Yesterday, Dan McGrath of Lexington, Kentucky wrote, “I accepted a commission to paint an old mill. I went to the site with the client, took photos, did an 8×10 inch study, refined the viewing angle and began an 18×24 inch canvas. After blocking in, I’ve decided that the whole thing is dull, uninteresting, and won’t be worth the price. Should I do the best I can and finish the thing, or go back to the customer (and my gallery who arranged the job) and admit that I won’t do something I can’t be proud of, and propose a completely different painting which may not meet his needs?”
Thanks, Dan. Great question. In my less palmy days I said yes to everything. I needed the money. Also, this had me do things I would not otherwise have done and took me to places I would not otherwise have seen. But I soon realized that the customer’s vision and my vision did not always match. Further, I realized that I was taking on doubtful commissions at the very times when I doubted my own vision. The more off-beat the commissions were, the more they distracted me from my own flow. Sometimes, in my anguish, I became blocked.
As I became more confident, I adopted a compromise. I always said “yes” — I never said “when.” This permitted telling clients I’d do the commission when the spirit moved — and I’d let them know when it moved. Sometimes it moved and sometimes it didn’t. I think the longest I kept someone waiting was about ten years. Sometimes I was able to let them know after just a few months. Sometimes I got started and, like you, contemplated dropping the project. I was often able to recommend a fellow painter who was more up to the challenge.
Your question is a matter of principle. It has to do with your own creative vision. Do you need to dump the distracting headache, or do you see it as an opportunity to grab and work through a challenge?
Most creative professions tolerate very little self-indulgence. Catering is the game. Everything from cake decoration to auto design is based on pleasing customers. Only the fine arts have such a high degree of self-anointment. It’s expected. Personal direction creates respect. As you hone your personal direction, it gets easier and easier to say no. Changing your mind is basic to the creative process. We are blessed with the choice.
PS: “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.” (William Shakespeare)
Esoterica: Your thought of offering the motif from your angle, not the customer’s, is a viable one. You can say, “I went back to the place and found something neither of us had thought of.” Very often you can make the offer of a surprise, with the understanding that if it isn’t satisfactory, you will sell it through your regular channels. You might even suggest trying again if your idea doesn’t work for them. Then again, you can say, “You’ve got enough of my stuff now — you don’t need any more.” Then they really go nuts.
Etiquette of a commission painter
by David Goatley, Victoria, BC, Canada
As a portrait painter, I often work on commission. A commission is a form of contract in which the artist agrees to paint the subject the client has asked for in a way that pleases them and fulfils the contract. As you enter into this contract you take on certain obligations that as a professional you must fulfill. This does not mean you are a slave to a client’s bad idea — you have the opportunity to develop the commission into something you would like to paint that also pleases the client in the opening discussions and sketch process. If their own idea is poor, you show them a better one and keep talking until they have agreed that your way of tackling the thing, as a professional whose expertise they have sought, is the best way of doing the job and the sure fire guarantee that they will be getting a picture you can both be proud of. Once a sketch has been agreed upon, you then have to paint the picture, otherwise you are breaking the contract. If you are not prepared to fulfill it, you should not work on commission. No one wants to work with a contractor who, having agreed to build a new deck, constructs a gazebo because they ‘think it looks better’ or worse yet, gives you the plans for your deck, roughs out the basic form of it and then fails to show up for ten years. Why should artists be allowed to be unprofessional? Or fail to fulfill contractual obligations? We are in a profession, just like any other, and if an artist cannot accept that then they should leave commissioned work to professionals and take their chances with galleries who may or may not display their work, may or may not sell it and may or may not help them build careers. One of the reasons art funding and respect for the visual arts is at such an all time low is because too many people who can’t paint do, and even those of us who can often refuse to be bound by the reasonable expectation of professional standards that all other Arts have to accept. No one hires actors who can’t act, dancers that can’t dance, musicians that can’t play or opera singers that can’t sing and yet you can walk into any gallery and see works by ‘painters’ that have little or no idea how to paint. We are shooting ourselves in the foot repeatedly by refusing to be professional and recognize standards of practice and workplace ethics. Amateurism may be liberating and fun, but don’t expect the public to take it seriously. Or pay for it.
