her again.
Once alone, I let the rejection heat up like a bad rash — kicking myself for the terrible attempt and questioning my fledgling abilities in general. “Never again,” I promised my passions. I promised, whatever they were, to let them sprout, unfettered. Years later, my dad told me the story of a client who kept asking for improvements to her commissioned portrait. He eventually mailed her a box of paints and brushes. In time, we both improved at keeping commissions our own.
These days, between long stretches of muse-driven autonomy, an occasional commission is a welcome satellite to an existing, spinning world.
PS: “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” (Louisa May Alcott)
Esoterica: Artists may embrace or eschew commissions, depending on personal metabolism, flexibility, range, systems or motivations. Some artists pick up the brushes only when they’re at hand. To avoid slipping into mere fulfillment of another’s imaginings at the expense of one’s own, a clear voice must be cultivated and established, unique in its contours, the tip-off for any potential collaborator. Stake out your homestead, set down roots, make your treasure. “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” (e. e. cummings)
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“Only you can find that passion within that burns with an integrity that will not settle for anything less than the Truth.” (Adyashanti)
Reply To Mary Kay Jolley Cancel Reply
Mary’s interest in pastel painting began during her years at Whitworth College in Spokane, WA where she majored in art and elementary education. Though she has worked in watercolor and oil as well as calligraphy, her interest has consistently turned primarily to pastel because of the medium’s potential for glowing, vibrant color and the harmony achieved in bringing together lights and shadows.
I took a commission in 2000 to paint a client’s dog. I worked hard at it, from a photo they had given. When they saw the final result, which wasn’t all that bad, they were very disappointed. I had used the wrong background. I vowed never to do another paid commission again, and never have. When I paint with money as the goal, I paint badly. For me, that’s how it is. I enjoyed your story. I felt your pain!
had two one hundred foot museum grade murals painted over last year
in four years lost almost
lost everything in two hurricanes ,wife of seven years abandoned my cat and i
very little support here
Awesome to read this this morning… I just opened my doors in Vancouver as a small commercial gallery studio and found myself having conversations yesterday about how it was that my work had not been selected for any public art projects in Vancouver. ( dozens of submissions) With the unveiling of the Skytrain art, I was not only deeply disappointed but incredibly surprised at the drab colours and well…. Anyways some well wishers suggested I change my style or team up with people whose more conforming projects do win… Never in a million years would I lower my standards or change my vision of what mosaic art is all about.. and this morning, as I read your email, I feel so grateful to receive this affirmation… and these weekly wonderful newsletters… because as artists we are so often alone and its easy to doubt our path in frailer moments…Your messages always make me feel part of the greater art universe where integrity and perseverance and inspiration rule…Thank you for the wonderful writing and energy you put out every week.. for me, its often just what the art doctor ordered!
If it is any consolation I have often wondered about the criteria for art purchases in our city. I live near the Olympic Canada Line Station. First we had a bench like work outside the station. It was soon ruined by skater boarders using it. I met the artist who had come all the way from Quebec to fix it. She finally replaced it with a tear drop or rain drop. Now that is gone and we have bikes. Another time they had Emily Carr student art on the windows which I thought was a good idea, but the theme of garbage photography did not make my day. Plenty of garbage around the area for my viewing. Then under the Cambie Bridge there was a large jug which was supposed to light up as you walked past. It was not working much and was not ready for the 2010 games. It is long gone and but a large cement pad is still there with an orange plastic cone to cover the electrical outlet. I guess all the tax money went to bike paths. It irks me every time I walk by it. So my recommendation enter your work again and enter in all provinces. One never knows when the decision makers wil change their criteria or be changed themselves.
Thanks Vivian! I am just revisiting these comments and do think that is an excellent suggestion! Yes unfortunately public art in Vancouver really does seem to be hit or miss… super highly conceptual or at the opposite end of the spectrum.. less than well crafted pieces that disappear in a few years as they are not properly constructed or designed .. and well photos of garbage .. that is your new young conceptual artist … unfortunately as I have been told .. my work is too beautiful for public art! ( seriously ..)
