Some months ago I got a request for a custom Oklahoma-themed guitar strap. The request started with the Oklahoma State Flag (which, I admit, I didn't look that closely at before I said I could put it on the strap, and it turned out to be much more complicated than I initially anticipated) and then went into a long list of other Oklahoma icons. Choose the ones you want, he said, and make a guitar strap with tattoo-style Oklahoma art on it. No problem, I said.
This piece came together in just the way that I wish every custom piece did. A long list of options, some general direction, and trust and free reign to come up with something fantastic. It's no secret that I tend to gravitate to flowers, birds and trees so naturally those were some of the elements that I chose. I do love the Indian Blanket Flower, and the Scissor Tail Flycatcher.
I am often asked to do sketches for customers -- sometimes before they order, but usually before I start on the piece. And I say no. Once, years ago, I went and got a tattoo from an artist who didn't show sketches for approval prior to the tattoo appointment. His explanation is simple: you chose me for this because you like my work, so trust that I'll do my work and come up with something equally as awesome for you. I've been telling customers the same thing ever since.
The sketch to me, as an artist who doesn't sketch, feels like a set of shackles. When I sketch something I feel like I have created this idea and once it's been approved, I'm stuck with it. There's no opportunity to improve on the original, certainly wonderful, idea. There's no spontaneity and the creativity stops after the sketch, rather than flowing naturally through the entire creation of the piece. I become the executor of the idea, instead of the garden in which it grows.
In contrast to the sketch scenario, when I have a custom piece that I know is going to take some imaginative work, I roll it around in my head daily until I'm ready to work on it. I think though the various layouts, if it's a piece I have to construct (such as a bag), I think through all the ways that it could be assembled and what will work best. I do a thousand different drafts from start to finish in my imagination. I feed and water the little seed of an idea that the customer gave me. I give it sunlight and love and watch it blossom. By the time I touch pencil to leather I've spent hours and days working on it in my head. The idea is fresh, it is complete, and it's been worked through.
As I begin working on the piece itself, the revisions continue. Decorative elements are moved, added, taken away, all to find the ideal balance of pattern and color, and to optimize the function. The sketch says I can't do this - it says you must stick to the plan. Oh, I hate the sketch. I really, really, do. It feels so confining, so restrictive, so counter to the creativity that will make this piece the best that it can be.
So I've stopped asking artists for sketches. It seems to me that if I tell them what I like, and I like their other work, that truly is good enough. Commissioning a piece of art is not just about the final piece, it's about the process. It's about giving the artist a seed of an idea and allowing them to grow it, and turn it into something beautiful and inspired. Even if you're going to have it tattooed on, say, your foot. Or your wrist. I've now done it twice.