Anatomy of a commission


Dear Artist,

Last summer, when I saw the location in the dramatic home, I knew right away what would look good in there. Then last week I faxed a pencil rough to the client. A secretary phoned to say that the couple, who live in another city, were coming to town and wanted to discuss the commission. At the appointed time I arrived at their hotel room. It must be the price, I figured. It wasn’t. The painting I had conceived for them included three weathered totem poles. One of the totems had a phallic device as part of its design. Both the husband and wife were concerned about this. They wanted to know how I felt about anthropological correctness. For a while we talked about the supposed emasculation of the First Nations’ Peoples. We talked about the historic tendency to cover up male anatomy — and the many pants, codpieces, and wispy scarves that were superimposed by other artists on Michelangelo’s naked men. We had a good chat. My clients loved my sketch; they just wondered what might be done. I offered to supply two more roughs, one with the part removed, the other with a few leaves in front of it. I’ve included these roughs, the painting in progress and the finished work at

The following morning the fax machine gave me their decision. They wanted the one without the phallus. Charles, the canvasman, swung into action. We had the 48″ x 80″ into the studio almost immediately and primed minutes later. I like to get going. For big ones I screw the easel into the floor and clamp the canvas tight. I drew the totems first. I think it was Sir William Orpen who said, “A painting well drawn is always well enough painted.” Totems, being their own art form, ought to be drawn properly. Next came the dark surround that grips the central subject. I painted fast and furious, thick and juicy between glazes and scumbles. The background and foreground came later. My efforts took shape over several days. It could have gone faster. We were out to dinner three nights in a row. It’s one of the truly great feelings to get into the bathtub in the late afternoon knowing that something is coming along in the studio.

Right now the finished work is going out the driveway in the dealer’s van. I’m cleaning up, picking up my rags, unscrewing my easel. There’s the usual post-partum depression, which I hope will only last a few minutes.

Best regards,


PS: “I will not compromise my principles.” (Diego Rivera, when asked to remove the portrait of Lenin from his commissioned mural at Rockefeller Center, New York, 1934) His mural was immediately torn down.

Esoterica: I painted the phallus on a separate canvas and then cut it to size. It’s in an envelope tacked on the back of the stretcher. It’s provided with Velcro strips and can be attached in the proper place. Some day those things may come back into fashion. In the meantime the client’s sense of propriety has been managed, and I have practically no apology for my anthropology.

The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.


Part of the whole grand celebration
by Norma Anderson


painting by Norma Anderson

It has always been my problem, I thought, that I could not visualize the hidden symbols of paintings and writings. I seem to look only for the obvious. But this letter reminded me of the loss that I always feel as I am looking for the real rendering of Kokopeli in all of his joy. As depicted now it is just another clever drawing. Also as a note, being raised in close proximity to lots of totem poles in Southeastern Alaska I wonder on how many phallic symbols that I gazed at in wonder and failed to see them as something that was so. To me they were all part of the whole grand celebration.


by Marilyn Lemon

Several years ago I heard the definition of an artist as “someone who looks into the mirror, and doesn’t flinch” and it rung true to me. I think with that recent painting you flinched. Then you went further and attempted to make flinching an art form.


Process of adjustment
by Sharon Pitts


painting by Sharon Pitts

Thank you for showing and discussing the process of producing your totem pole commission. It was fascinating to see and read about how you “adjusted” both with the couple commissioning you and also with the painting process. It does seem that painting is a process of adjusting from beginning to end.



Stigma of illustration
by Larry Moore


painting by Larry Moore

To me your work has a decidedly illustrative edge. I’m sure you are familiar with the apparent rift between the fine art and illustration worlds, but frankly, in the majority of cases, I don’t see the difference between the two in intent, content or execution. Many of my artist friends in the warehouse studio where I work come into my space and pilfer my Society of Illustrators annuals because they say “New American Painters (catalog) or ArtNews just doesn’t do it for them any more.” Now, I say all this as an illustrator and a plein air painter. So just out of curiosity, when I said your work had an illustrative quality to it, did you feel a twinge of a reaction?

(RG note) Not at all. What most artists know, but don’t always admit, is that “illustration” is often the more challenging art. I love a challenge.


It’s a weaker painting on the “cosmic” level
by Barbara Swail, Dawson Creek, BC, Canada

I’m not sure what I would have done — I admire both what I interpret as your philosophical detachment that permitted you to remove it and your solution of painting it as a potential add-on — I loved that! From reading your letter I expected something much more “in your face” and was surprised by the objection when I saw the sketch. Personally I think they got a weaker painting by asking to have it removed — not visually, but at the cosmic level.


Final varnish and medium
by Nick May


painting by Nick May

What is the medium you used before the final varnish? I use the Golden varnish on my work as well but I have never used a glaze over the finished painting prior to varnish. Is this a must?

