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9 Things About Pet Portrait Commissions

An artist friend of mine recently told me she heard someone balking about my commission prices. She backed me up and explained to them how much work goes into an original painting. Based on questions and experiences over many years, here are some things I often have to address with regard to commissions.

1) I need good reference. If someone wants me to paint their dog when he was two years old on a sunny day in the park, and all they have are blurry photos of him in his senior years under gloomy skies looking sad with his eyes closed, I’ll be politely declining the opportunity. I’m going to hate the work, and they’re going to hate the painting.

2) Just because a client can’t afford it, doesn’t mean my rates are too high. I’m being asked to paint an original, personal painting, that will unlikely be of any interest to anyone else. It will take me 10-15 hours MINIMUM, which doesn’t include the time spent talking with the client, having the canvas printed, going to Calgary to get it, packaging and shipping it or delivering it personally, which is all included in the price of $1100.00 (Canadian funds).

3) Yes, I require a deposit of 50% up front. It’s non-refundable. Why? Because over the weeks it’ll take for the painting to be done, the client is more likely to have a change of heart if they’ve got nothing invested in it. Some will also try to renegotiate the price of the painting at the end of the job. Amazon doesn’t ship stuff until it’s paid for. Neither do I.

4) When a client says they “only want a small painting,” “something simple,” or it “doesn’t have to be as detailed as my other stuff,” what they’re after is a cheaper painting. I work digitally. It’s all the same size; it’s only the printing that’s large or small. Even if I worked traditionally, a small detailed painting is much more difficult than a large one. I don’t know how to do a half-assed job and they wouldn’t like it even if I did. Otherwise, they’d have asked somebody else.

5) If a man owns a hardware store, he might offer a friend or family member a discount. It’s inventory on the shelf, so he’ll just order another and it didn’t cost him anything. With somebody whose product is ALL labour, they’re losing money on any cut in their rate because they can only work on your thing instead of other work that pays their bills. That goes for artists, plumbers, mechanics, hairstylists, and anybody who makes their living from their time, our most valuable non-renewable resource.

I’ve long been a pushover on this point, actually offering deals before they’re even requested. It’s a common problem that many artists have and it’s nobody’s fault but our own. At this stage in my career, I would rather not get the gig than do it for peanuts.

Every professional artist I know has often heard, “I wish I could draw,” and other compliments that express an appreciation for the skills that have been acquired through decades of hard work and practice. But when it comes to paying for art, people expect it to cost a hair more than the paper on which it’s printed, or nothing at all.

6) Someone else’s procrastination is not my emergency. The fact that a birthday is next week and they kept meaning to get in touch with me doesn’t change the fact that I won’t have time to get it done, even if I didn’t have all of the other work I’ve committed to already. I’m not always available. Commissions are the smallest part of my business and I’ve got a lot of other work on the go. Always! Often I know I won’t be able to meet the deadline and I won’t accept the commission because of it.

7) From time to time, I will donate prints for charity auctions, but I get asked so often, that I’ve restricted donations to causes that support animals or wildlife conservation. I’ve also been asked to donate commissions, but that’s a hard NO. That’s how I end up with clients that provide the worst photos, the shortest deadlines, make the most unreasonable demands and if I don’t meet them all to the letter, I’m accused of lying about the donation.

8) I will often get people wanting to hire me after their pet has passed and only then do they realize they don’t have any good photos. Take lots of photos! Even if you never hire me to paint your pet, you’ll want those photos after they’re gone. Taking photos of your pets is fun. They’re all nuts, in the best possible way.

I’ve had the privilege of working for and with many wonderful clients over the years, some of whom have hired me more than once to paint their pets. This somewhat rant of a list should in no way diminish all of the great experiences I’ve had with so many people who’ve trusted me with painting an image of their adopted loved ones, whether those furry friends are still around or have passed on. In all of those cases, having lots of photos to choose from made the difference.

