Fix my roof!

Dear Artist, Yesterday, Hope Barton of St Augustine, Florida wrote, “I’ve just finished a commissioned 24″ x 48″ acrylic on canvas of a client’s home. She came to my studio and approved my photos. She wanted the neighbor houses left out and the boardwalk in. There was no mention of the solar panel on the roof. Now she wants the panel taken out. I explained that I would have to repaint the roof, match the colors and possibly have to touch up the tree and the trees in the background. I feel I should be paid extra for this. Also, she might be sorry because this is the way it is. I can’t move on until this is settled. What would you do?” Thanks, Hope. We’ve illustrated your photo and painting at the bottom of this letter. I’d remove that solar panel faster than an ibis can peck his reflection in it. I’d do it for free. I’d tell her that you remove solar panels for free and charge to put them back. While your client is to be commended for having one on her roof and may later regret she didn’t advertise her greenness, it’s her prerogative to leave it out of her commissioned painting. Clients can make unusual demands. While many client complaints are legitimate, they often have something to do with the retaking of power. You are lucky on this one — with the covering strength of acrylic, it’ll be a piece of cake. One of my more notable requests, the removal of an offending phallus from an otherwise anthropologically correct totem pole, has been previously told here. There’s a slide show of that particular commission in progress here. I solved my dilemma by making the client a cutout, Velcro-attaching unit to go on the painting in the event that those things ever came back into style. Then there was the time a guy asked me to paint him and his girlfriend arm in arm. By the time I delivered (a couple of weeks later) the girlfriend was history and he needed me to take her out. As there was no replacement girlfriend, I just put a soft blur in there and a little tag that said, “Watch this spot.” I charged half price. I was not so happy with the girl myself. Sometimes a portrait is delivered and the commissioner finds the work not flattering enough. I’ve had people say they didn’t think they were that “plain.” An effective, though friend-losing comeback: “Madame, I am a painter, not a plastic surgeon.” Best regards, Robert PS: After 115 sittings for a portrait of Ambroise Vollard: “I am not altogether displeased with the shirt-front.” (Paul Cezanne) Esoterica: Not all painters understand that in a commissioned piece, the copyright goes to the commissioner. This is different than when a customer walks into a gallery or your studio and buys a painting. In that case the copyright stays with the artist for as long as he or his estate wants to hold it. In the case of commissions, my rationale is that the commissioner has the right to get what she wants. Sometimes, early on, you get the feeling there may be trouble ahead. In this case you need to mail them some brushes.   Hope Barton

reference photo


“Swamp Mallow”– acrylic painting

            Talk business, not art by Bill Skrips, Blairstown, NJ, USA   I STRONGLY disagree with you in this case. I made money to support myself by working in the graphics arts by day and doing sculpture at night. We NEVER let author’s changes go by for free- I repeat, NEVER. I see little difference here and changing items at a client’s whim leads to situations (or should I say, client’s behavior) like Cezanne’s bending over backwards 114 times. We are talking business here, not artistic choice. There is 1 comment for Talk business, not art by Bill Skrips
From: Brian, Upstate NY — Jan 14, 2011

You and me might be the only two here who have this opinion. But, I thought I would let you know you are not alone :) Generally “fine artists” do not have that business attitude such as production potters or designers.

  Rigmarole by Peter Butler, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, UK  

original painting
by Peter Butler

Dave, the band leader recently commissioned me to paint his band. No sooner had I started than he called me to ask how far I had got. He had lost his clarinetist/saxophonist and wondered if I could delay the painting until he had a replacement musician. I told him I’d made progress but could paint out the former clarinetist and add the new man. Hearing this he asked: “In that case, could you do this each time a band member changes? After all,” he added, “you make prints of each painting.” I responded that if that’s what he wanted I could consider it. Anyway, I duly completed the acrylic and he is over the moon with it. Except for the bass player who, he said, looked a bit bland and wore glasses. I sent him a couple of alternative reference photos I had taken showing Mike had not been wearing glasses that night. To which he responded that Mike always looked a bit bland despite being a great bass player but he’d like to have him with his glasses on! So we’ve arranged for me to take more photos at an upcoming gig!   Wacky versions of people by Collette Fergus, Waikato, New Zealand  

“Mouse Catcher”
original painting
by Collette Fergus

I had to laugh over the plastic surgeon comment, but how true! I’m not a portrait artist myself but do paint a lot of commission work. I have, however, seen other portrait artists have to deal with clients asking for their hair to be lightened, grey removed, wrinkles lifted, bigger brighter eyes, slimmer than they are and so on, only to suddenly realise they look nothing like their corrections and although it’s how they want to look they realise they screwed up or worse yet can’t see why it no longer looks like them and all sort of fun and games start! We have all seen the portraits of some famous people that look like wacky versions of the people who are portrayed and I myself wonder if maybe they were asking for too many changes, not that the artist saw them wrong, or painted them badly! (RG note) Thanks, Collette. I’ve noticed in portraiture, if you don’t get it right early on, you don’t get it. Continuing to fiddle with a likeness generally takes it further and further away until you are looking at some other person altogether.   Beware the photo-shredder by Carolyn Edlund, Poughkeepsie, NY, USA  

oil painting
by Carolyn Edlund

You are spot-on in advising the removal of the solar panels for free. Although it’s annoying and time consuming for the artist, graciously making the change without charge makes for good client relations. Those of us who take on commissions need to be mindful that our clients become public relations agents for us. The happier they are the more likely are we to garner new clients through them. Try to anticipate elements of the composition that might become problematic and ask the client before putting them in. I venture to guess that this client probably hadn’t much thought about the solar panels when requesting this commission. A portraiture client of mine, in denial of her age, requested modifications to her face and wasn’t satisfied until she looked fully 15-years younger. Prior to beginning the painting, she’d mentioned that she’d literally shredded every photograph ever taken of her — if ever there was a red-warning flag that was it! What to do? Politely decline the commission or plow ahead? Of course, I accepted the commission and coped with her requests — garnering a well-satisfied client.   ‘Pictures of progress’ system by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands  

