Some artists are open to commission work. It can supplement their income in addition to their regular art practice. Usually they are approached to create art work that has a set of criteria attached, based on a client’s needs and sensibilities. As you can imagine, there is the potential for, if not disaster, a stressful situation. Taking commissions can trigger a sense of vulnerability that an artist might not feel doing their own work. They have to trust themselves. There is a certain confidence level needed, as well as a professional work ethic and a clear understanding on the part of both the client and the artist. The artist has to deal with client’s expectations and the client has to be familiar with the style of the artist. A mine field? Maybe.
I reached out to a few artist friends to ask how they handled the ins and outs of commissions.
The first was Cumberland County artist, Louise Cloutier, whose realistic narrative paintings strike a chord with her admiring public. Her reputation has grown significantly since her retirement, mostly by word of mouth.
When Louise was younger and just out of school, she did a number of commissions. It gave her validation, fed her ego and reaffirmed her artistic abilities. The commissions contributed to her skill development, but she recognized she was primarily asked to copy a image or someone else’s style. It did not feel like original work. And there were sometimes unexpected and disconcerting requests that made it more challenging. In one instance, when she proudly presented a finished landscape after hours of effort, the client asked her to add a cow. Finally, when she was faced with the big challenge of a family portrait, she decided that she didn’t feel she had the requisite skill with figures to complete the job. And that was the end of her commission work until more recently.
In the past two or three years, Louise has been approached by acquaintances and local organizations to create a number of historically accurate paintings and drawings. Her disciplined approach and confidence were now up to the challenge.
Louise says that she views commissions as a business arrangement. The price should be clarified up front. Commissions take longer to complete than original work. As a result, Louise asks a higher fee. For now, she does not draw up a formal contract, but instead relies on an email trail that documents what has been agreed upon.
For each of the historical paintings, Louise rigorously researched the era, clothing, life style, tools, environments and anything else that would influence the content of the work. She built dioramas, not unlike a film set, and photographed components, all the while becoming hyper aware of what would strengthen the image. Louise then manipulated the composition on her computer until she was satisfied. After a series of approximately ten specific drawings working out details and discussing the composition and content with the client, she then embarked on the final art work.
On the positive side, a project as demanding as this often takes Louise out of her comfort zone. It is a challenge she welcomes.
The final takeaway? “Commissions are not for the faint of heart.”