9) Because they’re often memorials, most people commission me to paint their pets in a portrait style rather than in my whimsical wildlife style, which is the work I enjoy most. So when I’m working on a traditional look portrait, it’s not work I would have done anyway. I don’t have the creative freedom to distort the expression, make the face goofier, add big strings of drool, and have fun with it, because that’s not what the client wants. Paintings in a portrait style are work, so while I’ll still put my best effort into it, I’d rather be painting the funny looking animal version. That’s my niche, what makes my work unique, and for what I want to be known.

Lastly, just like any other skilled professional, I’ve spent many years working on my craft. I’ve become very good at what I do and I keep raising the bar for what I’ll accept from myself. My best keeps getting better because I invest a lot of my life into my art.

If you want my best work, you have to pay for it.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Papillons, Paintings and Prints

PupsMy final commission of the year was completed this past week, a challenging piece.

Featuring three Papillon dogs, each with distinctive colouring, personalities and subtle size differences, keeping them straight was almost an exercise in futility. From the top, moving clockwise, they are Desperado, Ringo and Mick.

For some reason, I kept mixing up the personality traits and subtleties of Desperado and Mick. Apparently Mick is less vocal, but I’d originally drawn him with his mouth open, which didn’t fit. Desperado is the mouthy one. Mick tilts his head left, but I drew Desperado doing that, which I ended up keeping after all. Then, after I made the changes in the sketch and got approval, I went back and started painting on the original sketch, which meant I had to correct it again. Chalk it up to a silly mistake from not paying close enough attention.
Sketch
While the client gave me dozens of photos to work from, almost all of the eyes in the usable pics were washed out by flash reflection or were small pics with low resolution and poor lighting. It happens and I do my best to work with what I’ve got. For the details, however, I did buy half a dozen stock photos of other Papillons. The colours were all wrong, but it helped me see fur direction, layering, poses and to fill in the missing anatomy I needed, but didn’t have in the supplied reference.

All well in the end and the client told me I managed to get each personality right with each dog. The painting has gone to print and I should be able to pick it up and ship it by week’s end. Thankfully, this one is right here in Alberta, so there shouldn’t be any issues with shipping at one of the busiest times of the year for parcels.

It occurred to me this week that I’ve been breaking an important rule of mine recently. I’ve said in the past, and have advised other artists, that proofing is essential every time I have a painting printed. A proof is a test print.

Kelly at Chroma Surge has been printing my canvas and matted prints for the past five years. During that time, there have been growing pains. Prints came out too dark or too light, colours too bright or not bright enough, whites and blacks sometimes washed out and muddy, different papers and materials producing different results.

Kelly’s printers and machines are colour calibrated, as is my own display, but with different profiles and myriad little adjustments here and there, a bunch of little deviations can make for large problems, and it wasn’t anybody’s fault. This is why proofing has been essential, especially in the beginning. For my poster prints, I use Maranda Reprographics and Printing in Calgary, and the same thing happened when I first went with them. The adjustments I make for Kelly’s prints are different than those I make for Maranda’s prints.

In recent years, Kelly and I have come to that Goldilocks zone for printing my work. When I send a painting to print, I know which adjustments I have to make ahead of time and I save them in the Photoshop file, a layer that tells me what I did, and that becomes the Master File. A dog with a lot of black fur (which is really not black), needs to be lighter than a dog with light fur, because I know the detail in those blacks is going to be gone if I don’t compensate.

Whites can’t be fully white and blacks can’t be fully black because it sucks the life right out of a painting. Pinks, reds, blues and greens have to be selectively desaturated in the print file, which means making them less colorful. I’ve seen skin tones print very red on portraits, a dog’s tongue so pink that it overpowers an entire painting, or a green background dominate the animal in front of it, simply because the adjustments weren’t made or were done incorrectly on my end. A canvas print will often appear more saturated, especially after it has been spray coated, so I have to compensate for that as well.

