How to commission a painting

I can commission a painting??


Yes.  You can.  It’s easier than it sounds.  You don’t have to work for a major institution, be a member of the royalty or have crazy deep pockets.  But there are a few tips and tricks to be aware of.


Pick the right artist.


This seems so obvious, but just because your hairstylist’s cousin is engaged to an artist, doesn’t make that person the best fit for your project.  Just like you wouldn’t hire a string quartet to play at a wedding reception if the bride and groom have dreams of becoming the next YouTube sensation with their choreographed hip hop video.  The same thing is true for art commissions. If you love landscape watercolors, then someone who works in bold oils with a palate knife and a strong hand is probably not a good fit.  On the other hand, don’t dismiss an artist without doing your homework.  Most professional artists will work in more than one style and with more than one medium.  Leo’s portfolio is a good example of this.  You can find paintings that pull from his love of illustrated graphic novel art like Thumbnail to Thumbnail to Thumbnail.  Viewing the difference between even an individual artist’s styles will drive you into the next step.


Know what you LIKE about the artist’s previous work.


This doesn’t mean that you should pick out an image and have the artist reproduce it.  Neither does it mean that you have to be able to discuss the artist’s shift from black and whites into his use of orange in the late 90’s.  (Insert comic illustration “No please don’t”)  Just be familiar with work the artist has made in the past.  Look through online images (Insert illustration, thank you, Madam Google) or an archive from the artist’s site (like Leo’s here Link) or hit a few current shows.  You don’t have to be an art critic; you just have to have an opinion.  More than likely if you can show the artist three images you really like, he can tell you what it appears you are being drawn to.


Know your budget and stick to it.


Professional artists sell art to make a living.  Most can’t, and won’t, work for free.  But that doesn’t mean that every item they produce has a super high price tag.  Some paintings require hours and hours of labor just in the under sketch, but other commissions can be worked from photos, mixed media, transfers, etc.  All time saving techniques that can help a first time art buyer take home really cool original art without taking out a second mortgage.


Plan ahead.


Your mother’s birthday is on Saturday and you thought it would be cool to commission a painting of her beloved baby blue Schwinn bicycle that she rides to the beach every summer?  Great idea.  Not going to be ready Saturday.  Nope.  No way.  Between gallery shows, art events, commissions, classes, and real life, most artists are booked at least several months in advance.  Even if they can drop everything and tackle your commission, different mediums will require different handling.  Oils for example, can require a significant amount of time to cure between layers.  We’re talking three weeks of curing PRIOR to shipping for most of Leo’s originals.  If you can’t plan ahead, give her a cute card, some flowers, and tell her to be patient.  She has a really amazing, heart stopping-ly awesome, gift coming.  It’s going to be the best gift ever because you were clever and careful when you went to:


Pick a subject.


This is one of the hardest parts of hiring a great commission, but it should also be one of the most fun. Drawing the line between a good subject for a painting and a not so good subject for a painting isn’t as hard as it may seem (Illustration bubble: I know you’re not an artist, it’s ok, I promise you can pick an awesome subject.)  Most of the time when Leo is asked to paint a commission, the request is for a painting of a family member or loved one as the subject.  This works perfectly because Leo paints really interesting paintings of people, but he won’t paint a really interesting painting from a department store photo of your extended family—even in the photographer managed to get one with everyone’s eyes open just before  Uncle Eugene started swearing.  It might be a great memory, but it’s a terrible commission.  (Insert image and text: Memories of being forced into semi matchy outfits, standing uncomfortably close to people you happen to be related to under hot lights, while listening to the unnaturally cheerful prompts of the photographer to “scooch a little closer” that inevitably leads to Uncle Eugene’s invective might be fun, but it doesn’t make a great commission.) There is no personality in the photograph.  No soul. And, well you know, copyrights and all will also get in the way of certain reproductions.


