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The A-Z of commissioning a Gundog Artist

Huge thank you to Caroline Roddis who is a freelance journalist that took the time to ask me some really interesting questions. Some of which may be really helpful for those wanting a commission in the future. Some of my answers can be found in The gundog journal volume V issue 11 but here is my full interview.

Commissioning an Artist was once only an option for the rich. Thankfully this isn’t the case anymore and has become a very popular option to capture and immortalize our beloved family members. Thanks to social media is can be easy to reach many artists but it can be hard to know which one is the right artist for you. Similarly, when buying a puppy, the price shouldn’t be the limiting factor to persuade the client.

If you have been thinking about reaching out to an artist, here is an insight from Ellie Louise Art to help answer those tricky questions.

What is a commission?

A client will set out to have an original piece of art made within certain parameters to reach a desired end goal. Usually, a commission is the dance between artist and client. Combining the client’s vision with the artists creativity and expertise to create a piece that works best. Not all artist will be able to achieve what the client aims for which is why it is important to find the right one for you.

Is there an optimal time gundog owners should consider commissioning a portrait?

No, there is many different ways a commission can be approached. I barely ever get asked to draw puppies. I find that most clients wait until the puppy has reached full maturity. While puppies are adorable, they grow up and alter very quickly. So, a commission that may once have been a great likeness, it will now only hold value as a memory capturing such a small window in their life.

The next age group of commissions are split into the prime years and more geriatric portraits. While some portraits are commissioned while the dog is in their prime. Maybe capturing a special memory out in the field or a celebratory commission from a great season of working tests. These commissions are usually the best for an action shot of them working. Some portraits are commissioned while the dog is in the later stages of life or even no longer around.

Some clients’ commissions prefer to feature a few more grey hairs as it is a more poignant memory of them. It can be extremely emotional and tough working with clients who have sadly lost their dog. We all know that terrible feeling of loss. We all deal with grief differently and while some might take years after the pet has moved on to then feel ready to commission their dog. Others it helps grieve creating that portrait very soon after. To help choose which photos that would capture their life I would say think back. We all have our favorite memories that we would like to immortalize. Maybe them being in their prime capturing the best season out in the field or the dogs favorite place, like a walk on the beach. A previous very special commission was titled ‘The last drive’. It was an incredibly moving refence photo the owner captured of his spaniel resting his head on the seat of the Landrover. Which was the dogs last ever day on the shoot and was ready for home.

How long does the average commission take, from initial discussion to finished piece?

At the moment my diary is fully booked for 2023 and usually takes between 6-8 months from receiving the deposit to the completion of the artwork. The artwork itself may take anywhere from 1 week to 5 weeks depending upon the criteria. Some portraits have multiple dogs and full backgrounds. Whereas some are head studies that are relatively quick to complete. Most artist require an initial deposit to secure a place in their diary leaving the final reminder to be paid once the portrait is complete. Most artists are booked up in advance so it is often advised to get in contact early to avoid disappointment especially if a commission is needed for a certain occasion.

Is it better if the artist works from photos or real life? How can the owner be sure to document everything the artist needs to see?

All my work is created from photographs. My work takes hours upon hours so while meeting the subject is so lovely a live drawing wouldn’t be possible and it wouldn’t particularly help in in achieving the best piece. As a realism artist the photo I use to create the artwork from is hugely important. In recent months it has become clear I can achieve a higher level of realism with certain photos.

The first thing I will look at is the clearness. Unfortunately, some clients will get turned away at this point as I know I wouldn’t be able to create the artwork to the best of my ability. It is vitally important to take lots of photos while the dog is around if you would ever like in the future to commission an artist. However, all is not lost. While some clients have a very clear vision and specific photo they would like me to use, it may not be the best quality. Therefore, I will ask for different photos but with better quality like a previous commission of Dude the labradoodle.

The client wanted a roost shooting scene but the main photos of him doing this were not very detailed and dull lighting. He sadly had passed away so getting any more photos wouldn’t be possible. This is where all is not lost if you are in the same position and didn’t quite capture the photo you wanted drawn. We chose a picture of Dude laid in the kitchen, this photo was lovely and clear depicting his curly fur and shiny eyes. As a gundog owner I will often have cold game in the freezer so took a pigeon out the freezer to take some reference photos at the same angle as the dog to match. I then went to my local wood and took some photos of the leaf litter again same angle as the dog and the bird to make the artwork seamless. A few finishing touches which added to the piece was his owners’ cartridges and a few feathers in his beard as was told he would often look like that after retrieving them. This was the first portrait where lots of aspects of the drawing had to be changed an altered. While it makes it more challenging to draw its so lovely to be able to recreate a memory for the client that many not have been possible from a blurry photo.