“Mist, old stones and donkey”
mixed media, 13 x 13 inches
by Robin Shillcock

Always expect the commissioner having a change of mind. Especially if you take time to deliver, the idea in the commissioner’s head may have grown to mammoth size (“Is that it? I was under the impression it was going to be bigger”), or has completely evolved into another mental image (“Yes, it’s the street I want, but where are all the cars and people?”). I try to keep clients informed with POP’s (Pictures- of-Progress) by e-mail or snail-mail. To reduce the risk of clients being shocked by a painting’s fist stage (often a mess) I usually send the first two, three stages of the image in one go, so that progress can be seen. Having said that, it’s dicey, working with commissions from clients. I’ve had some say “I’m leaving you free to choose, I want your vision” only to come back at me time and again requesting changes. So you have to massage your commissioner and count on doing what he or she likes than what you think is better art. But some commissions are a challenge, and fun! I can never say no, always dither about getting started (the lure of my own ideas stronger). It is best to get it over and done with a.s.a.p. and, as the Dutch say get your “butter with the fish” i.e. you get the painting I get my money — here and now!   Customer always right by Richard Gagnon, Knowlton, QC, Canada   Sage advice and follows the best line in any business situation. Rule #1: the customer is always right. Rule #2: if the customer is wrong see rule #1. As an artist one would be tempted to return the commission, keep the painting and sell it at a swap meet. Mortgage lenders tend not to go along with that line of reasoning. Again, from a business perspective a contract would have been a good thing to have in hand, however that would not have done anything for the bad word of mouth that would have resulted. Ms. Barton could have garnered a little something from the experience had she asked for a written testimonial from the client, after the adjustment, indicating what a wonderful experience working with Ms. Barton had been. There is 1 comment for Customer always right by Richard Gagnon
From: Brian, Upstate NY — Jan 14, 2011

I worked for a company whose unofficial motto was “The customer is often wrong, your job is to explain this to them and make it sound as if they knew that all along” I have never received any greater words of advice for dealing with customers.

  Keeping the client happy by Fleta Monaghan, Asheville, NC, USA  

“The Homestead”
original painting
by Fleta Monaghan

This is good advice, and I totally agree that it is usually a control issue, or in the case of the girlfriend an issue of the heart! Getting a self portrait with a girl or boyfriend is sort of like getting a tattoo of their name! Not always good idea. Hope’s painting could be a quick fix anyway, I would change that solar panel into a few shadows from the trees maybe, and not be too concerned with painting over the whole thing. I once had a client come to view a completed commission, and she said she wanted more brown in an area of the painting. I told her to come back in a week, and we made an appointment. After she left I stuck my finger in some nice chocolate brown and rubbed it in a few places, took about five minutes. Then I went to lunch. The next week she was delighted with the changes, and went away with the painting, a happy collector, and I went to the bank, a happy artist!   Dined out on this story by Susan Avishai, Toronto, ON, Canada  

“Keith Marden”
graphite drawing
by Susan Avishai

A few years ago I did a portrait show of graphite drawings in a town library by having one person choose another to include someone special to the town or themselves with a little write-up to say why they were chosen. No pressure to buy the portraits afterwards, although many did, and I got tons of commissions during and after the show. One subject said she wanted hers but only if I made her look younger. So I removed the piece from the frame and went to work: erased any trace of under-eye shadows, mouth lines, crow’s feet. She wanted her nose to be smaller; I made the nose smaller. She balked at the stray hairs; I tidied up her coif. In truth it looked like a 25 year-old version of this 50 year-old woman. When I delivered she must have spent over an hour looking at it. Her two teenage daughters were becoming embarrassed. “We love it Mom, give her the money!” they said. Hubby was brought in and although he would have preferred to read his paper, he also agreed I should be paid and allowed to leave. Finally, finally, she asked me for a reduction in the cost. That’s when I wrapped the drawing, smiled nicely, and left. Still have it somewhere in my studio although I’ve since re-used the frame. PS: The final “chutzpah” came about 6 months later when she called me and asked me for a few of the reference photos because her picture was going to be in the local paper and she thought mine were great. Of course she got nothing, as had I. But I’ve dined out on the story. There are 2 comments for Dined out on this story by Susan Avishai
From: suzanne j — Jan 14, 2011

Wow that got my blood boiling!

From: Brigitte Nowak — Jan 15, 2011

GREAT story! Thanks for sharing.

