Tuesday, March 04, 2008

"The Burrow" - a studio portrait commission with a difference

The Burrow
Faber Castell Polychromos Walnut Brown pencil on Strathmore 500 Bristol
Image 8" x 8" plus an inch border
Copyright Paula Pertile / Collection: Nicole Caulfield

This is a story of a commissioned portrait of an imaginary studio. You've seen the photographs of reality - now view the fantasy (see above)!

I’ve known a lot of artists who’ve worked on commissions and I’ve worked on some myself. I’ve known and heard about the joys. However, on more than a few occasions, I’ve also heard both clients and artists expressing their views about the potential problems and downsides of the commissioning process.

So how can you make the commissioning process one that works and is rewarding for both parties? Plus how should you commission an imaginative artwork?

I recently sat on the sidelines of a commission which worked out really well. So I asked both parties whether we could tell the story of this commission on my blog and try and identify some of the reasons why it went well from the perspective of both parties – the client – who is my friend Nicole Caulfield and the artist - Paula Pertile.

The Client - Nicole Caulfield

The idea: I’ve always wanted a large grand studio (don’t we all?) in contrast to the reality which is that my studio is the kitchen table. However our house also has this funny little room with a window under the stairs that used to be full of ‘stuff’. I’ve recently decided to try and make this into my studio.

It has a small window, a space that could be a closet (but has no doors), a secret opening in the wall to access under the stairs and it's only about 9 feet x 10 feet. In order to make it more appealing, I named the room "The Burrow" – which is a reference to the home of the Weasley family in the Harry Potter books/movies.

I then decided that I NEEDED to have a drawing of my very own Burrow to make the idea of the room even sweeter.

Choosing an artist: I met Paula on the drawing forum Scribbletalk and really liked her work. Among all the photorealism/realism on that site her work stood out for me as being both inventive and fun. That was exactly the feeling I wanted for my ‘Burrow’ studio. I’d also seen a great illustration on the contact page of Paula’s website and decided that this black & white drawing was very much the sort of feel I wanted.

The Brief: My experience of commissions is that people have this vision in their head of what they want the drawing to look like. However people vary in their ability to describe this. Even with those who can describe it well, it always means that the artist is having to second guess what somebody can see in their head. The best commissions I've worked on have been the ones where the clients respected my creativity and vision and didn’t require me to produce a rendering of their vision.

Now I had a very specific picture in my head of what I wanted the drawing to look like. However I decided I wasn't going to tell Paula much about what I was seeing. After all I was commissioning Paula for her creativity. So I commissioned her interpretation of my short description of the studio not a rendering of a very detailed description. I have to brag – because I was absolutely spot on with that decision! What Paula came up with was so much better than the picture that picture in my head. I mean really really REALLY better!

Nicole Caulfield
holding her commissioned drawing of
The Burrow by Paula Pertile

copyright Katie Caulfield

The Artist - Paula Pertile

Working on commissions: I’m an artist who is also an illustrator and I'm normally hired to do illustration jobs. I get hired by art directors, do the art, fulfill the requirements, get paid (eventually) and move on. Working for a client outside the illustration field is unusual – but has proved to be most enjoyable.

Working with the client: Nicole asked if I'd be interested in doing a commission for her, and of course I said yes. She chose the right artist! I was familiar with Harry Potter and also her work, so it was easy for me to interpret her wishes and what she wanted in the picture.

She also turned out to be a very "easy to please" client who was easy to communicate with which was great for me as well

Taking The Brief: Nicole was very clear in describing the purpose of the piece and the sort of style she wanted but she also gave me room to interpret what she wanted.
  • Purpose: First, she told me where the art would be hung and why and gave me a little description of the sort of funky space she'd be reinventing as her studio.
  • Style and format: She told me that liked my black and white work and knew she wanted something "like that" - black and white or maybe black and white with a little color. She thought maybe a square format of 6”x 6” would work best.
  • Content: She gave me a brief description of what she wanted in the picture and suggested that maybe I put some Harry Potter things in it - maybe an owl or chocolate frog - and maybe some things she uses in her work.
Interpreting the brief:
  • Stage 1: My initial thoughts were about format and media. I decided to work 8” x 8” and in black and white as color would have taken longer and cost more! I wanted it to have a warmer feel, like sepia, so I did some experiments with warmer pencil colors. I worked out which might work best through some experiments with yarn drawings (posted on my blog). Nicole liked the Walnut Brown Polychromos, so that's what I used. I was thrilled as it’s my favourite colored pencil brand. I immediately made sure that I would have enough pencils to complete the job by ordering some more!
  • Stage 2: I then sent her my initial sketch and she loved it! There were virtually no revisions, which rarely happens!
  • Stage 3: Before I started the finished piece I tightened up the drawing and sent her a final line drawing to review which she also approved.
  • Stage 4: Finally I sharpened my Polychromos pencil and started rendering! It was a very fun piece to work on, and I'm thrilled that she's happy with it and that so many people have commented on how much they like it!!
There's a secret passageway going under the cupboard toward the right, a broom for flying leaning against the drawing table, Hedwig the owl, Bertie Bott's Every Flavor beans down front, an invisibility cloak hanging on the armoire, a chocolate frog, and references to Nicole's work and subject matter she uses in her pieces.
Drawing a Fine Line - A New Piece
Learning Lessons

