Back just before Coronavirus ate the incoming three or so years and millions of lives, I remember back in February of 2020 seeing the pandemic start to break out in full force in a way we’ve not seen since the 1920’s Spanish Flu… I assumed everything would seize up and lock down hard. Our thing is important and I give it nothing but the grandest of elevation, but in a crisis it doesn’t clothe, feed or house you, so I always operate on the assumption that art takes a belly blow when a massive crisis like this storms onto the world stage. I booked for the first time a massive log list of private commissions as a lifeline to get my family through the pandemic and survive to see the other side when the regular work would surely evaporate. Turns out I got it exactly, oppositely wrong and those pandemic years were busier than any I had ever before experienced. People stuck at home find art, books film, tv and music a lifeline of their own and being a steady deadline crashed apart my first predictions, which is an uptown problem to be sure, but it still was problematic nonetheless.
The big downside of course was how much my promise to fulfill all these 60+ commissions in a timely manner. But at least now finally down to the last 10 on the backlog I feel like I can sigh a bit of relief as the anvil I put over my own head has gotten to a manageable size. I honestly had no idea the the list would ever get so long and so much in such a short period of time and recall distinctly shutting it down hard just three or so days after opening the rolls. That was the first lesson and ongoing when the commissions open back up I will employ the healthier 12-at-a-time approach to new incoming commissions. I was still wrapping up MEADOWLARK doing the final to press stuff you have to do on a book like this and prepping for what all of us who had to move their book tours online did. But like any elephant one is required to eat after ordering, I managed to keep chewing bite by bite until it finally got consumed, and in many ways it was one of the best self assignments I have ever had the benefit of participating in. I learned a lot of how best to set this kind of thing up, set limits and answer the same questions repeatedly. Here’s what I did to help navigate and what I learned.
Like the ongoing self assigned 52 Weeks Projects that keep rolling out, I knew if I was going to do this it had to have a feature that screened out subjects I wasn’t keen in pursuing, and yes some involved both a sexy pinup of Wonder-Woman and an equally Tom of Finland style approach to Spock and Captain Kirk among others. So I made sure the first thing I did was put an email convo in between the scheduling of a commission and its purchase. To be honest the super weird ones were very rare and anytime there was a subject that didn’t;t sit well or enthuse me to it, we found a back up that did. While many of these subjects were pop culture based on the audience grown from my recent work with Mondo and the movie poster/key art arena, some were love letters to a spouse, or a wedding gift, or something else entirely personal. Some were also Marvel heroes and tv shows I loved old and new. It was largely an extension of what I was already doing for work. But Because these were private original art things, I wasn’t;t bound by the same strictures of the work. Commissioners could suggest some specific subject details, or characters from ensemble stories that they were seeking, but largely I made sure to turn away anyone seeking to act as Art Director or hand to my glove in terms of doing these. I know there are many artists who initiate commissions with a full partnership and editorial involvement from the commissioner, and that is perfectly fine to do if that’s a thing you are happy to tackle. My take assumes that if you’re coming to me to do the work for you, you’re getting in touch to have me do what I do for you personally. And my best work always always comes when I’m left to find a way to it one my own. This is what I do for work and I’ve gotten fairly competent at it.
The subjects ranged from ones I knew would have wide appeal, like The Mandalorian, Twin Peaks, Jaws all the favorites of the poster collectors I had been working with for years. Some were more obscure tv shows no one else saw but were brilliant like Hannibal, or Awake, or other obscure but personally significant foreign films. Most of these I had seen and were familiar with, many were new to me and I saw it as an opportunity to take it on fresh as I do with my regular day job work. But all of them made pictures in my head when I saw them or recalled them and that is always the sign as I have come to find, to say yes and see where that inspiration goes. It’s not only more fun to honor this metric for the work, but makes for a better piece in the end. There are some where I just don’t care for the subject, or it doesn’t spark a visual language I find compelling to latch onto. With the other workload I was going to have to burn hard on this list on the side even as the projects kept coming in, and they needed to be places I wanted to go. Simply put, it matters to shape the commission to your interests as well as your commissioners.
Sometimes a commission subject was so big in possibility I, crazy maniac that I am, would do a couple of full sized commissions to let the commissioner choose from. There were always side sketches or realized studies too, and so I instigated a policy of offering right of first refusal to any commissioner for those pieces, before then posting them to my online shop for sale to the public. Which I found was in turn an excellent place to involve social media to promote them and encourage more commissions. In my case sadly that last bit wasn’t possible having way overbooked myself. But for you smarter folk out there doing this, it’s a good thing to do… just maybe not exactly as I done did it.
Another key lesson learned along the way is a simple one but one that took me a while and many pieces to get to: A commission piece is not the same as say, a book cover, poster or some other project. There’s a different audience for this primarily- an audience of one to think of. It’s about his/her personal connection to the subject and for these mostly pop culture, film and tv subjects, the commissioner is coming to to me to make a piece that sings to that personal connection. Even if I am free conceptually to drive the project as I see fit to do, there’s a different axis to operate around, and it usually falls to more likeness issues and character connects. Where I might tend to want to go full conceptually different- particularly for projects where there’s just been a million approaches already set about, I always come back to the basic brief of the commissioner’s initial input as to what drove them to select the subject. And so sometimes that conceptual bent gets a bit shunted aside for the sake of the audience of one I’m actually here to work for. There have been some, many actually, who’ve just been keen to hand the the ball and watch where I go. But I also ask initially what particular character they tend to feel strongest about seeing- especially in a film that has a huge cast. I’m still dyed-in-the-wool against head clouds and an overt scrum of crammed in figures and scenes as if by making no choices is a virtue. Bad design is bad design no matter where you are. But here, like with the professional work, there is a remaining architecture of a dynamic image that demands choices be made, particular elements get honed down and a lean towards simplicity that ends up being superior to the flood-the-field approach. That much remains true in these regardless… but in the end scratching that itch should be the primary concern, and is.