  Copyright law by Lori Boast   I am a big fan of copyright laws as I have been wrangling with them the last few years; namely attempting to correct past errors made by me when using reference photos. I have corrected all infractions by obtaining permission and rights. In my quest to understand it all I have been doing some reading and your “esoterica” on commissioned work being the property of the commissioner got to me. I didn’t think I’d seen that as law before so I looked it up. I did come up with this which explains some of what you wrote about, but still raises questions, and alarm bells. This resource is for photographers but still applies in many ways. I can see where “portrait” applies, but wonder about a commissioned image, say a house or just an painting that you solely created such as your totems. For myself, who truly believes in copyright and wants to obey all aspects, as well as have it respected by others when my own work is in question, I also am a huge fan of the idea of licensing. I have done a few workshops on licensing and I can see the power now that I have purchased licensing of reference photos years after the death of the author, and years after the initial publishing of a photo likely from some dusty archive that may never see the light of day again. I understand that a commissioner of a piece may not want to see a painting they commissioned in print on others walls, but, I also think an artist should think long and hard before simply giving up all rights simply because a person commissioned their work. Under the terms of copyright that you speak about, your publishing a picture on your website of the image after it was completed would violate copyright of your own work! Reading the site at the link I sent, portraits seem clear in copyright law, and commissions when a contract is signed that you are actually working for a company, or person. Using a contract, photographers routinely keep all rights to photos of any kind and only print a few prints and sell those, and retain all rights. As a person sitting for a portrait I wouldn’t want that photographer to plaster my image all over without consent, but that would have had to be given be given in a model release. And the photographer would lose credibility. I think that I will be careful and request that a simple contract is written up, artist to retain copyright, but agreeing to not publish the image in any other format for X # years or similar. The object: to retain full copyright without losing credibility and future commissions. Or, have the commissioner, “buy out the rights” as stated in the site. And an artist would need to think long and hard on that. What are those rights worth? Consider this scenario I commission a painting from you, a famous artist. I then have all rights. I then turn around and make a limited edition giclee in two sizes, and later on, an unlimited POD poster. And later on someone licenses the image from me to make other prints that end up in Walmart. The exposure might be nice, but not what you ever intended as an artist. And the money is in the pocket of the commissioner. In these “Wild West” days, perhaps this is something to consider? (RG note) Thanks Lori, and thanks to all the others who questioned my remark. The law may be different in different jurisdictions, certainly between the US and Canada. “Work for hire” seems to be the operative expression here in Canada, and artists who fear losing copyright to a commissioner need to protect themselves with an agreement. There are 2 comments for Copyright law by Lori Boast
From: Bobbo Goldberg — Jan 13, 2011

In the US, anything you create is yours, all rights, unless you’ve assigned specific rights under contract, or unless that contract includes the words “work for hire” or “work made for hire.” No, the rights do not belong to the person who commissions the portrait, unless those rights are specifically granted in writing by the artist (unless things have changed drastically in the last few years). Please, anyone jump in and correct me if I’m mistaken.

From: Baylis — Jan 14, 2011

If you create are for Disney, there is no chance that you can keep the copyright. But, you would have signed explicit paperwork pertaining to this.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Fix my roof!

From: John Ferrie — Jan 10, 2011

Dear Hope, Look, there are a lot of jobs out there where the meter is running. Be a waiter, do accounting or make caramel mocha machiatto’s is a good place to start. But when you are an artist, it’s a different ship in every way. Now, this commission is a wonderful thing. You actually got paid to do what you love and someone has recognized this and will part with their hard earned money for you to do so. I always say “It’s their pizza” which means, make it however they like it. So, make this painting perfection for the client. That is, if they want that solar panel replaced with a macrame Plant holder, DO IT! Ill go you one further and that is to be the artist where your reputation is exemplary. Word of mouth is crucial for an artist and often a testimonial from a happy client goes acres further than a client who is less than pleased and has been squeezed for every last dime. You gotta dance like nobody is watching, sing like nobody is listening paint like nobody knows and do it all like you DON’T NEED THE MONEY!!!

From: gail caduff-nash — Jan 10, 2011

As usual, this commission business is a choice that most people don’t want to accept all the parts to – especially when it doesn’t suit them – both the artist and the client. People are pretty delusional about everything. So it seems to me that the rules have to be set down in writing before any work is executed OR the artist simply has to bite it. I’ve done both (written & bitten). Churches are pretty bad for expecting the moon and only wanting to pay for cottage cheese instead. I’ve a friend who actually agreed to “a” mural for a church only to have them start telling her that they wanted 7 and it had to be this and it had to be that – for FREE! On the other hand, I did a church mural – had a blast with a couple of the guys there – and a big round of applause when it was put up, and a paycheck. On this article’s painting of the house, it seems like she could have added more texture to the roof anyway, and managed to de-materialize the solar panel at the same time. It doesn’t look very picturesque. Which brings me to a secondary point that you, Robert, might want to address sometime. Modern life in America is not very picturesque! I’ve often sat somewhere thinking about creating a vignette of an area and realized that the scene was boring with all the modern things all over the place – that it wasn’t going to end up looking quaint or lovely or even brutally industrial – just life in America in the 21st century – boring – like every other place. We don’t have a whole lot of ancient buildings with terra cotta rooflines and stucco walls, or medieval walkways, or towering castles, or indigenous peoples with folksy ways. We’ve got Riteaid and Safeway and parking lots and signage everywhere. It’s hard to find a good plein air place of human habitation. I’d rather paint a cave entrance than that house. How do we portray life in 2011 in America without it looking like a real estate magazine photo?

From: Marvin Humphrey — Jan 10, 2011

John’s right. As a commission, it’s their pizza. Get specific details clear before starting the project. It’s imperative that the customer is happy; then you’ll feel satisfied too.

From: Jennifer Carrasco — Jan 10, 2011

Hi Robert…I think the comment that the copyright in your commissioned piece goes to the commissioner is not correct, at least not in the US. In the US, the copyright of a commissioned piece of art is always owned by the artist, unless it is a “work for hire” (which is different and is in a situation where the artist does his work for a company or a previously arranged agreement with an individual who hires the artist with the legal agreement of owning the copyright) or the copyright is sold by the artist to the person who commissioned the work…usually at double the original price. Almost all my work (I’m a muralist) is commissioned, but only once in 18 years have I sold my copyright. Perhaps in Canada, there is a different law relating to this issue.

From: Kiki Mays — Jan 10, 2011

In regards to the copyright, US copyright law is different to my understanding. The artist always owns the copyright for ALL work unless it is signed away. It is always important to specify that all international rights are reserved in all media next to your name and copyright symbol.

