Monday, March 03, 2008

The Art of Commission Portraits, Part I

Okay, as promised, this week I'm talking about commission portraits. I take for granted a lot of what I've learned about portraits, so if I skip over something really basic, will you guys stop me? Poke me in the comments.

In the next post on commissions I'll talk about the nuts and bolts of commission portraits, but first I want to talk about the mentality of portraits. Once upon a time, when I was a small Maggie, I didn't do portraits. I took on a few, agonized over them, and thought the end result was stiff and completely uninspiring. I felt like I was working twice as hard for the same amount of money. So I stopped doing them for a long time.

Does this describe you? If so, I'll tell you what I figured out (and this took me a long time to find out, so you better be grateful). My problems were:

  • I wasn't good enough yet. I was struggling with getting the likeness of the subject and that was poisoning my whole view of them.
  • I was using the client's photos instead of taking my own or coaching them on what I needed.
  • I hadn't practiced enough changing my art from the references, so I was dependent on bad lighting, poor poses, and crummy backgrounds
  • I wasn't thinking about making every portrait immediately identifiable as mine, in my signature style

Until I resolved all of these issues, there was no way I could pull off a good portrait. I still feel like keeping myself out of the portrait business until I was comfortable with it was a good choice. After all, these are pieces that will be hung on walls with your name on it, acting as giant business cards -- you want them to be as good as your non-commission pieces. And I regret the pieces I sent out before I decided I wasn't ready!

So before you take on a custom portrait, even if it's from just a friend as a favor, think long and hard before you say "yes." Because there is no such thing as a piece that doesn't matter, even if you don't sign it. Word of mouth is word of mouth -- if it's fugly beyond compare or doesn't look like the animal, that's tremendously bad advertising. What's that statistic that someone who likes a restaurant will tell two people on average and someone who has a bad experience at a restaurant will tell ten? Same deal.

I can't tell you how many times I've heard a client tell me that they've had a portrait done before and the portrait hadn't looked like their pet or child -- "but I didn't have the heart to tell the artist." Don't be that artist! Don't take on portraits until you feel you're ready.

Okay, and lest that sounds ominous, you'll know when you're ready. Because when you sit down to create a piece of art with a definite sense of likeness, you'll feel confident, happy, and ready to go, and the piece will turn out looking like the pieces you do for yourself. Not stiff and uncomfortable. You won't dread them -- you'll welcome them as a new challenge.

By the way, all the pieces here in this post are recent portraits I've done. I'm happy with all of them because they kept the likeness of the pet, captured way more personality than the photographs, and created pieces that I'm happy and proud to call part of my current body of work. I could've never done them two years ago!


Cindy said...

Hi Maggie, I definitely think you have learned a marvelous approach to commissions. I do understand your logic. Even though I don't do commissions I feel like I can finally look at a resourc photo and use it for exactly that...a resource...a place to begin.

Your expert use of color, texture and capturing a spirit definitely sets you apart.

Anonymous said...

You definitely described me! Thanks so much for the advice (and encouragement).

Quilt Knit said...

Very well done! Except this word: fugly: i need a definition please. It is not in Webster's Dictionary.
Oh, I found dozen websites on fugly. I assume it is not a true word at this time. The sites were - well like
Semi-Pro the movie.

Barbara Pask said...

Hi Maggie, I think a lot people think just because you paint you can paint portraits, etc. I probably never will, just not my thing. I always say that "there's nothing worst than a bad portrait except maybe a bad portrait with teeth". Yours are amazing! Barb

Karen Thumm said...

Wow! Thanks for the new insight into why I have been struggling so with portrait commissions for years now.

I quit accepting portraits a while back because I felt they were stifling my creativity and taking time away from my own growth as an artist. You have opened my eyes to the real reason. I had advanced enough to know that I should be doing better and not depending so much on photographs but not enough to have the confidence to approach them without huge fear of screwing them up.

I have one portrait left to complete, and working on it is like a slow walk to the death chamber; every step is terrifying.

You have confirmed that I made the right decision to abandon portraits until I'm a lot better artist and have a lot more self confidence.

Your portraits are outstanding BTW!

Judy said...

I enjoyed reading this. Makes me think. I have been doing commissioned work and must admit there are many I wish I had not taken on. I am often asked to paint a portrait of a deceased pet & all I have to go by is a bad picture. Hard to do it and even harder to say no.

Nancy Moskovitz said...

Hi Maggie,
I love your portraits, especially the last two. First, you need a good idea. Your compositions show you had great ideas.

Mary Sheehan Winn said...

Well said and all of it true. It takes practice, practice, practice and more practice.
Your portraits are right on and speak well of all that practice.
Also, practice makes you better and boosts your confidence. You know when you're ready for something.

Mona Majorowicz said...

Hi Maggie,

I am currently working on a commission painting of a horse, though I rarely do commission work. I do around 17 artfairs and equestrian events a year, so I get asked all the time about portraits. I'll consider painting their horse, but not their dog or child.

Are there any portraits you refuse?

PaintDog said...

You've hit the nail on the head, Maggie! I do pet commissions and love doing them, but I work almost exclusively from my own photos which means I've also had a chance to meet my subjects and to sit down to have a face to face discussion with my clients.

The portraits I've been least happy with are the few that were from photos I didn't take, and the pets had passed away so there was no way to get new photos. Those were some early commissions and I've learned to say no to photos that just won't work or to offer a different style based on the quality of the photo.

I also offer my clients the option to return the portrait if they're not happy with it. I may or may not try the portrait again, but I sure don't want a portrait in someone's home if they're not happy with it!! So far, I haven't had to take back any portraits.

Your work is wonderful and I'm so happy to have found your blog. I'll have to come back and read more!

Debbie Goode said...

Excellent job, Maggie. I enjoyed reading this post very much. You hit the nail right on the head for me. I'm currently working on building a portfolio of "pet portraits". Not only does this give future clients a body of work to look at, but it also makes me more confident in my abilities as an artist. I have done portraits for folks before and the clients have always been pleased, but I always felt I struggled way to much. I'm already finding portrait work easier and more enjoyable. Thanks for the insight, somehow it is comforting to know that someone else has "been there, done that"!

Christy DeKoning said...

Maggie, I struggled with "bad photographs" for years before finally saying NO! If I can't see the light (no pun intended) then I won't paint it. I do a lot of commissions for people over the internet, and I have strict guidelines for the photos that they send me. My #1 rule is NO STUDIO PHOTOS - flat flat flat. I always ask for outdoor photos whenever possible, and lots of different angles.
You've got great advice here and a wonderful blog!

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Thank you guys again for all your wonderful comments! They mean a lot to me!