Commission Season

I ought to remind myself more often how relatively short a time I’ve considered myself a person who is committed to making visual art. I gave up painting in high school (with a few scattered exceptions that correlated with bursts of depression-driven self-improvement), and in college started trying to date artists so I wouldn’t have to really make art myself. I liked buying my partners art supplies and paying for their paintings; it made me feel close to art-making without having to deal with my own perceived shortcomings around it.

 

When the comic book artist I’d dated for a few years and I parted ways, however, I was suddenly very aware of how empty my life felt — not just because he was a great conversationalist and put up with a lot of my outbursts in ways other people would not, but because there was a huge absence where his art had been. His art had filled my bedroom; it was the desktop on my computer and the background on my phone. I had a whole separate desk for when he visited so that he could hunch over his bristol board and make drawings. I was a parasite of his aesthetic, and my source had abruptly dried up.

 

That year, I made a commitment to draw every day. I figured I wasn’t ever going to break up with myself, so it was emotionally wise to transform myself into the artist I needed in my life. I felt I was bad at drawing, and that my drawings weren’t worth anything. I only ever drew on printer paper (my friend Kyle told me that this was insane, and he was always buying me fancy paper that I’d secretly give away to friends because it was way too intimidating), and I used ball point pens and crayons. I wouldn’t invest in anything more expensive than a Micron felt-tipped pen, and then, only one at a time.

 

I decided to try watercolors after I heard them described as “the people’s paint.” Watercolors are cheap, and you can use them on any surface, really. I felt there was nothing pretentious about watercolors. I asked for a pan of paints for Christmas, but said I wanted the dry, chalky blocks, and not the wet sort that came in silver tubes and paper sleeves. My grandma, Susan, asked if I was sure; she wanted to buy me nice watercolors, and she knew that the wet variety was just better. I said I was sure. She gave me two pans of watercolor cakes that were way too fancy, but I didn't complain.  

 

My art felt like a personal joy more than a practice I hoped to improve at, and so when I started to improve I didn’t really notice. I began wanting to illustrate my blog posts. (Here’s one of the first posts I ever illustrated; it was pre-watercolors — I drew this with a Pentel pocket brush and crayons on a sheet of printer paper I stole from the school copy machine.) That led to a desire to illustrate my essays. I drew in the mornings, and started to make comics, but I found them frustrating because I am bad with rulers and I could never nail the panels. I got into wanting to figure out how to draw noses. I got into wanting to figure out how to draw cats. And at some point, three years had passed, and my desk drawers — where I tucked away all my artwork — were overflowing; there was no space left to put even a single new drawing.

 

Around that time, someone asked me, for the first time, if I would draw something for them. They told me they would pay me $20. I thought this was absurd; I told them they should get a real artist to make the drawing for them. They insisted that they would like me to make the drawing, and I said sure — but I didn’t want to accept the $20.

 

But then after that, someone else asked if I would draw something for them, and this time — because the first person had not been horrified with my work — I said yes I little less cautiously, and I let them pay me the $20, and I felt a little proud of the drawing.

 

Honestly, there’s really nothing better than when someone asks me to draw something for them. Drawing makes me feel good; it makes me happy. When I don’t have to think of something to draw myself, because someone gives me a photograph to work off of, it is a huge relief. And it’s frankly a relief when I don’t have to put the drawing in my desk drawers. (I am still using the desk drawers as a catch-all for finished work, although now I have a studio at an art school [WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT I WOULD HAVE EVER GONE TO AN ART SCHOOL!?!?!] where I’ve filled up a whole new set of drawers, and who knows what I am going to do when I graduate.) I like not having to hold on to my artwork. I don’t care so much about physically having it. I like making it.

 

This year for Open Studio Night I filled an empty printer paper box with a huge number of old drawings and made a sign that said, “Please take this art for free; use it for good and not for evil.” I understand that artists should be paid for their work; I do. But I also don’t think that drawings should be forced to live in a desk drawer forever — especially when they no longer bring me joy to look at them. 

 

It’s Christmas now, just seven years since I started drawing every day. I like my work now. This is a great season because I get to do commissions. There was a time when I used to charge a flat rate for commissions, but now my line is, “Pay me whatever you want to pay for the work. I am happy to make it.” Some people are flush and want to spend money on their artwork; some people are in a financial crunch and I don’t think that should keep them from having art that they love.

 

Here’s the piece I worked on yesterday. The only caveat about being more interested in my own art practice (I use the fancy watercolor paper now — the kind I used to give away; and I have to admit, I have a bunch of tubes of wet colors too) is that while drawings used to take me 20 minutes, tops, now they take all day. This one took me eight hours, but it was such a pleasure to make. I thought I’d take photos throughout to show the process. 

 

 

Here's the image I was working with. 

Here's the image I was working with. 

The basic pencil sketch. I never used to sketch anything in pencil, but Peggy MacNamara says the eraser is the most important tool an artist has. Then you get to do "the fun stuff."

The basic pencil sketch. I never used to sketch anything in pencil, but Peggy MacNamara says the eraser is the most important tool an artist has. Then you get to do "the fun stuff."

Background first for this one. I thought the photo looked very red. Peggy says that you should never use brown; you should layer transparent colors until you get the brown you want. This is all transparent red, orange, green, and blue.

Background first for this one. I thought the photo looked very red. Peggy says that you should never use brown; you should layer transparent colors until you get the brown you want. This is all transparent red, orange, green, and blue.

This felt almost done, but I could see that there were some hard edges that I wanted to clean up, and that the straight lines needed to be a little crisper. Also, the perspective was off in one place. Another Peggy tip: Let your piece dry completely before moving on. 

This felt almost done, but I could see that there were some hard edges that I wanted to clean up, and that the straight lines needed to be a little crisper. Also, the perspective was off in one place. Another Peggy tip: Let your piece dry completely before moving on. 

A finished version. The person I made this for didn't ultimately love it, which breaks my heart, because it is my favorite commission. But still worth seeing the process, I think. And a pleasure to play with the colors. 

A finished version. The person I made this for didn't ultimately love it, which breaks my heart, because it is my favorite commission. But still worth seeing the process, I think. And a pleasure to play with the colors.