‘I love seeing people’s reactions’: Student artists don’t just sell commissions for cash

A huge 48 x 60 inch canvas explodes with deep blues, vibrant pinks and a rich orange. The abstract piece pops against the stark white wall, the raised texture of each brushstroke is still visible in an Instagram post. Artist Lota Agbim looks down on her phone and proudly looks at the photo of her creation on display – a custom-made painting at her sister’s house.

Agbim, a sophomore in Global Management and Marketing, loves to be creative. In elementary school, she began expressing her creativity through bold, colorful paintings. She said over the years she has not found school as rewarding as the art itself.

“Ever since I found an art class in elementary school, I’ve loved creating things,” said Aggim. “I never really felt fulfilled at school because I feel like you have to think outside the box. But you can do whatever you want with art.”

Some artist students at Pitt have given up traditional part-time jobs and turned to selling their own artwork for some extra money. Commissioning art is a rewarding sideline for these artists — but not in the way one might think.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Agbim began selling her colorful 8″ x 10″ paintings by cartoon characters and celebrities to friends who asked for it. But after lockdown, she quickly expanded her inventory to include custom song plaques and used online marketplace platforms to sell clothes and her art.

“I used to resell clothes during the pandemic depop‘ Agbim said. “I started getting more outside work using Depop and then branched out into making small glass Spotify Badges. So I would make these and sell them, I would sell my artwork and basically anything that people would ask me to do.”

Maggie Knox, a freshman environmental studies student, also felt inspired to experiment with art during the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. She said she took up art as a hobby during quarantine.

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Knox said she’s always enjoyed art classes, but only started commissioning her work for close friends last year. She enjoys creating minimalist lines dainty flowers, butterflies or phases of the moon for their tattoo designs. Sometimes she also commissions realistic portraits for family and friends.

“About a year ago my girlfriend asked me to draw her a tattoo,” Knox said. “So that’s the kind of assignment I do. I also make drawings for my family if they ask me, or paintings too.”

Knox said it can be difficult to bill people for their designs, especially friends. But she doesn’t mind asking just a few bucks as she enjoys making her drawings, which are mostly simple, clean lines that don’t take much time to sketch.

“I hate accusing people,” Knox said. “I spend $5 to $15 on tattoos because it’s not like I’m putting in much effort unless I’m going to – then I’d charge more.”

Agbim also found it difficult to evaluate her art, especially when she was starting out. She said that since orders began in 2020, she has increased prices to reflect the time and effort that goes into each of her pieces.

“I’ve increased my prices,” Agbim said. “Because when I started, I sold [the paintings] for $35, which is pretty cheap considering how much time it takes me to do it. I’ll be working on this for about three to four days, but it takes time to dry and all that stuff, so it usually takes me a week.”

Agbim said she takes commissions as a hobby and not as an essential way to make money, as too many commissions can become overwhelming.

“I’m not really asking for much right now because I still enjoy it. It’s still one of my hobbies, so I just do it when I have time and then give you an average price,” Agbim said. “I’m not sure I want that [my commissions] to be on a mass scale because I still want it to be something I enjoy. I don’t want it to become a chore.”

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Amarachi Onwuka, a senior molecular biology major and portrait artistAlready in high school she started taking on commissions. Onwuka said she began doing portraits for family friends, who recognized her keen ability to create realistically portrait drawings. Over time, she expanded her network and began selling more custom pieces through Instagram and word of mouth.

“Someone would hire me to maybe do a portrait of their daughter and her favorite toy,” Onwuka said. “I would draw that traditionally, and then I would use a printing service, get an actual poster of it, and then I would do it [mail] that to them. Or people who knew me in high school, I just drew it traditionally and then gave it to them during school.”

At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, Onwuka donated the money she earned through commissions to victims of police brutality and their families, such as David McAtee and Elijah McClain. She also made a donation to Breonna Taylor’s family’s legal fees fund.

Onwuka said she would like to continue raising funds for social justice efforts in the future.

“This month I opened my orders and a lot of people started hiring me because they wanted to donate to the good causes,” Onwuka said. “So I found a number of nonprofits and community initiatives and donated to them on GoFundMe.”

Knox, who has just started hiring, said the most rewarding part of the process is seeing customers’ reactions to their work. Despite some difficult back-and-forth steps to ensure a client’s satisfaction with a drawing, Knox said she enjoys seeing the end result and getting client feedback.

“I love seeing people’s reactions,” Knox said. “Whenever I’ve finished a tattoo for someone and send it to them or even in person, that’s definitely my favorite part of the whole process.”

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Onwuka also enjoys the response to her work, especially as many of her clients have gifted her commissioned work over the years.

“Sometimes when it comes to gifts for people, I like to see people’s reactions to the artwork,” Onwuka said. “That fills me too.”

Onwuka loves making art and would love to continue doing so in the future, but said she hopes to not do as many regular commissions so she can continue making art that reflects her.

“Sometimes it’s a bit exhausting to keep doing commissions because you don’t always want to make artwork,” Onwuka said. “It’s more like someone asking you to do something for them, so it’s like it’s not yours in a way.”

Onwuka said that as much as it is rewarding to see reactions to her work and make gifts for others, it is more desirable to sell her own pieces to further her goals as an artist in the future.

“It’s fun to bring other people’s ideas to life, drawing portraits for family members, and making gifts for people,” Onwuka said. “But I kind of want to shy away from commissioning and maybe start making art that people will like, and in that way they’ll be happy to buy and support me.”

Agbim said she similarly often feels constrained by assignments because she follows client guidelines most of the time. She said she no longer wants to focus on commissions in the future, instead wanting to be recognized for the art she creates herself.

“I want it to be where you realize that’s my piece,” Agbim said. “My ultimate goal is to just have it so people order big pieces from me because they want it to be a statement piece. I want to be known as someone who creates art that catches the attention of people back home.”

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