All of these things I’ve learned by proofing, which is usually just doing a preliminary small print on canvas and taking a good hard look at the colours to make sure the shift isn’t significant. When it all works, images on canvas just POP! I’m never as happy with a painting as when I see it on canvas.

Now, I could get really meticulous about the proofing, pull out a loupe and check for every little variation, but what I’ve also learned over the years is that tiny little colour shifts from my screen to canvas, matted print, or poster print are acceptable up to a point.
PupsCloseI attended a class at Photoshop World last year, taught by my friend Alan Hess. He was talking about how to reduce noise in a low-light image and how to compensate for it with camera settings in night photography. But he also cautioned that the only people who really care about noise in an image are other photographers.

That lesson applies to my work as well. The only person who really cares if the fur colour in the print exactly matches the fur colour on the screen is me, or possibly another artist. Most people don’t see it, or don’t care. A screen is also backlit, which means every image will always be brighter on a screen as opposed to a print. So it’s all just finding a balance that’s good enough.

Incidentally, the term ‘good enough’ is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me. Like most creative types, I’m a perfectionist. Thankfully middle-age has taught me to let that go a lot more than I used to. Perfection is unattainable and as the mantra goes, “Done is better than perfect.”

As a result, I have let go of that rule of proofing everything for the very good reason that I now have plenty of experience with the known variables. I know my printer and he knows my work. If there’s a problem, he’ll let me know. Kelly did a test print of my last two commissions, but I never saw them in person. He just told me that he knows what I want and how I like my paintings and that he thought they looked good.

I weighed my options. I could take a few hours out of my day to drive to Airdrie to see the proofs and then tell him to go ahead with the print, or I could just gamble on our past history and the fact that I can’t remember the last time I’ve had to reproof something with him. So I told him to go ahead and when I picked them up this week, the prints were fantastic.

For this commission of the three dogs, I decided to continue the streak and let it ride. I sent Kelly the image Friday morning and got back, “The proof looks great! I’ll run it off here shortly.”

I’ve no doubt that I’ll be happy with finished result.

Technical details. This was painted in Adobe Photoshop CC, using both a Wacom Cintiq 13HD and 24HD displays. Photos were only used as reference. For most of the painting, I kept each dog on it’s own layer, to help with painting the hair.
PupsCintiq

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A Couple of Great Deals!

FreeShipping

First Offer: FREE SHIPPING!
This applies to everything in my online store, including the 8″X10″ prints I just added. They’ve only been available once before via my newsletter, social media, and at The Calgary Expo. For those 8″X10″ prints, postcard sets, poster prints, matted and canvas giclée prints, there are no shipping fees for orders to Canada and the Continental United States, only while inventory lasts. If you live close to me, I’ll even deliver and can take payment in person via cash or credit card. Check out the store here.

Second Offer: 30% OFF COMMISSIONS
The regular rate for pet portrait commissions is $900 (+GST). For the first THREE people that book a commission following this deal, the cost is $630 (+GST). That includes a canvas giclée print (up to 18″X24″), shadow box frame, and shipping. We’re talking friends and family rates here. This sort of thing makes a very unique Christmas gift and something you’ll want to think about sooner, rather than later, to have it done on time. For more information and to see some of my commission pieces, please visit that page on my site.

Any questions, drop me a line via the contact page.

Cheers,
Patrick

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Commissions: Lion-O and Gaia

Liono

For anybody that reads my random ramblings here on the site, it’s pretty clear that my favorite work is painting animals.  Whether they’re my signature Totem style of whimsical caricatured portraits, or the more traditional portrait look, I’m having my most fun when working with furry or feathered critters.  Once in awhile, I’ll even paint one that hasn’t got either (see Humpback Whale).