The next thing I would need is the correct angle of photograph. The best angles are taken from the same level as the dog. However, some photos can get away with a different angle if they include a full background to give perspective to the dog. While some photos may work other photos with an odd angle will look fine as a photograph but not as artwork.

The facial expression and posture of the dog can really set the atmosphere of a drawing. An older dog laid relaxing in the sun can make such a soft gentle portrait. Whereas a young spritely dog sat proudly with their quarry can give off a different type of emotion and memory. This is where is helps when the client knows what sort of artwork they would like the piece to evoke.

Finally, something that really makes my subjects pop and something that excites me is when I get sent a photo of the dog in the sunshine. This can show off the dog’s fur colour at its best and leave strong shadows across their body making the artwork look more 3D. My realism art always leans towards a more vibrant subject and helps me create my style to the best of my ability. However, an overcast day with wind blowing through the dog ears or a rainy day featuring a wet spaniel, again really changes the emotion in the piece and can work just as well as one in the sunshine.

If your photo is taken by anyone else other than yourself it is vital to be honest to any artist. Using a photographers’ or anyone else photo without permission can breach copyright laws. I work with a lot of photographers and their usually more than happy that you have chosen their photos to turn into artwork. I ask for written acknowledgement from the photographer that outlines the use and also give the photographer my intent on what I would use their refence photo for. Either for a one off original or possibility of prints to be made.

Once the commission has been agreed, how does the process work?

The client will be given a rough timeframe when the portrait will be started. I would then reach out to the client to make sure they are still happy with their photo choice and size of portrait before starting. Some clients are able to capture a photo of a very specific moment which as a realism artist I would then pursue to capture every detail in the portrait. Starting off with an outline in pencil which will be sent to the owner to give them a rough idea of positioning and size on the paper. At this stage it is easiest for adjustments to be made so it is best to make the artist aware before the colour is added. Colour pencil is permanent and while it can be rubbed out in places it will stain the paper with colour residue.

However, some portraits will require multiple photos to be added together to create the art piece. I sometimes use computer software to edit images together to give a visual concept how it may look as an art piece. At this time, it is important to get the sizing correct. The client will need to give feedback such as adding a game bird to the subject’s portrait. Some dogs may be smaller in real life and therefore make the bird make look larger. As well as adding multiple subjects, it is important to get their sizes compared to each other correct to create as accurate portrait as possible.

Once the portrait has progress onto adding the main medium of colour pencils a client will receive regular progress photos at certain intervals. Some portraits can be interesting to video and they may even receive time-lapse videos of how the portrait comes together.

Once the portrait is completed before posting the artwork will be scanned by myself to save a copy. This is not only for my own portfolio but if the worst was ever to happen and the artwork was to ever damaged upon repair it is possible a print could be produced as a memory of the original artwork.

If the client is unhappy with how the work is going, how should they go about giving feedback?

While I always attach a part of me to an art piece, I always prefer honesty. I am incredibly harsh with critiquing my own work. I can look back on all my art pieces, although I will only call them complete once I’m happy with them. There are always parts that I feel I would like to improve on in the future. On the odd occasion I have started a portrait again as I felt I could improve on my realism. So, while there is no worry of me becoming offended at criticism. There is a way to help portray what area might be of concern.

In the early stages of a portrait when a progress photo is sent its worth baring in mind. Some photos can be taken on dull days changing the colour of the dog’s fur, best photos of art are taken on bright days. Other photos may look odd such as an early progress photo when dog’s head is without its body. These portraits need more context and are more to show how far the portrait has progressed. Portraits can really change especially when a background is added. The main subject is drawn first with the background added last. If a dog’s fur colour looks a bit bright you would be surprised how adding a background can really change the piece again.

If the proportion looks wrong this will need highlighting straight away. Such as if the dogs nose looks a little large or angle of the body looks off this will not change regardless of the stage during the artwork. If an angle can’t be amended the portrait may need to be started again. Which is why this must be stated early to help me make alterations while it is still possible.

