Tuesday, July 10, 2007


"Bond, James Bond" - 2.5 x 3.5" colored pencil on paper.
Copyright 2007 Maggie Stiefvater
Click here to bid.

Okay, I thought for today I'd do some thoughts on the process of commission portraits. I am not, of course, the be all end all (or is it end all be all?) authority on portraits, but they do make up a big part of my income so I have some clout. Moreover, a lot of new artists approach me and ask me about it, so I thought I'd do The Great Big Post of Maggie's Commission Process.

There are two big things to remember when doing a commission: make the client happy and make you happy. Duh, you say. Well, let's look at this closer, shall we, mmm? What makes the client happy? Getting an image that looks like their dog, cat, child, horse, deceased lizard. What makes you happy? Getting paid to do your work.

What you are not in the business of is making either of you unhappy. What makes the client unhappy? Getting an image that doesn't look like their dog, cat, etc. What makes you unhappy? Getting paid to have someone else tell you how to work.

I think if you make sure neither of those things happen, you're off to a good start. So - first things first. Can you deliver a good likeness? Be honest. Seriously, people. If you have to agonize over the likeness, you're better off to wait. You're only going to burn out. Oh . . . and likeness doesn't mean projecting a photo on the canvas and going hog wild. It means going through a stack of photos or meeting the subject and injecting your own personal . . . uh . . . thing into the finished portrait. I've seen portraits done that are perfect tracings of a photo and they look NOTHING like the original subject.

And you know what's sad? I get asked all the time to "redo" commissions. Not mine. Other artists. Clients will come up to me and say, "I had an artist do a portrait of Mushy last year and (drops voice to whisper) it didn't really look like her. But I felt bad for the artist so I didn't say anything about it." Do you really want to be that artist? Nuh uh. You want to nail it. So don't agree to do a portrait even for free unless you're sure of yourself. Because that thing will travel around forever with your signature on it, like a giant ugly business card.

And the other half of it of unhappiness. If you have a client butting in and telling you how to run the show, you're going to be miserable as well. This is not "changing rooms." If you've got the likeness down and you know your stuff and you're firm, you can agree to small changes at the end and that's it.

So, without further ado, my process.

1. Get a deposit. I ask for at least $100 or better yet, 50%. Don't ever start without one.
2. Get the references. I prefer to take mine myself now, but often distance makes that impossible. In that case, I ask the client to send me as many photos as they think I need to see (42 for one cat's portrait) and also a description of their personality.
3. Find out if your client has any strong feelings about any aspect of the portrait. Do this in advance. Do they hate the color green? Is there a particular pose they want? Something they want changed from reality? The larger the portrait, the more detail I go into about this. For big ones, sometimes I'll even send them off surfing the web looking for other art they'd buy, so I get an idea of their tastes.
4. Start the portrait. In. Your. Style. Wait, I should repeat this.


The only thing different about a portrait is that the subject is something in particular. Otherwise, it should look like it belongs with the rest of your body of work when you're done. If a client asks you to radically change your style - learn to say no. "I'm not the best artist for the job." If they commission you, they should be commissioning the whole package.

5. Halfway through, or at the end, depending on how you and the client feel comfortable, e-mail or snail mail an image of the portrait to the client and ask how they like it. Tell them to be brutally honest, because this is the only stage where you'll make changes. Ask them if they love it, or what they need to love it. You want them to brag about this thing forever. You want it to look like their dog, child, deceased lizard - only better. You want it to look the way they think about it looking.

6. Ask for the dough. Don't send the art until you get it in your hot little hand.

7. Mail the finished piece. Package it well. Include a business card and send an e-mail to let them know it's coming.

Rinse and repeat.


Chumplet said...

That's pretty much what I do. The more pictures, the better. It's harder when the pet is deceased.

It's also important to take notes or use sticky notes when the client chooses a pose from several pictures. Once I didn't pay attention and used a pose that was soooo teeny tiny I couldn't get a bead on its features. She said afterwards it was the wrong pose. I redid the painting and she was happy, but boy was I embarrassed!

My style is to use an almost dry watercolour brush to get the individual hairs, and I pay particular attention to the eyes. When they ask for a different medium, I usually pass.

Snow said...

Hi Maggie!

Sorry have been out of commission for a looooong time - new project overlapping with the current one, leaving me no time at all!

I'll email you soon.

I really liked this post. And as I read it, a guy in my office asked me to do a horse portrait - and I told him to buy it off your ebay site!!!


Wild @ Art said...

This is a great post. I think more people need to read it as there are many artists who too often move away from what they do best for the sake of making some money. The money doesn't last but the image which isn't a good representation of you does.
I always make a point of guiding my client from the get go to achieve the best results for everyone. I am upfront and explain what I believe will look best for the subject and back it up with layout sketches to show this. I also use some subliminal work if the commission is a little broader, say a wildlife work with some lions. I'll lay out all the reference photos in advance, knowing which one is going to be most effective. I'll have a sketch of that reference underway and also have the image on the pc screen in the background. Then I'll go through all the photos with the client, discussing what works and what doesn't. 9 times out of 10 they always choose the image I'd earmarked in the first place.