From: Faith — Jan 10, 2011

I just can’t believe that a professional artist would have any difficulty matching colours she has just been using. Why ever would the painting have to be elaborately revamped? Of course, the square bit that is to be removed might behave like the spot in the royal apartment, Holyrood House, Edinburgh, which marks the place the Queen of Scots’ lover was murdered (correct me if I’m wrong on the history!). That spot of blood is irremovable. No matter what they do, it always comes back. The square on that roof might have the telltale relief effect (in this case a square eco gadget) acrylic paint has if you slap it on willy-nilly. That may be the underlying problem. But charging extra for correcting a mistake you have made yourself seems a bit over the top, Hope, even if you do qualify as one of the 3 sisters (the third being Charity, who might come into this as well….).

From: Richard Smith — Jan 10, 2011

If you buy a suit off the rack you pretty well take what you get. Maybe a tuck here or there and the sleeves taken out a bit. But if you go to a tailor, then you have the final word on how the suit fits. Buy a finished work of art and it’s pretty much as is. Commission a piece and I think you’ve got the final word in this case too. R.

From: Patricia Solem — Jan 11, 2011

A friend of a friend asked me to paint his boss’s boat on a nautical chart of a part of Alaska. I said that would be easy and I would charge only $100. I painted the boat on the chart but got a small smudge on it. Charts are not forgiving. The client suggested I paint an iceberg behind the boat, which I did. I had the painting professionally framed. It looked great. After a total of at least 10 hours of work, I received my $100 (plus reimbursement for the framing) with a vow to charge a little more in the future.

From: Darla — Jan 11, 2011

Always get your agreement in writing first! I know that’s often hard to do, so if you write out your understanding of the verbal agreement, then ask your client to look it over before you both sign it, you will prevent a lot of problems. With illustrations, sometimes you throw in a certain number of changes “for free” and after that, charge for them. There are some people who will want you to make change after change and double the amount of time it takes to do a piece (especially art directors with illustrations. I knew one art director who was notorious for this. His artists all knew to make a glaring, easily-correctable problem in his assignments so he would have something to change and could then be happy!) Thank goodness most clients seem to like what they get the first time.

From: Edna Park Waller — Jan 11, 2011

Dealing with the patron goes with the territory when you take commission work, which is the reason many artists, myself included, do not take commissions. Best to make the patron happy.

From: Jackie Knott — Jan 11, 2011

If one is going to do commissioned work the artist should expect requested changes. This is exactly why many artists refuse to do them and I’ve never understood why they are surprised. Unless it’s a major overhaul, such as a whole different composition, no, don’t charge extra for it. This request is actually minor. Kudos for interpreting your client’s desires so well. I have reduced that to a minimum by doing a detailed drawing of the work before paint ever touches the canvas. It helps me become familiar with my subject but equally, any changes can be made easily. No surprises, few requested changes. I have seen some artist/client agreements that were ridiculous in their detail. The more specific the harder it is to paint within such confined guidelines. Communication is crucial. Artist and client each have an idea of what the painting is going to look like but we can’t read each other’s minds. Another means to eliminate post completion changes would be to do a painted sketch. “Oh, the solar panel. It looks odd. Let’s take that out.” If you want to feel better about the process just talk to a builder about on site changes. One told me, “Try moving a wall after the roof is on.” Makes our stuff seem petty in comparison.

From: LD — Jan 11, 2011

It goes back to the piece on Rockwell…”selection and rejection”; In the case of a commissioned artwork, this process is up to the one commissioning the work…lol. It seems odd that the solar panel was not part of the discussion of the work before it was painted as it certainly is an obvious detail;perhaps this experience will be invaluable for future commissioned works :) With or without the solar panel, I love the way the home’s image was captured.

From: Sheila Grabarsky — Jan 11, 2011

This brings me back a lot of years. I’d painted a commissioned work for friends (an apparent happily married couple). They were excited about the placement of their portrait, right over their baby grand. They modeled numerous times, I worked and worked and completed a large – 40 x 30 – canvas. They split. Because they were “friends” I’d NOT had any kind of contract. I still have the piece (stored).

From: Dwight — Jan 11, 2011

I always tell a commissioner that the final piece is only theirs if they like it and that they will not see anything that I think is not fit for public view. I don’t like commissions much, have made a living for decades without doing many, and never do portraits. Maybe I’m lucky that way. My thought on Hope’s problem. Do the little change they want and make the client happy. It may pay off later.

From: Marilyn Smith — Jan 11, 2011

I tell people I don’t do commissions but I will do a painting of something they want and IF they like it, they can buy it. I don’t have to make changes that way. If they like it, they buy it . If not, I can sell it to someone else. I always do sketches which I can show a client. That can be a good “insight” on pickiness and /or vision of a finished piece.

From: Trevor — Jan 11, 2011

I did a commissioned work in my very early years one of which was a man who wanted to have all the places him and his wife to be had been. I agreed and when he saw the finished work, he loved it. He said it was better than he imagined and the deal was done. A year or so later I heard from him saying it needed a touch up on one of the shops. We exchanged the painting and I did the little adjustment and called him but he never connected back to arrange a time. The painting sits in my studio and gets dusted every now and then — one can only imagine the reason, which to me appears obvious.

From: Tinker — Jan 11, 2011

Since 90% of my work are commission paintings, if the client wants a correction, I say sure. Regardless of what it might take, and since I work in pastels, that can truly be an issue. If they want an additional person or pet, thats another story. Then there’s a charge.

From: Collette Fergus — Jan 11, 2011

I had to laugh over the plastic surgeon comment, but how true! I’m not a portrait artist myself but do paint a lot of commission work. I have however seen other portrait artists have to deal with clients asking for their hair to be lightened, grey removed, wrinkles lifted, bigger brighter eyes, slimmer than they are and so on, only to suddenly realize they look nothing like their corrections and although it’s how they want to look they realise they screwed up or worse yet can’t see why it no longer looks like them and all sort of fun and games start! We have all seen the portraits of some famous people that look like wacky versions of the people who are portrayed and I myself wonder if maybe they were asking for too many changes, not that the artist saw them wrong, or painted them badly! I find the best way to handle commissions is to do a basic coloured sketch of what they are requesting so they have something visual to go by and like for the artist who had the issue with the solar panel, the client would have seen it then and requested its removal at that stage before any time, paint or canvas is wasted! We all need to remember that we visualize things in different ways and what you may think the client sees it is often very different.

