Commissions Are Like Picking Scabs


Of course I know better. It will just re-open the wound and make it worse. Maybe leave a scar.

And there I am doing it again: saying yes to a commission proposal, when I swore them off.

I’ve had some gratifying commissions in the past. The requesters are enthusiastic fans, wanting something special from my hands. Perhaps it’s a personalized beer can for a daughter-in-law, or matching tobacco cans for a family to commemorate a father, or an oil can with pour spout inscribed to honor a motorhead buddy. I treasure that they are nearly always special gifts for a loved one.

The collectors describe their idea, maybe they even come for a studio visit. We email, we exchange images. I make a sketch. We email again. Eventually we settle on IT. I name my price. A deposit is made and then….

I’m in trouble. (Actually, I was in trouble at the outset.) And it’s all my own doing. With a number of commission successes behind me, what could be the matter? I wasn’t sure until I started asking around.

Exactly NONE of the artists I’ve queried are enthusiastic about commissions. If they say yes it’s often against their better inclinations and usually for one of two reasons:

1. They believe they need the love, money, fame or doors opened.  Or,  2. They don’t know how to say no.

Or both.

I do both. The money, fame, or open doors don’t usually motivate me, but offer love (appreciation) and  I’m  Just a Girl That Cain’t Say No.

Am I that much of a needy pushover? Naw, I think I’m just unskilled and unpracticed. After a decade of saying yes to everything, I’m now learning that not every opportunity is MY opportunity. (Thank you coach Cynthia Morris for this concept.) My spheres of creativity, my pursuits, my priorities have shifted, taking my studio rhythms with them.

Sometimes the right words come along in the moment as in, “Let me think about it.” But more often it’s a version of “I’d love to, thanks for thinking of me” and right where I should insert the lovely ironclad refusal….. I say OK and am all in. Oops, I did it again.

I need a Ten-Second Elevator Regrets Speech to parrot. I have Justine Musk’s crazy sarcastic list, It would cause the slow withering death of my soul ” + 75 other ways to say No, which is definitely good for Creative Badass laughs,  but it still won’t get me the phrase I need:  the pleasant, clear-eyed refusal that leaves the asker not feeling sorry they asked in the first place and me with my studio schedule intact. Still Friends.

Just what IS the rub about commission work? Most times the problem is not the patron, or even the commission concept — although I have experienced disasters with both — it’s that the art-making is for someone else from the get-go. And immediately the choo-choo train of creative process needs a giant cowcatcher strapped on the front to fend off the extra assortment of expectations, assumptions, explanations, interpretations and arbitrary agendas. The presence of the patron never really leaves.

I thought the pains I felt over commission work, the procrastination, the pique, the self-doubt, were just me being temperamental. But other artists tell me of similar thoughts and feelings.  So it’s with glad relief that I’m reading Jonathan Fields’ book Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance which defines The Rub. He says free-range creativity takes a huge hit when it is subjected to expected evaluation. He speaks of the the differences between intrinsic (soul) work and extrinsic (paid) work as motivators, with the intrinsic work being more venturesome in all respects. To back this up, he cites a study by Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School  in which 23 artists created 20 works each: 10 as commissions and 10 as they wished. The artists did not know this, but afterwards all the works were put in front of a panel of artistic experts — museum curators, art historians, gallerists and the like — to evaluate for creativity and technical excellence. While they found no separation between any of the works in technical excellence, the commissioned works were rated as significantly less creative than the non-commissioned works.” Significantly!

It’s starting to seem obvious. “When you know better, you do better.” (Maya Angelou) For the good of all — me, them and my best artwork —  I need to put a bandage over my automatic-yes-to-commissions habit and let it all heal.

~Liz Crain, who enjoys the fact that even the venerable late Victor Spinski once got so irritated at a collector’s request for amendments to his work, he took the piece – a trompe l’oeil garbage can – put it out with his regular garbage and photographed the garbage collector’s surprise at breaking it. She’d like to have overheard his explanation to the collector as he returned the money.










