How to Avoid Painter’s Block with a Commission

I was recently commissioned to paint a picture of Mount Hosmer and naturally the Fernie Ghostrider. Here is my original painting the lady saw which she liked:

Fernie Ghostrider, Original Painting of Mount Hosmer by Kendra Smith Dixson, copyright 2002

Often times when I get a commission I tend to freeze up. It’s a lot of pressure to paint a commission and it can give you “painter’s block” if you don’t mitigate those feelings. Why is it so much more difficult to paint a picture for someone else than for yourself? For one thing it is hard enough to “get it right” when you’re painting from your own vision, but it’s very difficult to paint what’s in someone else’s head.

  • How do you know if this is what they had in mind?
  • What if they don’t like it?
  • Can I use my painter’s intuition or do they want it to be “just so”?
  • What is “just so”?

Questions like these and more can float around your head and block the creative flow.

Well, last weekend I heard a suggestion that may change the way you think about commissions forever. I was taking Alex Fong’s watercolour workshop, The Magic of Watercolour, and he was talking about commissions. He said that his trick to take the pressure off is to paint three different versions of the commission and then give the client a choice.

“Paint three?” you may be asking, “isn’t a commission hard enough work in the first place, let alone tackling it three times?” Yes, a commission is hard work, but part of the hard work is the struggle with the mental block of painting a commission. Imagine how much easier the paint would flow if you could lift that block and paint without any of the associated pressures of painting a commission. It would be freeing.

Painting three paintings can take longer than painting one, but I have always found that in painting multiple pictures I tend to improve as I go. You will start to see shapes better. You will loosen up and carry your brush with a lighter touch using bold confident strokes. Here is a chance to learn and grow as an artist.

Your client will be impressed that you have provided them with three choices. Plus, as Alex says, it alleviates that awkward pause while you’re wondering “do they like it? Gosh, what if they don’t like it?” when the client first sees your finished piece. This way they have a choice, they can pick their favourite. It actually takes the pressure off the client as well who may be asking themselves “Will I like it?”, “What if I don’t like it?”, “What will I say?”.

I have tried this approach a few times before and it has worked great. My clients have been thrilled and once I even sold two pieces instead of one!

Here is my latest commission which I actually painted four times. Which one do you think she will choose?

Legend Lives On, Fernie Ghost Rider Painting by Kendra Dixson. copyright 2011

Mist Rises on the Ghostrider, Fernie Ghost Rider Painting by Kendra Dixson. copyright 2011

Indian Princess, Fernie Ghost Rider Painting by Kendra Dixson. copyright 2011

Fernie Ghostrider Painting by Kendra Dixson. copyright 2011

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Filed under: Art for your Lifestyle, Paintings, Tips.

7 Responses to “How to Avoid Painter’s Block with a Commission”

  1. That being said, I admit that I will not paint multiples for every commission. It depends on the project. Oh, and by the way, it was the fourth painting which was chosen. Good thing I kept going while I was on a roll :)

  2. Interesting post Kendra. Thanks for sharing this tip. I did this for the first time, this summer and simply gave them my second painting (the one I preferred). I also love seeing your 4 paintings all together, it’s interesting that each painting looks so different. I initially guessed the 3rd painting.

    With painting I sold about 5 years ago, the purchaser asked me never to paint that scene again to ensure hers was one of a kind. Her message halted me from trying this until recently, so your post helps me remove the stigma I have attached to painting the same thing again. Thx!

    • Kendra says:

      I wonder what would have happened if someone told Picasso not to paint the same scene again. He often did multiple versions of the same study.

      When I first learned to paint with watercolours I would paint the same picture over and over again trying it this way and that way, experimenting with the composition, colours, layering, textures.

      There was one painting which I loved so much that over the years I painted 76 versions of it! Kind of makes me wonder how I never got tired of it, but I didn’t.

      I lived in Fernie for 6 years and I painted over 50 views of the ski hill. I’m still inspired to paint it again too. lol

      Of course, there are certain paintings that I also feel I would only want to paint once. I’m not sure what makes that difference. Maybe it’s the attachment we have to certain images. It’s also easy to be influenced by a client’s comments such as yours.

      This is definitely an interesting topic for discussion. I know there are artists who would never dream of painting the same scene twice, and then there are others who make repetition their practice.

      Thanks so much for commenting Joanne!

  3. I think that is a very interesting point. It takes away the pressure of needing to paint the “best possible” painting. In music pressure is taken off the performer as well, if you have a series of performances rather than “the one and only”. It allows for variation and that is what art really is about. Thank you for bringing up the subject.

    • Thanks for commenting Elisabeth, it’s great to see you on here. I appreciate your comment, I’ve often thought there is an overlap between the life of a musician and that of an artist. :)

  4. Margot says:

    Wow! This is such a confirmation. I have been experiencing a huge block and wondering what to do about it. The other day before even reading this I thought perhaps I should just start another version. Thank you. I am at peace now with such great advice!

    May you continue much painting success and fulfillment!

  5. Kendra says:

    Thanks for commenting Margot! Good luck with your new painting!!

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