Saturday, November 16, 2019

Artistic Integrity and Commercial Art

S. H. R. Rjjal asks: "Mr. Gurney, what's your take on artistic integrity and commercial art? The original Harry Potter illustrator for instance does not own a single one of her work."
Adolph Menzel, "The signal for war was thus given to Europe."
Engraver: Unzelmann, Friedrich Ludwig (Source)
Book: Die Werke Friedrichs des Großen, vol. 2
Author: Volz, Gustav Berthold
Publisher:Berlin: Reimar Hobbing, 1913
Dear S.H.R,
Commissioned work doesn't have to be commercial. Just because you're paid to draw something doesn't mean you have to cynically crank it out. If you're going to do work on commission, it might as well include your personal inspiration and your highest standards.

The same is true with gallery art, which is potentially more commercial than illustration. There's always a temptation to produce work only because we know it will sell, though we may have drifted away from the authentic original inspiration.

If you do illustration work, you typically get to keep your originals. It's wise to keep at least some of your best examples. If you work hard on them, you'll be proud of them and they might be worth a lot more in the future.

An excerpt of my introduction to the book on Adolph Menzel (German, 1815-1905) addresses this point: As a commercial printer, Menzel threw himself into the task of producing decorative illustration work, such as menus, letterheads, greeting cards, and invitations. Anyone else might have written off such jobs as menial. For Menzel, to produce anything less than a sincere effort would be to “throw one’s cake in the water.” He told admiring students that it was essential to do justice to every assignment, and to accept everything as a genuine artistic challenge. “You will then cease at once to consider anything unworthy of your powers,” he said.


Roberto Quintana said...

Good question, and great answer!
You are right-on with your attitude, James. I know many commercial artists who use their commissions as a way to hone their skills, and as a means to support their personal work.
I have met very few decorative or illustrative artists who don’t take extreme pride in their work, and who strive to meet their own very high standards.
It's important to remember that a commission is a two way street. Just as the client is looking for the best artist for each particular job, it is up to you to accept the best projects for your skill-set, projects that excite you or challenge you to do your best. If you think the project is beneath you or not up to your artistic integrity, by all means, pass it by. There are plenty of others out there who will be happy to pay their rent this month. -RQ

“You will then cease at once to consider anything unworthy of your powers”

Katharine said...

Hi, S.H.R.,
James makes a lot of good points here. I'd like to add that it is up to the artist to stick up for him/herself when negotiation for a commissioned piece is concerned. When making the art, you should embrace the work with all of your creative enthusiasm. But when negotiating the deal, you must put your artist had aside and put your business cap on.
Always have a contract that is written down on paper. Decide for yourself what rights you want to retain. Do you want to keep the originals? Do you want to sign the rights of your image away in perpetuity? Do you want to get paid every time it's reproduced? There are many ways to cut a deal. Learn about them and decide for yourself what you want.
I know, talking about money can be uncomfortable. But if you want to make a living as an artist, you must become practiced at it, and eventually become comfortable with it. Your potential clients want to know the price of things. It is up to you to be clear with them about that.
Sometimes, potential clients will decide that your price is too steep. Sometimes they will try to negotiate a better deal. Negotiate with them. Get experienced at it. It's scary and hard at first, but get familiar with it.