Friday, September 24, 2010

custom orders--another point of view

Oh yes. those custom orders.  You have to love them and fear them. How wonderful to know that someone trusts your artistic ability enough to hire you to fulfill their dreams.  What a weight that can be. When does my artistic inspiration come into play? When do I have to alter my vision because of the desires of the customer? What if the quilt doesn't want to resolve itself as the person desires?

Right now I am working on a large quilt for a wonderful, sophisticated couple. I do confess that I love this piece and I love the impetus this order has had to help me push the direction of the quilts although I do wonder when I will get it finished.

Isn't it going to be wonderful? Such discipline is required in getting these colors to flow in the right direction.

Making this quilt, I wonder if we as artists should spend more time thinking about a custom order from the perspective of the customer. Now normally if I see a piece of art that I love, I buy it. Rarely do I order a custom piece.

But a couple of years ago my DH was going to be celebrating an important birthday and I wanted to give him a very special present. My booth at a craft show was set up near Carol Boucher. Now for those who don't know Carol, she is a Vermont artist who does wonderful lyrical landscapes in oil pastels. Each painting seems to sing with joyous color--so alive and special. I confess I was spending the quiet times at the show reveling in her work. Check it out:'ll see exactly why I love it.  Indeed I considered buying my DH one of her existing paintings as a gift.

Then I noticed that she had painted lots of cute little red houses and I got to thinking. Now you must realize that my DH build our home from one of his uncle's old barns. He ferried the parts of the barn up hill and reassembled it.  There are wonderful angles.  A tall window in the living room. He is justifiably very proud of it. He has one particular spot on the meadow which is his favorite. As the seasons change, he takes photos of the house with the fresh snow, the autumn leaves, the new grass.

It dawned on me I should at least ask Carol if there would be any possibility I could order a custom painting of the house. I wasn't sure she would agree--would you like that pressure? Of course I told her it didn't have to be exact--I would trust her artistic insight and inspiration--I just wanted my DH to understand that it was indeed our house.To my delight she agreed to do the painting. I rounded up some of those photos my husband had taken and sent them off.

Now the other thing you must understand about Carol is that she is the consummate professional. Even though I told her that she could have full artistic license she took the mission of creating our house very seriously. She told me her schedule and when I could expect that she would begin working on the painting--just so I didn't worry. She knew when the birthday was.

When she began working she sent me a snapshot of the house half finished. What should the lights look like reflected on the snow?  I tried to tell her to use her discretion--that is why I wanted her to create this painting. But I did get up early one morning after my husband had left for work, turn on all the lights  and snap a picture of the house. She tweaked the painting a bit.

What about the bushes in front of the house? I again told her to use her discretion. My DH doesn't particularly care for the lilacs--but I love them. She felt a bit of bush would help frame the house. More questions. More e-mails back and forth as she tweaked the oil pastels. 

Finally it was done. She shipped it off in plenty of time. I confess I opened the package as soon as it came--it was even better than I had dared imagine. Then I had to wait for his birthday. I think that was the hardest part. I tormented my DH with hints--it was one-of-a-kind, it was special, my wonderful step-kids did not have to worry about duplicating it. I made my DH clear the space on the wall where it was to hang. The night before a gentle snow had fallen and my DH and I had walked to the spot on the hill where he takes his favorite photos and he snapped a portrait of the house. Oh was it hard to keep quiet.

I re-wrapped the package--she had double boxed it with lots of bubble wrap to protect it. I used heavy duty tape. My DH would have to work hard to see it. Of course he loved it. Of course he hung it in the special spot in the living room. My step-daughter--who used to work in New York galleries--arranged the lighting to make it perfect.

Isn't it wonderful? Didn't she make the house look absolutely magical nestled in the woods? Aren't the colors absolutely glorious? Of course it continues to hang in the honored place in our home.

For me I think I got my money's worth just by having the experience of ordering a custom work. Now it is probably easier to tweak an oil pastel than a quilt--at least one of my quilts. And I know that unlike Carol I am not well organized enough to say when I will be starting the piece. On the other hand I do ask customers to send me digital images of the space where the quilt will be hung. Paint chips and fabric samples are wonderful. What is special to them? What is the feeling that they want captured? I do frequently send them fabric samples so they can see if we are discussing the same burgundy or
mauve. My quilts arrive in time--but usually not ahead of time.

And you, have you ordered a custom work?  What tips do you have for custom pieces? How much input do you ask for? How much tweaking can you do? And--most importantly--for those who are interested, I just spoke with Carol who reassures me she is still doing custom pieces. Feel free to contact her  She is great.

A previous post on custom orders can be found at:


  1. Hi Ann, Thank you for this lovely testimonial. You have an astute perspective on doing custom work. Sometimes, only a custom piece will do. I consider such work challenging in the best sense. I enjoy getting to know my clients better as work together to create the ideal painting. I loved reading about what happened after I shipped the painting to you. I will confess that I did two other paintings first that didn't pass muster, but I expect that with custom work. I think that is why artists charge more for custom work than for regular work. That doesn't mean it isn't fun to do it, rather, that it matters much more to the artist to "get it right." By the way, I love the piece you are working on for your latest client.

  2. Carol,

    You are the best. Missed seeing you this year--maybe next year. I almost feel guilty that you made two paintings before the one you made for us--although I also usually make more than one quilt if I am doing a custom piece. The pressure is on--especially when you know the customer.

    And yes, I do love the painting--we have a friend who when he comes over always admires the painting.


  3. Hi Ann,
    Thank you so much, I missed seeing you as well!

    No guilt please--When painting a piece, in order to meet my goal, sometimes I need several attempts to achieve it. Some artists prepare a detailed sketch first, drawing and erasing until everything is ready for color. Like actors who rehearse for weeks and then give a performance, they are confident things are "in place" when it matters most.

    But I prefer to "go for it" like a high-jumper runs at the bar...full tilt and sometimes I clear the bar and sometimes I need a second attempt...or a third. It is exhilarating in the moment. Hopefully, that energy is transferred to the painting with every mark.

    It's vital that the painting meets the client's expectations in addition to my own.

    I'm sure you can relate, as when you write about choosing the colors, laying out pieces, perhaps even sewing them and then changing your mind once you see it? It's all part of the deal, especially as regards commissions.

    In painting the view of your beloved home, I was imagining the comforting feeling of security and contentment that is part of creating any home. I remain fascinated by houses at night, with windows aglow, sometimes lighting up the land around them. In winter, windows of light form interesting shapes on snow.

    I am so glad you enjoy the painting.