Honour the commitment
by Andrew Bray, Toronto, ON, Canada
I am troubled both by Dan’s question and your response. This is not fine art if he accepts a commission (let me add that I’m not a painter, I’m a musician, so I really know nothing of the world of fine art!). He made a commitment and now someone is relying on him. He never qualified it up front, so let him learn for next time, but he should definitely complete the job. Further, the amount he gets paid is not only irrelevant, he should adopt the mindset that he is being well paid. Once you agree to a price, the price doesn’t matter. What matters is your word and that you give it your all. Dan says “the whole thing is dull” …it’s his own vision that is dull… he needs to take a fresh angle on the work, challenge himself, and meet his commitments. The fine art over which he has 100% discretion is the work he creates on his own, following his own vision, which may or may not yield financial reward. This is commissioned work and he should honour his word and be a pro about it.
by Scott Jennings, Sedona, AZ, USA
I think this question has little to do with art, but says a lot about artists. In my opinion, your first sentence says it all, “I accepted a commission…” Artists already have the reputation of being flakes, and you are underscoring the point. Your artistic integrity tells you this job isn’t for you, but what about personal integrity? You accepted the commission and began the endeavor with the client. Your gallery arranged it and probably took a down payment as earnest money. So, besides losing the client’s good will, your gallery isn’t going to be very happy with you after walking away from an agreed upon business deal. Do the painting. Do the best possible painting you can do for the client. If you have to put in more time than you expected to come up with a painting that works for you, then that’s what you do. Then, next time, be much more discerning up front about taking on commissions. My personal guidelines for commissions are as follows:1. Don’t take on a commission that is not in the mainstream of what I would paint anyway.2. Do not accept too much guidance as to what the painting will look like. I will only let the client have input on the most basic elements of the painting: size and basic subject.3. Only take commissions from people that are quite familiar with your work. Either they own paintings of mine or have been looking at a lot of my work, but can’t settle of the subject.4. Only take commissions for large works. This is an important one for me. Clients looking for extra large paintings have very few choices when it comes to finding the right large work. It is more important to find the artist they want and then see if he/she will do something that fits their needs (or wall space). An 18×24 inch canvas is so commonplace, that a buyer should be able to consider many paintings to find the right one, but a 4×6 foot or larger painting is not something you will be able to cruise galleries for and have choices.5. Always charge more money for commissions. Generally for me, this is 10% – 20% more than I would normally charge. It is always cheaper to buy a suit off the rack than to have one tailor made… same goes for art. Besides, it will help cover the pain and extra time of dealing with the clients and compensate you for doing something that you weren’t originally inspired to do.My final piece of advice would be to go back to the subject at a different time of day, and without the client. Observe it at sunrise and sunset (the only two choices for me, anyway) and see if different lighting sparks your creative interest. Make sure you have checked out all available angles of the scene at the different times of morning and evening. You might be surprised that you come up with something inspirational after all.
Commissions only an occasional challenge
by Carol Lyons, Irvington, NY, USA
I have been painting commissioned house portraits in watercolor since 1989. It is a challenge I take on two or three times a year. There is no turning back! Changing my mind is not an option for me. Beginnings always have issues to work through. That is part of the thrill I have opened myself up to a few times a year and cannot resist. (The rest of the year I do experimental work with a different feeling, one of complete art freedom). The house portraits always start with mixed apprehension, confidence, and excitement. I must please the client as well as myself… What I would suggest to Dan McGrath that might prevent his problem of changing his mind is to involve his client much more. It provides for mutual decision-making before the commission is started.
