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Confessions of a Commission Artist

By: Emma Sims

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. It’s always been my dream, and I’m finally living it. But sometimes the cliche “double-edged sword” comes to mind when I think about commission work. In the hills and valleys of the job, it can be both immeasurably rewarding and downright depressing.

John Howard Sanden, “His Majesty the Alafin of Oyo,” (c) John Howard Sanden 2017

John Howard Sanden artfully said, “There is nothing more difficult or demanding than painting. It calls for a state of physical and mental alertness sustained throughout the session. There is no place for sluggishness. Every nerve must tingle. Every sense must be vibrating and sharp. Observe, analyze, respond with paint, all at white-hot speed. This is the painting act.”

And an act it is! We are learning as we go, building knowledge and relationships that help us step up to the next ledge. There’s always a new path to venture down. It might not always be pretty, but we’re convicted by our passion. We know how it feels to put our all into something and still feel like it’s not enough. But we keep painting anyway.

Sometimes the sales are unsteady, and the work is challenging. Between marketing, producing, education and daily life, the days can begin to feel stressfully short. Are there still 24 hours in a day?

There’s no how-to manual for commission portrait artists, and we each have a unique path. What we can all understand is the camaraderie between lives lived in art, and how vital it is to a healthy artistic career. I’d like to share some recent experiences that helped me navigate my own squiggly path recently, in hopes they might soothe a fellow “struggling artist.”

“What is wrong with me? I’ve done this many times before, why can’t I do it now?”

It’s been six long, post day-job painting sessions on this portrait, and I hate it. It feels like every time I make contact with the canvas, I hate it more! The next painting sessions are more of the same overwhelming frustration.

Commissioned portrait by Ann Kenyon

I’m having a tough time, so I call Grandma. With a portrait career spanning 60 years, she’s bound to have some ego-healing advice.

“Honey, it’s happened to me so many times.” We confessed similar feelings, and I didn’t feel like an imposter wanna-be anymore. If she struggled with this same bump in the road, I know it’s possible to overcome.

Talking about my challenge with someone who understood the feelings of frustrating art attempts offered me a sense of safety and comfort. It reminded me that our creative comrades are helpful partners in our life.

I felt the same way when I was at a life-drawing session with some longtime artist buddies. We hadn’t seen each other in months, so it felt very exciting and energizing to be together in our creative environment again. I did my best with my drawing and felt satisfied with it.

We all roved around, marveling at everyone’s unique approach to the same model. It was a room full of compliments and encouragement, and being a part of it was soul-healing (especially for a Monday)!

Leaving the isolation of my own studio allowed me an escape from my routine. Interacting with my “birds of a feather” gave me a feeling of support that refueled my artist tank with much-needed encouragement, especially after the ego-blow of a failed portrait.

Emma Sims, “On the Dock,” pastel, 18x22"

I like this quote by Jerry Saltz, Senior Art Critic for New York Magazine:

“Artists: it doesn’t matter how much talent you have. You must be willing to be embarrassed, understand rejection is not defeat, work all the time, and have drive, delusion, desperation, flexibility, resourcefulness, obsession and confidence. This will give you a life lived in art.”

There’s no shortcut to portrait-painting success. The journey is spattered with obstacles, let-downs, and questions. But, a life lived in art requires that exact journey. It’s not easy, but we will all get by – with a little help from our friends.


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