So what can we all learn from this? Paula told me
“Maybe we got lucky. We just hit it right. I liked her idea, I "got it" and found it pretty easy to invent the picture she wanted. That's not always the case! Sometimes it can be a struggle to meet the client's needs and to get the picture(s) exactly right. This one was a joy.”
However, I think what went right here wasn’t about luck at all. This was a client who took an intelligent approach and respected the artist she was commissioning. Plus we have an artist/illustrator who followed a totally professional approach and accepted a brief she knew she could fulfil. Finally both communicated the important things and regularly throughout the process – creating lots of opportunities for a successful outcome. Here are some pointers.

Being an intelligent client
  • Before deciding which artist to commission take a good look at your options
  • Choose the artist whose work seems to fit best with the sort of style you have in mind
  • Give the artist a clear brief BUT also allow the artist to interpret the brief. (Remember, even if you are an artist, they are the artist for the commission and their ideas may be better than yours!).
Being a professional artist
  • Make sure you understand what the client wants as to style, content and delivery
  • Working with an artist who is also an illustrator means you are working with someone who is trained and used to "solving problems" and creating environments and spaces to fit specific instructions.
  • Artists who are used to working on commissions and/or for a client usually have a clear statement of process. This is designed to also ensure clear communication and that the client is happy and approves of what the artist is doing.
So a pain-free process and a successful outcome!

If you'd like to comment on the process and/or have any other tips please comment below. Plus also feel free to let Paula know whether you like her drawing for Nicole either here or on her blog!

Those interested in Commissions should also take a look at Maggie Stiefvater's first post in her new series on Commissions - The Art of Commission Portraits, Part I



  1. Katherine,
    As an artist who does commissions, I will say "Well Done"...terrific advice for both artist and customer.

    I saw this drawing on Nicole's website, Paula did a beautiful job interpreting her customers desires.

  2. so much for writing this up Katherine! I'm so happy to show it off!

    " Plus we have an artist/illustrator who followed a totally professional approach and accepted a brief she knew she could fulfil. "

    I think this is such an important "rule" for accepting commissions. I've accepted commissions from people because I like that person even though I knew that the job was very difficult and not exactly "me." That is not a good place to start. It is ok to decline a commission that doesn't fit you and your style. You can even recommend another artist that you know would fit the bill - and maybe karma will bring a good job back to you.

  3. Excellent point Nicole.

    That's certainly an approach which works in a number of other areas of business - with exactly the sort of effect you talk about.

    Clients will have a new or enhanced respect for an artist (or whoever) who says "this is not me" - and then recommends somebody who might meet their requirement better.

  4. Thank you Katherine! This is such an excellent post. Its so nice to have a successful project to talk about (and by successful I mean more than just a nice piece of art...I mean satisfied client and artist as well!)

    Nicole's point is so true, that its OK to turn down projects that aren't "you". Those are the ones I struggle with. You're not doing anyone any favors by taking on a project that you know you're not right for.

    It so important to be able to "give your all" to a commission (assignment, illustration, piece, work, ~ call it what you will.)

  5. This is very interesting. I would have liked to hear experiences of what can go wrong too though. It's an area that is had to find personal experience to learn from. (As it's probably not in the artist's interest to mention the problems?)

  6. What a good point Felicity - my initial thought was 'how long is a piece of string?'! ;)

    I'll get back to this and do a follow-up on 'What can go wrong on a commission and how to avoid this happening!'

    I'm happy to take comments from anybody reading this who wishes to chip in with their tale of woe.

  7. Hi fellow readers,

    The name Caulfied wasn't strange to me and then after looking at her site, I recognized it from seeing it on magazines. She is indeed quite talented.
    Then I looked at Paula's website.
    I like to be a child inside and I'm sure that Paula is like that too. Because to illustrate for children is a difficult task and one has to think as a child.
    And it's not only about being a skilled artist, it's about knowing how to tell a story with characters.
    I must confess that one day I'd like to illustrate a children's book.
    And of course that her talent is obvious.
    And last but not the least, congratulations on your great site, Katherine.

    Kind regards,



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