The idea was based on trust, and primarily trust in me a stranger to most of these commissioners no matter how familiar they were with my work otherwise. I always showed a prelim WIP image of the piece before it was done, but close enough to being done that it was more a promise of things to come rather than an invitation for editorial direction. Which again for me with commissions will always be off the table anyway. That trust at least as far as I’m aware was never betrayed and everyone seemed more surprised and happy with the final result than not. (Knocking all the wooden things that I can find right now). I felt like the key here was to honor that investment- I always ALWAYS took the full commission fee up front. No half measures- in or out. It’s both too complicated to manage that many payment plans and frankly, did not want to be held hostage by a commissioner that might change their mind or suddenly be unable to fulfill their end of the enterprise when it was time to do so. Full up front fee let’s everyone know where they stand, and while I sincerely thank and bless ALL of the commissioners for their ongoing patience in waiting many months and years longer than they derived or likely expected, I managed to set it up as a first come, first served sort of deal informing each commissioner as one wrapped that they were next on the list to affirm their subject.
Sometimes and more so later as the long wait for many had begun to settle in, the initiating subject changed to some new enthusiasm, or just a change of heart. I made sure to always affirm or be ready to discuss options if a change were desired, and the commissioners were always willing to stick to their original theme regardless, and be generous and flexible. I must have gotten supremely lucky with the crop of supporters I had come across because I don’t think there was a sour experience in the bunch. I did struggle HUGELY on some, but that was more my own personal mania in confronting a confounding subject or a hyper beloved one that I held myself to too high a standard to do service to. Everyone was so very understanding and supportive and encouraging, it’s honestly a little weird. I’m truly grateful for it.
One of the great benefits like any massive load of drawing does, is honing one’s skills on a basic and practical level. I had also been asked to do double duty on a project at work, as was the case for Bong Joon Ho’s MEMORIES OF MURDER for both Neon and Criterion, and others… a circumstance that demands an extra measure of reinvention of thought and not shying away from giving the same time and attention and especially creative energy to both. I revisited subjects like The Leftovers and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, well enough and there are some where I feel confident I could go further with like Hannibal or the most recent work for Damon Lindelof’s stellar reimagining/sequel to WATCHMEN… subjects that have such a rich cast story or visual language, are the easy ones to dive into. It also bred a forced need to think as differently as possible.
And this is the key gift of the commissions… I had done some already professionally, and some I got work professionally after doing them, and some even found their way to a poster series in a way that echoed my initial Twin Peaks series I did for myself under the 52 Weeks Project landscape. Doing these alongside my day job work also worked too in keeping both fresh and alice. Turns out I like and sort of freakishly thrive in being overworked and discover all manner of new ways to do work as a result of all the dang work I do. Doing say a piece for something like INCEPTION where it had already been so overdone by so many better artists than myself presented intimidating and thrilling prospects, and as a result pushed me into doing wrk that was entirely off any map I thought to be one when tackling it. It’s that fear and nervousness I keep going on about in these articles, the good kind of afraid.
I also made sure that I took each commission as seriously as I took any professional gig I was one whether that be for a big studio film or the Severance LP series or whatever. Turns out my rule to NEVER HACK. Each commissioner deserves to be the only audience in the room when their time on the table arises. It’s not just altruism either- while that may be the main purpose the same reasons I preach this often in other articles or at lectures is because like any professional job that you should treat like it’s your last ever, or it will be, hacking out work and taking advantage of your commissioner to short cut some perceived increase in money this kind of chicanery may promise is not just a betrayal to them, but to you the artist, as well. It robs more than it gives from your soul and from your spirit and boy howdy does that ever show up in the work. I created a gallery on the website where each of these would forever reside once the originals were off to their homes and I wanted to make damned sure I didn’t feel shame when looking over it later.
In the end as I come into the homestretch and its much anticipated few weeks off that will hopefully follow after the last booked commission is in, I could not be more grateful for this self made calamity. I will always regret making people wait, I will never regret how much of an experience this series has been. Not since I don’t know when- the last insane overlarge work commitment I made I guess- did I ever get to experience more in such a short crush of a window as this. I will years along still be discovering things I learned from this giant elephant sized thing I mistakingly stumbled into when I thought I was being smart about surviving a global pandemic, thousand more points of fact I never touched on in this article, but I also found that it reminded me how much I love my work, love working with people who are enthused about the same things I am, and the intimate special space spending a little time with a stranger who’s commissioned you to make art for them, the responses and frame up pics that come in later and always the promises of wanting to book another when the commissions list goes back open… these will forever warm my heart. This is really the first time I’ve taken on a commission series in such a way and I found too it was a blessing to have set and spelled out specific and fit rules of play, of standardized size and material limits, and keeping true to those rules. There will be some changes in the coming next batch, but surprisingly few given how well this somehow went. It made the pandemic something better than it should and could have been and I cannot thank everyone enough of that gift. As I wrap these last few up and sign off on the Covid-Era Series as I have temporarily decided to call this group of work, I am stronger for having survived it, like all life’s challenges deliver. Hope everyone has a terrific new year and hopefully a return to normal for us all- whatever that ever meant int he first place.
You can see the entire series up to this point and all the attending studies and side sketches HERE.
The available studies from the HBO WATCHMEN commission go on sale today, 12/20 @ NOON EST HERE.