by Lynn S. Schwebach
We all know the travails of making money as an artist. Creating often seems to take a minor role as we try to market our art, apply for shows, set up websites and other selling vehicles, and commit to continuing education and learning. So when a commission comes along, we rejoice.
And then we weep. It feels like we are sticking a million pins into our brains as we try to deciper what the client wants—a weird form of mind reading. Artists that I discuss commissions with commiserate. It's fun and difficult at the same time. It's a challenge. It's a great compliment. It's often an aggravating exercise as we share our ideas with the client and we get silence, or a look of lost confusion. It's a huge bag of mixed emotions and trepidations all mixed into one overwrought steaming brain.
In the end, each artist attacks a commission with his or her own process. I have a friend who asks questions, requests photos, and paints. Rarely does she do more than one reiteration and the client is happy. I am jealous. I know another artist who asks the client throughout the process if her interpretation matches the client's. The painting takes a bit longer to complete, but she delivers completed watercolor paintings to pleased patrons every time.
I, on the other hand, use the opportunity to experiment and complete a series of paintings—especially if it's a subject I have never before painted. In reality, I feel as if I need to show a client at least a few ideas and let them pick one. Then I tell myself that I am doing a "series."
Perhaps because my natural style of painting is abstract realism, I seek confirmation for the more abstract aspects. I prefer to get very abstract, but usually a client that commissions a painting from me wants more "realism" than "abstraction." And I often have to experiment with an idea and do a few studies, a few versions, to feel confident that I am producing what the client desires.
Usually in the end, I do complete a body of work, producing a few originals that I also sell and/or make prints of and sell. I know this doesn't work for every artist, and over time, my process could change. However, for now I am satisfied with my approach.
A customer contacted me in October 2017 to work on a ruby throated hummingbird painting for her husband for a Christmas gift. I appreciate this thoughtful woman because she thought ahead, giving me plenty of time to work on the artwork and get it matted and framed. I asked her what "style" she wanted, and when she said "your style," my head again felt like it was getting hit with flying spears. However, when I showed her more abstract images of hummingbird studies, she said "nope." She wanted something that looked like the ruby throated species that visits their Midwestern bird feeder every year. Aha. Less pain and more light entered my creative brain space.
Some clients get particular about mats and frames but she left that up to me and my framer, who I have worked with for 15 years, and knows my preferences. And he has great taste, so I pretty much left the framing up to him, and as you can see above, the violet mat professionally complimented the purple I used in the bird's body ( my nod to a bit of abstraction).
I made prints of the original, and sell them on my Etsy site. I also sell prints of the other hummingbird paintings I completed. One painting that developed employed acetate and watercolors, creating a mixed media piece sold here (and seen below).
In the end, I came to love hummingbirds. In Colorado we don't get the ruby throated hummingbirds so prevalent in the Midwest, so it was especially enjoyable to read about these beautiful birds and pore through images of them. They became my daily messengers to sit back and enjoy the moment, because in a flash it's over. They reminded me of nature's ineffable truth.
In the end, I am once again grateful for commissions. They usually come at a time when I need them the most, and not for the money.
Happy New Year!