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


Alyssa Carnevali | Staff Photographer

Amarachi Onwuka, a senior molecular biology major and portrait artist, sits outside the Frick Fine Arts building with one of her art pieces.

By Grace Hemcher, Senior Staff Writer

A massive 48-by-60-inch canvas explodes with deep blues, vibrant pinks and a bold orange. The abstract piece pops against the stark white wall, the raised texture of each brush stroke still visible in an Instagram post. The artist, Lota Agbim, looks down at her phone, proudly gazing at the photo of her creation on display — a custom painting in her sister’s home. 

Agbim, a sophomore global management and marketing major, loves to create. She started expressing her creativity through bold, colorful paintings in grade school. She said over the years, she hasn’t found school as rewarding as art itself.

“Since I found art class in elementary school, I’ve loved creating things,” Agbim said. “I’ve never really felt fulfilled being at school because I feel like you have to think inside the box. But with art, you can do anything you want.” 

Some student artists at Pitt have ditched traditional part-time jobs and turned to selling their own artwork for some extra cash. Commissioning art is a rewarding side hustle for these artists — but not in the way one might think.

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Agbim began selling her brightly colored 8-by-10-inch paintings of cartoon characters and celebrities to friends who asked for them. But after lockdown, she quickly expanded her inventory to include custom song plaques and used online marketplace platforms to sell clothes as well as her art.

“Over the pandemic, I used to sell clothes on Depop,” Agbim said. “I started getting more outside orders from using Depop, and then I branched out into making little glass Spotify plaques. So, I would make and sell those, I would sell my artwork and just basically whatever people would ask me to make.” 

Maggie Knox, a first-year environmental studies major, also felt inspired to experiment with art during COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. She said she picked up art as a hobby during quarantine. 

Knox said she always liked art class but only started commissioning her work for close friends last year. She enjoys creating minimalist linework of dainty flowers, butterflies or moon phases for her tattoo designs. She also sometimes commissions realism portraits for family and friends. 

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

Knox said it can be difficult to charge people for her designs, especially friends. But she doesn’t mind only charging a few dollars since she enjoys crafting her drawings, which are mostly simplistic, clean linework that doesn’t take much time to sketch out.

“I feel horrible charging people,” Knox said. “I do $5 to $15 for tattoos because it’s not like I’m putting in a ton of effort to do it, unless I am — then I would charge more.”

Agbim found it difficult to price her art as well, especially when she first started. She said since starting commissions in 2020, she raised prices to reflect the time and effort put into each one of her pieces. 

“I did raise my prices,” Agbim said. “Because when I first started, I was selling [the paintings] for $35, which is kind of low thinking about the amount of time that it takes me. I’ll work on them for roughly three to four days, but it needs drying time and all that stuff, so it usually takes me a week.” 

Agbim said she does commissions as a hobby instead of a substantial way to make money, as too many commissions can get overwhelming.

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

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

“Someone would commission me to do maybe 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’d [mail] that to them. Or people who knew me in high school, I would just draw it traditionally, and then I’d hand it to them during school.”

At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in summer 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 the legal fee fund for Breonna Taylor’s family.

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

“That month, I opened up my commissions, and a lot of people started commissioning me because they wanted to donate to the causes,” Onwuka said. “So I found a bunch of nonprofit organizations and community efforts, and I would donate to them on GoFundMe.”

Having just started doing commissions, Knox said the most rewarding part of the process is seeing customer reactions to her work. Despite experiencing some difficult back-and-forth to ensure a customer’s satisfaction with a drawing, Knox said she enjoys seeing the final result and getting customer feedback. 

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

Onwuka also enjoys getting to see reactions to her work, especially since many of her customers over the years gave her commissioned pieces as gifts. 

“Sometimes when they’re gifts for people, I like to see people’s reactions to receiving the artwork,” Onwuka said. “That’s also fulfilling to me.”

Onwuka loves making art and would like to continue doing it in the future, but she said she hopes to shy away from doing as many regular commissions so she can continue making art that reflects her. 

“Sometimes it’s a little bit draining to continually do commissions because it’s not always artwork that you want to do,” Onwuka said. “It’s rather like someone asking you to do something for them, so it’s like it’s not yours in a way.”

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

“It’s fun bringing 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 making commissions and just maybe start making art that people like and feel free to purchase and support me that way.”

Agbim said similarly she often feels restricted by commissions because most of the time she follows guidelines from the customer. She said in the future, instead of focusing on commissions, she would like to be recognized for the art she creates on her own instead.

“I want it to be to where you recognize that that’s my piece,” Agbim said. “My end goal is just having it where people are ordering large pieces from me because they want that to be a statement piece. I want to be known as someone who creates art that draws attention in people’s homes.”