Tag Archives: commission

The truth about artwork

“Can’t you just paint my entire family perched on a rock off the top of your head? I’ll give you some photos to use.”

As an artist, I dread those questions because I know it will take a small disseration to explain why most artists can not just paint anything they want out of their imagination and make it come to life.

I discovered that most people truly belive that the great painters of old just painted their masterpieces off the top of their head and/or that reference materials is “cheating.” They do not understand that even the Great Masters had models and painted on locations outside.

Of course, the more an artist paints a subject, the more they can paint from memory. But usually a portrait painter can not paint a landscape without either being there or having good reference material. There are exceptions to every rule, of course. There are very creative , talented people that have no training or drawing skills, but create beautiful and emotional paintings. On the flip side, there are skilled technical painters who can paint in Photorealism.

I believe that most art should be in between somewhere. Every professional artist should be skilled in drawing, composition, value, color, and design. but also they need to put a part of themselves into the painting and create something with emotion.

What does that mean for commissioned art? Well I can paint a picture off a photograph and my paintings will look like that photograph. But we all know that photographs do not capture the likeness of a person - they are cold and distant and only show resemblances. Not to mention, there are other short comings with photo references such as distortion and loss of color.

Of course I can paint something that I do not know intimately by using a photo, but the viewer will be able to tell. Artists need to connect to what they are painting. For a portrait artist, this means that they need to spend time with the subject and paint them in their studio or have several photos to use with the right lighting and poses with tons of expressions to choose from.

For a landscape artist, this means going to the location and either painting en plein aire (outside) or taking the right photo references and making sketches or notes of colors and composition.

All we artists ask is that people understand that just because we can paint a nice picture of one thing, it does not mean that we have the ability to paint whatever we want with the same success. We do not have a magic talent, we just have developed skills in seeing things and expressing them on canvas or paper after years of practice.

So, just because somebody is “an artist,” it doesn’t mean they have this unique gift that allows them to create anything they want. And be gentle the next time you find out that an artist used a projector to blow up a photo reference. Honestly…they are not cheating.

How to be a professional artist

I have met many people in the last few years with great skills and talent. They all have the same thing in common – “day jobs.” Creating art is their hobby.

Well for some of us, we start getting more involved in our “hobby” and maybe start selling some of our artwork, or get commissioned to do a drawing or painting. At what point do we cross that line and become the ever valued professional artist? Well I have been trying to figure this one out and I finally struck oil. In order to explain my enlightenment to you, I will have to take you on my journey.

Here I was, a chubby twelve year old boy with a colored pencil set. My mother told me that my grandmother was an artist and that it runs in my blood, but all I did was just get bored one weekened up at the family cabin and draw a few pictures. They were not that great as I look at them subjectively now – a sunset off a cliff in one and a farm house in the woods for the other. But when my mother showed them to everyone and the praises started coming, I realized I had true talent. You know the same way my own daughter must have felt when she was five years old and I told her  that she was the most beautiful dancer in the world.

Parents lie to build self-esteem. Thank goodness I did not know that back then.

I kept drawing and then came my first acrylic painting set. Ok, I was definitely not a professional artist in middle school. Nor was I even one when two other artists and I organized the 1992 Grand Haven High School Art Show. I only took one drawing class in college, so that does not help. I kept painting that whole time here and there, but I am not sure I even reached the level of a hobbyist up and through college. I drew pictures for other people, but that was usually to get dates or because I was too cheap to buy a real birthday present.

Well after I got my “day job” I started doing some commissioned drawings, but I was not good at asking for appropriate pay, so that became more hassle then it was worth. Still far from being a professional artist.

Finally I had my artwork on display at the Grand Rapids Police Department in 2003 in a show with a talented artist from the fire department. We even got in the paper. Then a whirlwind took over and I met up with a printer, who made limited edition prints of one of my paintings and we sold those for $119 each. Now I was ready to start the business and make the move when the printer, who was also going to market my work, disappeared from town.

Now how was I to sell my art?

Art and craft shows usually have more crafts than art. And even at fine art shows most spontaneous buyers only buy water colors, pastels, photos, or prints; not large original oil paintings. I was not to be deterred and hence came my quest to get represented by a gallery. That would surely mean I was a professional!  I went to many in town and even showed a few my work.  They liked some of it, but said I was young and my work was too sentimental.  I worked harder and reapplied only to be told the same thing.

Finally I took the best advice ever and signed up for a workshop from a respected artist, Jim Connelly. That is when I decided to forget being a professional artist and to just enjoy painting and experimenting and growing at my trade.  Besides, there are artists in galleries that only sell a few paintings a year anyway.

But then it happened…my wife wanted to start framing my paintings, so we opened our business, Kemme Fine Art & Framing, LLC. I made fancy business cards, letterhead, fax cover sheets, and started on a brochure. My wife worked all winter learning her trade and then I go and accidentally cut off my left ring finger on the table saw while doing yard work. Ooops. That ended my wife’s framing part of the business – she just did not want to hop on the saw after that. And just when we were getting professional!

Well that was ok. I still sold some paintings to friends and family, so I decided to keep painting and donate a few paintings a year to charities for tax write-offs. Unfortunately I shortly discovered that I can not write-off the fair market value since I created the art. That is when I decided to try commission work again. 2006 marked the first year when I became a commissioned oil painter (mostly landscapes). Fallasberg Covered Bridge was my first piece. To top it off, I even created a professional looking postcard to advertise my new niche. Looking back, I’m not thrilled I spent the money to print several hundred of those things.

Anyway, I got another mention in the paper for a portrait I did of our police chaplain. I even had somebody see my name and say that they were happy to meet me because they recognized me as a local artist they liked (those donations to auctions had a happy surprise).

That was it! I became a professional artist…right? Oh but wait, I still have a “day job” and there is no sign of that going away.  You know – family, mortgage, health insurance, etc.  But what if people view me as a professional artist because of this blog and my fancy postcard sized brochure? Does that count? What if I make several thousand dollars this year in sales? Does that push me across that line?

On second thought, who is even the judge on whether I am a professional artist or not? What if I were to quit my “day job” and paint full-time, but do not sell any more paintings than I do now? 

Apparently I do not have the answer after all. If you figure it out, can you please tell me?