The Art of Commissioning Art

A longtime collector shares the joys and pitfalls of the process

By Dr. David R. Reagan

Sunrise Service at Laguna by Kim Douglas Wiggins

Sunrise Service at Laguna by Kim Douglas Wiggins

This story was featured in the October 2012 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art magazine October 2012 print edition here, or purchase the Southwest Art magazine October 2012 digital download here. Or subscribe to Southwest Art magazine and never miss a story!

I had to learn the hard way—through experience. But what began with 
a disaster has come to be a very enjoyable experience.

My wife and I started collecting Southwestern landscapes in the mid-1980s. Soon we focused our purchases on landscapes featuring churches. I have always been fascinated by the Spanish mission churches of New Mexico, but I became even more interested in collecting artwork depicting them when I gave up my career as a university professor of law and politics to minister full time as a traveling evangelist.

Today we own 59 pieces of original art, 46 of which contain churches. Most of them are oils, but we also have watercolors, pastels, and acrylics. And though most of our collection is impressionistic, we also have examples of realism, expressionism, cubism, and pointillism. We purchased most of the works from galleries, either on visits to Santa Fe and Taos or by working with them through the Internet. Occasionally, however, we commission a work either directly from the artist or through a gallery. So far, we have arranged and purchased nine commissioned paintings.

Golden Light by Dix Baines

Golden Light by Dix Baines

Our First Commission
As I alluded to earlier, my first commission did not turn out well. Not long after I started collecting, I contacted an artist through an art broker in New Mexico, and I requested a Southwestern landscape featuring a mission church. The artist responded by requesting full payment up front. This should have been a red flag, but I really didn’t know what I was doing yet. So I paid in full, and five days later, a painting arrived.

The painting was indeed a Southwestern landscape with a mission church, but the church was so far in the background and minuscule that it was difficult to find. And the speed with which the painting arrived made it clear to me that the artist had simply unloaded a painting he had not been able to sell. I was greatly disappointed and should have protested. Instead, I classified it as a learning experience and kept my mouth shut.

Commissioning From an Idea
My second commissioning venture was more successful. In several art magazines, I had noticed the work of an up-and-coming young artist named Kim Douglas Wiggins, who had recently shifted from impressionism to expressionism. I loved his dramatic, colorful landscapes in which everything, even inanimate objects, appeared to be alive and moving. But I simply could not find his paintings in galleries. This was the 1980s; there was no Internet and therefore no easy way to make nationwide gallery searches like there is today. Somehow I learned that Wiggins’ father owned a gallery in Santa Fe. The next time my wife and I were vacationing there, I dropped by the gallery for a visit.

Author’s photo of San Francisco de Asis Mission Church, Golden, NM

Author’s photo of San Francisco de Asis Mission Church, Golden, NM

The gallery did not have any of Kim’s paintings. His father said the works were selling too fast to keep in inventory, so I asked him if Kim would consider a commission. He didn’t know, but he gave me Kim’s address and told me I could write to him.

When I got home I wrote to Kim, saying I was interested in commissioning a 24-by-36-inch painting depicting a group of people engaged in a sunrise worship service outside of a New Mexico Spanish mission church, and that he could select the church.

To my surprise and joy, Kim phoned me and said he would be delighted to do such a painting. The only condition was that I would have to be patient because he was preparing for an upcoming gallery show. I told him to take his time, and I was so excited by his enthusiastic acceptance that I forgot to request a preliminary drawing. I started to call back but decided not to, fearing he would think I did not trust his judgment.

I waited six months in great anticipation without hearing a word. Just as I was about to call him for an update, my doorbell rang. To my astonishment, there was Kim with my painting. Special delivery by the artist himself! Apparently he had paintings to deliver to a Dallas gallery and decided to bring mine along with him.

When he unveiled the painting for me, I was delighted. He had painted exactly what I requested—a group of worshipers at a sunrise service, with the famous San José Mission Church of Laguna in the background. The painting was full of energy and action. Even the church appeared to have its “arms” lifted in praise to God.

The Faithful by Kim Mackey

The Faithful by Kim Mackey

Commissioning From a Photograph
One of my favorite churches is San Francisco de Asis Mission Church in Golden, NM, located along the Turquoise Trail between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. During one of my visits to McLarry Fine Art in Santa Fe, I spotted an incredible painting of the Golden church by one of my favorite painters, Dix Baines. I really wanted the painting, but the price was a little steep for me, so I decided to think about it. When I finally decided to make the purchase, the painting had already sold.

In 2010, I visited the church. While photographing it I thought, why not send a photo to Dix and commission him to do a painting? I contacted Dix through McLarry Fine Art, and the gallery coordinated all my communication with the artist. I did not request a preliminary drawing since he had my photograph for reference.

Dix responded with a series of very relevant questions: “Do you prefer the church’s present buff finish or the whitewash it had for many years?” I left it up to him. “Do you prefer daytime, sunrise, or sunset?” I selected sunset. “What season of the year would you prefer?” I said, “Any season except winter.”
The resulting painting, which Dix titled GOLDEN LIGHT, turned out to be everything I had hoped for.

Commissioning From a Painting
In 2011, I arranged a commission based on an existing painting by artist Kim Mackey. I contacted Kim through his website and told him I was interested in commissioning a painting similar to SIMPLE FAITH, a painting of his I had bid on—but lost—in an auction a couple of years before. The painting depicted several Native Americans outside a small mission chapel.

Simple Faith by Kim Mackey

Simple Faith by Kim Mackey

Kim submitted a detailed drawing for my review and approval. His sketch presented a similar scene, but it carefully preserved the integrity of the original painting. The chapel was different in shape and perspective and the figures were positioned differently. The finished work, entitled THE FAITHFUL, has the feeling of the one lost at the auction while still being an original work of art.

Our Latest Commission
Early this year I contacted cubist painter David Jonason through his website and asked if he would accept a commission for a Southwestern landscape with a mission church. He responded very professionally, laying out all the specifics:

Once a client has decided on a size and a subject, they send a 50% deposit, and I get to work on sketches. I usually do two or three black-and-white sketches, so they have some idea of the final work. The painting generally takes six to eight weeks. The remaining 50% plus shipping is due upon delivery of the completed painting. The painting is unframed.

Then he asked if I had a particular church in mind. I told him no, but that I wanted the church situated in a dramatic rural setting, and I issued the commission. “This sounds like a fun project,” he responded. “It gives me a chance to be creative, combining church and landscape.”

Shortly thereafter, I received three drawings to choose from, all of which were outstanding. I chose the depiction of a classic Spanish mission church nestled among vegetation with dramatic canyon walls behind it, and Jonason delivered a stunning finished painting, which I call CHURCH OF THE CANYON.

Church of the Canyon by David Jonason

Church of the Canyon by David Jonason

Lessons Learned
Over the years, what have I learned about commissioning works of art? First, be very specific about the type of scene you have in mind. Request a preliminary drawing up front so you know what to expect, and never pay more than 50 percent up front. When possible, work through a gallery; this gives you a middleman to fall back on should the artist fail to deliver what you wanted.

Commissioning art is a wonderful way to build a collection and to get to know artists more personally. You end up with works of art you especially treasure, and each piece has a unique story to cherish. If you have never commissioned a work of art, I encourage you to do so. It should prove to be a fascinating and exciting experience.

Featured in the October 2012 issue of Southwest Art magazine–click below to purchase:
Southwest Art magazine October 2012 digital download
Southwest Art magazine October 2012 print edition
Or subscribe to Southwest Art magazine and never miss a story!

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