From: Dorenda — Jan 11, 2011

This may be of help regarding commissioned works (borrowed from Tad Crawford’s Business and Legal Forms for the Fine Artist.) I always take a third down…this is non-refundable and made clear to the purchaser so that at least supplies and some time are covered. At the halfway to three-quarter point, another third is due and the purchaser is invited to look at the work (in person or via e-mail) to make any changes and suggestions as to THEIR vision of the work…this allows for you to be somewhat on the same boat as the client…(you’re just letting them steer it for a bit :) I have found this mid-way point to be crucial to the process and also to the satisfaction of the purchaser. And then, final payment on delivery, of course. I’ve had great success with this method and a low “change this/change that” rate.

From: Bill Skuce — Jan 11, 2011

A quick, and by all means imperfect, recall of the several accounts I’ve read of Leonardo’s commission to paint the portrait now known as the Mona Lisa, is that having convinced the client it would better serve the process, da Vinci moved into the family home of the client, whose wife was the sitter. Not having completed the painting after two years of labour, the maestro left to accept another commission and took the unfinished painting with him.

From: Karla Pearce — Jan 11, 2011

Commissions can be tricky, for the most part I avoid them.. but when I do take one on I always charge double the price of my other paintings similar size and estimate double the time that I think it’s going to take me to create the piece. I take a non refundable 50% deposit and work with the client on the painting until it’s 100% of what they want. In the end it’s win win.

From: Monique Cantin — Jan 11, 2011

Thanks for your interesting input on this. I did a few commissioned portraits. I first choose the picture or make it myself before we settle the price. I tell the client if he does not like the painting he will not have to buy it. I can do up to two touch ups. Not more. After that too bad. I keep it with no charge. But that did not happen yet.

From: Judith Griffiths — Jan 11, 2011

I see in your slide show of the totem, that to finish, you use an acrylic medium with a rag. Could you please explain this process. I have only used large brushed with thinned medium, first painted in one direction, then quarter turn the canvas and apply the other direction, when the first coat is dry. I do not use any further coatings. R.G. note:The rag system goes faster and you can take tones off real easy as well as put on. I’ve used your system too–it’s very good, but right now I’m using a rag.

From: Marion Evamy — Jan 11, 2011

I have been painting commissions for 10 years, and I think over the course of about 400 paintings, I have only had to “rework” a commission on five occasions! Not a big deal in the scheme of things….and, 90% of my business is word of mouth and referrals, so you want that to stay positive! My other secret…. refuse to paint people and houses and stick to dogs! A dog doesn’t care if they look “plain, overweight or I have given them a green nose” – they merely appreciate that someone has taken artistic license with their image and immortalized them on canvas! I also have a clause in my commission agreements, that I retain the rights to use the image of the painting solely for promotional and charitable purposes – and nobody has refused. I then sell greeting cards with the image – often back to the person who commissioned the work, and to many other dog lovers – and all the proceeds then go to charities that support animal welfare – so it all seems to work out just fine. One of my wonderful clients owns a pet store and has used the images of her painted pooches as branding for her store – hey it’s all good publicity!

From: Alex Nodopaka — Jan 11, 2011

I have only a humorist reply to this. Some artists define the price of their artwork by the painted square inch and how long it took them to paint it. For the described remodeling job I’d establish a fee defined by actual time spent. The reason is that remodel/repaint job sometimes exceeds the time one spent on the major part of the painting. The problem is that the customer doesn’t usually comprehend the domino effect of changes and their hidden consequences. What if the goat eats the painting under reconstruction?

From: Mary Porter — Jan 11, 2011

I’d fix it too! Almost always, the client sees something at the end that could be changed, even if the work is perfect. A home craftsman I know always leaves a small, easily correctable “mistake” for the homeowner to find at the end of the job.

From: Denise Brown — Jan 11, 2011

Yes commissions are fun. I just finished a winter , spring, summer, fall series of a house and they want me to change the garage doors to the ones from 30 years ago. Now they tell me…Oh, well, it can be done even though it is watercolor, just need a bit of acrylic to cover anything difficult. I am easy, so I try to do what the client wants, never mind that I underbid the job in the first place. I do a lot of pet and house portraits, so I am used to finicky clients.

From: William Band — Jan 11, 2011

I love the quality and detail of Hope’s painting. I do many house portraits and the solution to this kind of problem is solved before starting the painting. Often I do a fast sketch while talking to the client. I note the air-conditioners sticking out of windows, broken fences etc. The question is asked up front, “do you want me to remove this, or leave it in?” Then the question as to if they want me to include the family pet, the new planned flower bed or any other changes that they have planned. Bottom line, no surprises and the client gets exactly what they were looking for.

From: Lois Jung — Jan 11, 2011

I have done quite a few commissions over the years. Most the time the commissioners thought I had the copyright, so asked permission to make stationery from it. I always gave them a signed paper saying that they had the copyright and could do with the painting whatever they wished. Robert, your advice is great! Keep at it!

From: Stephen Filarsky — Jan 11, 2011

A commission is a collaboration between the client and the artist. It runs the gamut from a portrait to “can you paint something with a mountain in it.” You will be using your talent and skills to help create someone else’s vision. In the ego-centric art world of the twentieth/twenty-first centuries, this is not looked upon kindly. However, you may be forced to leave your comfort zone and learn.