One of the great surprises of recent months is that more and more people want me to paint their pets, and in both styles.  While the portrait style is just as enjoyable, it’s a little more of a challenge.  When I painted my Wolf or Bald Eagle Totems, nobody was holding up a reference photo of one they know really well and deciding if I got the likeness right.  While a tabby cat very often looks just like a tabby cat, there are specific markings and features that have to be right or it just isn’t YOUR tabby cat.  Just as failing to capture the likeness of a person will collapse a portrait, the same can be said for missing the personality or likeness of a cat or dog.  Their owner (family member, companion, staff) will know the difference, even with the Totem style.

This past week, I finished these two paintings of Lion-O and Gaia, in order that you see them.  Each has different markings, fur textures, bone structure and personalities, so they presented their own challenges.  But both live in the same household, so the paintings needed to look like they belonged together on the wall.  The clients had choices to make.  Separate paintings or both cats together in one?  Totem style or traditional portrait style?  They chose the former of both options and I’m pretty happy with how they turned out, as are they.

GaiaFB

These clients were VERY patient.  We’ve been talking about this for quite awhile and they decided to go ahead with the paintings in January.  As you can figure out, it’s now May, so these paintings have taken awhile to get finished, but thankfully they weren’t in any rush, which gave me free reign to do my best work.  Much of that time was back and forth finding the right photos and they certainly did their part, giving me a great variety to choose from.  But even still, with the preparation for the Calgary Expo last month, my daily editorial cartoon deadlines and other commitments, I spent most days wishing I was working on these paintings but otherwise occupied with other parts of my business.

While I’m always taking commission work, lately I’ve been telling people that rush jobs just aren’t possible right now.  I would not be as happy with these paintings had I barreled through them and I would imagine the clients would not have been as well.  Currently I have a number of other clients waiting their turn for commissions and I’m booked up until at least the Fall.  I’ll be getting back to work this week on the Coyote Totem I started earlier this year and beginning my prep for the next commission of a dog portrait, this time in traditional style.  More animal cartoons, sketches, and rough paintings are planned in addition to putting the focus on more Totems.  It was a genuine shock to me recently when I realized that I have not painted a new one this year, despite the fact that I’ve got six of them waiting to be done, reference photos and all.

If you are interested in a commission and are willing to wait your turn, I promise I will make it worth the wait by doing the best job I can for you.   Here’s a link to the information and if you have any questions, feel free to send me a message via the Contact page.

Here’s a little bit of how it’s done, too.

 

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How much is that doggie in the painting?

Every time I post a new commission piece, as I did last week, people ask me what I charge for custom work.  For some reason, there used to be this grey area among artists about whether or not to post your prices.  I’ve read some compelling opinions on both sides of the argument, but one thing I’ve learned lately is that eventually you have to pick a side and stick to it.  That, and everybody has an opinion.

When it comes to editorial cartoons, illustration work and commercial painting gigs, each one is negotiated individually, because every client, usage, and situation is different.  Commissions for the animal paintings, however, are pretty straightforward, as long as the client is looking for the same style of image that can be seen in my portfolio.  An animal portrait painting, whimsical Totem style or not, is a lot of work, but it’s straightforward and there are usually no surprises.   In the interest of pulling back the curtain, I thought I’d just post the standard commission information.  This will also enable me to link to this post in the future whenever the inquiries come in.  There are always little differences in each inquiry, but consider this the foundation on which all of my painting commissions are built.  These are the current prices and details.  While they’re unlikely to change in the very near future, prices will go up over time, and with demand.

Whether it’s the Totem or realistic style, the price is the same.  For 1 (one) animal, commissions start at $600.00 (CDN), which includes a 16″X20″ signed matted print, with free shipping anywhere in Canada or the Continental U.S.  There are additional costs for other printing options as there is a significant difference between an 8″X10″ paper print and an 18″X24″ framed canvas print, both in production and shipping fees.  The time to complete a commission will vary, depending on my workload, but usually it’s around 4-6 weeks from the time I receive the reference photos.  If you live in Canada, there is GST or HST added to that price, depending on the region.  You can blame the government for that.  I require a 50 percent non-refundable deposit on all commissions once an agreement has been reached, the remainder due upon completion.