Sometimes alterations are made by myself to help the art concept look better. Such as making the contrast of the dog fur brighter or giving the effect of blurring backgrounds to keep the focus on the main subject. It is important to find the right artist as even realism artists will recreate a photo slightly different to make a piece work better. Not all alteration are possible. We all have our own styles of artwork and therefore you need to research your artist and check you like their style of work to make sure you will be happy with the end result.

I often get feedback that when a client receives a portrait, they are much happier when they see it in real life. You can never really judge from a photo the size of the portrait or all the intricate details. While I would never advise to wait until a portrait is received to make judgement it is worth bearing that in mind.

Who should decide, and how, the dog(s) should be presented? Does this ever need to be altered mid commission?

The composition is mainly decided from the main photo and reason for the artwork. Such as if the client wanted to capture a shooting scene with multiple dogs the positing of the dog will mainly be dictated by how much of the background will be included or if it’s a small amount of foreground and bird’s position at their feet, allowing more of the paper to be filled by the dogs. However certain scenes that want to depict more of the background may push the subject more to once side to tell help the story and balance the focus between multiple subjects.

The main subject of the dog will always be drawn first but often working with the client we can change the concept of the background. By sending lots of progress updates a client can sometimes tell me to stop and not add anymore to the portrait. It is sometimes hard for the client to visualize what their dog might look like in my style. As an artist I will usually have a good idea how the piece will look and advise at the start about how much background may be needed. But often working together it can be deemed that a portrait my look better with more/ less. It can also be down to personal preference altering a piece, as sometimes where I would stop a client may visualize a different outcome. The main person that needs to be happy with the artwork is the client so am more than happy to work past my own personal preferences as long as I wouldn’t deem it to ruin/ over power an art piece.

Is it important that the artist has gundogs themselves/ come from a shooting background?

I think its hugely important as it’s my USP for my art/ business and one of my proudest. Growing up in a family of game keepers and shooters my inspiration from a young age helps my clients today. Not only do I take inspiration from living that way of life, it helps capture certain details that others artists would miss.

One of the important connections between client and artist that would be missed without truly being emersed in the field is those special moments. That bond between dog and handler that without it the shoots would not run how they do today. To be able to understand the unity and memories created in the field. Some of which I can remember with my dog from the age of 14. When a client comes to me wanting to capture a memory from the field, I know exactly how special that moment is and can guide how best to portray this.

At the start of my art career, I would often show my grandfather, Bryan Stubbins my artwork. Being a game keeper all his life he would give me very precise feedback. Which I am very grateful and now plays a big role in creating the realism pieces today. He could tell when I would draw a bird if it was cold game or a live bird from the eyes. A bird which may have been posed with from the freezer will actually have sunken eyes. Therefore, if I am trying to portray an action shot from the field this would technically be wrong. Other little observations such as the seasons. If I were to add a background to a shooting scene it would need to be more muted, most trees will have lost their leaves once your stuck into the season. Or cover crops towards the end of the season not looking their best any more.

Not only understanding the fine details is important, owning three working Labradors really help for refence photos. Sometimes a client would want their dog to hold a gamebird but don’t have a photo of one. To make sure I get the right posture of the bird correct I would ask my dog to pose for photos holding game before being prepared to be eaten. As well as photographing lots of moments during the shoot season which may well be needed when the shoot season is over as commissions are created throughout the year.

What if I want to purchase a commission as a surprise gift?

Firstly, I would advise to double check that I would have availability to meet your deadline been as I do get booked up in advance. There are a few options in regards to a surprise commission. A gift voucher can be bought which allows the recipient to chose their own favorite photos and work closely with the artist themselves.

But if you are wanting the artwork for the recipient to open on the day it can be difficult choosing the best photo. Often working together, we can narrow this down and chose what would be most appropriate. Once chosen I have often kept a lot of commissions a secret until the big day. By keeping progress updates hidden from social media and corresponding with the client to keep them up to speed with my progress. It can be such a wonderful gift, whether its as a memorial portrait or capturing their favorite moment. I sometimes receive videos of the true recipient opening the gift and it really makes my day to know how much my work can mean to others.

Hopefully these questions have answered all your queries about the commissioning process but you have any more please do send me a message.

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