I still remember the moment we put the key in the lock and opened the door to our new home for the first time. I can picture us stood in the corridor, arms full of boxes and hearts full of excitement. The turning of that key marked the next chapter in our lives. It was a significant moment for both of us – the first time either of us had bought somewhere with another person.
When you enter our home, you are greeted by 25 foot high windows. Off to the left, is a long wall that leads you down the hallway to the master bedroom. Standing at the doorway looking into our home, it’s the money shot, and I was struck by just how blank and sparse that wall looked on the day we moved in.
While our tastes in movies couldn’t be more different (Eric likes anything with a vampire, alien or zombie and I am a sucker for teenage angst and romantic comedies), our taste is art and design is, for the most part, very similar. That made life a lot easier when it came to hanging artwork in our new home. As each painting took its place on the wall, our house started to feel like a home, except for that long, bare, empty wall. For months, we looked in galleries but the pieces we liked were prohibitively expensive. So we decided to commission an artist and found her in the most unlikely of places, Craigslist.
A couple of lines from us about wanting to commission an emerging artists and we were inundated with hundreds of submissions. I know there is a high degree of subjectivity when it comes to art but most of what we received was dreadful; scribbles which looked like the work of five year olds and dozens of images of skeletons and goblins. Thankfully, the work of one artist stood out so markedly from the rest, that is was an easy decision for us to commission Julie Karpodines.
Julie was terrific from the outset. She invited us to her studio where we saw many of her paintings and loved them all. We knew it would be a pretty safe bet commissioning her since her style fitted perfectly with our aesthetic. The building we live in used to be a carriage house and so our main and only ask was that the paintings featured horses. Julie visited us, tape measure in hand, and suggested she work on a diptych. We hadn’t considered this but she was absolutely right. A few months later, the paintings were installed and it was time for the big reveal. Hearts pounding, we saw our commission for the first time, and we could not have been happier. Those horses remain a big part of our home today and Julie is the first artist I reached out to when I came up with the idea for The Road Gallery. Thankfully she said “yes.”
Fast forward to today and commissions have become a part of my life in a way I would never have guessed six years ago. Now I’m handling requests for commissions, it got me thinking, “What goes on in the mind of the artist and the client when they commission a painting?” To find out, I interviewed three of our artists who have worked on commissions and three people who have commissioned artists. I was fascinated to hear the similarities and differences in their accounts.
You’ll first read about the experiences and perspectives of Road Gallery artists, Chelsea Gibson, Xanthippe Tsalimi and Liz Barber, before hearing from three people who, in the past, have commissioned different artists.
How do I feel about doing commissions? It’s a little complicated. It depends on the person and what they want. I’ve had people wanting a really straightforward portrait which is a conflict in some ways as I have tried to enable my personal career and do other work I’m excited about. But people like the way I paint so I’ve had to switch gears and think of it as being a new model for me and I am enjoying it more now. It’s not as much as a moral dilemma as it was. I used to feel like I was selling my soul. When they get me, they’re not paying necessarily for a direct representation or likeness. There is something deeper that happens because of the way my hand makes paintings that seems more real. I can’t pretend to be a photorealistic artist because I’m not. It’s not the likeness I’m painting but the lifeness or realness of the person. It’s not just what they look like, it’s how they sit, how they talk and how they project themselves.
Once I start a commission, I like coming home and seeing all the images together and getting excited about something different going on in the painting. I like the challenges of capturing people’s different decor in their homes. I get really excited about seeing their furniture and all the patterns. The people who hire me tend to have nice things and I don’t get to paint that all the time. I get excited about painting a person in a beautiful room. There are so many people out there and everyone is worth painting. I get excited about making a beautiful panel or canvas from scratch and making it just for that person.
I tend to know the people I have painted and a little bit about them. If I didn’t, I’d spend an afternoon getting to know them and their personality, seeing pictures of their family and talking about our lives. I’m visually observant enough to get a gist of the person fairly quickly. That’s why I paint people. I used to stare at people on the subway for too long and it was unnerving for people who don’t know what I do. At a restaurant, I can’t talk to the people I’m with as I’m looking at everyone else.