(RG note) A lot of artists asked this one. The acrylic medium ought to be put on first — the milky stuff. I cut it about 50-50 with water. My Golden bottle says: “Acrylic Medium (Gloss)” You may prefer Matte. It evens out the dull areas and forms an even skin over everything. The medium unites with the paint and forms a strong leathery surface. If left as is, however, it is a bit “sticky” and remains attractive to dust. When this application is dry I put on a coat of “Polymer Varnish with UVLS.” Again cut 50-50 with water. The two fluids are two separate molecules — the first one blending with the paint. Think of the second one as shrink-wrapping the work with a hard but flexible, totally dry, non-sticky finish. If needs be it can be removed with household ammonia — which does not touch the acrylic medium or the paint underneath. UVLS means Ultra-violet Light Stabilizers.

My friend Bill Kerr notes, “UV absorbers do wear out and sort of exhaust themselves as UV light breaks down the absorber. This then allows the UV to penetrate. A permanent UV varnish is a great idea.” Ideally the UV absorbers should be replaced every fifty years or so when paintings are cleaned. One wonders how many future conservators will do this.


Final varnish texture
by Sepideh Williams

I must say I never knew what that appendage was on the Haida totems. But now I think the little man in your painting looks absolutely horrified. I am curious as to the texture of the glaze and the varnish you added on at the end. Do you see the texture? When you paint over it (re-working the red leaves at the end) does the paint adhere to the varnish as it should? Do you varnish over that?

(RG note) Fortunately the painting was only coated with acrylic medium when I added the darker red tones. I did this with a fairly thick impasto — as I generally do toward the end of a painting. When this was dry I coated the new parts with more medium. When that was dry I used the final varnish with UVLS.


Phallic symbols?
by Edward W. Berkeley, Portland, Oregon, USA

The people who found phallic symbols in it have to have their heads examined. I’m sick with political, anthropological or whatever else correctness. We have lost all sense of fun in this contemporary society of ours, and I hate the censorship and superfluous comments of the plebes. You had of course to fulfill your commission (and I don’t compare you to Rivera with his stupid communist antics, you are a much superior painter both artistically and intellectually) but did you consider telling these people to go and f… themselves?

(RG note) The device is not a phallic symbol. It’s a phallus. The carver put it there. I put it in the closet. But you’re right about the fun.


The bashful rancher
by Judy Wood, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada


artwork by Judy Wood

Your letter on the commissioned painting reminded me of an experience I had a number of years ago with a man I now think of as “the bashful rancher.” I had an art booth at an agricultural show for farmers and ranchers. While most of my work is generally based on horses and dogs, I do enjoy doing other species, so was pleased when a young rancher said he wanted to commission me to do one of his bulls. As the conversation developed, in a halting fashion and with much discomfort on his part, it turned out he didn’t want the bull to be “accurately” depicted. The working parts were to be omitted. Now I’m a city person but with lots of experience in the world of horses, and I know that whether it be stallion or bull, those are the most important bits to a breeding operation. However, I agreed to go lightly on the areas in question since he was the one who was paying for it and would be looking at it every day, but I still shake my head a little whenever I remember this one.


Restraints of commissions
by Warren Criswell, Benton, Arkansas, USA


painting by Warren Criswell

I understand the restraints of commissions. Caving in to the client is a personal choice and nobody else’s business — except maybe the people whose culture you distorted slightly for sake of our own culture’s idea of good taste. Who knows, maybe we would think just as highly of Rivera if he had done Rockefeller’s bidding. And forget all the usual whining about “prostitution.” I have nothing against prostitution, artistic or otherwise. But from a purely artistic point of view, in my opinion Facing West was better before the emasculation.

In your original sketch, the composition was integrated horizontally. Also, the upward curve of the phallus was a nice counterpoint to the downward curve of the beak on the farthest totem. But without the phallus there is a rift down the middle, which divides the canvas into two isolated parts. This is not helped much by the fig leaf bush in the foreground. Some of the depth perspective — the spatial relationship of the three poles — is lost too, without that overlapping member. Without getting too carried away with metaphor and symbolism, that slice down the middle can be read as dividing the painting against itself: native Americans in their original autonomy on the left, what we have done to them on the right. Besides, before the operation, the victim seemed to have an ecstatic look on his face. Now he just looks like he has a stomachache. The Velcro patch won’t get it. I hope you’ll do a similar painting with all the parts restored. It would make Diego and Michelangelo proud.


Phallus necessary
by Richard Haynes


painting by Richard Haynes

I’m happy your friend mentioned the red foliage. Up until the last image I feared it was so strong. It was more the center of attention rather than the totems. Actually made the totems fade into the background to join the vertical trees. I do think the phallus was necessary to connect (visually) the two totems, but who can figure peoples interpretations of ‘decency’ vs. good composition and historical reality? I find with so many galleries that images of death, destruction, starvation, the homeless are okay to exhibit, but anything remotely related to sex is verboten, even just nude models are banned, incredible. Why can’t they see its just paint and the nudity whether good/bad is in their minds? When did sex become evil?


