I think this will always be one of my favourite commissions <3
The customer is always right~or well, that’s how the saying goes, although I seem to remember the opposite posted here and there around the internet.
As a ‘baby copywriter’ almost 30 years ago, I was trained to do anything and everything to make the client happy. There was no such thing as going the extra mile because that mile was part of the trip, and customer delight, not satisfaction, was the be-all, end-all of our existence at the agency.
I get that. I really do. If I hadn’t learnt it at the agency, I would’ve learnt it at school before that, anyhow (indeed, one of my teachers owned the agency I got my first job at).
But does this apply to commissioned work from artists?
Give them what they’re paying for
This was something I’d meant to write about for some time, but you might say a couple of things I’d seen recently made me finally get around to it.
The more recent one was yesterday~I’d been writing an article about interior design. And in doing my research, I saw someone say something to the effect that if the client wanted hot pink polka dots on fluorescent yellow walls, you’d have to grin and bear it~and reach for the Day-Glo paint.
I don’t remember now whether it was in the same place, but there was also mention about it not being a matter of being on the same page, taste-wise, with the client. They said that you would be very often called upon to do things that you wouldn’t be caught dead with in your portfolio.
The other thing was in the past few weeks, I think (you must excuse my hazy memory). I was working with this young graphic artist on a bunch of social media posts for a client which, for once, gave me a little more wiggle room, imagination-wise. (I don’t always get that with corporate or suits-and-ties clients, you understand.)
In a nutshell, I guess, even though I wasn’t in a position to do so, really, I had been trying to *stretch* this designer, creatively, even a little. He replied that he could make it nicer if he wanted to, actually, but that he’d rather ‘just give the client what he wanted’ and get it over with.
I was a bit, crestfallen, or disheartened, I guess, to see how jaded he’d become given how young he still was. Maybe it’s just my stunted growth, but I seem to recall it taking a fair amount of time for me to reach that stage of disillusionment. I couldn’t blame him, though, and it’s not like I’ve never done that with my own writing work. Besides, he very likely also had tonnes of other things to do.
The theoretical client with the vitriolic taste in colours would have been paying the interior designer to do what he wanted, just as our actual client was paying us to give him the posts he (or his boss) wanted. The theoretical interior designer has bills to pay, after all, and our graphic designer and all the rest of us need to do our part in keeping the agency afloat.
Besides, some of the greatest art in the world were commissioned pieces~Pope Julius paid Michelangelo to do the Sistine Chapel ceiling, after all.
How far are you willing to go
I’m just wondering, is all, how far artists can go when people pay them to do something specifically for them. Like what if pink spots on yellow really weren’t your thing? (But what if you really needed to pay the rent?) Would you sign it, though? I suppose the person who commissioned the spots would expect you to.
I don’t know whether you see where I’m coming from, but I’m suddenly reminded of a very unpleasant incident~nothing whatever to do with art~where the customer most definitely was NOT right.
A co-worker of mine at a previous job had, at a job she used to have, a 500-buck bill stuffed into her mouth by an irate customer. This extremely rude person insisted that what he had been served was not chicken barbecue because it hadn’t been on a stick, and did what he did when my co-worker meekly explained that she would have to pay for it.
See, here’s the thing. That customer shouldn’t have gone to my ex-co-worker’s restaurant if he was looking for chicken on a stick, just as the imaginary homeowner who likes pink spots should probably have consulted another interior designer. Like I don’t think Pope Julius would’ve gone to Jackson Pollock (I know, but you get the idea, I hope).
I’ve heard before how some agencies and other companies would rather lose certain clients if ‘they weren’t the right fit’. Of course I do understand how, often enough, people have to fight to get and keep the clients they have because times are hard~and that goes for artists, too.
I guess there’s no hard and fast rule for how far artists should be willing to compromise on something, and that it’s really up to the artists themselves on what they’re willing to do~or not do~for the money.
I myself have turned down certain projects before, not because I didn’t need the money (heaven knows I do), but because it either just wasn’t my thing, or it just didn’t sit right with me.
Comply now, regret later
I’ve always felt that anything you do, you have to put your whole everything into it. So if it was a commission I wasn’t 100 per cent on board with, I don’t think I would’ve been able to put everything I had into it. That would most likely mean that the work wouldn’t be so great anyways, and I’m pretty sure when people commission something from you, they’re not paying for ‘not so great’.
