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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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My Muse

MusePostAnyone who loves and makes a pet part of their family knows that right there in the fine print of the unwritten agreement are the words, “sometime in the future, there will come a very bad day.”

This morning we said goodbye to our cat, Muse. Many of you reading this have been where we are, as we’ve been as well. We got Maya and Muse 18 years ago as 12 week old kittens from the
Humane Society in Calgary and since we never had kids, these cats were spoiled rotten. We lost Maya four years ago when she developed some serious neurological issues, likely a tumour or cancer.

While we could have adopted another cat, we realized that Muse was happier on her own (her sister was a bit of a bully) so we decided she would get all of our attention for herself during her senior years.

She was diagnosed with thyroid issues a few years ago. After she turned out to be allergic to the medication, a change to a specialized diet thankfully saved her and she was still able to enjoy a pampered quality of life. We realized she had gone deaf earlier this year, and that too is something she adapted to easily. In recent months, however, she has been losing weight and it’s been tough to get her to eat. I’ve been bringing her food wherever she’ll eat it, heating it up, and doing whatever it takes to keep her interested and her weight stable. Because she was restricted to the thyroid food, I couldn’t use any other foods to entice her, so it was a challenge. At one point not too long ago while discussing her senior health issues, Muse was rolling around beside me, playing and being cute. Shonna pointed out, “you know she’s happy, right?”
MusePlayingStill playful, demanding, energetic and a little diva, she has indeed been a happy elderly cat.

In recent weeks, though, her appetite has waned even more; she has lost more weight, and despite the vet saying she was doing pretty well a month ago, I’ve had a feeling something was off and that this was coming. The vet had scheduled her for another visit a few weeks from now to check on her weight, some concern about possible kidney issues if she kept losing pounds.

This weekend, it became clear that we weren’t going to make it that long. The light in her eyes had vanished, she became lethargic, had begun to stumble and fall, and was clearly distraught. She wasn’t eating, couldn’t get her to purr, and she just didn’t seem to be able to get comfortable.

In all of the reading I’ve done online the last time we went through this and this weekend, they say most often it’s the owners who know when it’s time, and both Shonna and I agreed. After a very difficult weekend, we euthanized Muse at the vet this morning. We had decided that any extraordinary measures at her age would be selfishly prolonging her life for us, not for her. In human years, she was in her nineties and we weren’t willing to put her through tests and treatments that would likely only buy us weeks or months, but would most definitely make her miserable.

As we did with Maya, we stayed with her ‘til the very end. I held her in my arms as she died.

While we will both miss her, Muse and I had a special bond, likely because I’ve been home with her all day for the past ten years. Tortoise shell cats often take to one person, all part of their quirky personality. She sat with me while I worked each day, would follow me down to the kitchen when I got another cup of coffee, and she let me know when it was time to take a break and play with her. I would always oblige. Although never a lap cat, it was me she wanted to be next to on the couch in the evenings, within petting range, of course. She was my first priority in the morning and I brushed her every day. Half a dozen blankets, cat beds and fabricated hiding places around the house made sure she always had a comfortable place to sleep.

Maya was Shonna’s cat. Muse was mine. But we both felt their loss equally.
MuseandMayaThere is going to be a very large hole in my life for a while, just as there is for everyone who loses a pet. For 18 years our home has always had a cat in it. It will again someday, but not for quite a while. This grief will be raw for quite some time. If you imagine me with dry eyes while I write this, you are mistaken.

The emptiness in the house will be tangible, no doubt. When I go to the kitchen first thing in the morning, have breakfast later on, come back from my usual hike in the afternoon, I’ll be expecting Muse to greet me with a purr and her demanding meow. The silence is going to be tough.

Everybody deals with these things differently; grief is a very personal thing. If you’re reading this via social media, please don’t feel obligated to write a comment or say anything. I never know what to say, either. Shonna and I view death in a very practical light, so I would ask that you NOT tell me about the rainbow bridge or say that I’ll meet my cat again. While I respect your beliefs, I don’t share them. I believe this experience is a limited time offer and when it’s over, it’s over.

Right now, I’m very sad, as can be expected. This will pass and eventually I will only focus on the happy memories. That’s how we remember Maya these days, our chatty little goofball who made us laugh and enriched our lives.

Muse had 18 good years. She was loved and I’m grateful for the time we shared. I will miss this face.
MuseBlanket

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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.