Phallus unnecessary
by Lorrie Williamson, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, USA


painting by Lorrie Williamson

I agree with your clients that the phallus was unnecessary to the appeal and beauty of the painting. Perhaps had it not been so dead center — or was that on purpose!




Secret on the back of the painting
by Jan Ross, Kennesaw, GA USA

It was hard to imagine exactly how the ‘appendage’ you mentioned in your original message would’ve appeared on the finished piece… a picture is sure worth a thousand words! I think the secret ‘on the back’ of the canvas will also become a conversation piece as years go by. The painting is a real tribute to the original creators of the totems.


Faulty phallic fallacies
by Mary Jean Mailloux, Oakville, Ontario, Canada


painting by Mary Jean Mailloux

Without the testicles, I don’t understand how the original phallus looked more like a phallus than the eagle beak which protrudes to the same extent. I had to really look to make the connection, whereas I thought the eagle beak was what you were referring to initially. I didn’t especially like the phallus shape, but I liked it better in the second sketch somewhat masked by the bushes, than completely out.


Unpopular commission
by Moncy Barbour

Commissions left a bad taste for me for a long while. My first was a mural in a Baptist church. Everyone loved it. About ten years later I was contacted to paint a mural for a pastor in another Baptist church. Now this was in the era of my college studies and I had just learned that art was sometimes meant to wake up stodgy citizens. Well I did! It was the most colorful work that I ever had painted of the Jordan River. The pastor took a photo of it and he said he understood modern art. He also said that the congregation completely ignored him during church services and kept their eyes on my painting instead of listening to his sermon. Well, twenty men of the church said that if the mural was not removed that they and their families would leave the church. The pastor asked if I could tone it down some and I said that after I sign my name I do not rework my paintings. He paid me for the price of my supplies. I am not that stubborn any longer. I will work with the commissioner as long as it takes to meet his request. But commissions still scare me. I am too free of a spirit to be caged into a commission. I’ve since only painted three, and two were for a famous actress. She liked them. Art for me is freedom and realizing that this freedom comes from a much higher being than myself. I can’t help but to express freedom my way.


Often wondered what that shape was
by Loreena Lee


painting by Loreena Lee

In looking over the sketches, I too would have chosen the one without the “phallic shape,” simply because it looks like a blank hole right smack-dab in the middle of the design. The revised one looks more comfortable and one a person could live with. Also, I now know what that shape is — I’ve often wondered, not putting too much thought into it. It is an odd shape, and looks vaguely out of place with the other symbols. The things one learns when in the field of art!


Second generation art
by Brett Forrester

Your totem painting stirred up an old question maybe you could help me work through. My father painted a scene with a totem pole in it many years ago. I have been thinking about going back to some of his images to repaint them in my own fashion. It seems like one way I can honor his memory, but I am also trying to get away from using the images of others in order to take a step closer to developing my own style. In a way it seems odd that I never thought of copying my father’s paintings until I reached middle age and he has passed on. I sort of wish I had done it while he was around to see. His were oils and I use watercolors, but it is still borrowed images. Any thoughts you care to share about this in particular and about painting from the photos or images of others in general?

(RG note) The idea of taking the art of another and reworking it is a useful idea. Apart from the sentimental and memorial value between you and your father — there’s the possibility that more might be squeezed from his motifs. If you’ve ever stood at a photocopier and kept returning images in a generational way — you see an appealing transformation take place. Art from art is valid creativity. This goes for photos too. Interpret — don’t copy.







Al Johnsen, Gig Harbour, Washington, USA


“La Pailette, Provence”
by Al Johnsen


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.

That includes Ellen B. Simon, who wrote, “I’m glad you toned down the red. Before when I looked at the painting that was the focal point. Now it is in context with the rest of the painting.”

And Gail Ingis-Claus, who wrote, “Did you say you were an illustrator? Your sense of design, color, proportion, scale, value, it’s all wonderful, and I agree with the softening of the leaves in the front. The strong color stopped your eye, this one moves your eye around and into the work.”

And Margaret and Janusz Obst, who wrote, “We absolutely love the idea of a Velcro phallus.”

And Jack Pease, who wrote, “It’s another case of ‘Snap on Tools.’ ”

And Faith Puelston, of Wetter, Germany, who wrote, “Those clients really don’t have a clue. Not that leaving out a “private part” makes or breaks a picture, but it certainly makes you wonder what they intend to do with it: Is it seen an extension of their personality, will it be hung in a medical center for infectious diseases, or what? Designer babies are only a further development of the practice of pleasing the customer. You might even be starting a trend.”

And David Sharpe, who writes, “Are you sure you’ve never been in Advertising/Marketing Communications? You think and act like a Creative Director in a large ad agency! (Only YOU are the client). My experience in the advertising business is that it’s tough to train folks to have an opportunistic eye. In Fine Art, some have it, most don’t.”


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