Regarding Commissioning a Painting

artist paint brushes.jpg

I received a super nice email from a potential client a week or so ago. They'd visited my art studio / gallery in Asheville's River Arts District and liked my work. It sounded like they were looking for a specific size but didn't really want to commission something. They wrote:

"I am a bit hesitant at the idea of a commission, because I want the artwork to reflect your vision, not mine."

That struck me in two ways. First of all, it's over-the-top respectful, so bravo possible future client! You won me over! But second, it sort of implies an assumption about how I work: "If the subject matter for the painting comes spontaneously from the artist's head and heart, it will give the artist more joy and the end result will be a better painting." I'm not familiar with the way other artists work and their motivation behind everything they do, so maybe that assumption is accurate for some people, but it is not at all descriptive of me. So I responded:

"I understand and appreciate what you said about commissions, but honestly, commissions and artists have gone hand-in-hand for centuries (over half of  what I paint are commissions). I just really love painting, and I am immersed and emotionally invested into every piece. In other words, it’s not like I give my all to some idea I choose and give half-hearted attention to an idea someone else chooses. In fact, some of the most challenging and exciting paintings I’ve ever done were commissioned by a client. I love every project I assign myself or is assigned to me. I just really like creating."

Every artist I know LOVES commissions. Commissioning a painting give us artists the chance to create something different. Most of what I paint is what I know will sell here in my art gallery in Asheville: Blue Ridge Mountain landscapes, trees in various seasons, local waterfalls, i.e. things that people purchase to remind them of their vacation in Asheville, North Carolina. However, I've been commissioned to paint a Venice, Italy canal, the Canadian Rocky Mountains, a seaport town at sunset in New Zealand, the Alps, and a shrimp boat on a coastal river just to name a few. A couple just came into my art studio yesterday and showed me a really beautiful photo of the view off their back deck and asked, "Can you paint that?" Yep. :)

If you absolutely love doing what you do, then commissioning a painting is fodder for previously unplanned for joy!

The result of a client commissioning a painting is that I'm often entertained and challenged by some new idea I'd not thought of painting before, or I can enjoy painting something (like the Canadian Rocky mountains) that would take a long time to sell here in Asheville where people are mostly looking for Appalachain scenes. Bottom line is that commissions and artists have a long history and that's part of how we stay in business. And if you absolutely love doing what you do (and I do!), then commissioning a painting is fodder for previously unplanned for joy!

That's just how I roll.

Understanding Art 101


As an artist with an open studio in Asheville, North Carolina, I am around artwork and people all day long. People from all over the country visit me, check out my paintings and sometimes chat with me. Oftentimes, we talk about the types of artwork they like and don't like and they ask a lot of questions to try to understand my specific technique. I love these conversations. I love talking about art and help people appreciate the artwork they're seeing. My passion is that people at least appreciate (if not enjoy) all the artwork they see, whether it's from the ancient Greeks, Renaissance masters or modern abstract.

Recently, I was having a conversation with a studio visitor about different art styles and artistic periods and he admitted that he did not understand most art at all. That conversation got me thinking, and because of that, I decided to write a blog series based on a lecture I've given several times on the subject of "understanding art" because I think that's important. Understanding art does not mean you have to enjoy it or like the art at all. Understanding the art involves understanding the world view of the artist. This is crucial because knowing the world view of a person (their comprehensive conception of the world) helps us interpret what that persons says and does. 

So, for the next few weeks, I'm going to talk about chronological periods of world views and how those views affected the arts and culture. The world views I will cover include theism, deism, naturalism, nihilism, existentialism, modernism, new-age pantheism, and post-modernism. Sound exciting? Maybe I'm a geek but I think it's fascinating! Knowing a bit about these world views and knowing where a person is coming from helps us to better appreciate and understand that person. Who doesn't want to do a better job of that? 


Half Baked Ideas...

I usually don't show anyone what a half-completed painting looks like, but then I thought it might actually be interesting for friends to see. Every painting I do goes through what I call "the ugly stage" and these pieces, each approximately 50% complete, have JUST come out the other side of that ugly stage. Admittedly, they ain't beauties yet but they're not as hideous looking as they were a few days ago (trust me on that). When these pieces are complete, I'll post side-by-side photos (in process / finished) if people are interested. 

Color Explosion

abstract commission

The thing I really enjoy about a abstract wall art is that it feels as though I have very little control over the thing. It really does feel like it has a mind of it's own. This piece (above) is a studio photo of what is the largest abstract oil painting I've done. I was given several photos of the room in which it will eventually hang, and then my task was to design an abstract painting that complimented that space and would be a real statement piece. So I had an idea of the colors I was going to use, but that's all.

