How Commission Work Differs from Studio Painting

USV Digital Art and Animation Professor Reid Winfrey recently created a commission painting for the Composer Christy Coobatis. The composer will be using the artwork for promotions, CD covers, and part of a multimedia performance of the work.

Work on commission by Reid Winfrey

What is commission work?

Commission work is very different from normal studio painting.  Although you do have the incentive of knowing there is already a sale of your artwork, it comes with a lot of strings attached and a lot of different pressures. 

With portrait commission work, you have the requests of the patron to include personal items or paint the person sitting for the painting in different locations like a certain part of the house or outside. Consequently, your control of the light – probably the most important element of a painting – goes right out the window. You have to be really disciplined about setting up the best situation within a lot of constraints.  You also have to make the sitter look great, whether they do or not, AND it still has to look like them. 

Add to that the patron’s idea of a portrait. I’m not famous enough that they just want something in my style of painting, and certainly not famous enough to tell a sitter what portrait artist John Singer Sargeant said when a sitter complained about his treatment of her nose: “It’s but a trifle, you can fix it yourself when you get home”. I enjoy commission portraits but there is so much that is just painstaking work. 

For this piece, Christy called because he had seen my new work and it resonated with him immediately.  We are both composing mathematically, which he saw right away, and yet we are both trying to create something modern and at the same time connected to a more romantic period. Our work is both sentimental and aggressive, passionate and yet restrained somehow.  So I was lucky that he simply trusted me. 

I had a painting that I liked but I knew wouldn’t interest a gallery, and so I put in on the easel and started drawing in my sketchbook the things that I thought would best fit with his music, which he had sent to me.  He had ideas about Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, which is very well known, so I did some research about that image, which turns out was not exclusive to Leonardo. I also had my own ideas about synthesizing the older painting within the new imagery. 

The actual painting of it wasn’t hard at all once I had the mathematics of the canvas sorted out.  It actually went very quickly, relative to most of my work. I sent him in-progress photos and he was really excited, but there is always that moment when you have to say, “I’m done, this is it” with a bit of breath holding while you wait to hear what they think.  There are times when they want something that would ruin the work. I’ve learned the hard way to simply say “No, I can’t do that”, and offer to repay their “down payment” on the work, which happily has never been accepted.  Christy liked everything, and in fact, it surpassed his expectations. The whole thing was a very happy collaboration.

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