Trapped in Artist Hell
by Rhonda Bobinski, Red Lake, ON, Canada
Ah, I remember many a time I had to “suck it up” and do an art piece I didn’t particularly want to do. I live in a small town so it was one of those things where I would be stopped on the street or in the grocery store or post office and asked if I could paint a business sign or do a caricature on a birthday card or draw a portrait of a dog. Groan. My art teacher used to call it “prostitution of your art” and I didn’t really know what he meant until I started getting these interesting consignment offers. I was young and definitely needed the money at the time I agreed to do these art pieces (and please, I use the word “art” loosely). It definitely helped to get me a lot of exposure in the town, but when it came to finally doing what I actually wanted to do artistically, people scrunched up their noses and said things like, “What is this supposed to mean?” and “Oh, she has changed since she’s gone to art school.” So then I continued to do the uninspiring jobs, but I just wouldn’t sign them. I reasoned that I might as well use a talent that I have and make some money and nobody has to know that I made it. I was creating two artistic personalities… the one that does schmulk and the other artist that is true to her artistic self. Then one day the call came that changed it all. A woman wanted me to create a sign for a new business she was opening. I asked her to come over so that we could discuss the premise of the business and brainstorm some logo imagery together. She was opening up an art supply store so I felt that I had an opportunity to really go outside the box with this one and create something more to my liking. Well, she wanted me to create a logo which had a light bulb, a rainbow and a paint brush integrated into it. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe I was trapped in artist stereotype hell and was being asked to create a logo for it! I toiled and tossed and turned over that one, trying to come up with a design that met her needs and met mine. Then, I just had to give up and call her up and tell her that I just couldn’t in all conscience create that logo. And I have continued to refuse to do the art I don’t want to do since then. There will always be a young struggling artist out there that will be more willing to “prostitute her art” for a little while before she decides she’s worth so much more than that.
by Cherie Hanson, Kelowna, BC, Canada
What I have learned, but as in all things not completely or thoroughly… but incrementally, is that by doing that which I had not set out to do, I find another path. At times, we as beings of ego believe that only the vision that we hold is the correct vision. But by wanting something, we do not necessarily have the most information. Desiring, planning, establishing our own structures are all architectures of ego. At times, it can be sheltering. At times it does give us a “style” that is easily discernible. The discipline within self is to pay attention to when getting off the path can best be getting on the path. When a client wants me to do something I had not thought of doing, I learn the most. One suggestion I have for Dan is something that I find has worked well for me. I will complete a project exactly as the client has asked, but I also go on to incorporate the client’s vision and my own. These variations are then offered to the client. Usually, the combination of their vision and mine is the strongest. Just by thinking we are right does not make us right. But we are not necessarily wrong either. It is only later that we see anything clearly — much later with greater perspective. Keeping the larger view of life as an adventure can make art and life much more exciting. The sweet place is to be as exploratory and excited by the new as a child, but not as inclined to say, “But I want it!!”
Asking the vital questions
by Andrew Baker, South Downs, UK
It is not just a self-anointed process that preoccupies us in any creative activity, it is that commissions that predefine an object by their remit defy the precept of true artistic practice in that it is about our journey around subject and object. A more fitting commission might request the feel that an artist gives to a subject that is not dominated by the object within it. The paintings by Cezanne of Mont Sainte Victoire, for example, are not just the place but the place that the artist was in when he painted it. Maybe the commissioner has a place in his mind or a building as your example has illustrated. However, the question that the artist needs to ask is what is it about the subject that moves them? What is the value behind the veneer? In other words there is so much more than the view and an awareness of the artist’s work should inform the commissioner’s choice of artist in allotting the commission.
by Sharon Williams, Mississauga, ON, Canada
I do not seek out commissions but am open to doing them as long as the client understands that I may not be able to create exactly what the client’s initial concept may be. I paint for myself, with no view as to the commercial value of the results. In spite of this, much of my work has sold when the painting manages to evoke an emotional response in them.
Decline troublesome commissions first
by Roscoe Wallace, Shalimar, FL, USA
I have been painting for over 40 years and I can’t totally agree on your approach for commissions. Always accepting a commission and painting it when you decide it is to your advantage is a deception to the client. It could cause general distrust by the public of artists in general and/or otherwise may solidify the mysterious artist concept. I find by declining the request up front when the potential commission does not fit your style or interest is always the best approach. Respect for artists is a fragile commodity and should be honored by all artists. Likewise, I have never made my paintings my source of income and do not fit the tortured and troubled artist category. I only accept a commission when I feel that I could make the subject fit my interest and/or wanted to accept the challenge of the subject matter. However I do not accept the client’s wishes on how I am to paint. I agree to a price, size and general color. I do not require a deposit and establish that they can accept or reject my painting when completed. A general time frame is established, be it a month or a year. I tell them that I will sell the painting to another buyer if they do not wish to purchase. I also make it clear that there are to be no restrictions concerning the painting when completed. I also write them an informal contract stating the described conditions and tell them that it will be unframed. In forty years of painting, I have had only one painting rejected when I completed the commission. The painting rejected was worth the study and growth time to me. It easily sold.
