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a commission storyRecently on our podcast, The Messy Studio, my son Ross and I discussed art commissions-- how to handle them, their upsides, downsides, and logistical considerations. We noted that while some artists actively seek commissions and rely on them for income, others view them with mixed feelings or even refuse them. There are good reasons for all of those responses--artists' feelings about commissions depend on individual goals, economic needs, and just how comfortable they are with making art on demand. It's easy to view that last aspect as too restricting, but working with someone else's input also has the potential to create strong communication between artist and collector and even to open up new ideas for the artist. In my own career, I haven't had many commissions. but enough to provide a range of experiences and a few stories. I've worked on commissions that were difficult for various reasons; a couple that felt like impositions on my time and created anxiety, others that were satisfying in the end, but took many weeks and involved challenging logistics and communications. And then, there have been a few that were straightforward, satisfying and very positive experiences from beginning to end. In the latter category is my most recent commissioned painting, created for a wonderful man in Madison, Wisconsin, and delivered to him personally last week. When he first approached me with his request, I hesitated a little. I hadn't taken a direct commission for a number of years, and in fact, I had avoided them after a particularly negative experience. In that case, the finished painting was only grudgingly accepted by the couple who commissioned it, even though I had made every effort to meet their expectations. That left me with a strong resistance to the whole idea of trying to please. In contrast, the Madison commission was a good experience all the way through. The collector, in this case, was very easy to work with. He had seen the small work on paper below and asked me to use it as inspiration for a fully developed 40"x30" painting. He was fine with my freedom to interpret, offered feedback when I asked for it, and was patient and understanding about the timeline. As a result, I never felt pressured, and the process was enjoyable and free of stress.
8"x6" work on paper that led to the commission of Elemental
I was pleased with the finished painting and was pretty sure that he would be too; my confidence was boosted by the fact that he already owned another of my paintings. But I couldn't shake some nervousness when I sent him the photo of the completed painting. It was noticeably different from the small one he had liked. The red area had become very rich and layered, and in order to emphasize its intensity, I the mark-making that was prominent in the small piece much more subtle. Even though I knew I was free to interpret the small painting, I recognized that things could still go wrong. The memory of my last commission with its difficult to please collectors customers haunted me. But, to my relief, the Madison man responded with enthusiasm. Delivering the painting to his home a week later provided closure to a very satisfying process spanning the initial idea, the creation of the work, and his sincere appreciation.
Elemental, 40"x30" oil/cold wax on panel
As I drove home later that day I thought about how moving it was to be there when he first saw the painting. The spark of connection between Elemental and its new owner was clear. I also appreciated that this was not a quick, impersonal delivery. We had several hours together visiting and looking at his art collection, and he played his beautiful handmade harpsichord for me. When I think of Elemental now, it feels good to know where it lives and who sees it every day.
My direct, in-person sales are most often small works on paper like the one that inspired this commission. I sell them in my classes, online, or to people I know. I love being present when these small paintings move someone enough to purchase. But because I sell my larger work mainly through galleries, this situation is rare for those pieces. Unless it happens at an opening, I'm usually not there for the moment a collector says yes the work. Or when a designer is excited by the potential for hanging it in a public space. The gallery may tell me how much the collector or designer loved my work, but something is lost in the translation. The transition that a work of art makes from the studio into the world tends to feel impersonal if you don't sell your work directly. But in the best commission situations, a strong connection to your work is what brings you and the collector or designer together in the first place. There can be a collaborative aspect to your shared vision for the work and mutual satisfaction as the process unfolds. I'm very grateful to the Madison collector for the commission of Elemental, and also for reminding me that painting on commission can be a true pleasure.