Taming the Beast – How to Enjoy a Commission

Every artist appreciates the certainty of a commission. The factors that are usually unknown (the buyer, the price, the subject matter that will appeal) are settled. Instead of putting our heart and soul into something we don’t know will sell, we have a clear path to profit. It is also a great honor to an artist that a collector would entrust us with their vision.

However, nestled in the certainty of commissions, there lurks the beast of insecurity. Lack of inspiration, perfectionism, in-authenticity; these factors can nearly kill what would normally be an enjoyable time in the studio. I think every artist has struggled to remain true to their own vision when the client’s presence doesn’t seem to leave the studio while we paint.

There are certain things we can do to shore up our confidence and allow for the space of our own creativity in the midst of this struggle. After all, it was our creative vision that appealed to the collector in the first place! This is when I turn to my tool box. The following images illustrate the variety of tools that I prepare before I even begin a painting.

The very first thing I did was to communicate with the collector about their expectations. I gave them a realistic timeline for completing the piece. This is a good time to look at the canvas I will use, my paint supply, and any other logistical needs. Do I need to order anything ahead of time?

I also shared with them a few steps I would take in creating the piece. One important step I took was to ask them about their own experience. Since this was an aspen grove piece, I could ask them about their experiences in the aspen groves. What did it mean to them? What were some memories they could share? This gave me some insight to draw on as I completed the painting.

The next step I took was to go into the field. In my practice as a studio artist, the time I spend in nature is really the source of my inspiration. The commission, as well as pieces I create for a gallery or a show, cannot have the same resonance unless it is based on my studies of nature.

The plein air study

Next, I fiddled with the pattern of light and shadow using charcoal. When I was satisfied with my general design, I created a detailed sketch of the image. This helps me work out the big shapes of values. It also can serve as a confirmation with the collector that you are both on the same page with the commission.

A detailed sketch of light and dark

The next step I take is to establish my palette. In the first photo, you will see the first attempt. Though this palette had some nice neutral colors, it did not allow the colors to sing in the way I wanted for the painting. The light through the aspens in the summer is so brilliant. So, I changed my palette choices and came up with something that was in line with my intentions for the painting (next photo).

The first palette I tried

The second palette gives more brilliance

As I start the fun process of paint on canvas, I find it incredibly helpful to use a value scale. I painted this ten-step value scale using a commercial value scale as a model. In mixing the values myself, I can hone my eyes and my techniques. Next, as I lay in color, I test each one to make sure it is spot-on with the values I have chosen for the piece.

Laying in correct values makes it work from the get-go

A ten-step value scale to test the waters before you apply the paint

When I have these tools in place, then the creative process is simplified. It’s really a matter of negating any errant factors. The more questions I can answer before I even begin a piece, the less anxiety and thus struggle there is.

The final part in this particular commission was the finishing. This client did not want a frame, so I finished the piece by painting the edges in a gallery wrap. Of course, I ordered the canvas that I needed with a deep edge. Since I knew this was the finish, I tried to wrap the colors around as I was painting the actual piece. There were times when I had to remix to cover the edges, but since I had an established palette and value scale, it wasn’t too hard to find the correct colors again.

The gallery wrap finish

Here is the final piece entitled “Summer Lovin’.” It was a pleasure to work on, and I believe the client will enjoy it, too. Now, off to the gallery for delivery! Thank you Horton Fine Art for making this connection!

“Summer Lovin'” 30″x40″ oil on canvas

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