“Whilst You Crack On”


The new festival booth designed for the new body of work. ACGA Clay and Glass Festival July, 2019


Over the years, I’ve done no more than a couple of commissions. As I have written in the past (Commissions Are Like Picking Scabs,) while they flatter – and pay well – they also hijack my one-seater creative glider. As a result of that, I’ve turned down more commissions than I’ve taken. My practiced, wistfully sighing response is a version of, “Oh dear, my studio schedule doesn’t have room for anything else…too bad there’s only one of me…” It’s worked like a charm for years. And then along came this request.

A few months ago, a gentleman emailed me from England, thrilled with having stumbled upon my website’s pages and pages of rusty cans, and cheerfully asked if I still created ceramic conetop beer cans, and, if so, would I be willing to make one for him? He’d pay the going rate along with international shipping and insurance. He mentioned internet articles about him (‘Dullest Man in Britain’…,) and it turns out he’s well known for having the largest collection of exclusively British beer cans – over 9,000! – which he has since sold off and donated to packaging museums and the like. He’s kept only maybe 1500 of his favorites, which are still packed away as he’s moved house and downsized too.

Instead of out-of-hand rejecting it, I pondered his proposal all morning. I just about trotted out my de rigeur line of faux regret, minus the sighing, when something bubbled up in the solar plexus that felt adventurous and just right, and so instead, I threw caution to the winds and replied, “While I normally don’t do this – yadda, yadda, yadda – I’ll do it for love and not money.”

I would generate a small run, perhaps a six-pack, decorate them as he desired and send the one(s) that met my standards, all at my expense…if he’d be willing to donate the equivalent monetary values to a favorite local charity, preferably one supporting the arts, literacy or the environment. He said yes and he knew just the charity, as it has served his family well in the past.

The rest of our interchange covered details involving photos of his preferred rare brands and the facts related to my truthfully crammed studio schedule. The stickier details: British conetops are rarer than rare (many were melted down for ammo and such during WWII) so I cannot easily or cheaply examine a real one, and they are 9 2/3 ounces – not the US 12-ouncers I’d made – so I would have to create and test a whole new pattern as well. We traded this sort of info for a few more days and then off we went. Me to my “studio schedule” and he to waiting patiently for it to open up.

Since then, I have made a whole new body of knitted porcelain work and completely redesigned and outfitted my festival booth to suit it. I had my debut presentation at the ACGA Clay and Glass Festival in Palo Alto last month – photo up top! – and it was so well-received that I needed to return to the studio, mop up and begin immediately to replenish my inventory for October’s Santa Cruz Open Studios Art Tour. I couldn’t even see my way clear to the end of the week, much less to writing England with the need to reschedule at a completely uncertain time.

Thankfully an email came this week with a second cheerful inquiry. “How are you? Haven’t heard from you. Hope you’re still interested in this project.” Instead of feeling guilty and obligated, I felt elated at the care and continued interest. Because I shared it! I told him I was still on board “in heart, but not in hands just yet.” That I had this new looming deadline, that I was doing daily stretching and rehab moves to stay in shape for my knitting marathon. That I had planned a couple of weeks away and out of the studio at the end of the summer, that I was now looking at the end of October to begin his unique commission.

And here’s the thing: with generous kindness he understood. “I shall put my enthusiasm on the back burner, whilst you crack on (with your more important/interesting stuff.)” So, with this unusually welcome commission merely postponed, I’m adding “crack on” to my daily lexicon and am stepping away from the keyboard right now to do a serious rendition of it.

–Liz Crain, who, when mentioning there was regretfully only one of her to do her work and she could use a clone, also asked if he knew of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes and of Calvin’s Duplicator, a cardboard box in which Calvin made another Calvin to do his homework and clean his room? He hadn’t! So she suggested that “While you wait, please find and enjoy all the Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson you can; one of the most well-drawn, imaginative, philosophical strips ever to be: a boy and his stuffed tiger (who’s real to him) both archetypal and oh-so-true to life.”

