Private commissions usually work like this: basically, commissioning me to paint you something, same as an illustration client would. I do those from time to time, and you can learn about that process here. A particular landscape, a fantasy scene, a Hearts for Hardware piece I haven’t yet done: all of these can and have been privately commissioned in the past.
There is another category of private commissions, which is of the “paint me and/or my X” variety. Those are trickier and I’m more hesitant in accepting them. Primarily, it’s that anything with a portrait is asking for trouble: even Sargent and Rembrandt had sitters fume over portrayals of them.
Additionally, any work that is too specific to an individual finds itself a black hole of time; while the work might be worthwhile, unless it is strict formal portraiture, there is a good chance that it won’t fit into my larger bodies of work, won’t make a portfolio piece and so is carving out a slot of my calendar for the pay but no further use. I might show it initially but it’ll sort of disappear after that.
One thing artists value is accumulating art they can use in various ways over their careers.
So when I was asked about doing a private commission that would be of not one but about a dozen individuals, I proceeded with the conversation per normal, but figured that it was not going to work out. Usually, I’m right with these predictions. In this case, the collector was open to making it work. The portrayal would be of himself, his soon-to-be-wife, and nearly an entire group of friends who had formed a Live-action Role Playing group in years past.
There were so many logistical hurdles to leap that it seemed impossible it would work out. The more things I have to extrapolate in portraiture, the less successful it will be. This group had some costuming they could bring to bear, which was helpful, but how to get good reference of this many individuals and have it cohere?
I envisioned this nightmare scenario where I receive photos from different individuals in different cities, taken by different people under different lighting, heights and distances and such. I’m on the west coast and they are mostly all on the east coast. I tried to arrange with my late winter / early spring travel schedule for the many events I was doing to try to get together with groups of them. I even had an artist friend nearer to them who was open to meeting the group and shooting reference for me based on sketches! I owe that artist a solid for even being willing to help with a crazy reference shoot like that.
One main purpose for this commission was as a wedding celebration for the commissioner and his now-wife. It turns out that the group would all be in Washington DC for the groom’s bachelor party. When he agreed to fly me out to shoot reference, to have his crew present and in-costume, and to rent a small dance studio space, I had everything I needed and what seemed impossible began to take shape.
So, I flew out to DC on a Friday, crashed in a hotel and met them Saturday morning for a 3-hour window, after which I had to get back on a flight home and they had to move on with their day’s festivities. I had done thumbnails and gotten a very rough sketch approved. This was happening.
The crew arrived and though there was some confusion in the dance studio—a ballet teacher was quite put out that we’d been booked in her space through no fault of ours, so we relocated to another room—this group of guys and gal assembled, got in costume and we got to work. I’d shipped some lighting equipment ahead of me, which was super helpful, and this group of friends was a lot of fun to work with. Certainly it was one of the strangest things they’d done together. It was also probably the strangest commission I’ve ever worked on!
I shot a lot of reference including sub-groups of people and individual shots as needed, knowing I’d have to massage it together digitally. But I had real people with their costumes in consistent lighting and environmental conditions. I flew home, satisfied that I had what I needed and a little bewildered at what I’d gotten myself into.
Not long after, I found myself at the annual painting retreat I’ve done for a number of years now. I shipped a 24x36” panel to the retreat location, on which I only had basic outlines transferred in graphite, and spent much of my time there doing a detailed tonal underpainting. I shipped it back home at the end of the retreat.
The painting itself from there was continually interrupted by event travel, event preparation, and other more time-sensitive commissions that came along. Though the final was a few months delayed compared to what we had originally hoped, this was communicated and all parties were fine with it.
This is an issue with private commissions: often, their schedules are pushed for client work as those are ongoing relationships that have to be kept up. I try not to let it get crazy: more likely scheduling issues will keep me from ever starting a commission. But once begun, it often gets done with some but hopefully not egregious delay.
In the end, we had this really rather nice “group of heroes” portrait that is full of life and character, handled seriously but with some rather light touches, courtesy of a really fun group of people who enjoy each other’s company and were great sports. I also have a story to tell of one of the most unusual experiences I’ve had as a professional artist.