I have a small gallery/studio in my hometown, and am constantly bombarded with suggestions for how I could change what I do. I guess this is so I can learn to stop trying to please people but it can really get distressing. Good for you to stick to your guns! I shall, as well.
yes! solidarity in uniqueness … we shall not give up the quest of our personal visions or then it really would just be a sell out…:)
I love that your dad sent his client paint and brushes…..perfect!
even better if the paint and brushes were sent “collect”!
Thank you for that. It reminds me of the time when I was asked to design a logo for a ballet school. The woman had very specific ideas about what she wanted, but I was inspired by the commission and had ideas of my own. I told her I would design something and that she could use it or not, as she liked. I made the drawing and showed her, but she insisted on her own “vision” and I gave in and worked up another drawing exactly to her specs. I showed it to her and she immediately rejected it and chose to use my original inspired drawing for the logo. It was a lesson I will not soon forget. I think that people have a hard time trusting artists to do what they were born to do. They want to supervise and manage things the way they might a business. But creativity eludes that type of control because by its very nature it is spontaneous and inspired. It is an undeserved gift that we can only wonder at and thank God for.
Lately a friend asked me to paint her cat. So I took some photos with my own camera. Beautiful cat! Really!! I could not wait to paint it until she called me asking if it was done. After only a few days!! When I told her that it was not ready, she said that she was disappointed. She could not wait to see the beautiful “green” eyes of her cat. I checked my photos. The eyes are grey!!! As you say, she has her own vision. The eyes will be “green”.
A man I did not know asked me to do a special painting for him. He said, “I will send you and your husband to Provincetown, Cape Cod to do my painting of the Harbor.” As a young artist, I was thrilled by the thought of traveling to the Cape and painting. As soon as I unpacked my panels and brushes I ran to the beach with a view of the harbor at sunset and began my first of several paintings I completed “plein air” on that assignment. As the sun set however, tiny little bugs started biting me constantly until I was in tears trying to finish my painting. Frustrated I worked as fast as I could. I still have that painting I did over 30 years ago, a beautiful memory and one that I love. Once back in my home studio I did a large detailed painting of the Provincetown Harbor which he purchased to hang in his bank office. Commissions have not always been this fun or easy for me, but I always do my best. I do agree with Sarah Genn however, that my best work is when I work on that which inspires me the most. I am happy to say that traveling to Europe to paint is one of my favorite inspirations. We will be going back again next year, this time to a lovely village in Italy. Please join us! A recent video of paintings and of my home studio/gallery can be viewed on my Facebook page linked below. Cheers and Happy Holidays!
Commissions are funny creatures and I have a love/hate relationship with them. I just finished one today that I have both cursed and rejoiced. Let’s just say I’m glad it’s finished.
Ha ha ha… love the mailing of paints and brushes to a person who keeps wanting tweaks. I had just such a person about 2 years ago. I will never do a commission for that person again. Every time you paint a commission, you learn a little something new to consider before starting one.
thank you Nina, you express my thoughts exactly about the power of these letters to gather us all in Community. Funny about timing. just two weeks ago I got my first commission. I’m thrilled and freaked out at the same time. I trust that when I begin, the guidance will be there and I will be able to stay true to myself.
Never did a commission that left anyone happy! So, I just don’t do them anymore.
Such a good topic! Just finishing a commission and going through all the angst posted here. I’m vowing to triple my price the next time.
On the flip side, a client went through all my larger works and loved the pieces I’d done to experiment and please myself.
Loved the topic! I don’t really like commissions either. I think it is hard for one person to see what the other person is imagining in their own mind. I thought I would love doing portraits but quickly found that people see themselves differently than others see them. This doesn’t apply to only paintings. For the past couple of years I”ve been making little books using paper which I marble and prints of my watercolor images and an inspirational quote. A couple of times I have agreed to make a special book for people and just as in paintings, there is a lot of hard work involved in trying to meet their expectations.