One request I’m getting more and more of these days is for the full-resolution digital file.  While I used to be on the fence about this, as many artists and photographers are when it comes to their images,  I now give the digital file to every client.  I still retain the copyright, but these days, clients want to be able to post something like this on a website and social media and maybe print a few extra copies for themselves. As long as they aren’t trying to pass it off as their own work, or sell copies of the images, I feel that’s fair.  They paid for the work, just as if a company might have paid me for an ad illustration.  That way, if they want to put the painting of Fido on their Christmas card that year, they’re free to do so.

While no photos are ever part of the paintings, I can’t very well paint those little freckles you love so much on your cat’s nose if I don’t know what they look like, so I need good photos to work from  Some of my clients have been photographers.  As a result, many of the reference photos I’ve had to work with have been great.  Since not everybody can be a photographer, it’s often a challenge to find the right photos.  The better the photos I have, the better the painting will be.  In a perfect world, the photos should be sharp, good lighting, fairly close up of the face of the animal, a straight on or 3/4 pose, at eye level, and looking at the camera.  The more photos to choose from, the better.  Problems that occur with some animal photos is that their eyes are highly reflective, and a flash can completely wash out the detail.  If your dog or cat looks sad in all of the photos provided, it can be tough to make him or her look happy, without the risk of losing the likeness.

Let’s use fictitious Fido as an example.  Fido is a shaggy dog that is dirty and in desperate need of a haircut.  Can’t see his eyes, he’s looking elsewhere, it’s dusk, the photo was taken from far away, and the only copy available  is a 4″X6″ low resolution image on Facebook.  The client’s instructions are, “his hair is usually a lot shorter than that, he has big brown eyes.  When we go to our cottage in the woods, he always likes to put his paws up on the window and look out, so I’d like to see him like that.”

Based on this, I’m going to ask for more photos and negotiate that pose.  If this were all I had to go on, I would decline the opportunity, because the client wouldn’t be happy with the finished work, anyway.  Having done a number of these commissions of people and animals over the years, I can usually tell quite quickly if it’s going to work out or not.

Suppose, however, that the client has given me fantastic photos of Fido to work from, great lighting, sharp detail and is flexible on the pose, but then adds, “I’d like him to be wearing his collar with his name tag on it.  He also likes to sit with his favorite fifteen stuffed animals and toys.”

The collar would be no problem and would not affect the cost.  The same would apply to maybe sticking a bow-tie on Fido, or even a comical pair of glasses if that’s what the client wanted.  Some of that I can make up, and  I would consider that part of the foundation.  All of those toys, however, very specific toys, well, that’s going to definitely be an added cost, as would any other additional specific details that the client would like to include.  Any additional animals would also affect the cost.  While a few have asked, I decline the opportunity to paint a person and an animal in the same portrait.  My styles for both are very different, and they just don’t go together.

Painting these animals is a joy most of the time and I find that I like hearing the ‘back story’, too.  We sure do love our animals, and hearing folks talk about the personality of their furry, hairy, or feathered friend is something I enjoy very much.  I’ve no doubt that it helps me paint a better likeness and hopefully capture some of that personality in the painting.  One of my favorites was Chase, the happy German Shepherd with his titanium tooth.

Chase

I’ve been hired to paint a couple of memorial portraits of furry loved ones, too,  and the importance of that isn’t lost on me.  Titus the cat, who lived to the very ripe old age of 24, sitting in the scrap paper bin he apparently enjoyed so much at their printing business.  I’m told the painting now hangs above the bin.  Then there’s Gilly the Pomeranian who passed away last year.  The client told me his wife cried when they got the painting home, but they were tears for happy memories.  I guess I like the stories after the paintings are done, too.

I enjoy these commissions, and will continue to do them as long as folks keep asking me to.  If you’ve been thinking about a commission, or just have any questions that weren’t addressed here, please do drop me a line, either on Facebook or by email, and I’ll be happy to answer.