From: Sharon Cory — Jan 11, 2011

I think the solar panel should go, for the sake of aesthetics, if not to satisfy the customer. The principle behind this was explained in the last letter, concerning Rockwell’s use of photos. The artist isn’t married to the reference photos but can pick and choose what to use and what to leave out. In this case the client has spotted something that will make the picture better, so keep her happy.

From: Pat Viles — Jan 11, 2011

For quite a while now I have been receiving your letters and they never fail to entertain me and give me something to think about! Today was no exception! I have not laughed so much in a long time and it brought back memories of some of the things people have said to me or asked of me when I was doing a commission or just painting on location. Perhaps the funniest happened in Barbados. There were lots of tourists around so I had set up my gear and drawn a circle about 10 feet in circumference around me and proceeded to paint. A toothless old woman with a large flat basket of nearly rotten bananas on her heard (she was selling them) stood outside my circle and yelled at me, “I ain’t inside your circle so don’t put me in your painting!” In an instant she was at my side, grabbed my brush and made an huge x right in the middle of the watercolor I had spent the better part of an hour painting!

From: Ortrud K. Tyler — Jan 11, 2011

Not having done too many commissions my experience is limited, but so far things have gone well . I fully agree, removing the solar panel should be done almost without a comment. What’s the big deal? Artists need to remember, while we know what goes into a painting, the client most often doesn’t have a clue. Sharpen your negotiating skills and remember to mention anything you can think of and clear it up before, ONE THE COMMISSION AGREEMENT SHEET, and have it initialed. My commissions have been mostly landscapes of particular views of the marshes here from the clients house, so there is leeway, I make it clear my style is my style and I will not turn into an photo-realistic morph over night for anything. They always point out that my style is what they like to begin with, so there is no problem. A suggestion, if there are a lot of details involved that make selling the painting to somebody else unlikely, negotiate 50% of the commission price as forfeited if they change their mind, for time, materials etc. Never mention artistic ability, they take that for granted. But most people understand, materials involved, time spend etc. That reigns in a lot of mind changing other demands etc. Also the clause that additions and major changes are subject to renegotiating the price. Above all make it professional. ABSOLUTELY NO WHINING on the artists part. After all I can paint something of my own choosing in half the time, with no pressure, other than self imposed, freedom of decisions etc. And they sell. Gently point that out to a difficult client, but better yet, avoid difficult clients altogether, they are hardly ever worth it.

From: Gordie Soaring Hawk — Jan 11, 2011

I rather like the clear declaration of boundaries “mail them some brushes.” For some folks, that may the most winnable solution.

From: Mary Moquin — Jan 11, 2011

This is why I seldom, if ever take commissions. However, I did concede just recently in exchange for the labor cost of putting a new roof on my summer cottage. Thinking of it as paying a debt helped me to swallow my artistic pride and concede to painting a row of buoys on a picket fence. The difficult part was signing my name to it though…………Thankfully, it will only hang in his house and the odds of it undermining my integrity are slim as most of those that see it will probably love buoy’s too. Usually I tell people I don’t do commissions but I am happy to paint something that they think they want, if they don’t like it, it has to be something that I can market and sell to someone else. No hard feelings that way.

From: Virginia Gardner — Jan 11, 2011

Though I agree with you, Robert, 100 percent, I think “faster than an ibis can peck his reflection in it”, though colorful, will not be the way Hope describes the process in the future. As the panel detracts from the beauty of the home, much like the client’s neighbor’s homes might, I think I would have asked about it in the first place? Between totems and girlfriends, chuckled all the way through coffee this morning, thank you!

From: Dorothy Sherwood — Jan 11, 2011

And to quote John Singer Sargent: “A portrait is a painting when there is something wrong with the mouth.”

From: Karen Martin Sampson — Jan 11, 2011

This letter caught my attention as I have done numerous commissioned works in the past and had to learn to deal with the variety of customer requests. Some of my favorites: “Could you turn me facing the other way?” “Could you take a few pounds off me?” “Could you make my wife look 25 years younger?” “Make me blonde.” “Please remove my sunglasses in this picture.”

From: Larry Moore — Jan 11, 2011

As a semi-former illustrator I always stated up front on every job a clear delineation of what they could expect in the way of changes. Three changes to the sketch and two changes to the final. Anymore and they are billed accordingly. Showing them the work in stages is also a good way to head off changes after the fact.

From: Terri Miller-Steiner — Jan 11, 2011

The simple question, “Is there anything that you would like changed in these photos?” at the time of the photo approval goes a long way toward circumventing problems like these with a commissioned piece. Re: copyright and the commissioned painting: in the United States, copyright remains with the creator of the work unless specifically signed away. Unless the contract for the commission spells out a change in ownership of the copyright, the artist retains it. This is, however, different in other countries. The best protection for both the artist and the client, in both these situations, is a well-written contract signed by both parties.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Jan 11, 2011

What a funny letter, you cheered me up! I once did a commissioned portrait based on a photo of a man with a sailing hat drawn low up to his eyebrows. I painted him with that hat and got a feedback that they loved the piece except that “his forehead didn’t look quite right”. I am still puzzled with that one, I swear I painted that hat!

From: LyndaGayle Roberts — Jan 11, 2011

I loved your comments… you were RIGHT ON!

From: Susan — Jan 11, 2011

It is untrue that an artist who is commissioned to do a painting does not hold the copyrights: For 30 years, I’ve been a contracted artist to do “commissioned” artwork for architects. All of my work, even though commissioned and the architectural designs were provided, is exclusively mine, unless written otherwise. Question: If Someone Commissions Me to Do a Painting, Who Does Copyright Belong To? Answer: Unless you expressly sign over copyright to the person who’s commissioned the painting or it was done as work for hire, copyright remains yours. Owning the actual painting is not the same as owning copyright and reproduction rights in the painting. Question: Artist’s Copyright FAQ: What is Work for Hire? Answer: Under US law, if you are employed by a company as an artist, copyright in your work belongs to your employer, not you, unless you have signed an agreement to the contrary. This is because you are ‘working for hire’. If you are a freelance artist, the situation is reversed. Copyright remains yours, unless the company which commissions you gets you to sign over copyright or sign a ‘work for hire’ agreement.