I am a mural painter. All my projects are commissions, normally fitting a historical theme. Often under-funded. Always dealing with boards or groups and business owners. These personalities have trouble expressing their vision, or may have none. The more input they put forth, the more stifling the process for me. I feel spent at the end, and often praise delivered gives me resentments and emptiness. Yes, I paint to earn money. The money is not enough. I am successful, with a dozen good pieces, and pretty well known around here. This area is not supportive of the arts if it takes money to produce. The result for me is reluctance to pick up a brush or pencil at home. My studio is a storehouse of art supplies but the maestro can’t find his muse. Vancouver WA
As an artist who works with dyes, paints and fabrics, with producing wearable art, I can certainly speak to the topic. The last commission I did was several years ago was for a very large woman who lived about 50 miles away, who wanted a jacket. I made several sample jackets of inexpensive fabric and had a terrible time fitting her, and of course, each sample involved a trip up there for fitting. I hated working on that jacket. I think I made that promised deadline with an hour to spare, stomach churning all the way, and then had to wait 30 days for the check, as this was done through a gallery. Suffice to say, I learned a lot! Now when people see my work at art shows and fairs and say, “I love this! Can you do one in blue?” my answer is always, “So sorry, but no!”
Good for you! If people cannot appreciate the art presented to them they are non deserving of our talents. I have a friend who is making me a quilt as repayment for services rendered – a fair barter in my eyes. I had no idea how much work went into this form of art. This is a very lenghty process, not to mention the high cost of equipment, good quality fabric and the constant learning curve when tryind different patterns. I can understand now why they cost so much to make and to buy. I will cherish my quilt and treat it as a heirloom.
Thank you for this, Sara! Although there are wonderful artists out there who can work in any style and delight in collaboration, I agree with you that for most of us it can be gravely disappointing – and compromises the work.
However, some private commissions are quite rewarding, not just to the pocketbook but artistically as well. A few suggestions for your readers to make this more likely:
You can tell clients up front that you only accept commissions if they fit with the sort of work you would do anyway – your style, your type of subject matter. This is key. You will lose some commissions this way – but those would have been the frustrating ones anyhow. Dedicated collectors will be thrilled, because it will be recognizably your work.
Do an initial color and composition thumbnail. I usually do a very small oil sketch. This only needs to be a few hours of work, and it is the only thing you do on spec. The client needs to approve the thumbnail and put down a nonrefundable deposit of 50% for your time in order to continue. If they are going to micromanage, it has usually happened by the point of the approval sketch, and you can still gracefully decline and suggest that someone else can better help them realize their vision.
Tell the client that if they are not satisfied with the finished work, they won’t owe the final installment but you will keep the artwork. (Which incidentally being in your customary style, may be able to fit into your body of work.)
It’s not strictly necessary, but if the client is local, I like to deliver the final painting and install it if they wish.
After going through these steps, I have yet to have a client who didn’t express delight in the finished work – and just as importantly, I loved doing the work and didn’t drive myself crazy.
Well said! I’ve done a couple of commissions, and learned the same lessons the hard way. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you for words of wisdom that come from experience. I have a commission coming up. I feel empowered after reading your advice.
Not all commissions are to be accepted. The patron’s vision either fires your imagination, is banal, or totally misaligned to your own. Only the first should be considered. For years I’ve enjoyed commissions because some patrons have a personal vision to realize. These have taken me into worlds I would never have experienced otherwise. No matter what my ideas may be, they are part of me & no real surprise. I’ve had patrons whose thoughts & experience are so different that great effort was required on many levels of research, discussion & thought. The final product represented astonishing growth, education, broadening of horizons & satisfaction beyond monetary compensation. It is an adventure.
When that level of intense involvement with patron, work or personal growth is lacking, it is either a warning to flee or the monetary reward must be exorbitant…you live with the consequence(s).
Michelangelo had the commission game down perfectly. Learn this lesson -if you have the nerve that he did-
Take a downpayment on every commission you can, promise to deliver, spend the money and work on the commissions you like that allow for your own personal vision.
Michelangelo passed on to the Heavenly Realm with un-filled commissions that would have taken him 120 years to complete. Play to win or don’t play at all.
I was once told that a boat would look good in a picture I had completed. I looked at this giant of an art critic and promptly responded. ‘Then two boats would make it twice as good.” He actually agreed!
