On the Making of a Commission
I recently completed a commission with a quick deadline which was a new experience for me. I thought that I would share the experience.
United Way has a Tocqueville Society which consists of people who have donated large amounts of money for several years. They like to give the new members of this prestigious society a gift.
I have a friend on mine who works for United Way of Dane County and knew that they were looking for a different gift than what they had used in the past. She had liked my paintings and thought that something produced by a local artist would be well received. Perhaps a small floral original for each. At the time the idea was first broached there was perhaps a couple of months until it would have to be done.
An intriguing idea but a little out of my comfort zone. OK, deep breath, time to stretch. Let’s see what happens.
Let’s get It Started
After a few weeks, I had a meeting with someone about the concept. Clearly United Way was interested in the basic concept.
Upon arriving with some samples of my work including small florals on panel, a framed watercolor and a small of watercolor paper the size I was told they were interested in, I was directed over to the marketing department. They were thinking of commissioning a larger original from which they would make prints They wanted a quote added to the original with calligraphy. They were thinking maybe of a Dane county scene which somehow conveyed community.
The idea passed into a higher level meeting. Still enthusiasm for the basic idea (which I think in their minds was predominately “Local artist”) except now the painting was meant to depict children and to represent these qualities: family, openness, community, togetherness, humanity, collaboration. The children needed to include diversity.
Now I am very excited about this opportunity but I am wondering at which point I will really know what they want. I need to wait until the idea is solidified and the deal is struck before I can really begin. It occurs to me that this is the event that will prove that I am a real artist – a commission with many restrictions and what will be a tight deadline.
I do know that approximate time frame of the gift presentation and try to find out when the artwork must be finished (knowing that a calligrapher, printer and framer are also involved.) Also the size of the original has not been specified although I have made a suggestion.
Not getting a definitive answer, I know I need to get started somehow. I need to get a basic idea and start taking some reference photos.
The Doubter Appears
This is also a little away from the subject matter that I usually deal with even though I do paintings that feature people and stories. Depicting a message without being heavy handed is harder.
Could I convincingly portray different races? Ideally the children need to be interacting. But it is extremely unlikely that I could capture the exact type of scene I needed. i.e. I am not really going to find five kids of different races in a pose worthy situation.
Starting the Journey
I hit upon the idea of putting the children in a garden setting. This makes the painting more interesting by creating a backdrop for their interaction. This also then includes material that is more familiar to me.
They now want a preliminary drawing – no deadline yet – but at least I get the sense that there will not be any other changes to the subject matter.
I used a photo from the internet to get the basic layout an positioning of the kids. And I had some photos of kids that I could possibly use. Adding suggestions of garden and flowers, I had my conceptual drawing.
Then went out with my camera hoping to get some animated pictures of kids and also getting different races. I ended up down at the Union terrace and attended Africa fest expecting to find a mix of people there. I brought my business card in case someone was concerned with the guy taking pictures of kids!
Now I still haven’t hard about a deadline or for that matter a definitive go-ahead. United Way was having their big yearly launch and everyone was busy with that.
So I decided to use one photo from the terrace and painted it to get more comfortable with painting children.
Finally a couple of days after that, I got an email asking would it be possible to deliver the painting in 9 days?
Not only do I have other things I was planning to do that week, but painting involves more than just applying brush to paper. The final design and drawing might take a longer period of time. And with watercolors, if the painting is not working out, you may have to start again.
The good news is I no longer have any time to worry about whether I can pull it off. Just gotta do it – under pressure!
The Sprint to the Finish
I had done enough prep work that I was almost ready to produce a full size sketch on the paper. I used the original positioning that was in my concept drawing but added in photos of children that I had taken. Although some were animated and had great expressions or gestures, I had to somehow get them to look that they were together and not have the final product look like 5 separate portraits.
Once I finished the large drawing and transferred to paper, I started painting for 3 hours – a longer stretch than I usually paint in a row. After this I realized that I did not like what was happening on the paper. In particular the painting need to be cropped because the children felt too small. But actually cutting down the paper could throw off the dimension of the reproductions and would not leave clean border for the calligraphy.
Also realized that I was not getting the all of the skin coloring right. Strictly speaking, I don’t do portraits. So I did some research about watercolor hues to mix.
Tick tock. The next day (in which I had almost no free time) I produced a larger drawing of the children so they would fill up more space on the paper. On Monday and Tuesday (with a deadline of Friday), I just started painting.
Doubts start to creep in again. Am I going to be able to pull this off? Did they have a plan B?
But somewhere in the process and after taking some deep breaths, stepping back from the painting, I saw that what I had was good and began to feel that the painting was going to be successful.
New problem – I had a kid on the left side who was in a hugging pose. I superimposed him on a other child to give the appearance of him hugging her. However, it was clear that I would not be able to get this to look right. In fact, it looked more like he was holding something since his hand was positioned awkwardly (in the reference photo, he was in fact hugging a large woman and couldn’t really get his arms around her.) So I had the idea to have him holding a flower instead.
I am starting to slow down – almost done. The worse thing an artist can do is to overwork the art. the overall effect is good – I don’t want to ruin it by fussing with details.
I am close enough that I decide to send the image to some artist friends for any feedback of what might be improved. After getting that feedback, last minor changes and STOP! Put the brush down and sign it!
I set up the meeting to turn it in. They like it. One feedback is that it really captures their theme. I guess I am an artist!