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I used to paint kids’ portraits. The paintings were all really fun and colourful and full of icons that each kid was into. I had every society matron in town lined up outside my studio with their children in hand, spit polished and ready to be painted. Then I had a client whose daughter was a sweet little girl with Down Syndrome. I adore Down’s kids and was a counselor at a summer camp for kids like that. The mother handed me photos of her daughter as a young child and kept asking me to not paint her going through this “awkward phase.” I usually worked from a live subject, but was now working from five year old photographs and painting the mother’s vision. The painting came back to my studio with “That is not my daughter!” and then returned 11 times more. It was the last portrait I did. These are the sorts of hoops we as artists have to jump through to find our voice.
by William McAllister, Bath, Bristol, UK
I received a phone call from my old dealer in Los Angeles. Lisa had called me because an old client of hers had remembered a series of my paintings of Catalina Island and the Avalon Harbor. The client’s mother had lost her home in a fire in Oakland. The house was being rebuilt and Pam, the daughter, took on the task of replacing lost artworks with new. We met, arranged a commission, and discussed the family memories that Pam had shared with her mother from trips to Maui. My wife and daughter and I were there soon, with me sketching like crazy, trying to absorb the emotions of my client on her many shared stays on the island. We shared a lot of memories of our own, but I didn’t feel that I ever made a connection with the emotional content of Pam’s long-ago experiences in Maui. Back in my studio, I began a large, 30″ x 42″ beach scene — one of the few paintings that I’ve ever abandoned mid-way to completion. The painting had no soul, since I was not basing it on an emotionally honest reaction of my own. I was “indicating” a reaction — second hand. But I knew what she was reacting to in my Catalina series. So it was back to that lovely island, much closer to home and to an honest depiction of the human condition.
Pam knew none of what I was going through, but I finished the piece, took it to my framer, and called Pam to make a presentation. I knew that my reaction was honest, and I also knew that I was not responsible for Pam’s reaction. Even if it started 180 degrees opposed from my point of origin, we were both dipping into the same pool of understanding. Pam loved my depiction of three generations of interested, and interesting, women sharing one day of “Summer Memories.” Pam gave me a check, then gave the painting to her mother. I understand she loves it.
Two artists blend talents
by Yaroslaw Rozputnyak, Moscow, Russia
As that young Hawayan man has told, probably to draw one artist can better than other… always one artist is experienced than other artist. At all if to draw very good — that is a very major practice. But, the art — is much more complex, than simply for drawing. The artist differs from the camera by that he sees more — he sees thoughts generated by vision. And to transform thought in art image is able the artist only, not camera. So the people are constructed, that one see better thoughts, other draw better. Our example of association of creativity — Olga Knyaz and Yaroslaw Rozputnyak — Olga the professional artist, but practically all products are created including Yaroslaw’s part — starting from supply of operation and finishing by independent operation of each artist. But, any art work was not for us completely belonging to one author, even when percent of involvement one of the artists was close to 100 %, some percents were from other artist. Result of such cooperation — if in Russian by Cyrillic to type into Google our kind of creativity “a Gobelin tapestry of manual operation” — that the first position today was ours.
Cure for Restless Brush Syndrome
by Valerie Norberry, Kalamazoo, MI, USA
You may find it interesting to note that my Sume-i teacher practices her brush strokes on a phone book. There are four basic strokes and one is supposed to do each (plum tree, bamboo, chrysanthemum, and lily) each time one starts the day as practice. All pictures are made up of the four “gentleman” as they are fondly called. For RBS, the Chinese and Japanese have a cure: This is it: You dip your brush three times. You dip it first in clear water, then blot (round brush — animal hair), then into 50% ink and 50% water combination, then blot a second time. Then you dip the tip of the brush into 100% ink. When you make your stroke, it is gradated, much like airbrush. I have to admit, I have often cheated in doing Sume-i and not dipped my brush 3 times.
Enjoy the past comments below for Changing your mind…
7:02 (Union University)
acrylic painting on canvas, 18 x 24 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Katherine Harris of Italy who wrote, “What is ART, if not our own personal interpretation of what we see? I maintain that any subject, yes, anything, can become a successful painting if our personal touch is skillfully added!”
