The Art of Commission

Artistic commission is a tricky business. Keeping in mind the client’s wants while balancing an artistic voice is a difficult road to navigate. Dominic De Venuta, fresh from providing the cover image (among others) for the Portland’s newspaper Willamette Week’s recent issue, discusses the art of the commission, from how he feels the process works and how to remain true to his unique artistic style.

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“Freelance is a windy road to navigate. Taking the creative directors art direction via email and crit from nameless editors can be a slippery slope. But when inks hits paper and everyone’s happy you get pretty stoked. For all you noobs keep at it, or don’t, more work for me.” — Dominic De Venuta

It seems that you have to perform a difficult balancing act in terms of weighing your wants with the editors. Best case scenario, each party is happy and the work can be produced. Your work for the Willamette Week is suggestive of a critique of a commercialism machine that fuels industry and capitalistic intentions. Being an artist that could be seen to critique and even actively pervert such ideals with transgressive content that maybe operates outside of cultural and traditional norms (especially conventional artistic forms and themes), how do you stay true in producing work that actively undercuts maybe a lot of corporate and structured direction and aesthetic while also being commissioned by that same institution?

Keeping my aesthetic has been an interesting journey. I gather inspiration from a very particular niche in the art world. I’m inspired by artist like Robert Crumb, Basil Wolverton, and Ed Roth, to name a few. Artists like R. Crumb have paved the way for the next generation of artist looking to express themselves in a less conventional way. Like the pulp artist of the ’70’s my personal work speaks very much to a particular audience and has a strong voice that is not necessarily critiquing or targeted at anyone group of people. If anything, I attempt to pull my viewers out of their comfort zone. I try to approach this in a playful way, with humor. Humor is a powerful tool.

It has taken many years to reach this point in my career as an artist. I have definitely made conscious decisions to direct my profession work in one direction while keeping my personal work in it’s own realm. Surprisingly I get a lot of requests to not sensor my work. That edgy voice is what some clients want. And I am stoked. But to answer your first question, I have to stay true to myself and decide if the projects I get asked to work on are right for me. It is entirely the artists responsibility to choose their battles. Sometimes I get asked to draw whimsical characters that are approachable and “safe.’ As an illustrator for hire I am more than happy to draw these. And a paycheck!? Even better.

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When you are commissioned to do work, how does your artistic process differ than creating work without external direction? Did you feel like you needed to grow as an artist in order to accommodate specific things set out by the editor?

My process stays pretty consistent through both types of illustrating. Though when I am drawing for client I tend to be much more efficient with my time and technique. I like to plan out my workload and deliver in a timely fashion. For example, I’ll quickly sketch the first ideas I get and send those to the directors. And the project naturally progresses from there. If there is clear communication the project goes off with out any hiccups and we are all happy.

My personal work can be a little more free form. Maybe I’ll put on a horror movie and let my mind wander between the two. Time isn’t that important when making personal work. This is a great place for me to experiment in my concepting phase. I often don’t know what I will draw until I am halfway through or already finished. I guess I am more process oriented.  Unfortunately I haven’t had that much free time lately and haven’t created much personal work. Sad face.

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Another interesting topic centres around the type of art you do. You work is cerebral, and could be seen to infer the Freudian Super Ego/Ego/ID by displaying uncanny images connected to primal repression. Primal repression is the theory that people try and suppress desires and impulses by repressing them into the unconscious. Do you feel your work is a healthy sublimation effort in order to properly express the undesirable, abject, and/or perverse?

On the topic of expression and it’s many forms… oh boy, I think this is a multi-layered question you are asking. I have giving this much thought and my conclusion to the question of my work is a healthy transfer of my thoughts, is yes. I am of the Jungian thought and don’t put much weight in Freud. As I get older and not much wiser I find I am in much more control over myself and know the power of my work and how to communicate my thoughts. In this regard I am very much making a conscious decision in my work. There is not much I don’t say in my art that I don’t already say in real life. Through the medium of art I can curate message my audience and quite literally point a finger at something and say this, this requires some attention. I leave it to the viewer to build their own conclusion and opinion. If you see a frightful monster with an engorged member and associate that with childhood trauma of seeing your fathers genitals and connect that to your feelings of inadequacy – that’s on you. And for the most part that’s the effect I am going for with my personal work.

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Finally, how do you think commissioning helps or hinders emerging to established artists? Is there more of a downsize (the risk of losing the authorial voice and personal style) or upside (larger reach for new audiences as well as getting (hopefully) fairly compensated for the work)?

Through my years of being an illustrator I have learned to some extent how to control my visual language and say many things. On the financial tip, never work for free unless you feel it is for a good reason. People will always try to undercut you and your work but if you break down your charge (if you get to set your rate) the client will understand why.  For any young artist reading this article I encourage you to follow your heart and express yourself. The more you do the more comfortable you become. The most provocative and impacting working illustrators have always be those with the loudest, dirtiest, most progressive voice. Don’t be afraid to say something. You may not hit the mainstream and make millions off of you art but you will find a bright community of peers that share your thoughts and ideas and in the end this is what matters most.

Check out more of Dominic’s work at

 Matthew Kyba

Matthew Kyba is an independent curator currently situated in Portland, OR. His curatorial interests focus on exploring unique exhibition strategies and alternative spaces. He recently graduated from OCAD University with an MFA from the Criticism and Curatorial Practice Program.

(Images courtesy of the artist)