As I began several weeks ago, I felt like I had some good "movement" going on with the texture I applied. When that texture was done and covered with metallic leaf, then I began the actual paint application, and that's when the fun starts. I just almost randomly chose the first color and a large paint brush and dove right in. What I've learned is that I really need to apply one color at a time to my paintings and let those colors dry before I apply the next layer. This takes days and days, but slowly the piece begins developing into something interesting. Then,  it's a matter of looking critically at the piece and determine what is "growing" that you want to develop and accentuate, and what might need to be minimized (visual dead ends). It's kind of like working in a garden -- mulching the plants and pulling the weeds until everything you want growing is mature and beautiful and everything that should not be there is gone.

This painting is headed out to it's new home in Knoxville, TN in a couple weeks (after it gets the resin application).

Of Ruination and Rescue

I'm going to be rather vulnerable here. There's a big part of me that would like to create the impression that as an artist, I always know what I'm doing, but that wouldn't really be true. Most of the time, I do feel very confident with what I paint but then there are times that make me realize I have so much yet to learn. This week, I almost ruined a 4' x 5' painting. 

The oil painting in question is a very large abstract, and as I've explained in past blogs, I am never in complete control of an abstract painting. They really do have a mind of their own. Well, it turns out this painting had self-destructive tendencies I had to deal with. I had thought I was about half done with paint application and I kind of liked where it was going and was having fun working on it. Then two days ago, I was applying paint, a little here, a lot over there, more paint here, scrape off some there, and eventually I stood back and realized I'd just completely ruined the piece. So I was going to let it all dry and then re-cover it all with aluminum leaf and start all over again. 

I felt like God just before the flood, regretting even making this monstrosity. I was ready for the 40 days and 40 nights of deluge and looking forward (though rather defeated feeling) to starting over. 

That's when Joy stepped to the back of my studio and took a look at it. "Oh, that's really bad," she whispered. (She's honest like that.) And I said I was going to have to start all over. Then she suggested just wiping off all the paint I had just applied that day and then taking a look at it the next day with fresh eyes. So I did, and something really weird happened. When I wiped off the fresh paint, a little paint film still stuck to the rest of the piece; a fog of blues, greens and whites. Hmmmm. Interesting. That slight film I was unable to remove completely softened the whole thing and brought everything together. 

The next morning I came in and was not repulsed (always a good sign) and was able to completely save the piece. Whew. 

There is a lesson here I think.

How I decide what to paint...

Today is Tuesday (my day off from painting).  By the way, if you're a visitor to Asheville and roaming around the River Arts District, looking for open art studios, never fear. My studio is open and being watched by Ruth Vann, a dear friend of Joy's and mine. So as I was saying, today is my day off and I thought I would spend some time on the computer hunting for photos that inspire me (I am constantly on the look-out for a photo or an idea that would lead to a compelling oil painting).

But...what makes a "compelling" oil painting? Glad you asked, but that's a tough question to answer!  When you go to Google images for instance and type in "compelling landscape photos", you get some very nice photography. But I can literally spend an hour looking at hundreds and hundreds of beautiful photos and not one of them would make a really great oil painting. Why is that?

One sticking point that causes most photos to be disregarded is that I'm looking for a subject matter (for the most part) that is either generic or is specific to Western North Carolina. That is because I have found it difficult to sell artwork that is obviously a scene from somewhere else in the country. About three years ago, I came up with what I thought was a really great idea:  to paint the iconic scenes from around the whole country. My thought was that people come into my art studio from all over the country so...why just stick to local North Carolina landscape scenes? Well, that year I had a blast painting Mt. Rainier, Yosemite Valley, the plains of Nebraska, the coast of Maine and the bayous of Louisiana. I loved it. This country is huge and so incredibly scenic. Great idea, huh?

Well no. I still have a few of those paintings left. I learned something that year though. Most of my paintings I sell in my studio are to people visiting Asheville, and they're looking for something to take home to remind them of their time in Western North Carolina (not a lighthouse on the coast of Maine). So now, that's the first thing I look for: something specific to North Carolina mountains and woods, or something generic (mountains, trees, lakes, rivers etc. that could be anywhere).

But then the second thing I look for in a photo I use for inspiring a painting is whether or not it "draws you in". That is what I am looking for and I'm not really sure what does that. Lighting? Colors? Contrast? All the above? Something else? Basically, I want each painting to speak to the viewer : "come home". That's it. It's that simple. Come home. We strive and work and stress-out and play and vacation so that we can re-create Eden. We really do. I don't care what religion you are, I think that's what we're all doing. We long for paradise and try hard to create. I can't create paradise, but I can let the viewer look at it. And I like that. I believe that hints at hope. This very easily turns into a philosophical and spiritual conversation, and I won't do that here but...that really does explain what I'm trying to do with my artwork and what I'm inspired by.

"What makes this painting so sparkly?"

