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Last week I read an article about commission art. The title was simply “Commissions”, but the topic immediately piqued my interest because, of course, am a commission artist. While I typically don’t care for “How To”, “Improve This”, “What You Should Do”, “Pricing Your Work”, etc. type articles, there are rare occasions when someone actually does have something beneficial to say. So I clicked through.

The very first sentence immediately put me off.

“Many artists dislike doing commissions.”

“Ah, so that’s the direction this is going to go,” I thought. But thankfully, the author wasn’t on a crusade to bash commission art. He listed some positive reasons for accepting commissions, offered a few tips and advice on what to do/what not to do, as well as sharing his own personal criteria for creating this type of art. But there were certain things he said (things that are apparently common thought among many other artists too) which made me want to go on the defensive a little bit.

He explained that the main reason a lot of artists shy away from commissions is because the inspiration for the piece isn’t theirs — it’s the clients. He also posed the question: “Can you maintain your artistic freedom and integrity while doing a commission?”

Happily, his short answer was yes — but with a bunch of caveats. Some points were good, others I didn’t always agree with.

Commission work is 95% of what I do. I always loved the idea of creating something people really want, rather than painting a bunch of “stuff” that maybe no one will want (and that I probably don’t want to be stuck with), and then trying to sell it. Others’ taste is often not your taste. It’s a common misconception that commissions somehow stifle your “creativity”, but I personally don’t think that’s true at all. If anything, attempting to bring someone else’s vision to life requires even more thought and creativity than just painting something you yourself like or enjoy.

Wendy Brydge, “Megan & Tim Still-Life Portrait”, 2018

Communication with the client is key. As the author alludes to in this article, people often don’t actually know what they really want, and it’s a challenge to figure that out. But in the midst of that kind of frustration, you’re challenging yourself, not only as an artist, but as a person.

Sometimes people remember something from their childhood — the particular look of an animal maybe, or a place — but when you start researching for the painting they want, you discover that memories are often faulty, and what the client thought was “this”, is actually “that”. As the artist, it’s your job to figure it all out.

You learn how to read people, or more importantly, how to observe them. And you learn to adapt, and determine when and where to compromise. I think the author, and obviously many other artists, place far too much importance on what they are calling “artistic freedom and integrity”. And frankly, I don’t really appreciate even the suggestion that commission artists might ever be “selling out” to commercialism.

Art has always been about others. It’s about sharing — a message, a meaning, a story, a feeling. Art has never been just about yourself — you, the artist. So I would argue that painters who feel that they should only paint what they feel like painting at any given moment are the ones who are limiting their creativity rather than embracing it.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting “The Last Supper” was commissioned by the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, circa 1495

Working off of someone else’s “vision” pushes the boundaries of creativity to places I don’t believe you could ever push them on your own. I’m not primarily a fantasy painter, so I have to explain to clients that if we’re doing a realistic wildlife piece, I’m going to stick true to nature. If you ask me to paint a Timber Wolf and then say you want him to be purple… no. That doesn’t exist in nature. So if that’s what you want, then we have to agree we’re doing a fantasy piece, and the animal in the painting will not be referred to as a “Timber Wolf”.

You might think that this restriction I’ve put in place for myself inhibits my creativity. But no, I’m willing to work in either genre! And you see, nature is such a beautiful thing — it makes sure there is always a variety of ways that an artist can walk the line between what’s “correct”, and what will aesthetically look good in the piece.

Last year I was commissioned to paint a Red-Legged Frog. Turns out there are a number of different kinds of Red-Legged Frogs. The client had no idea. I researched to find examples of each, and then the client picked the one that was closest to what he remembered. He was looking specifically for a “Northern” Red-Legged Frog — which BOTH of these are. See how much the colour varies?

After much research — not just photos, but also written descriptions of the frogs — discussing the client’s colour preferences, and considering what would complement the surrounding elements, this was how I chose to colour it.

Nature already allows us to take reality and give it our own little dynamic twist, all while still staying within the confines of how things actually are. We are afforded much more flexibility than a lot of artists realize.

And that’s what I really enjoy about commission work in and of itself — the flexibility. Far from hindering your artistic freedom, commissions open up a whole other world, with different types of challenges. You can stick to what you know, or you can move outside of your comfort zone and tackle something else. As a commission artist, you’re still your own boss — do the jobs you want, and leave the ones you don’t.

The author of the Commissions article takes that a little too far, I think, suggesting that above all else, you should turn down a commission that you absolutely cannot get excited about.

If I did that, I’d be out of a job. Simple as that. If you want your horizons to be broad and open, and you value a reputation as an artist who can do many things, then sometimes you have to just do the job. I love my job, but my job is work. It’s the process of creating that I enjoy, and that’s not contingent on my loving the subject I’m depicting.

Henri Matisse once said, “Don’t wait for inspiration. It comes while one is working.” He’s right. Working artists can’t afford to just wait around until something strikes their fancy — nor should they! I understand that many artists hold to this strange idea of an “artist” being some weird, eccentric character who sort of floats around in an unorganized, chaotic manner, like a leaf blowing on the wind, just doing whatever “feels good” when the Muse strikes. But that stereotype really needs to die. Because there are many, many talented artists in the world who fit that stereotype like a huge square peg in a tiny little round hole. Speaking as an artist, I personally never want to be thought of as that.

Creativity is about so much more than what you “feel” or “want”. Being creative isn’t about waiting for inspiration, it’s about finding it. Seeking it out. Don’t wait for it, go get it. 

Artists are a special breed. We see the world differently than most do. But there’s science behind that. It’s not about “feelings”. The artist’s eye can see what’s underneath the skin — literally! It sees cartilage, muscle and bone. It’s been trained to observe — not just what something is, but why it is, and how it is.

I look at someone’s face and I can see with my artist’s eye the curvature of the skull; I can tell which facial muscles are strong and which are weak; and why the nose curves a bit to one side. I examine a frog and I don’t just see “Green”. I see Leaf, English Yew, Dark Forest, Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Yellow and a touch of Raw Umber.

The next time you think a girl is checking you out, consider the possibility that she’s an artist and is actually just imagining your face with no skin on it. Sorry, it’s true. ;P

We don’t just see… we observe. And we’re observing with our brain, not our heart. The heart stuff comes after. The heart simply finesses what we’ve first observed with our brain.

Working for someone else to create a particular piece of art definitely requires patient observational skills. Because it is through observing something that you often find the inspiration needed to get excited about it. An artist is not supposed to be shallow, looking only at the outside appearance of something. We go deeper, and we infuse our paintings with things that can’t be seen with just the naked eye — we capture dynamic snapshots that you could never quite see through the lens of a camera.

Wendy Brydge, “Rainbow Trout”, 2019

I believe that figuring out how to bring to life what someone else has partially imagined, while re-imagining it yourself, is the ultimate creativity test. How to merge two visions into one and have it “work”. It not only helps you grow as an artist and a student of the human condition, it also rewards you with a very particular sense of accomplishment that simply creating a piece YOU want to create never could. It takes a certain amount of discipline, but I think that discipline will make you both a better artist and a better human being.

Commission work might not be for everyone, and that’s okay. But for those of us who love it, I don’t think we could imagine doing our jobs any other way!

If you’d like to read the article I’m citing, you can find it here: https://fineartviews.com/blog/140937/commissions

This blog post is basically just me expounding on the comment I left, but many other people have chimed in on the original with their thoughts on commission work which some of you may find interesting as well.