Lessons Learned

Last week, a commission I had been working on fell through. The client and I had been going back and forth for quite a while, and when it came to showing them the completed work, they were still not happy. Rather than continue going back and forth we decided to bring the project to an end.

I’m not really happy about how things ended up, and I debated for quite a while about whether or not to write about the experience. Even though it’s not pleasant to admit that work that I created for someone wasn’t well received, I learned a lot from the experience that I think could be valuable for both artists and clients alike.

Late August, I was commissioned to do a portrait at a pop up art show. My client fell in love with this piece and wanted one done in her likeness. We quickly reached the terms of the commission, I made notes about colors, and features that she wanted to make sure I included, and we left the transaction with her promising to send photos from which I could work.

As the project moved forward, I was doing my best to keep within the spirit of the original piece she’d seemed to really like, but as the work progressed it was clear that her vision was considerably different from mine. The more I worked with her, the less enthusiastic I became about the project, until finally I was finishing it just to be done. The final piece stayed true to the vision she and I had originally discussed, only in the end I find that wasn’t what she really wanted.

Commissions are often a double-edged sword for artists. On one hand, you’re getting paid to do something you love to do but on the other it isn’t always getting to do whatever you want creatively.

Looking back on this project, I can see that communication around what was wanted and what was going to be created needed to be a whole lot clearer. The majority of art transactions I have with clients tend to be very spur of the moment. They see something that grabs them and they jump on it, and this commission was very much an impulse. The initial consultation lasted no more than ten or fifteen minutes. In hind sight, I can see how it may have been better to set up an appointment to go over the project, giving the client an opportunity to better develop in her mind what she wanted.

It’s really easy to get distracted by the potential of a sale, and to jump on the money while it’s being spent. 95% of the time people who say they’re going to contact me later about a commission or to purchase a piece, I never hear from again. But moving forward quickly isn’t much better if you end up not delivering something that your client is going to love.

Another part of clear communication around what is going to be created is being willing to say no to the project. In the retail world, the customer is key, and making customers happy is very important. To that end, sales people often bend over backwards to make sure that their customer is being well served. In an art commission, making your client happy is also very important but not necessarily at the expense of the artist. If what the client wants is contrary to what you want to create, and you can’t nudge them into seeing things your way, then it may be time to walk away from the project– at the very least have a frank conversation. Continuing to work on art that you’re not enthusiastic about or even like doesn’t often translate into something good that your client will want.

In this instance, when I started to realize that what the client wanted was not really what I was creating for her it was time to stop and have a conversation about where the project was going and to reevaluate whether or not we wanted to continue working together.

In the end, I can shrug off the commission and chalk it up to, ‘can’t make everyone happy all the time’ but I prefer to try to learn from my experiences, especially the challenging ones.

Communication is really important, even if the end result means you don’t make the sale or get the commission work.

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