I try not to show people the work until I’m really excited about it and it’s done. I don’t want to leave room for doubt. I generally feel really excited and proud about the work and I don’t say it’s done until I feel that. I have to feel thrilled before I say it’s done and that can take a long time. If it’s good to me, it will be good to them probably.
I’m trying not to let there be any psychological difference between my own paintings and doing a commission but my most recent commission really changed me. It made me question my old work in a good way and it gave me something old to think about – it reminded me of work I used to love and used to make when I was younger, maybe more pure. It made me hungry for more information. The people were so gracious. They let me decide how to do everything. They were really flexible and allowed me all the creative power. That made my world change. Also, they had such cool stuff in their house. It was like going into a candy store. I could have spent a few months looking at all this great stuff.
Some of my least favorite experiences have been when people have asked me to paint something I clearly don’t usually paint like landscapes or a completely different genre. When people don’t really look at my paintings and see the decisions I make in my own work, when it’s just about what they want and nothing about me as an artist, I have to change myself just to satisfy them which is hard.
My advice to someone thinking of commissioning an artist is to share your idea with the artist but leave it in the hands of the artist to make your idea happen. If you don’t have an idea, leave it to the artist. Hopefully you love the work they already make so what they’ll do for you will likely be awesome and it will be yours. Trying to overthink for the artist is not a help. An artist works by themselves all the time so to have a very specific assignment or different idea can seem more like a hinderance than a help.
My advice to other artists, “Don’t try to change yourself for the person you are working for because you are the one they want. If you try change yourself to fit them you’ll confuse yourself and probably make work that’s not authentic to you. Remember it’s your studio and no-one else is there to tell you what to do. We have to do that with our teachers and friends – we have to get them out the studio.”
It’s for sure more stressful working on a commission so I try to work with people I know or who know my work very well. The biggest fear about doing a commission is when people have only seen one or two pieces and they have a set idea of what they want. For it to work, they have to come to my studio, see my work and what I am doing, but then they have to be open and give me some freedom. Then it works better. There has to be trust and openness; they have to trust you to start from scratch on an empty page or canvas.
There has to be a strong connection. Then I can get a feel for what they like and how they want to use the artwork. I like to create a relationship with the collector to check we are on the same page before I say “yes” or “no”. Ideally they’ll like 60 to 70% of my work. I’ll ask clients about themselves, their personality, other artists they like, why they collect art and the purpose for the artwork. I also want to know how they found me, why they chose me and what they see in my work that made them take the decision to commission me.
Usually I don’t have limits when I work but with a commission there are limits. On the positive side, you know you are getting paid. They are really paying for the work. They trust you and give you money for something they haven’t yet seen.
I least like the stress. You want the clients to be happy and get a piece they love. After a lot of work producing a commission, sometimes it just doesn’t happen and the collectors are waiting for the work. Sometimes the piece just doesn’t work. I might have to produce 50 pieces to get 10 good ones. As an artist, you often throw away more work than you finish. So if the timescales to produce the work are tight, if there is only a tiny window, it can be very stressful. I often need more time because I work with a lot of layers of oil. I have to wait for each layer to dry. When it’s not coming together, I am honest with the person, “I have the piece but I am not 100% happy with it.” I might ask for more time.
I’m anxious to see how they will react when I’m about to show them the work for the first time. You want your clients to be happy with what you present them. Every professional goes through the same thing when you present to a client, especially if they’ve already paid for the work. If I’m happy with my work, probably they’ll be happy too. An artist knows when their work is good. When they love the work it’s a great feeling. I feel satisfied and it gives me the motivation to go on. When I get a smile from someone who buys my work, I want to do more work and continue to improve myself. It’s a very nice moment.
The biggest difference between a commission and doing my own work? When I do it myself I have the luxury of experimenting. I can take my time, destroy it and start again. I can wake up one day, cut it in pieces and start again. When you work on a commission, you go safer and with what you’ve done before. As an artist you push yourself to create something new. On a commission you tend to go with what you know.
