Michael McManus: private commissions

Current project 2016

Painter Michael McManus writes about his experiences undertaking his first private commissions. Michael was awarded the LIFEBOAT residency 2012

During the course of the lifeboat residency I developed an awareness of how to financially support my own work. However, I found at times decisions had to be made in order for it not to suffer. I planned to continue experimenting, without making works that appeared too similar to older pieces that had sold. In this sense commissions provided an interesting dilemma because I had to find a balance between income and making work I still considered part of my practice. In the previous article I had spoken about working as an artist assistant and alongside that commissions’ made a large contribution to my income during my first year since graduation. During this time I made commissions for both a gallery and a private collector and the approach was very different from both.

The gallery contacted me after seeing work at my degree show. I received an e mail detailing information about the commission and what had attracted them to my work. They had a ‘commission’s team’ and would advise clients of artists that may be suitable to their needs. From the proposed list the client would then select their preferred choice. I was approached with a commission for a company that wanted paintings that related to the theme of their logo. Eight artists were involved and each would have a separate meeting room in their head office to display the work. As the image and designs were so closely matched to the theme of the company it was impossible to relate it to the concepts of my own practice. However the pay was good and there was a period of six months in which to complete the work so I could ensure it didn’t coincide with busy periods leading up to any exhibitions or studio visits.

Unlike other paid work I was also able to make the pieces in my studio and could alternate between commissioned paintings and works for the residency without travelling in between. There was also various research days where I was able to meet the other artists involved. The highlight of this project however, was the launch night, where we were able to visit the offices in Bank. Overlooking the skyline of London with a complete glass front to the building, the space was a perfect setting for the paintings. There was also the opportunity to meet with people from the company and images of our own works were displayed on a screen for investors and visitors of the event to see.  In this sense the networking side of the commission was a huge positive, and people I had met on the night I have since kept in contact with and have visited the Lifeboat exhibition.

In contrast the private commission was for a previous buyer, and there was an interest to create a piece of work that featured a similar aesthetic to the painting that had sold. In a studio visit we discussed what had been successful about the previous painting and related them to the recent works. The conversation gave me a real insight to a buyer’s perspective when reflecting on my paintings. Having an identity in the pieces seemed to be a strong point, with consisting ideas throughout. Commercially, multiple series of certain images also worked well; with slightly different approaches to each one the viewer is given an opportunity to make direct comparisons.

With the discussion in mind I began drafting photoshop images, this way I could ensure that the works fitted with the concerns of my practice whilst allowing for the client to have a choice in how the painting looked. I made a total of five images and we looked at each in great detail before selecting the piece that met the taste of the client. I then began painting in the studio, documenting and sending photos as the work progressed. The prolonged dialogue throughout the commission was particularly helpful, not just in ensuring my intentions for the piece met that of the client but in reflecting on my own work and questioning selected imagery in a similar way to a crit. Finally there was another studio visit to collect the painting and we have continued to keep in contact since, with the client also coming to the Lifeboat exhibition.

Both commissions proved valuable but demanding. It was easy to underestimate the time needed to devote to commissioned work. For a young artist in need of financial support it would be easy to allow for commissions to take priority. Keeping a distinct separation between the two seems vital. However, as long as the artist is aware of the restrictions the guidelines can provide and are not encouraged to change their own practice they can be a hugely rewarding, both financially and for promoting their practice.