The Iceberg Concept of Pricing Your Art


An utterly silly photo about a very apropos analogy 


 I wanted an iceberg image to illustrate this journal entry about art pricing, but I didn’t want to use stock graphics or to draw one.  Everytime I considered something else, I balked.  It had to be an iceberg.  So, being fresh out of tickets for a North Atlantic cruise, I improvised.  Turns out the head-of-iceberg-lettuce-as-stand-in-for-iceberg-metaphor works even better, as we shall see.

Read More >

For What It’s Worth

Ceramic Pabst Beer Can on Nest of Rusty Shot up Cans


For what it’s worth, I’ve been making artstuff out of clay since 1999 or so and have been earnestly involved in selling it since 2007. You’d think by now I would have an accurate sense of what prices to ask. You would think. But I don’t. What I always suspected, and now am completely sure of, is that monetary value is squidgy and at best thinly related to the highly subjective valuation of a work of art. Throughout the art world, price is often nebulous, magically derived, and certainly very negotiable. And Ceramics carries another challenge because of the FineArt/FineCraft pricing disconnect. Let’s look at all this a little more personally.

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Welcome Special Requests, Probably


Still Life with Whup Ass Cans and Chainsaw
Still Life with Whup Ass Cans and Chainsaw

Once upon a time I was a Commission-Phobe. I wrote that taking on a commission was like picking a scab: a bit hurtful and self-destructive.

It was true for me at the time and you can read my reasoning here.  I have the horror stories to go with them: unreasonable deadlines, unending emails, design changes requested when it was too late, money refunded, non-payment. And I learned from them.

Since that post,  the special request tide has turned. It’s not that my reasons for hating commissions were proven wrong. They are all still profoundly true, but I manage the associated difficulties in suitable ways and I find myself welcoming select commissions with grace and ease.Read More >

Kudophobia’s Evil Twin


gold star



Kudophobia means Fear of Praise – or even Fear of  Glory!  I’m not sure it’s an official word, but it’s certainly an Official Fear.

I have a bit of it, at times, being more familiar with my decades-long learning and artistic struggle and less with any sort of  praise-worthy attainment.

I sense that most creatives experience something similar, especially when, after the searching, they start to bring forth the work they have imagined from the beginning.

It might go like: I think I am totally NAILING my ideas and STICKING their landing as well, but I am so used to NO-ONE noticing, I am unsure what approval means.

So, it’s awkward.Read More >

A Frank Look at Money and Venues

The Situation: At some point, Dear Ones, every artist who’d like to “sell” is looking for validation. If someone –  a complete stranger, a friend, or even your mom – gives you respectable money for your precious creations, you cross a line from self-pleasuring hobbyist to validated emerging professional. Just like that. And it feels good.

We won’t go into how squishy and dotted that line is, or how many times you may retreat and re-cross it;  sure, then unsure, than sure again of that validation. It can really mess with your head. Not to mention your work in the studio.

Instead, we’ll fast forward to the place where all the problems you’ve solved in order to stay validated are different now. You’re a Selling Artist. Though you may still and forever be “emerging,” the talking points become more about your niche, your ideal customer, your pricing practices, your product families. Art Biz stuff. Besides making the most excellent and meaningful work you can, where are the optimum places for you to be in order for it to be enjoyed and purchased by those who naturally want what you have and have the means to buy it? Where is the Goldilocks Validation Zone?

That last question will never really go away because it involves the agile art market and your fragile toehold in it.  This applies to us all: I don’t care how big of a name you have or market you roll in, agility and adeptness in responding to change are your trusted allies. You will answer and re-answer such marketing questions until you no longer seek market validation.


The Plot Sickens:

A few Art Soup thickeners here: You’re in charge of this selling stuff, every bit of it. Even if you partner with galleries, co-ops, wholesalers, art groups, agents and tour events, you are the partner too.

