Not Exactly a Work of Art

Art is a very personal thing. We all know this, of course. Even though I may not consciously be thinking a lot about what I’m wanting to say when I do a landscape oil painting, there’s always something there, something lurking just beneath the surface, something that determines the choices I make as I paint.

The choices, of course, begin even before I put a canvas on my easel, long before I begin sketching out the scene or thinking about colors. The first step involves deciding what it is that I’m going to paint. This, I’m seeing, may be the most important and most personal choice we make. This is precisely why it is that if someone else chooses the subject for us, our painting might fall short of our expectations.

Consider this very simple little oil painting.

Clouds Over the Lake 8 x 10 Oil on Canvas Panel

This is a painting for a family member, painted from a photograph she took over Memorial Day weekend. I’d like to think it has a peaceful, restful feeling about it, that it expresses some of the contentment she feels each time they visit the lake. I’d like to think that she’ll be happy to have this painting. Actually, I’m sure she will be happy with it.

But I’m not so sure I’m happy with it. I think, technically, it’s fairly well executed. I’ve given a bit of texture to all those clouds. I’ve added a bit of reflection from the skies. The wooded shoreline is quite accurate when compared to the reference photo.

Still, I feel a bit disappointed when I look at the painting. Why? Because, at the heart of it, this is not my painting. True, I’ve painted similar scenes before, mostly as learning experiences.  Now, though, this is not a scene I would look at with awe and say, “Oh, I must paint this!”

So maybe I will play around with this a bit and create other versions. Perhaps I’d prefer more sky and less water. Maybe I’d rather have deeper, richer hues. Would it be more dramatic if I created different effects, such as a stormy sky or waves in the water? Maybe so, but that would not be quite right. The point was to take a photo I was given and to create a restful, peaceful lake scene.

The most obvious flaw in this painting is, of course, the fact that the landline cuts the canvas directly in half. That means that neither the sky nor the water is emphasized. But, this is what I was tasked with doing, not painting an “artistic view” but working directly from a photograph.

I guess this is an instance where I’ve done precisely what I was asked to do, thereby giving up my right to personal expression or “artistic license”.  While the painting is all right and while it meets the requirements, it’s definitely not a work of art. I’m sure that once it’s framed and hung, it will look quite lovely, but I’m left feeling that maybe I should have put more of myself into the painting, maybe I should have changed the composition, maybe I should have chosen colors that suited me.

When you’re commissioned to do a particular piece of art, how do you approach it? Do you discuss it, make suggestions, point out where changes might improve the work? Or do you simply paint the scene, creating a painting that reflects someone else’s choices,  not your own?

The question, I suppose, is how do we express ourselves when we’re painting for someone else?



  1. It’s a lovely painting, but yes, the land does cross the mid line. I think I may have been tempted to discuss and show the differences if either the sky or water was emphasised more with the help of a piece of paper or a frame with the person I was painting for. It may have been that they hadn’t considered the way the emphasis could be drawn to one particular element. The colours are fabulous.

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  2. I definitely struggle with this one. The one time I felt I succeeded at this was when I just relaxed and let loose. I decided I could just paint over it if it was too bad and that allowed my creativity to flow and my customer loved it and gave me more money lol.

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    1. That sounds like a good way to approach it. In the past I’ve usually worked from very “general” ideas, not from specific reference photos. That’s given me more “artistic freedom”.


  3. Interesting dilemma! Some people who ask for things don’t really know what they want. Some do. Some think they do until they see another option. The few times I’ve done commissions they were for cartoons & the requirements were very specifically laid out ahead of time. But even then, I offered other choices just in case. Good thing, too, bec a couple of the people chose my alternative options instead. FWIW: If your family member likes it then you did what you were asked to. If you like it that’s a plus. 🤗

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  4. i agree with al of the above..i ask several questions before i start any commision and send photos at several points throughout the progress.It keeps the customer in the loop and makes it feel more personal for you both.

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  5. This painting is quite pleasing – nice! I think you achieved the peaceful mood of the reference with the lovely, muted colors you chose. Every painting doesn’t have to be dramatic or exciting to be interesting. Sometimes what we need is soothing. When you’re commissioned to do a painting you need to please the person you’re painting for – they know what they want – it is a picture for them.
    There’s nothing wrong with painting other versions and making them your own, however. Go for it. Then the painting is for you!

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    1. Thanks. Yep, that’s my plan. I want to use the reference photo again, make a few changes, and create my own expression of this scene. It might not be so peaceful, but it will be mine. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. That is a nice calm landscape. Although the painting may not have contrast between water and sky the horizon line is well marked by the trees. When you are comissioned to do a painting, for me it is different when it is payed or when it is for a close family member or a friend. For the former, the painting has to be exactly as it was requested and for the latter you can add your personal touch with less restrains.

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  7. I’m a writer and not a painter, but I think there are a lot of similarities between the two art forms. When people write to a formula, or to fit a certain market, they are not really able to express their inner selves exactly the way they’d like to.

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