Is “art commission” an oxymoron?

Art is fluid, art is inspired, art doesn’t know where its going until it does. When I’ve finished a work of art, I could never hope to reproduce it as I could never retrace the zillion steps that took me from A to B, a track which wends through the fabric of time as unfathomably as my own moment by moment evolution through the steps of life. True art cannot be pre-planned; it arrives in geyser-like spurts of intuition, moments of flooded light that fill your being as you awake or return home from a walk to grab you paint brushes.  No decent painting arrives anywhere near where you thought you were headed at the outset. Sometimes whole landscapes get scrubbed or overpainted, replaced with their very antithesis. The whim and wanderings of an artist’s journey cannot be pre-booked or ordered like slot-together components from a catalogue. So how does art commission work?

Where commission involves a portrait, be it a person, house or (yes, I’ve even painted a) bike, I seem to struggle less as there can be no mix-up of expectations; both artist and their paying patron are focused on the same outcome and, somehow, that unleashes greater freedom around the edges, room for the artist to play with the ‘how’ of the individual way that this subject is brought to life – after all, that individuality is what you’re being paid for, isn’t it?

When a commission subject becomes broader; is a landscape, garden or otherwise more general and imaginative theme, things can become awfully muddled for all parties and is it any wonder? The artist’s journey through the fancy of their inspiration cannot be booked in advance, as I’ve stated above, yet suddenly there are criteria to be met – colours, seasons, inclusions, opinions (“that bit should go over there”), even particular dimensions to fit in particular rooms, shades to match particular curtains…suddenly the art process reads like a checklist, is no longer flowing, has lost all spontaneity, has engaged a critical voice that stands like a left-brain overseer to the whole process muttering “Hmm” and “Oh-oh, no! They won’t like that!” over your shoulder. Such thought-interuptions are the nemesis of the creative process: in the moment they occur, the tight-rope walker looks down at her feet, Peter allows himself to think “I don’t believe in fairies” and the bubble bursts. Suddenly, the elusive muse takes flight, the hand freezes, the canvas represents dread obligation, the beloved act of painting stops being meditation and becomes the fulfilment of a contract. It simply doesn’t work.

How do writers write once bonded to an advance payment on a novel that hasn’t been written yet, I want to know? The very act of banking the cheque would guarantee that all inspiration took flight, for me. When I took to art as my full-time occupation it was because I longed to shun all contracts, to be free to go wherever the wind blew. Whenever I have, oh-so cautiously, reintroduced anything like a contract to my working process I have found that the very ability to create flounces out of the room like a wronged lover, slamming the door soundly behind it. I can sit there and gnash my teeth but nothing of my usual calibre comes out; it defies me, it flits around the room but can’t be caught.

Helen White ArtistThe traditional act of arranging a commission feels like a lose-lose situation; the artist loses the freedom to connect with true and unexpected inspiration and to fly wherever it happens to take them, the client loses the most inspired output they hoped to harness for their own ends. Concepts like “entitlement” suddenly slip under the radar when, really, art is always a gift. Surely there must be a way around this impasse; a way of factoring in the acknowledgement that the artist must have that ultimate freedom in order to be. The mere hint of the word “commission” in the presence of the truly-inspired artist risks snuffing their flame or clipping the wings of their output before the first primer is even dry enough for take-off, so what are the alternatives?

How about a handshake, a tacit agreement that something entirely acceptable and uncompromising to the artist will be undertaken, loosely guided by the client’s least dogmatic version of a spec and within the broadest practical timeframe, with the understanding that this will be offered to them, on first refusal, once complete. That no monies change hands until that exchange point and that the work be sufficiently within the spectrum of the artist’s usual output that they can realistically hope to sell it on the open market if not taken by the client. That the very long list of strict criteria be dropped…with the deep understanding that less is definitely more where art is concerned. Why not give the artist a concept and, if it resonates, let them run with it without nailing it down in a contract – and if the artist asks themselves “would I be creating this if it weren’t for the money?” and the answer is “no”, they should be free to manoeuver towards what feels more aligned with their instincts or even stop – that’s the ultimate kind of commission to me.

This degree of two-sided flexibility might not be every artist’s cup-of-tea, especially those with considerable material overheads, committed in advance, such as when working on a bronze sculpture. For me, as a painter, it represents a compromise in the very best sense of the word; a win-win situation that doesn’t leave me frozen at my easel feeling employed or even owned by a client with a deadline when my inspiration is telling me I would rather pursue other inspiration trails today. It leaves me scope to be playful with my commission work and it honours my role as the professional with my own criteria to meet. It establishes certain rules-of-thumb and minimum conditions of engagement (most of them on a theme of “freedom”) that I am not prepared to surrender for any reason, least of all for money. It gives nod to the value of my skill-set and feels like an important bow to this oft-undervalued thing in an era when I am distinctly hearing the trumpet fanfare for us to wake-up to the worth of all our artists, our creatives, our musicians, our intuatives and otherwise right-brained operatives and to start valuing them as much as we value (and pander) to the rest of our workforce with their particular foibles. Its an approach I have just tried out today, in response to a request for a commission-piece, and I look forward to seeing where this leads; it will be interesting to see if my proposal takes off (this time or ever) but, either way, it feels like I have just taken a deep bow in honour of myself and the skills that I offer; recognising and acknowledging them for being the way that they inherently are.

About Helen White

Helen White is a professional artist and published writer with two primary blogs to her name. Her themes pivot around health and wellbeing, expanded consciousness and ways of noticing how life is a constant dance between the deeply subjective and the collective-universal, all of which she explores with a daily hunger to get to know herself better. Her blog Living Whole shines a light on living with high sensitivity, dealing with trauma and healing from chronic health issues. Spinning the Light is an extremely broad-based platform where she elucidates the everyday alchemy of relentless self-exploration. A lifetime of "feeling like an outsider" slowly emerged as neurodivergence (being a Highly Sensitive Person with ADHD, synaesthesia, sensory processing challenges and other defecits overlapping with giftedness). All of these topics are covered in her blogs, written from two distinct vantage points so, if you have enjoyed one of them, you may wish to explore the other for a different, yet entirely complimentary, perspective.
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1 Response to Is “art commission” an oxymoron?

  1. Interesting thoughts Helen – I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to create to order – the closest has been writing on a particular theme but as my livelihood doesn’t depend on it, I can pick and choose themes I’m interested in. I can see how it would be quite paralysing so your approach sounds like a good one – they must like your work to commission you, so why not let you do what you do.


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