Failure? (blog post #6)


By Steven Kenny

Rejected portrait commission (intentionally pixelated).

Well, things don’t always go according to plan.

Last November I was contacted by a potential client in Asia who expressed interest in buying a painting. Unfortunately, none of my available paintings were quite what she was looking for.

A short time later she wrote back expressing her interest in commissioning a portrait of her. I was all for it. She was creative, open-minded, spiritual in the best sense, a lover of surrealism, embraced eccentricity, etc. What could go wrong? We seemed like a perfect fit.

To get the ball rolling she sent a lengthy list of her preferred colors, animals, interests, and ideals including insights into her temperament. Lots to work with. Perhaps too much? I think I was overwhelmed by the volume of information provided. This was my fault, not hers.

I went to work and created a pencil sketch based on her input. What I came up with was the antithesis of the “less is more” principle. I included too many details and not enough substance. This, I later realized, was the crux of the issue.

I sent her the initial sketch and she felt that it was stiff, too busy, without movement, and didn’t capture her essence. She was absolutely right. So, I tried again.

The next sketch was much simpler, darker, and more mysterious. We arrived at this composition together and she gave me permission to begin work on the painting after seeing this new sketch.

It was a struggle. I felt like I was searching for something in the dark.

When the painting was finally finished, I photographed it and emailed the image to her. Sadly, she was not satisfied with what I had done. She felt that the painting just didn’t express what she felt was were her uniquely essential qualities. I had done my very best but, when it comes to portrait commissions, that may not always be enough.

Therein lies the issue. The paintings of mine that originally attracted her attention were not commissions. They were done solely for my own pleasure and based on my deeply personal thoughts and feelings. In making them, I was trying to satisfy no one but myself. I was freely following my own muse — not someone else’s. My client was resonating with my work from a deeply personal place within herself, as do all viewers. I have no control over their interpretations, thoughts, feelings, or reactions to my work.

Commissioned paintings are a collaboration of sorts between artist and client. The client hopes (rightly so) that the painting they will get affects them to the same degree as the other paintings they’ve previously seen and liked. Unfortunately, artists are not programmable. It’s not a predictable matter of input and output. The commission process imposes a creative editing process that doesn’t come into play when artists work on their own. By its very definition, a commissioned work is one that the artist would never have created if left to their own devices.

You’re probably wondering how this all ended. By our mutual agreement, my client paid me a non-refundable deposit prior be beginning as compensation for any effort I invested. The painting is now my property. I can try to resell it in its current state but I won’t do that. My plan is to alter it in an effort to make it my own. Someday it will appear on the market and may — or may not — bear some resemblance to its earlier incarnation.


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