My advice to people thinking about commissioning an artist is to first look around to find out what you like. Nowadays it’s so easy to find artists from all over the world. Look on Pinterest, Facebook and Google, look at online galleries. Understand what you like. It doesn’t matter why you like it. Don’t just go with something pretty or beautiful, try to find something that is deeper. Contact galleries, ask about their artists, speak to the curator. They’ll give you great advice. It’s safer to work with the professional.
One funny story to leave you with. I used to do portraits and a guy commissioned me to paint his girlfriends from photographs of them he gave me. After the third portrait, I found out that he was telling his girlfriends that he was doing the paintings himself!
People have hesitations about commissioning artists and I have a hesitation when people want a commission because they often have a very clear idea of what they are expecting but it’s hard to get to the nitty gritty of exactly what they want. A couple of times I’ve had commissions where the person was in love with a painting I’d done but it wasn’t the right size and they wanted something bigger, something to fill the wall more. The challenge of recreating an existing work on a larger scale is something I like. I like the challenge of capturing the essence of that piece again.
Before I start a commission, I want to know from the client the dimensions, the details of what they’re looking for, the intended location for the finished piece, what else is going on in the room, other works of art in the room and the design of the room. Usually, we’re already on a similar wavelength if they like my work and they’ve asked me to do a commission.
What’s the biggest difference between doing a commission and doing my own work? I have to keep the client in mind for a commission which doesn’t enter the studio when I’m just creating. There is another voice there. The tightrope is a lot different psychologically. I can’t just let loose.
When I send off the first draft it’s as close to finished as possible, but not yet sealed so there is room to move the piece in a different direction if needed. It’s my creation, so the ego has to step aside if there’s feedback that could be challenging. I am feeling a lot of anxiety when I am just about to show the piece for the first time. I’m anxiously awaiting the “oh, we love it.” If not, I have to do the dance of getting it to where they want it to be.
The most rewarding feedback I’ve received was from two different hospitals. It was nice to hear the feedback that the paintings calmed patients and helped them relax. The hospitals were drawn to the work because it has an underlying soothing. My work is very inspired by water since I grew up right by the ocean. One of the hospitals, Yale, commissioned me to do two paintings for their women’s health center. They wanted to tap into the idea of healing through art. Thinking about what the work was going to bring patients was really enjoyable. I could use that nugget of an idea as inspiration for the paintings.
My advice to people who are thinking about commissioning an artist is to give as much information as possible and to give as clear a picture as possible of your anticipated outcome. You need to give the artist freedom to create an original work but have a clear idea of the space it’s going in and the expectation of what you want it to achieve. Don’t be worried about asking. My advice to other artists is to be willing to offer a first draft and let the buyers into the process a little bit. It helps on both sides.
I first saw Chris Gulbin‘s paintings a few years ago at the Sailors’ Snug Harbor art show which happens twice a year in Staten Island. I loved his paintings of poppies and I asked him if he could do something similar for me. I also saw two landscapes at the show but they were sold and smaller than I would have wanted. Chris invited me to his house where I saw more of his paintings, including ones he had done for his wife and other people. I commissioned three paintings there and then. I loved the process and getting involved with the artist. I didn’t influence the painting per se, just the size.
My instructions to him were very limited. “I love your work, I’d like something similar but do whatever you feel.” This created an anticipatory feeling to the whole process. Because I liked all the work I’d seen, I wasn’t worried about getting something I didn’t like. I enjoyed the process and was excited to see what he would do. To put it another way, I wasn’t worried I had ordered a cheeseburger and was going to get a hot dog. He was easy to work with. He talked me through the process and explained why it took so long to do what he does. I was involved from start to finish. I was in the man’s home. I love the guy!
It was like Christmas when I was about to see the pieces. I was just so excited. I couldn’t get them matted, framed and hung quickly enough. It was such a personal process. I knew they had been made specifically for me. I absolutely love the finished product. I have referred so many people to Chris who’ve seen the paintings.