I only take commissions from Mother Nature. She does not always pay but always manages to keep quiet.
I was a pretty successful portrait painter for many years. I found that some people don’t really like the way they actually look and want to be glamorized. In 1992 I decided to paint for myself and from my imagination. I have become a much happier painter. I have learned that you cannot paint what someone else wants to look like and you cannot paint what is in someone else’s mind. Beware when someone wants to commission you to paint their “vision”.
Winston Churchill comes to mind: he had his portrait done for his 80th birthday by a famous artist, and he hated the result, as did his wife. She apparently burned it with his blessing!
I have only ever done 2 commissions – they both (in my opinion) kinda sucked. I am thinking of offering the clients (at no cost) the option to trade for some recent work I think is way better – maybe this is a way to atone for my bad judgment?
I found it very difficult to make something time-consuming and end up with something the commissioner wanted. And I found it impossible to please some people. So I backed off- and for a long time. I did finally start up again doing one occasionally- but the person’s involved in every step of the process. However- I also had a failure/success a few years ago. I built something that wasn’t quite right- so I built a second something. In the end my commissioner paid full-price for the second piece- but I got him to take both home and he divided to keep the first piece too. I let him pay what he wanted to for that- because I wanted to keep them together as a pair- because they were a pair.
Loved this one! A few years ago, I was commissioned to do a painting by a wealthy woman who was redecorating her home and had a certain special spot. I visited her, and suggested that she might want to have a light put in the area, since it was a dimly lit dining room with little outside light reaching it. Over the next couple of weeks, I delivered a couple of sketches for her approval, and set to work on the commission piece. When I delivered it (naively not having taken a deposit), she bubbled with enthusiasm. Not for my painting, which she decreed was “a bit dark for that spot”, but rather for the generous gift of a painting done by her decorator and given to her the previous evening! I was somewhat less angry when I took it to my gallery the next day, and it sold within a week. No more commissions for me, thanks!
I enjoyed reading your story, I can imagine how important that commission felt to a young,struggling artist. Mine is a bit different story from usual commissions– in the late 1990’s , as a young painter, I was invited to submit a painting, along with others being considered as the image for that year’s program cover of the concert/theatre division of a major art center (that also included a large non-profit art gallery) in California, where I lived at the time. This would be a major bit of publicity for me and I was excited about it. The theme was to be “showmanship” or something similar. I agreed to submit work, but the doing was much harder than I imagined. After weeks of flailing about with this theme, trying hard for something that reflected showmanship, I finally reached such a state that I gave in to my natural instincts and painted an abstraction in my normal style. Because it was within hours of the deadline, I threw caution to the wind– having nothing to lose at that point, and made a painting that was my best yet, up until that time. A while later, I heard from the board that my piece had caused quite a conflict– a division of opinions that the board chairman had to decide, after much back and forth arguing among the board members. Someone “in the know” told me that the more progressive folks on the board wanted my painting, even though it wasn’t at all theatrical– and the more conservative people wanted a collage painting that featured musical notes, dancers, etc. Well, as you can imagine, the conservative group won out. But, I was happy they gave me a first runner up award and hung the piece prominently in a show, along with quite a bit of press– all of which which led to some other good things. I still have that painting, can’t part with it– a great reminder for me to stick with what I do naturally for the best results. I’ve taken some commissions, but I’ve learned to let the client know beforehand that even though I may do a slight bit of tweaking, I’ll have to stay true to my own vision overall.
Almost the same. My sister-in-law had taken painting lessons some years ago and never getting the hang of it, abandoned aspirations of being an artist. A couple of years ago while visiting, she presented me a still life done in acrylic and asked, almost insisted I work on it to make it good enough to hang. I studied the canvas while trying to how to explain why I could not work on it. Failing the “my watercolors will not paint on acrylics” not to mention it was something my sensibilities would not let me do. Her reaction was almost heart breaking. She never understood. I feel bad about it still.
This reminds me of an experience with commissions. A woman asked me to do a painting for her and I agreed. The problem was, it wasn’t at all clear what exactly she wanted. After hedging back and forth for a while, she finally said she wanted me to do whatever it was I wanted to. She just wanted a painting I’d done for her. When it was fininshed, she was thrilled to bits. A one of a kind experience for sure. It was the exception to a number of not very pleasant experiences that put me off doing commissioned work.
