by Donato

Some times you just have to do it for free.

Oil on panel

And while this in no way condones exploitative, speculative work, I find the desire to paint some images so compelling that other work needs to take a trip to the back burner while I exorcise my creative demons. While I have rarely created work on speculation (get paid later—maybe) I look at a break from any aspect of my commissioned work schedule as having to work for free. For as soon as I stop painting for any client, I stop getting paid. The awareness of the value of my time has helped build confidence and provide leverage in negotiating with clients.

Over the years as a commercial artist, you get hired to create images which are a reflection of what is in your portfolio. Do you have fish in your work, then you will receive fishy jobs! Do you paint sublime robots engaged in cool narratives? Guess that horse battle scene is not for you! Do you like starships taking off from spaceports? Well that is what the art directors would like to see you tackle again, again and…again. This is not a criticism on an art director’s ability to think out of the box, quite the contrary, but rather of the thousands of artists out there, the AD was thinking of your particular problem solving skills for this particular job. A profound compliment! You are getting hired to do what you love and are excellent at. And thus you can become ‘pidgeoned-holed’ by your own success.

So why do I do work for free? Mostly to break the mold. I approach these creative interruptions from the work schedule as necessary to help round out my portfolio and redirect my creative energies. Some times I am able to satisfy these needs by working with a highly challenging and creative art director like Irene Gallo who has given me the space to grow my art like none other inside the boundaries of her commercial commissions. At other times, I need to push myself in a new direction for which no client could subsidize, and at that point I need to go ‘off the clock’.

Each of us will have different reasons for pursuing a new goal or direction. Sometimes it is a change of content, others times it may be a change of technique or style. Yet for what ever the reason, I have always found these experiments to be highly fruitful in the long run when the initiative comes from the heart of the artist. It is troubling to spend a week, a month, or even more on a project where there is no immediate reward in sight- financial or creative. But given the deep truth of the concept, the burning desire to see it through completion is what makes that time invested so valuable. For when you are truly challenging yourself, you are learning, and that knowledge will help form the identity and dream we have of ourselves as an artist.

Below are a few examples of work created for free and raised the bar on what I could achieve in my art.

Peter Paul Rubens copy
oil on panel
20 x 28″

The portrait above was created as a copy of an original Peter Paul Rubens portrait at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I went there to learn how he painted so I could work on a larger scale in my illustrations. This exercise with the Rubens gave the the confidence and knowledge to tackle The Hobbit:Expulsion image below.

37″ x 68″
Oil on Panel

Prometheus was created as a speculative gallery painting for a science fiction show in Chelsea New York. It was never shown in the gallery, but went on to win a Gold medal from Spectrum 13, land me the front cover of that annual, and helped secure my first USPS postage stamp of Alan Shepard due out this May.
13 is indeed a lucky number!

Oil on Canvas
95″ x 77″

As with all the drawings appearing in my recent book, Middle-Earth: Visions of a Modern Myth, Eowyn was created purely from my love of Tolkien’s writings, straight from the heart of a 13 year old who fell in love with the world of Hobbits and Elves 30 years ago.

11 x 14″
watercolor pencil and chalk on toned paper

Eowyn: Defender of Rohan
24″ x 30″
Oil on Panel