In any case, when someone commissions something from an artist, it presupposes that the someone’s already checked that artist out, thinking that, based on what this artist has done, this is the person to ask for the piece I want. Put another way, the customer has seen the menu, and knows the chicken barbecue doesn’t come on a stick.
But what if my ex-officemate had taken the chicken back to the kitchen and stuck a stick into it, and served it again? I hadn’t mentioned that it was a chain restaurant, and barbecue on sticks probably wasn’t (if you’ll forgive the marketing parlance) part of their branding.
Sometimes, giving the customer what they want (because they’re ‘always right’) results in something you might be…less than proud of. Again, I’m not saying you should never stretch a point in favour of being able to put food on the table. But again, it’ll probably be something you wouldn’t dream of posting on your socials, if you know what I mean.
I admit I have, allowed my work to be *altered* by other people~just like that graphic designer I was talking about just now. One particular example I remember is a project where I was told that my eyes were too small, and could they Photoshop them to make them bigger.
The people-pleaser in me (plus my absolute exhaustion) let them do what they liked~even if I had busted my hump to make the eyes that small to begin with. (Let’s put it this way: If I had a brush with three hairs, I would’ve used it.) To this day, I really regret letting them do that. I mean, I could see x understand why they asked for it, but it just looks different to me, now.
Or what about a painting I did when I was very young, that I wanted to give to my grand uncle as a sort of small humble thank you for a huge favour he did me. My parents told me to sign it in front~something I never do, to this very day. But I did because I’m trained to be obedient and to this day, even though I never saw that painting again, I remember it and regret it.
No matter how hard you try
And then again, sometimes, even if you wanted or tried your darndest to achieve *customer delight* with your commissioned piece~sometimes it just doesn’t work out.
A portrait artist I once knew had a client who wasn’t happy with her work because ‘there wasn’t any sparkle’ in the eyes (what is it about eyes and clients, huh XD). The artist retouched the painting at least three times, I remember (you can only do so much reworking with oil) (or well any medium, actually), and she just couldn’t seem to get that sparkle the client was looking for.
I don’t recall now how that worked out, but I couldn’t help wondering at the time what I would’ve done in that situation. Like would I give the money back, or what? I couldn’t just leave it like that, knowing I had a dissatisfied client (I guess the training you get when you’re young really does stick with you until you die, lol). But what do you do when things are at an impasse like that?
For my part, all I can do~or would do, if I were in that situation, would be to give the money back (too bad, I suppose for the time and the materials I’d spent for, not to mention the labour). I would, of course, apologise profusely and try to console myself thinking I’d racked up a fair number of experience points (I sometimes like to think of life as a video game ^_^).
But fate, so far, has been kind to me in that I’ve been blessed with commissions that have allowed me to paint what they want (which has sometimes also been what I want), the way I want. And I remain extremely grateful to the people who have been very kind to ask me to paint them something for being pleased with what I’ve been able to make for them (at least I hope they were).
Pieces of Soul
I really believe that someone commissioning work from you or even just asking is awesome in itself. Like this person believes in you that much to be willing to spend their hard-earned money for it.
I also really believe that thing I said about having to put your whole multiverse into what you do, and that applies to commissioned work, too. So as much as possible (again because the reality is we have bills to pay), it’s got to be something you believe in that much, as well. Or at least something you feel comfortable with.
I’m not saying I pour my blood, toil, tears and sweat into every piece of copy I write (although it does actually take quite a chunk sometimes). But I am saying that that thing someone once said about buying a piece of an artist’s soul every time you buy a painting is absolutely true, however hokey it might sound. (Or however *not so good* the finished piece might turn out ^^; )
Even if, for instance, someone commissions you to paint their grandmother (or their dog)~ ‘I think that every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, and not the sitter.’ (Basil H played by Jeremy B <3)
At the end of the day, I think that maybe, whatever the commission is or however far backwards you’re willing to bend to delight your client, you’re still going to have to be true to yourself. One way or another, or even if it’s just a very small part of you left.
I don’t think you’d be able to help it, anyway. One way or another, there’s still going to be something of you in that commissioned piece. I guess all we can do is to do our best to make that something something we can be proud of. Put another way, whether or not the customer is right, what you do for the customer, has got to feel right to you. I don’t know. What do you think?