I have been working commissions for more than 50 years, and after some initial bad experiences, quickly learned
which ones to reject (executing the patron’s personal “vision”) and which to accept (patrons that give me freedom
to interpret the subject matter–which has been anything from pet portraits to a sports car–in a manner that fits my style and methodology. Of course, since I have done a lot of commercial work, most fine artists would probably
classify me as an illustrator rather than a real artist!
You have no idea how much this idea makes my day: “He eventually mailed her a box of paints and brushes.”
Loved all the stories! After several tries at commissions, I have given them up. I am much happier for it!
The worst commission experience I ever had was one I did for an acquaintance after she pestered me for more than a year. It was done from an old sepia-toned photograph that was so washed out it was impossible to see what she was holding in her hands (a baby chicken, she said). She was two years old in the photo, she wanted a pink dress, etc., etc., etc. We agreed on a price and I set to work – even went to the library and researched baby chickens. When I delivered the painting, she said, “Oh, I wish you had made my shoes white!” I pointed out the shoes were definitely black patent leather in the photo. Then she explained that she was a bit short of cash and asked whether or not she could make payments. In the end, she paid me about $35.00 total but, meanwhile, she kept telling me how much she loved the painting and how her children were already fighting over who would inherit it when she died. It was the last time I ever did a commission except for special people and on my own terms.
Thanks so much Sara,I often doubt my realistic drawings and paintings as the abstract is now the current art rage.I am not an abstract painter and cannot produce what my soul feels in not mine to do.Only I can commission my work,if it accepted,wonderful,if not it is one of my soul paintings and I hold it dear,blessings and Happy Holidays
Wonderful post, Sara. As always, very thought-provoking! As I read your article, I was reminded of a time, not too long ago, when a dear friend of mine, an accomplished artist in his own right, sent me a check in the mail with a letter attached stating he wanted to commission me to do a painting for him of “anything I wanted.” It was to be of whatever I felt I wanted to paint, for the amount of money he sent. He also told me to take my time and not to hurry – just let him know when it was ready, which turned out to be a really good thing for me!
While initially it was thrilling (my first PAID commission), I soon realized, as I stepped into my studio to get to work, that this was going to be harder than I thought. My mind went completely blank. I had NO vision of what I wanted to paint for him. Days went by with nothing. Then months went by with NOTHING. I finally decided to do a portrait of him using an old photograph he had posted on his web page. The painting actually turned out extremely well, and when I presented it to him (almost a year after he had sent me his initial request) he was totally THRILLED! And I was SO relieved to have it finally done.
I’m not sure which is worse – a commission with absolutely NO criteria, leaving the artist’s mind to scramble and flail about wildly for inspiration and hopefully the client will love it, or a commission from a client who has specs so tight and constricting that it stifles the artist’s creativity completely!
I am a rather new artist…I just started studying art about 7 years ago with a wonderful artist. I have been making slow progress, but feeling proud of my efforts. Recently, I got my first commission from an unlikely source. My neice’s second grade son. He sent me a hand written letter in a hand made envelope placed inside a mailing envelope with a little red rubber octopus. “Please paint Hank. Ask Siri (the little helper on the computer) what he looks like.” I was both amused and pleased that anyone would want me to paint for them, let alone a red octopus! I DID ask Siri what he looked like and it turns out that he is from the movie, “Finding Dory”. I envisioned Hank in the ocean, moving around some rocks…all sorts of things, and also wondered what size painting this young child would want. So I called him to clarify. “I want you to paint Hank”. Okay, what size? In the Ocean? How do you want him to look? “I want you to paint Hank”…. I also informed him (for learning purposes) about what a commission is, and that he would have to pay the artist for her time. He agreed to one dollar and we kept discussing the painting…we went round and round, and it finally occurred to me that he wanted me to paint new eyes on his rubber critter Hank! They had worn off! Now I had a new problem…what kind of paint would stick to the the rubbery Hank and not just wear off again and not be toxic to his younger brother? I asked around and decided on paint pens with a warning to not let his brother (who probably at this point anyway) put Hank in his mouth. Later, when he received Hank, I decided to give him a “Friends and Family Discount and he paid me $.50….I told him he was a Patron of the Arts!
