A massive 48 x 60 inch canvas explodes with deep blues, vibrant pinks and bold orange. The abstract piece appears against the pristine white wall, the raised texture of each brushstroke still visible in an Instagram post. The artist, Lota Agbim, looks at her phone, gazing proudly at the photo of her creation on display – a custom painting in her sister’s house.
Agbim, a second-year Global Management and Marketing student, loves to create. She started expressing her creativity through bold and colorful paintings in elementary school. She said that over the years she hasn’t found school as rewarding as the art itself.
“Ever since I discovered art classes in elementary school, I love creating things,” said Agbim. “I never really felt fulfilled in school because I feel like you have to think inside the box. But with art, you can do whatever you want.
Some student artists at Pitt gave up traditional part-time jobs and turned to selling their own artwork for a little extra cash. Commissioning art is a rewarding side-hustle for these artists, but not in the way you might think.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Agbim began selling its brightly colored 8 x 10 inch paintings from cartoon characters and celebrities to friends who have requested them. But post-lockdown, she quickly expanded her inventory to include personalized song plates and used online marketplace platforms to sell clothes as well as her art.
“During the pandemic, I was selling clothes on Depopsaid Agbim. “I started getting more outside orders using Depop, then I started making small glasses Spotify Plates. So I made them and sold them, I sold my artwork and whatever people would ask me to do.
Maggie Knox, a freshman environmental studies major, also felt inspired to experiment with art during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns. She said she took up art as a hobby during her quarantine.
Knox said she’s always enjoyed art classes, but only started commissioning her work from close friends last year. She likes to create minimalist lines of delicate flowers, butterflies or moon phases for his tattoo designs. She also sometimes commissions realistic portraits for her family and friends.
“About a year ago my friend asked me if I would get her a tattoo,” Knox said. “So that’s the kind of commission I do. I also do drawings for my family if they ask me, or paintings too.
Knox said it can be difficult to get people to pay for his designs, especially his friends. But she don’t mind charging only a few bucks because she likes to create her designs, which are mostly simplistic, clean lines that don’t take a lot of time to draw.
“I feel horrible charging people,” Knox said. “I make $5-$15 for tattoos because it’s not like I put a ton of effort into it, unless I do – then I’ll charge more.”
Agbim also struggled to assess her art, especially when she started. She said that since orders began in 2020, she has raised prices to reflect the time and effort put into each of her pieces.
“I raised my prices,” Agbim said. “Because when I started, I was selling [the paintings] for $35, which is a little low considering how long it takes me. I’m going to work on it for about three to four days, but it takes drying time and stuff, so it usually takes me a week.
Agbim said she does commissions as a hobby instead of a substantial way to earn money because too many commissions can become overwhelming.
“I don’t really charge much at the moment because I still like it. It’s still one of my hobbies so if I have time I will and charge you an average price” , said Agbim. “I don’t know if I would like to [my commissions] to be on a large scale because I still want it to be something that I enjoy. I don’t want this to become a chore.
Amarachi Onwuka, graduate in molecular biology and portraitist, started running errands in high school. Onwuka said she started doing portraits for family friends who recognized her distinct ability to create realistic images. portrait drawings. Over time, she expanded her network and started selling more custom pieces through Instagram and word of mouth.
“Someone might ask me to do a portrait of their daughter and her favorite toy,” Onwuka said. “I would draw this the traditional way, then use a printing service, get an actual poster of it, then I [mail] that to them. Or people who knew me in high school, I would just draw it the traditional way and then give 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 from commissions to victims of police brutality and their families, such as David McAtee and Elijah McClain. She also donated to Breonna Taylor’s family’s legal expense fund.
Onwuka said that in the future she would like to continue fundraising for social justice efforts.
“That month, I opened my commissions, and a lot of people started commissioning me because they wanted to donate to causes,” Onwuka said. “So I found a bunch of nonprofits and community efforts, and would donate to them on GoFundMe.”
Having just started doing commissions, Knox said the most rewarding part of the process was seeing customer reactions to her work. Despite going back and forth to make sure a client was happy with a design, Knox said she loved seeing the end result and getting feedback from clients.
“I love seeing people’s reactions,” Knox said. “Anytime I finish a tattoo for someone and send it to them, or even in person, that’s my favorite part of the whole process, that’s for sure.”
Onwuka also enjoys seeing reactions to her work, especially since many of her clients over the years have given her commissioned pieces as gifts.
“Sometimes when it’s gifts for people, I like to see people’s reactions upon receiving the artwork,” Onwuka said. “It’s also fulfilling for me.”
Onwuka loves making art and would like to continue doing so in the future, but she hopes to avoid doing so many regular commissions so she can keep making art that reflects her.
“Sometimes it’s a bit exhausting to continually do commissions because it’s not always artwork you want to do,” Onwuka said. “It’s kind of like someone’s asking you to do something for them, so it’s like it’s not yours in some way.”
Onwuka said that while it is rewarding to see reactions to her work and to give gifts to others, making her own pieces to sell would be more desirable for her goals as an artist in the future.
“It’s fun to bring other people’s ideas to life, draw portraits for family members, and make gifts for people,” Onwuka said. “But I kind of want to avoid doing commissions and maybe start making art that people like and feel free to buy and support me that way.”
Agbim similarly said that she often feels limited by commissions because most of the time she follows the guidelines of the client. She said that in the future, instead of focusing on commissions, she would like to be recognized for the art she creates on her own.
“I want it to be where you recognize it’s my piece,” Agbim said. “My end goal is just to have people order big pieces from me because they want it to be a centerpiece. I want to be known as someone who creates art that grabs people’s attention.