Questions, questions...

I'm asked by a lot of people why I paint local North Carolina landscapes (usually mountains, lakes, rivers and trees) on aluminum leaf, and I explain (at least daily) that it's because aluminum leaf reflects light. Painting on aluminum leaf, I can create a painting that is back-lit. This greatly intensifies the color.  How I came up with that is, well, the fault of a French architect in 1163.

When I was twenty years old, a friend of mine backpacked through Europe with me and during those travels (every American twenty year old should do this trip by the way) we found Paris, and the highlight was Notre-Dame Cathedral.

I was quite surprised to see how large the cathedral actually was. It is hulking and awesome.  Honestly, I didn’t know much about the Notre-Dame apart from the Hunchback that made the place famous.

One side of the cathedral was lined with cafes for people queuing up to go in the church. Interestingly, the chairs of the restaurants were almost all facing outside. I thought it was strange as I would probably prefer to face in towards whoever I was with. If I was alone, I would not face outside, I don’t like strangers in the queue watching me eat.

We got there during Mass ("hey, don't mind us Presbyterians --carry on, carry on"). It was magical. So utterly beautiful. And when Mass was done, I turned to leave and then I saw it: the rose window. Oh my gosh. I'd never seen color do what it was doing as the sun penetrated the colored glass. I remember thinking, "How can I get PAINT to do that?" At the time, this seemed like a ridiculous question because you paint on a canvas and how do you shine light through a canvas, right?

This idea went no where for many years until I saw the Orthodox church answer to stained glass windows: ICONS. Icons are painted on gold. P-A-I-N-T-E-D on gold. Well, I couldn't afford gold so I found aluminum leaf and a new genre of art was born, from a rose window in Paris and a Madonna and child on gold. You never know where a creative muse will lead you. You just follow it and see!

What is 'good' art?

There are different answers to that question, which doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is that even asking the question scandalizes some people. I’ve heard folks say things like, “there’s no such thing as good art or bad art. Art comes from inside the soul. How can you judge that?” So before I even begin to take a stab at answering the question “what is good art?” Let me first defend the right to ask the question in the first place.

You Can Judge Art??

To begin with, let me say that yes, it’s completely improper to criticize the self-expressive art of a six-year-old. A six-year-old cannot produce good or bad art. To a parent, it’s all beautiful. It can’t be judged. The same could be said for someone who enjoys dabbling in watercolor or oil paint for fun or self-expression. Painting, sculpting, practicing the piano… is all fun and personally, I would encourage anyone to explore their creativity—society would be healthier for it. But not all art is like that. The art of a college student earning his painting degree should be judged and analyzed. The work of a professional artist is judged all the time, and rightly so, because he has submitted it to the public eye, not simply as self-expression, but as true art—as expression of something transcendent. If you handed me a page from your diary, it would be completely inane for me to redline a spelling error. On the other hand, if I were a creative writing instructor and you were my student, it would be kosher for me to mark up your essay. Indeed, I would be a poor teacher if I did not, even if it were a good essay. So whether we can judge art is entirely dependent on our context. In the right context, we are free to make certain judgments. In fact, we judge all the time, and that’s not inherently problematic. Does everyone sing equally well? Are all poets equally skilled? If you have a favorite restaurant or a favorite beer or favorite movie or a favorite band or a favorite anything, you’re judging—you’re praising something as superior to something else, or to everything else. We judge, and that’s simply the truth. Some things are better than other things, and it is inconsistent, even dishonest, to pretend otherwise. So can we judge art? We do, whether we think we can or not. What we need most, then, is to critique and analyze our criteria. The criteria which we use to judge between good and poor art will be the subject of my next few posts.

"The Rules" of Art

Art: The Process of Creating an Oil Painting

I recall an episode of Downton Abby where a certain gentleman made a glaring fashion blunder by wearing a white tuxedo vest. Obviously, he should have known better—should have known to wear the black vest. The family was scandalized and horribly embarrassed for him. I can only imagine.

Rules that dictate behavior in “high society” are often comical, and it’s easy to question their validity at all. Aren’t norms arbitrary and man-made? If society banded together, we could all just as well decide that it’s proper to wear orange vests to our dinner parties, and then that would be the right choice, right? The truth is, some rules are like that. And some aren’t. Some rules are really more conventions than rules. But the rules I want to proceed to discuss here – the rules of art, are far from arbitrary or man-made. We artists take our cue from nature itself. Nature – the way things work, the way things are put together – is what dictates the standards for beauty. I’d like you to study this photo:

This is a oil painting by John William Waterhouse entitled “The Lady of Shalott”. Look at the painting and notice where your eyes are led and where they rest. Are you haplessly scanning the piece, with nowhere for your eyes to land? Probably not. If you’re like most people, your eyes will immediately fall on the face, and then wander to the golden prow of the boat, and then follow the gentle curve of said boat, up the figure to rest once again at the girl's face. Your eye does this for a reason. The painter, John William Waterhouse, used a device called the Golden Section when he composed this piece. The Golden Section (also known as the Golden Ratio or the Divine Proportion) is an almost magical ratio. Mathematically, it is the ratio 62:38. This ratio is found all over nature, all over art, all over everything we deem beautiful. The Golden Section is the most aesthetically pleasing division of space. Looking up at the above photo again, start at the right side and trace your eyes over 62% of the way to the left. That point corresponds to the placement of the woman’s face. Start from the bottom of the photo and measure out 62% and you’ll find your eyes again stop at the woman’s face. Your eyes naturally fall on her because they are carried there by this intersection of two very important mathematical divisions. But there is another reason your eyes are drawn to rest upon the woman’s head. Waterhouse employed not only the Golden Section in the composition of his piece but also his knowledge of contrast. Your eye will always travel to where the lightest light and the darkest dark meet. There is a reason the Lady is wearing white and the sun is shining bright on the top of her head: this creates the point of greatest contrast in the painting against the dark background of the trees. The result is that your eyes are not scrambling but resting naturally at the exact point the artist predetermined to draw them.   I might also mention the use of complementary colors in this painting. Complementary colors are opposites on the color wheel and a complementary color is used to either balance the predominate color or to accent it. Look at the painting again. The predominant colors in this piece are muted greens but he also uses the complement of muted reds. In the water we see blues and violets and that is complemented with the golds and yellows. All this to say: this painting was not haphazardly assembled. Waterhouse worked within The Rules and created a masterpiece.  

...Good art is that it is always created with skill

The last thing I’ll say about good art is that it is always created with skill. There should be somewhat of a mystery about it. When standing in front of a beautifully painted piece of art you should be prompted to awe and wonder, asking the question, “how did he or she do that?” To be honest, much of the artwork in modern times leaves me asking no such question. There is no mystery and no obvious skill. Such art neither commands my respect nor holds my interest. Art that will be remembered throughout history is not that which ignores the rules, nor that which becomes tirelessly bogged down with the rules. No, art that lasts will be that which so internalizes the rules that it moves beyond them, synthesizing and remixing them into new focal points of beauty—new reinventions of that created order which was there from the beginning, but which is inexhaustible in its number of true expressions.

To School or Not to School...

School of Art 

Now and then, I am asked by aspiring young artists if I have any recommendations for an art school to learn to paint landscape or abstract art. The answer to that question is always quite difficult… 

…If a person is gifted creatively, a fine arts major could be extremely beneficial, or it could destroy their potential. It depends on who they are, how they’re wired, and what they’re looking for. One would think that the goal of a fine arts degree would be to learn all the necessary tools for making a living as an artist, right? This would seem like a realistic expectation given the tens of thousands of dollars mommy and daddy are spending for the degree. I mean really, why spend all that time and effort and money just to graduate and flip burgers at McDonalds? (or rather, flip burgers while paying interest on a $60,000 student loan). But this happens all the time, and it’s rarely for a lack of talent.

An option I think everyone would do well to consider is to look for an accomplished artist and ask them to mentor you. Then, go to school and learn something that would help you as an artist (like marketing or business) and all along, learn your craft from your mentor. This is how they did it back in the day and may make a whole lot of sense to bring back. 

But if you're dead set on going to art school, here are my suggestions:

First of all...

First, get online and take a look at artwork of the actual art students. That will tell you a lot. You might think the artwork looks really cool, but the question you need to ask yourself is: does this artwork look like anything anyone would actually purchase and put in there home? I know… I know… even asking that question will insult some aspiring artists, but more than likely I’m saving them from a lifetime of burger flipping. Now, if all you want to do is visually express yourself and you don’t give a wit about making a living actually doing art, then none of this applies to you. The people I’m writing to are those who want to be trained to make a living by learning a skill. For that to happen, you need to learn to make work that others value. Makes sense, right? It’s not rocket science.


Once you find a school that looks promising, call that school and schedule a tour. A lot of schools will even allow you to sit in on a class, which can be extraordinarily helpful. You’ll be able to tell right away whether the instructors are training students in a new skill or just touting “unconfined expression”. If they are doing the latter, their whole venture is self-refuting—they are building their program on the false premise that art isn't a skill, but if that were truly the case, you wouldn’t need to go to school for it in the first place.


The most important thing to stress is that all of us would do well with input, advice and encouragement from someone who does what we want to do better than we do it (whether we're talking brain surgeons, journalists, actors, dentists or artists). Get input and encouragement. And if you try to do that at an art school, choose carefully. The right school can be a really great find (and the wrong one will be a waste of countless thousands of dollars).