Love your clients or leave them.
I love commission work. Though I do sell paintings from my conceptual shows, like Swollen for example, my primary source of income is commission work. In the past few years, I’ve learned a thing or two about working with patrons.
My advice to artists considering commission work:
1) First and foremost, be confident. Your clients want to feel like you are in control and know what you’re doing. They are coming to you because of your skill and talent, and they certainly don’t want to feel like they have to do the work for you. It’s a given that they like your art, so, unless you give them cause to do otherwise, they should (and mostly they do) step aside and let you do what you do best.
2) That said, it is crucial to hang on your patrons’ every word. Your clients constitute your most engaged audience: they are your most invested audience specifically because they are your most investing one. You can learn a lot about your work from them, and you should take advantage of their interest in your oeuvre by asking them to talk about what they like and dislike in it. This feedback is generally useful, but also vital to the process of making a work for them specifically.
I show my clients whatever paintings I have in the studio when they arrive for an interview and, sometimes, supplement that with images of my work—anything to get them talking. On the other hand, my obvious confidence in my abilities establishes that that’s it. What they say at the time of the interview is the extent of their input. They are not welcome to ask me to adjust the portrait somehow when I deem the painting complete, because, in the end, I am the artist and it’s my work. This is a very different relationship from the designer-client one, in which the maker’s creativity defers to the sponsor’s guidance.
The artist-patron relationship is a complex one, to be sure, but it is well worth it for both parties. On the most basic level, my clients help me—financially and “facially,” as it were!—to make work that I would never make otherwise. It’s as intimate as an artist can get with her-his audience, and I love it.
For Erik’s portrait (below), I knew I wanted to include a special background element, something that would hopefully speak to him and to our interaction. The subject is a committed art lover (he’s actually an art dealer here in Portland), so I asked him what his all-time favorite work of art was. Bellows’ Stag was his response.
I wasn’t sure how I would incorporate that information. In fact, early on, I became convinced that his portrait should have something to do with Rock Paper Scissors the game (though the logic behind that direction is less clear now, a year after the portrait was completed!).
Ultimately, I combined Stag’s palette with something else that Erik had mentioned during our conversation, something about big fish and little fish. The title of the painting comes from the term for a group of goldfish.