And also Sandra Nunes of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil who wrote, “I’ve been tortured the last three months with a commission that my client paid the total amount up front. It is not the way I generally work, but he said he wanted the painting so badly that he needed to be sure I would do it. I didn’t realize at that moment that it would be a trap for me.”
(RG note) Thanks, Sandra. The golden rule is to never accept money up front. I don’t even believe in taking a deposit.
And also Susan Holland who wrote, “I have several paintings sitting in my studio that I have not wanted to throw away, but have also not been willing to take to the commissioning party. Just not what I want hanging on someone’s wall. But they are definitely landmarks because they document the solving of problems.”
And also Emilia Arana who wrote, “It was significant to me that the guidelines for effective alla prima painting are so closely tied to the principles I use in approaching my practice of abstract painting. I am not looking at anything outside of the painting surface, but everything else applies. The subject of the painting becomes the inner self, rather than the recognizable object or scene.”
And also Leah Dunaway of TX, USA who wrote, “I often paint two paintings; one as the customer requested, the other my preferred version. When done I show them both and tell them why there are two. The customer takes whichever they like or both. Sometimes they take both. More often than not, they take the painting that is my version. Occasionally, they take the one they requested.”
And also Claudia Roulier of Idledale, CO, USA who wrote, “Maybe you’re a bit jaded. You talk about self respect in one breath and in another you seem to think it’s okay let a client hang for ten years… huh. I would never do that to a client, no matter how passive they were. I would simply say no if I hadn’t moved on it within a month. Having confidence is one thing but being so totally full of your self is bad for the soul and poor business. It almost seems that you are saying… it’s okay to be flaky — they will forgive you — after all you are an “artist” …I don’t think that’s right and I wouldn’t want to be treated like that from anybody, including artists, and we all know undependable and flaky artists.”
(RG note) Thanks, Claudia. And thanks to everybody who wrote with similar criticism. It could be said that I have a bad attitude about doing what somebody else wants me to do. It’s definitely a character fault.
And also Michelle Gallagher who wrote, “I have done a few commissions in the past that I was not completely satisfied with because I did them exactly how the patron asked and not what I felt would have been the better choice. I also have a few on hold (2 years) that are still weighing me down and now I accept that I am not alone in this dilemma. I have reached the point in my career that my integrity as an artist is at stake and it is more important to concentrate on my own personal vision than to accept a job that will stifle instead of inspire.”
And also Sandy Ries who wrote, “Perhaps knowing the story behind the commission would help with the inspiration needed to either complete the painting or cancel the commission. For example, a customer wishing a painting of an old mill because it fit in with the theme of his home decor is far different than if this particular mill has special emotional or sentimental significance.”
And also Mary Lou of Brentwood, TN, USA who wrote, “I was very disappointed in your solution to answering clients about if you would paint a picture for them and how long it would be before you could deliver a painting: To answer ‘yes’ and not ‘when’ is just plain lying. Technically, the client’s first question was, ‘Would you do it?’ and then, ‘When could I expect it?’ So… Saying ‘Yes’ was a total lie and NOT answering ‘When’ was cowardly. I enjoy your insights but this one was definitely unacceptable. You showed a side of your self that makes me wonder.”
And also Barbara McGee of Peterson, IA, USA who wrote, “I do a lot of commissions and my friends look at me like I have three heads. I simply tell the people who approach me about painting (whatever) that I need to take the reference photos. Then we go through the images together and decide which one works best. Most often we both like the same one. This way the commission seems more like my own idea and I can get excited about doing it.”
And also Ruth Beeve of Concord, CA, USA who wrote, “I hate to see an artist give up on a subject. I’ve found that the simple act of changing the time of day the subject is viewed can make a huge difference — different light, different shadow patterns, light sky/dark sky, even different colors. Sometimes just moving away from the subject and including some of the surrounding landscape early or late in the day can make a dull subject come to life.”
And also Jane Hinrichs of Blunt, SD, USA who wrote, “Dan needs to be up front with the customer. Tell him that he sees a new way of painting it but he cannot paint it the way the customer hoped he would. A reasonable person understands this — especially if he or she isn’t an artist. Otherwise, Dan is going to compromise himself.”