No pathway is a sure thing.

Going ONLY after money is a one-way ticket to meaninglessness.

Beware of seeking potential validation, which might masquerade as all-promising flattery and/or “exposure.”  You might lose sight of a venue or event’s viability. (I’m looking at YOU quasi-donation pay-to-play garden party.)


The Frank Look: Until recently, I just ran numbers on my actual sales and actual costs venue by venue or event by event in order to understand whether or not each was profitable. It was good insofar as I was able to compare what has happened over repeated months and years, so I could understand how tweaking all sorts of things (staying agile) impacted the bottom lines. I also know my overall annual income and expenses and net profit. But I sensed dis-parity in my “income streams.” What would help me understand where my efforts approached that GVZ and where was I perhaps not making the best use of my time and troubles, or, heavens, where was I spending money on an illusion (and going in the red to do it?)

The key to creating The Frank Look is to leave the world of real sales numbers and just suppose the same gross sales across the board. I started with a flat $2000 in annual sales, so let’s look at that, venue by venue:

Traditional Gallery: No out of pocket expenses.   Commission 50% = $1000.  NET: $1000.

Vanity Gallery: Upfront Monthly fees $48  x 12 = $576.  Commission 15% = $300. NET: $1124

Co-op Style Gallery: Annual Membership = $50. Entry Fees: 4 exhibits x $45 = $180.  Commission 25% = $500 NET: $1270.

But, wait, while the Co-op looks to be the most lucrative of our galleries,  there are soft costs which must be taken into account: namely the volunteer time required to “sit” the gallery and the travel expenses specifically associated with that task (not in getting the work delivered/picked up.) Even if I value that time at a ridiculous $10 an hour, it plays out like this:

Hours to Gallery Sit: 72 x $10 = $720  Travel: 12 x $5 = $60. ADJUSTED NET: $490

So ya gotta ask about the Opportunity Cost of lost studio time as well as applying a more appropriate hourly rate. Seems to me the news only gets worse for the Co-op Style Gallery.


Let’s look outside the galleries. Applying the same flat $2000 sales to shows and art tours….

Regional  Outdoor Show: Costs, including fees, commissions, mailings, transportation, volunteer and booth sitting time = $981.  NET: $1019

Local Outdoor Show: Cost, including fees, transportation, volunteer and booth sitting time = $361.  NET = $1639

Major Art Tour: Costs, including fees, mailings, postcards, volunteer and selling time = $810.  NET: $1190.

That Local Outdoor Show wins: no travel expenses, lower fees, NO commissions.

Are you still with me? Because there’s more.

What’s my Downside Risk?  What if I had ZERO sales?

Traditional Gallery: COST = $0

Vanity Gallery: COST = $576

Co-op Style Gallery: COST = $1010

Regional Outdoor Show: COST = $681

Local Outdoor Show: COST = $361

Major Art Tour: COST = $810

Sorry, Co-op. Yay for Local Outdoor Show! Very respectable, Traditional Gallery.

These numbers are telling me a clear story about comparable and true costs. I ran them for $1000, $3000, $4000 and $5000 sales figures. with no unexpected variations. The themes were the themes. The good got stellar. The not-so-good  dwindled and rotted as other factors came into play.

Most important other factor: the likelihood of selling a certain amount or not. Some venues are undeniably hampered in that regard, others are nearly unlimited in potential, some need to prove themselves.  It’s also fair to consider such things as: In which of these venues do I feel at home? Am I treated fairly and professionally? Is my work given a spotlight? Which of them takes less physical/creative energy to maintain? Which are better for my relationship to my collectors?

It all goes into the hopper, and armed with both The Frank Look numbers and my horse sense about where things go well, I can better determine where  that Goldilocks Validation Zone is now and in future possible exhibition venues or events.

~Liz Crain,  an artist who tries to squeeze meaning out of every effort, whether sublimely creative or calculatedly analytic, yet knows all will be well regardless.