My advice to other people thinking of commissioning an artist is to definitely do it. If you like what the artist does, leave the artist to it. You can give them guidelines but keep them limited. If you like the artist’s body of work and you get something commissioned, I can’t see how you can be disappointed. If you have too much control when you commission an artist, it takes away from the creative process. Getting something commissioned is way more exciting than buying something off the rack.
We were living in London at the time in St John’s Wood. We had a large lounge wall, with a fireplace and high ceilings. The fireplace wasn’t centered on the wall so we decided we would get a triptych to go across the wall and draw attention away from off-centered fireplace. We started looking around and, during a trip home to Derry, we were eating in a restaurant and saw some paintings of scenes of Derry by an artist called Sharon McDaid. We knew in that the moment that’s what we wanted. My husband Declan and I are both from Derry but we might never live there again so it would be very meaningful to us. We knew it was meant to be when we Declan’s dad recommended we speak to the niece of an art teacher he knew who did commissions. It turned out she was the same artist who had painted the scenes of Derry we saw in the restaurant!
We got in touch Sharon and went to her studio. It was a really beautiful environment. We wanted a particular view of Derry from the top of the valley looking down the river into the city. She didn’t know the particular area but she said she’d take photos, share them with us and see what we liked. She also said that if we didn’t like the painting we wouldn’t have to buy it. She didn’t want us buying something we didn’t love so there was zero risk in the process for us.
Sharon really invested in us. She was easy-going and wasn’t precious about her work. She wanted us to have something we’d love. You get a connection and an attachment with the artist when you commission that you don’t get in the same way if you just buy a piece in a gallery. We would have been out of our depth very quickly if she’d asked us about technical aspects of the painting we wanted. We were quite vague, “We really like your stuff, can you do this scene?” That was the depth of the brief. She didn’t make us feel unsophisticated and didn’t blind us with technicality. It was all about what we liked.
When we saw the finished piece, we absolutely loved it. The first part of the triptych is fields and water, the second part, the city and the third part, the clouds. The painting is now in our hall in our home in New York. Our favorite part of the process was seeing the piece at the end. We were anticipating and thinking what it would be like. It ticked so many boxes – the place is signifiant to us and the artist is from the neighboring county.
There is a degree of a leap of faith when you commission an artist. There is something important about having a connection with the artist. We didn’t know it was possible to get the commission without having to buy it. I’d probably ask that question again. It was a significant investment but it felt reasonably priced and was a budget we could live with.
I have always been interested in art, thanks to my dad’s influence, and knew I wanted one day to commission an artist but I am very particular. I love the idea of owning a piece of art that is a total original and one-off. The artist, Tom Satchell, had done a similar piece for an old friend of mine and I saw the photo of it on Facebook and loved it. She introduced the two of us and we began to chat about a commissioned piece. Tom is predominantly a graffiti artist and a lot of his paintings in the style of my piece are about explosions of colour related to music. I knew which musician I wanted portrayed in the piece and left the rest to him.
The best part of the process? I think for me it was the excitement and the anticipation. Letting go of the idea and not seeing anything until the finished painting arrived. The experience was much more meaningful than going to a gallery as I felt that Tom and I created a relationship and he listened to what I wanted and it was so much more personal. I have bought from a gallery before and didn’t even meet the artist. When the piece arrived I was so excited but also really nervous, “What if it wasn’t something I liked?!” When my friends see it for the first time, I love their reactions.
My advice to people thinking of commissioning an artist would be (1) be really certain what you want and (2) be willing to let it go and hand over the reins to the artist!
Thanks to Steve, Tessa and Miriam, as well as our artists, for sharing their experiences and speaking so candidly about the commissioning process.
Whether you’re an artist or someone who has commissioned an artist, we’d love to hear from you. How did your experience compare? What was similar? What was different? Would you do it again?
Contact us if you have been inspired by this post to commission an artist.