From: Popo Flanigan — Jan 11, 2011

I was in a plain air event in Ft. Myers, Florida and we were permitted to pick a spot within a certain area. I chose to paint a home there. About a day into it, the builder appeared and told me he’d come to the sale event to buy the painting, as a housewarming gift. That was over a month ago. Well, it seems the owners of the home had a huge awning installed; they gave him back the painting for the artist to add the awning as part of their “punch” list. I find this extremely rude and was taken aback. The purchaser is an extremely happy go lucky kinda a guy and I just agreed, like a jellyfish. The funny thing is, I most likely, would have left the awning off, as I find it awkward!

From: Paul deMarrais — Jan 11, 2011

I am mystified by this artists reluctance to paint out the silly solar panel. It’s a commission. By that very definition, the client is the supreme boss. I’d have that sucker painted out in a heartbeat! If she wanted it back in, I’d put in and make it bigger if she wanted. If you are a car mechanic, you are going to run into rusty bolts and greasy hands! Doing commissions you are going to run into the clients whims sooner rather than later. The goal must be to satisfy the client and to get paid. One is dependent on the other! Run the race, get the cash and then on to the next! As you said, it’s acrylic so the touch ups are a breeze.

From: Lorna Allan — Jan 11, 2011

Thanks Robert! Have been getting your news letters for a long time and enjoy them and so many other artists say ‘did you read Robert Genn’s newsletter this week….” Great to be so appreciated.

From: Walter Denn — Jan 11, 2011

I really enjoy reading your emails, but was especially taken with the slide show you attached of your “Ramparts” painting. Wow! You really made my day. Beautiful painting.

From: Amy Markham — Jan 11, 2011

Personally I would’ve never of included that panel in the first place.. but your reply was good food for thought.

From: Tatjana — Jan 11, 2011

I would make a change which improves the painting (like in this case) for free. If they asked for a change that would damage the scene, I would convince them not to do it. Even though a commission, it’s your work that’s going out into the world. If they ask for an entirely different scene, I’d say it’s the artist’s responsibility to make an adequate agreement before starting work.

From: TJ Miles — Jan 11, 2011

This week’s response to Hope Barton’s dilemma has opened up a question I thought might need clarification. We, of course, hold the copyright for our non-commissioned original paintings – and subsequent print editions if we decide to go down that route. Where on earth would we stand if a commissioned work is no longer under our personal copyright control? Can the commissioner of the piece then create prints of the work if they have paid for the original? I was under the impression that the artist still held the copyright over all copies or printed material. Can you clarify?

From: Beth Mahy — Jan 11, 2011

The totem pole is a totally stunning painting!! Thank you for sharing.

From: Theresa Bayer — Jan 11, 2011

Is there some legal copyright difference between a fine art commission and doing an illustration for a client? Illustrators I know of would dispute your statement that the entire copyright goes to the commissioner. In the case of illustration, it can be negotiated. I’ve done magazine illustrations where they had first rights, then all rights reverted to me. Also, I sold an original in a show that had previously been in a magazine. From what I’ve seen, illustrators, at least in the USA, try to retain as many rights as they can when an illustration is commissioned. The rights aren’t gone unless you sign a contract giving the client full ownership. Even then, you might be able to retain derivative rights. Why would fine art commissions be any different? Many illustrators also give the client a limited number changes to be included in the original price, then charge extra for extra changes. Usually, such changes are done in the thumbnail or rough sketch stage, rather than in the completed stage of the artwork. That can also be done in the case of fine art commissions–it saves a lot of trouble.

From: sarastar — Jan 11, 2011

Do it, and lean on her for another commission of the front side of the house! First time commissions can turn into life long patrons. I am on my third piece for a patron and she requested I clothe a nude figure because it was for her living room, and then requested a different nude for her bedroom. I will probably paint until I fill her home and perhaps to fill a bigger home in her future!

From: Keith Wilkie — Jan 11, 2011

Satisfy the customer or don’t take the work. I’m in the midst of a commission and went through a a visit to their home to discuss placement, size, colors composition before doing anything. I produced a quick 8×10 color study based on the reference material and they had concrete material to relate to in terms of framing of the scene, tones and color. A second sketch and they’re happy campers. I told them they would get one chance half-way along to request adjustments to tone/color, and that’s it….no moving the mountain when I’m nearing completion. i think it’s an approach that works.

From: Greg Freedman — Jan 11, 2011

I am in agreement with you about Hope’s dilemma. I recently completed a commission showing my client at the helm of his newly constructed sail boat as it bounded out of Chessapeak Bay and into the foam tossed Atlantic (no photo here – which brings up another point; remember to photograph before crating). Due to space constraint, the painting was 12×36″ so the sail boat was only 9″ tall and my client was less than 1″ high. Even working with a 00 brush I couldn’t make him recognizable so I increased his size by 1%. When he got the painting he called and said “you made my boat too small. I explained my predicament and he was understanding but wanted it changed which I told him I would be happy to do for free if he would pay shipping and insurance. I know he would never be able to look at his painting and not see that “error” which would forever mar the painting (for him).

