Commercial vs personal art: how one improves the other (part 1)
Over the last two years, my partner and I have been putting all of our energy into our art. While we are building up our art career and developing our personal work, we have been doing a lot of commercial art: customised art for people/businesses for cash.
In the past year, I’ve been doing more commissions than ever, such as painting live for corporate conferences and creating murals for pubs. Sometimes they are related to the work I want to do (my “personal” art), sometimes they’re not, but slowly we are getting more and more of the type of work we love doing most.
I love my commercial work, but I was scared that doing so much of it would kill my personal art.
We’re all familiar with terms such as “sell-out”, “selling your soul”, etc. There’s this general view that doing art that is tainted by commerce is somehow less noble than drawing alone at 3am. Let’s make one thing clear: I LOVE doing commissions because I love using my art to help people and businesses achieve their vision. It’s not a “lesser” form of my work, it’s just a way of sharing it with people. I also like making money, as most people do, so I can do things like eat, buy paint, and travel.
Having said all that, I can’t deny that the work I value the most is the one I do in my spare time, that no one is paying me or prompting me to do. That comes from deep within myself, for reasons not yet explained, and is the truest expression of my practice.
From conversations with other artists and the way I presumed creativity “works”, I was really scared that doing so much commercial work would dry out my creative juices, or consume all of my time, and I’d stop doing my personal art, and that all the art I made would be money-driven and nothing like what I actually wanted to make.
To my surprise, the opposite happened.
The more “commercial” art I produced, the more beautiful “personal” art I created in my shrinking amount of spare time.
This year alone, I’ve been crazy busy doing commissions. I somehow found time to:
- Created my first solo exhibition.
- Co-created two other shows with my partner.
- Submit new works to two group shows.
- Get started on writing and illustrating my first book.
- As well and sketching and painting dozens of other little art pieces that were not exhibited or served any purpose.
The quality of my work also improved. Obviously my level of skill improved, aided by all the practice I was getting with commissioned art. However, there was more than that: the meaning behind my art became more refined, and my work started to develop a deeper purpose behind it.
Why did this happen?
Well, I believe that doing so many art commissions with tight deadlines, demanding clients, specific briefs, taught me what I needed to be a prolific artist, something that people don’t often associate with creativity: organisation.
It’s really nice to think of art and creative work in general as this colourful chaos of freedom and spontaneity.
I can relate to this. My creativity is something that comes from my heart, it comes from my love for the world and a deep admiration for Nature. I am inspired by everything that surrounds me. Consequently, I walk around constantly having new spontaneous ideas for art I want to make and things I want to express.
However, if I don’t apply myself to bringing those ideas into fruition, I never get to actually make the art. On its own, my creativity is just potential, it doesn’t make any impact in the world beyond my own mind.
Organisation is the thing that allows me to be systematic and focused about making my personal art. And that’s why that side of my work is growing as much as my commercial work, instead of getting buried by it. I’m open to treating my personal art projects with the same discipline, planning and dedication I use to do my commissions.
A few things I’ve learnt to do:
1. I’ve grown to LOVE deadlines
Deadlines create pressure, but to me that pressure turned out to be exactly what I needed.
Like most artists, I get very indecisive and sometimes caught up in trying to make my work “perfect”. It’s good to have high standards, but perfectionism can be a glorified form of procrastination and over-thinking about small details that no one cares about.
If I have a deadline, I don’t have time to overthink things and get unhappy about what I’m doing. I’m forced to follow the flow of my art and let go of my perfectionism and internal negative self-talk. I just need to get it done as well as I can, and I’ve learnt to just chill and be happy with whatever comes of it.
2. I start with the end in mind.
When I treat my art as any other project, I think first about the impact I want it to have on people, the message I want to share or the experience I want to have. This goal then guides the making of the art. This may seem restricting to creative freedom, but it isn’t: it frees up my energy from making unimportant decisions, so I can focus on actually exploring the area I chose. This is because having a desired outcome makes it A LOT easier to make informed choices about colours, composition, etc.
3. I manage my time.
Learning to be organised has helped me be more productive because I now think about all those ideas floating in my colourful creativity cloud as individual projects, with a beginning and an end, just like I do with my commissioned art. I work on only a selected number of personal projects at a time, and I set myself deadlines. Instead of just having lots of things I wish I’d do, I’m committed to bringing my ideas into fruition one project at a time.
If you are an artist and you find yourself doing a lot commissions for a living while you build up your career, be open to this opportunity to learn. Embrace what you can from a commercial approach to creativity, and use it to do what you’re here to do: make art, make brilliant art, and make as much brilliant art as possible before you die.