Commissions. I have accepted lots of them over the years. Paintings, pottery, jewelry, toys, baby slings...so many commissions.
I no longer take commissions.
This distresses people. They get a look on their face like I’m being unreasonable. Sometimes they look hurt, crushed even. Sometimes they try to talk me into it; they simplify their request, they insist that this will be very special, or that their cause is worthy. But I have a really good reason, several in fact.
My first real art commission was a huge compliment. I was so excited. It was to illustrate a poetry book. I was young, and the person who commissioned me was clueless. There were no contracts, just a friendly handshake between myself and this enthusiastic churchgoing fellow. I did the work on time, hoping to impress - 15 lovely little sketches- and dropped them off at his office. Weeks went by, but the promised payment never came. I pursued payment over the course of months and then several years. I was even accused of trying to “steal the food” out of the mouths of this man’s children. All for $150.
“Then just give me my drawings back,” I compromised.
“But I love them!” he fervently insisted. He made more promises, but of course, never paid. I finally let it go, painful lesson learned; always have a contract and get paid on delivery.
Another time, I stood at a door with a beautiful sketch of the Native American grandparents of a client, a friend’s coworker, drawn in full tribal garb. It had taken me dozens of hours to get all the tiny beads and seashells right, and to replicate those beautiful, dark faces and braids. I had underpriced myself, as usual. The client opened the door, handed me $65, took the picture, glanced at it and without a word, shut the door, literally, in my face. I stood in shock, staring my shadow on the dusty, white door. My heart sank. I had pictured, during the many long hours of working on the piece, how excited this woman would be to see her grandparents faces come to life in such a beautiful way. It was one of my best works, the accuracy very well achieved. It really looked like the people I was drawing. But that hadn’t seemed to matter to her. Lesson number two: value your work and the time that goes into it by charging enough. And maybe know my clients better before agreements are made.
There was the painting that had been rejected, because, as the client had said, “I don’t hate it, I just expected more. I imagined little birdie foot prints, or flowers in the grass, or something.” Birdie foot prints? Flowers in the grass!? We had a contract! She had approved my thumbnail images! She had provided the actual photos I was painting from. How could she expect me to read her mind and add more then was even spoken of, pictured or agreed upon? I returned to our tiny apartment in tears with the painting still under my arm, to try and find a way to add “birdie foot prints and little flowers“ to an already completed watercolor painting. Guy wanted to punch her. I never figured out the lesson on that one.
There was the painting that took four years to accomplish due to the miscarriages and Jonah’s birth, then required me to pursue payment even though a solid agreement had been made. More confusing still was when, years later, the painting was returned to me, appearing never to have been framed, perhaps never even hung.
Each time I accept a commission, the thing that I love doing more than anything in the world becomes a drudgery. There is frustration, grief, stress.
But it hasn’t always been the other person causing the problem. So many times I have accepted a commission, and allowed six children and all the trials that come with them, health problems, moves and church responsibilities, to keep me from my studio. Months turn into years, with a half done painting sitting on the easel, glaring at me, accusing me of being lazy and inefficient. Finally, I pull a few all nighters to get it over with, convinced in my rush that I could’ve, should’ve, done a better job.
It took me another four years at least to finish Ellen’s book. Two years to paint the young soldier who died in Iraq. Four years on the temple painting. And there is the commission that hangs over my head now, my latest albatross (if you don’t know the reference, look it up), over two years old, from someone who did a trade with me. I’m struggling because I agreed to something before thinking through the logistics; a piece of pottery that may be beyond my capacity to achieve. I guilt over it constantly.
So. Much. Stress.
That word. The word that every doctor I’ve talked to for the past five years has been telling me I need to reduce, eliminate. I picture those waiting clients thinking that I am letting them down or am being dishonest. That they’re a little disgusted with me, the way I was with the man who didn’t pay me. And when I do finally finish, finally, there’s no joy in it for me. I just want to get the piece into their hands so I can slink away to my car and cry from shame and embarrassment. Even if they really love the piece, which seems to happen less often with a commission, I can’t feel any relief over my embarrassment at having taken so long.
See, when I’m doing a commission, it is 100% for the other person. From beginning to end, I have that person in my head, standing beside me, scrutinizing the work. Raising an eyebrow, questioning if that’s the color I really meant to use there. Seeing me make a mistake and hoping that I don’t plan to leave it like that. The time period I spend with that piece of work is often fraught with discomfort and stress for me, robbing me of much of the joy or enjoyment I could get from the process.
Now let me tell you a different kind of story...
I am at a midwifery conference. An artist friend of mine has invited me to join her at her table to sell pregnancy related artwork. Midwives caress our items, chat with us about birth, and occasionally buying something. This is their favorite topic, their life‘s work, and they love seeing it represented in an art form. A young man approaches the booth. He can’t be more than 22. He’s alone, a hippie of sorts, with short-ish dreadlocks and tired out clothes. I notice him, but don’t pay much attention as he fingers the pieces I have set out on the table. Suddenly, he speaks, “This is exactly how it was! Oh my gosh! This is how it was!”
He’s holding a painting of a mother, cradling a newborn in the moments just after birth. It’s washy and shadowy, not detailed at all, but I had painted it from the memory of the sweet moments after Adam had been born. The exquisite joy of holding that new little person in my hands, of exploring his precious little self for the first time.
“How much!?” he asked with the conviction of someone who knows exactly what they want.
It was $20. The same amount of money a teenager can make working for two hours at McDonald’s. And I felt like I was overcharging him, because, well, I always feel that way. He pulled the $20 out of his shabby wallet and said, “I don’t know where we’re sleeping tonight, but I know I have to have this.”
I’ll never forget the sweet look on his face as he hugged the painting to his chest and fumbled with his wallet. It was the single most rewarding sale of a painting I have ever made.
There have been similar moments, though maybe none that stand out so vividly in my mind. Back when I hosted my Christmas boutique, sitting in my studio on the steps as people perused a year’s worth of work, sometimes someone would find a little precious pot, and clutch it to their chest like a newborn. Yes, like a newborn. When I offered to let them set it down so that they could shop with their hands free, they would usually sweetly decline. No no, they wanted to hold it. It was theirs now, and they couldn’t run the risk of letting it out of their sight for a moment. On more than one occasion, someone has smiled the words, “You probably didn’t know this, but you made this just for me.”
When I’m sitting commission-less in my studio, just me in the warm lights, surrounded by my tools and materials, I feel ripe with the promising hope that something amazing is about to happen. There’s a thrill! What should I make? How will it turn out? What will I learn this time? I won’t say there’s no stress. Certainly, if I work really hard on something and accidentally drop it to the ground smashing it to bits (like I did last week), I am bummed. But it’s my loss. It wasn’t late art, already promised to someone who will now be frustrated at the longer wait because I have to start over again. No, it’s just a little flicker of disappointment, and then I smile and say, “that’s okay, I can make a new one!”
Making my own artwork allows me to build my skills and narrative from one piece to the next. I grow and develop on a trajectory that is all my own. It’s the difference between being a master chef and a short order cook. Commissions are a constant string of interruptions that are keeping me from growing and developing as an artist. They smother my joy and suffocate my time. They’re stifling. Commissions are the dry rot, the stuffy room, the messy garage of my soul!
So if you love me, never ask me to do a commission. But please know that if you do, I still love you.
And I’m going to say...
(Note: The opinions in this post do not reflect the attitudes of all artists. Some love doing commissions. You can go find one of them!)