From: Harriette Rosen — Jan 12, 2011

The way I see it (no pun intended) when a painting is commissioned the result should please the artist but ultimately it is the paying customer that should be happy. This customer could just as easily have walked away and said, “I don’t like it” and that would be that but they obviously liked the painting except for the solar panel part of it. Hope, without a doubt, I think you should correct the problem and have a satisfied customer who might come back in the future and even recommend others to you. Some years back as a gift I painted a portrait of my friend’s child who had a small birthmark on his cheek. I felt it was part of this child and he was quite a handsome boy so I included it in the portrait. It turned out the boy hated his birthmark and refused to let his mother hang up the portrait. If it had been mentioned to me, I would have gladly removed it from the painting but since it was a gift, nothing was mentioned and the painting was put away. Only now that he is a dad is that painting hanging in his house since his wife and children love it and the birthmark isn’t even an issue. I would certainly have preferred if something had been said at the time and rather have the painting on the wall all these years rather than have it put away. So the fact that this was mentioned to you is a gift and a lesson. You have a chance to correct the problem and you will have a happy customer with your art on their wall and a lesson was learned – before you begin next time ask lots of questions about what is expected.

From: Noell Custer — Jan 12, 2011

My strangest experience with a commission involved a painting that presented problems from the beginning. It was a landscape commissioned by friends of one of my buyers. There were numerous changes that I made for them including the frame they decided they didn’t like after all. When they finally accepted the work and paid me, I breathed a sigh of relief. Almost a year later the same man called me. He told me that he and his girlfriend had never really BONDED with the painting and would like to trade it for another one! After I picked my jaw up off the ground I simply said that I was sorry, but it wouldn’t be possible. Golden, Colorado

From: John Gunnarson — Jan 12, 2011

The worst commissions are the sentimental ones like “the old barn we used to play in as a child.” You drive out, find the barn, do your best, and they don’t like it. Somehow it doesn’t come up to their memories of what went on in the hayloft.

From: Sell Owen — Jan 12, 2011

Lose the panel, keep the client. A quick review on the history of commissions, portraits in particular, says please the client first.

From: Ben Novak — Jan 12, 2011

Gosh, Robert, By now you probably know how I feel about photo-realism and painting from photos, or should I say painting photos. Why not suggest to a client who simply wants a “likeness” of an object to work solely with photography. Frankly the “collaged” photo from which the illustration was done is a better piece of art. It has some tension and interest in the slightly mismatched joints. And one could just paint out the solar panels if that is the condition. Is there no substance in separating art from outright illustration? (I do not include Rockwell here and others with equal mastery, true artists). You seem not to make the distinction in your letters.(Ottawa ON)

From: Tom Messer — Jan 12, 2011

Boat commissions are the worst because you can bet your scuppers that they know more about the boat than you do.

From: Nina Baldwin — Jan 12, 2011

I just wanted to say that I love seeing your process in the slide show on the painting featuring the totem poles! I also enjoyed reading your thoughts and considerations as you went thru it…thanks for sharing!!

From: Terri May — Jan 13, 2011
From: Sheila Minifie — Jan 14, 2011

In the UK, as long as you are freelance, you own the copyright unless you actually sign it away. When I was young, I was commissioned to do a plein air pen and ink drawing of an historical building at a ridiculously low rate. Being pretty poor, I accepted. The day I did it – it was needed in a hurry – was physically extremely uncomfortable but I struggled through, completed it satisfactorily and they were pleased. Knowing that I really shouldn’t have, but feeling it morally justifiable, I politely mentioned that although we had indeed agreed on a particular amount, because it had been a bit of a nightmare, would they mind increasing the payment a little? They were absolutely furious, so I admitted defeat. I had agreed the amount after all. Later, I found they had a lot of prints made and were selling them, each one a lot more than I was given. That taught me a lesson.

From: Theresa Bayer — Jan 14, 2011

Robert re. Esoterica copyright comment: are you saying perhaps that if the client supplies their own photo for the artist to work from, that the copyright then belongs to the client? This seems to be a gray area in that regard, because a copyright for a photo does belong to whoever took the photo.

From: Marjolaine Robert — Jan 21, 2011

Your painting of the totem is really beautiful. It is big enough to have some power but I don’t agree with taking off the phallus. Totem have important symbols and are empowered by them. By removing the phallus, you remove part of that power that was transmitted in the original sculpture. I don’t see the point anyway to remove a penis. All men have one and we all know that, don’t we?

From: Podi Lawrence — Jan 27, 2011

This brings back to mind a commission I once did in England with practically the same guidelines. However, in my case I left out the offending security alarm box high on the front wall and, on completion was asked to put it in. No problem even with oils. As a portrait painter the hardest are commissions. You automatically know that nobody sees themselves as others do and I always explain this to clients. On one occasion a rather overweight woman asked me to reduce her 3 chins. To which I replied jokingly – ” that will cost extra”. But I was able to minimize the accent and focus on her beautiful eyes. She was happy. I have currently in my studio a painting of a woman done in the early 50’s which was painted from photos by an unknown artist. In the clients opinion the hairline is wrong and she asked me to alter it. I refused, A) It would be difficult to remove the varnish in order to paint over and B) I consider it unethical to paint over another artists work, whatever I or anyone else thinks of it.

From: valerie norberry vanorden — Apr 16, 2012

Man, Robert, you got a lot of feedback on this one! I happen to be in the house portrait business for 30 years plus. What I learned a long time ago (after being asked to move a tree that was in pen and ink at that stage, and colored with colored pencils), is to follow Nu-Wool’s policy, that is, payment in thirds with a small deposit up front. I have stuck to that policy for nigh 25 years now and it works for me. $10.00 up front, $20.00 when they see the sketch, $20.00 when they see the pen and ink, and $20.00 at the final color. At any time they do not like the progress of the painting, we scrap at that point and go no further. Had one customer 3 years ago who didn’t “see” the house well in the sketch, and it took some convincing (fortunately I have Irish in me), but when she got the finished colored piece, she exclaimed “Oh, you made a plain house beautiful”. I had almost sworn off doing house portraits after her, but she was a librarian, subject to detail hyperfocus.

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