Hi I could tell you , when the same thing happened to me. Or instead I will tell you what I do about it When asked if I can do a commission?
I Tell the client that it will cost them Double! When they ask you why ,you say because there are two of us working on it now! Regards Mark Kellett A.O.C.A
I am happy to say that my commissions have all worked out. I am not a big-time artist, but I do have a small following and people have followed through to buy what they commissioned. Fortunately, they have let me follow my own vision. That said, I will heed the remarks of the artists who posted here and beware of accepting commissions that don’t fit my current artistic goals or take too much time away from what I really want to do.
I used to paint pastel portraits at school and craft shows, usually kids, with their mommies watching and their friends teasing and everyone else in the area watching also. You have to go into your zone. It can be nerve wracking. I usually seemed to please. I made no claims and if the person did not like it I told them I would keep it, no charge. There was one where I painted a beautiful young blonde boy of about twelve. I really wanted to paint him; he had such wonderful colors. But when I was done, his Mom said his mouth was not right… I tried to see what she meant. I tried to fix it a few times. Finally, she confessed that he was angry that he had to sit, did not want to. Ah HA! That was the reason for the mouth problem. I explained to her that I could only paint what I saw, nothing else. If he was angry that would show. I think we finally called it finished. I am sure his mom loved it in the long run, after he was grown. I think I might have met him not long ago at a party where I told this story. The worst ones to paint were commissions from school pictures, improper lighting. No shadows. I also had a hard time painting from pictures of children who had died; hated that. The parents want to preserve a memory. And they have such a firm idea of what it is that they want to remember. You have to be a mind reader. I agonized over them. Finally stopped doing that kind of thing at all. I am much happier. The up side was that I really learned to paint a good head after doing this for about 17 years.
I took a commission once.. should have known she would be trouble when she said the red couldn’t be too blue or too orange.. still have the piece in my home. Its a reminder to me to not try to get someones vision and make it my own..
I make my living mostly on commission work. I am able to sell 25% of my own paintings at fairs, but could not live on these sales. Last year I did 3 large religious paintings for a client, I am not a religious being, so they were terribly difficult to begin, got into the research, and was enjoying the preocess. I delivered one at a time and was relieved to be paid before starting the next. They took longer than normal, but the client was happy. It felt good to accomplish something out of my comfort zone.
I have been given a commission of three paintings …all of the same subject…identical! It is very daunting but was quite relieved to hear I could do one and get two prints made from the original for the other two. That being said I find I am still skeptical. Thank you for your take on commisions.
I am a bit late in reading this, but enjoyed it. The only commissions I will do are pets. Unlike some people, when I paint a pet portrait, I am on fire and I don’t want them to just like it; I want them to love it so I work extra hard and that is not difficult for me as I love all animals. I have never had anyone dissatisfied, in fact, they have all been elated. Now, I would never do a portrait of a person. My instructor told me to never paint a portrait as you will never please them…and I think that is true. I think people see themselves and younger and more attractive. The only portraits I do are of myself and family. Always enjoy the responses from other artists.
Long time enjoyable reader, first time commenter! Commissions are like an emotional Roller Coaster for me (mostly on the happy top of the roller coaster) although the latest one has left me agog. I painted 3 commissions to fit into my clients antique frames. Emailed her the finished framed paintings which she was happy with, however she asked me to remove my signature from the fronts of the paintings as she was going to resell them (which is fine with me) and she didn’t want anyone to google me and find me. Is that not wrong to expect me to remove my signature from my own painting? It’s sort of like removing one of my children’s surnames. I am not going to do it, so we are in a bit of a stale mate situation…stay tuned!
A fun article; thanks!
In my case, I quite like commissions, as they often provide subjects that I might not otherwise tackle. However, I work with the client to agree on a reference image that I will enjoy working from, and it normally turns out fine.