I’ve been a commission artist now for 12 years. Right out of high school, I jumped head-long into the art world, and haven’t looked back since.
When you make a career out of creating art that people ask for (as opposed to an artist who paints pieces and then offers them for sale — “if you see something you like, please buy it”), you try to be proficient in everything. You also have to learn how to anticipate, observe, and gather information.
Made-to-order paintings are both exciting and nerve-wracking. As the artist, I enjoy the surprise of each new commission (what will I be asked to paint this time?), but I also worry that the client won’t share in my vision for the finished piece. Even when clients say they don’t know what they want, that’s usually not the case. You may not even be aware that you already have an image in your head, but trust me, it’s there, and part of my job is to coax it out of you.
I’ll ask you every question I can think of about composition and style preferences. Sometimes just learning what a client doesn’t like is even more important than knowing what they do. The more specific information I can collect before I start, the better I’m able to satisfy the customer.
So it’s always a pleasure to work for someone who knows what they want, but is also open to what I think will work best for their needs.
In June, I was commissioned to paint a Northern Leopard Frog. Regular readers of the blog and followers on Twitter know that I primarily paint Bible symbolism and wildlife, being heavily inspired by Canadian artist Glen Loates for the latter. When this commission came in, I was in the middle of painting the next installment in my Feathered Fauna bird series: A Red-Breasted Nuthatch.
In 2012, I wrote a series of blog posts which explored my 7 P’s of Painting. The first three are Planning, Prep and Polish, and all three steps happen before I ever pick up a paint brush.
The planning stage involves research: First in taking down particulars from the client, and then studying my subject. I didn’t know what a Northern Leopard Frog looked like when I first started, so I spent a few days gathering reference photos, not only for the frog itself, but also for the wetland setting the client requested, and giving myself a quick lesson in general frog anatomy.
Next came the Prep work: A 15-minute loose sketching period. Sometimes it takes a while to “paint a picture” in my head of what I think will look nice. But speaking with the client via a series of emails, I immediately had an image in mind.
I wasn’t concerned with the type of frog when I did this preliminary sketch (this is clearly NOT a Northern Leopard frog). I just needed to get what was in my head onto the paper to see if it was actually going to “work”.
More often than you might realize, what looks good in your head simply doesn’t translate well in reality. But thankfully, my vision for this frog came together in just a few minutes with my sketchbook.
Happy with the preliminary look, I went back to my references and refined the design, selecting the right pose, working the setting, adding the cricket to give the piece some personality, and sizing the piece to transfer it to my canvas paper.
Using my usual method of working from back to front, I painted the water and vegetation first.
Followed by the rotten, gnarled log that the frog would be perched on.
I moved on to the cricket, and finally was able to start working on the frog itself.
I realized something interesting while working on this piece: My style is evolving. It happens every few years, and it’s not something that I have much control over. One day, I just start painting differently. And once that process of evolution starts? For me, there’s no way to stop it. While working on this piece, I kept thinking, “A customer piece is NOT the place to be trying out a new technique,” but I just found myself unable to revert back to how I normally paint.
I guess I first noticed that something was changing when I began the Nuthatch painting. I work exclusively in acrylics, and one of the things I like best about them is that they can mimic other art mediums like oils, watercolors, and even pastels.
With these last two pieces, I’ve found myself adapting to a more watercolor approach: Building up colour with thin washes of paint, as opposed to laying down a solid base coat of colour and then adding shadows and highlights to work in the darks and lights.
While these sudden technique evolutions are sometimes inconvenient, the results speak for themselves, and I’m not at all mad. Not at all.
I was very pleased with the finished painting, but more importantly, so was the client. I completed the painting on July 12, which is pretty reasonable turn-around time considering I was first contacted on June 11, and didn’t actually put pencil to paper until July 2. And in between those two dates, I was a bridesmaid in my friend’s wedding — as well as co-chief decorator — which delayed my starting the project by a good two and a half weeks.
I’m now in the beginning research stages of a new commission, which will happily also be a part of my Feathered Fauna series. So for now, my nuthatch will remain on the sidelines as I learn everything I can about the majestic… seagull. Heck, yes, Lord knows I love a challenge!