Photography is its own art medium and when it is done well, it is full of soul.  Great photography is beautiful, and haunting, and moving, all the things a great painting can.  Sometimes the best answer is to hire the right photographer and enjoy the photo. (See an example of amazing photography that is both portraiture and art at Trina Baker’s site Link).  But sometimes there is a story that starts in the photo; a story that an artist can pull out.  This is what Leo does brilliantly.  (Image)


Get creative.


The argument about what is art, fine art, commercialized art, pop art, or sentimental drivel, is an old and completely uninteresting argument outside of academics.  For now, let’s leave it for the scholars.  To this point we’ve focused primarily on portrait commissions, because they are so often close to the heart of the person requesting the commission.  But keep in mind, you are hiring an ART commission.  When the commission is really a win the value should not be just sentimental.  Its inherent value is as an a piece of art and the fact that it has layers of meaning for you as the force behind the piece is frosting on a cinnamon roll (image: delicious).  Pick the subject and then let the artist do his job.  He may edit out portions, crop, alter, change the lighting, emphasize or de-emphasize items in the scene.  This is why you’re paying him.  Communicate anything you particularly love about an image, but then give him room to work.

Most of the time the finished product won’t be exactly what you had in mind; if you’ve picked the right artist, followed a few simple steps, it will be even better.


Are you excited about the idea of an art commission, but not sure what image to start with?  Here are a few scenarios to get you started.


Your family is having a reunion to coincide with your grandmother’s 95th birthday.  Grandpa has been gone for 15 years and most of your family has scattered the way families do.  Years ago though, Grandma and Grandpa’s house was the home of the heart of your family.  At least once a month all the aunts and uncles and cousins would gather at Grandma and Grandpa’s for Sunday lunch.  The cousins spent all their free moments in the city park less than a block away.  The adults played cards and sipped their adult beverages and placed side bets on how long it would take until Uncle Eugene told his dirty joke for the hundredth time.


Now Grandma is in a small apartment in an assisted living facility and is overall content.  Her house was sold years ago when they downsized and appears to have been converted into apartments at some point.  But the park is still there.  The teeter totter is there with its peeling paint and the merry-go-round lists a little now, but what a great image to work from for a commission.  So you take several dozen snapshots and send them to Leo.  He works with a few of them and paints the park scene—he worries about the lighting and the tone and the stuff that makes it art.  You found the subject. Maybe he takes the scene down almost to a gray scale.  Then he builds color back in, the faded base of the marry-go-round is washed in the orange, blue and red of the original.  The teeter totter seats pop out of the scene in robin egg blue and the new growth of a vine creeping up the nearby lamp post is washed in greens.  Maybe your eye skims over the more subtle shading that turns what could be a scene of decay into a place of enchantment.  All you know, is that it’s your park and it’s beautiful.


The original makes a perfect birthday gift for Grandma.  Prints can be ordered for each family attending the reunion.  Because the subject has both a sentimental value and an artistic value, it can go on the wall of any home in your family.  You’re the family reunion rock star and you didn’t even have to coordinate the group family photo with matching hair bows and bow ties in the family tartan.  Win!


Scenario two:


Leo’s sister Jo has five sons.  As a family, they are all athletic and crazy about sports.  The boys have all attended the same small private school and have all played basketball for the Knights.  Which means, in turn, each has walked on to the court in the home team’s basketball jersey as a Senior (or will—they aren’t all out of high school yet).  Jo, who happens to be one heck of a photographer (the art gene is strong in the Hayden family) regularly takes great action shots. Jo and Leo conspired several years ago to do a series of paintings of the boys.  The paintings are all the same size, the boys are all wearing the home team jersey, they are all in their Senior year of high school, but each image is distinctive in the action.  Leo has taken the photos from Jo and reinterpreted the image from something that might be used in a news article into something that captures the youth and spirit of the individual young athlete.


By the time the project is finished, Jo will have five panels that hang beautifully together.  They will tell a story about each son as well as a story about their family, but she will also have a series of paintings that could be hung in a gallery.  Together they are five paintings that will speak to an observer with no knowledge of her family’s dynamic; five paintings that capture the spirit of youth, the love of sport and the basketball era.  This is the tipping point from a sentimental treasure and art.


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