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    Making Art on Commission



    People often ask artists to produce art on commission. In the great majority of cases, everyone's satisfied with the finished product, but not always. Problems can arise and when they do, knowing how to handle them can prevent major headaches.

    The best way to avoid potentially difficult commissions is to spot them in advance and not get involved in the first place. Not everyone is easy to work with; not every artist is compatible with every person who's interested in commissioning them. By paying attention to certain warning signs, you can weed out those individuals who aren't right for you.

    A good way to begin any commission relationship is to invite the collector to your studio. Make sure a representative sampling of your work is on display and let them them take a look around. Get an idea of how familiar they are with your art. Ask why they've chosen you from among all possible artists. Were they referred? Are they familiar with your work? Have they seen it at galleries or other locations?

    Ask the simple but telling question, "Do you like my art?" If you hear any hesitation, you might think twice about going ahead with the project. Some people might turn out to like only one or two pieces of your art, but be indifferent or neutral to the rest. Working under these conditions can be difficult, especially when you have to limit your style to a strict set of preferences.

    Ask about the person's collection. Find out whether they've commissioned artworks in the past and if so, how things went. Hopefully they'll have been satisfied on all counts. If their results are mixed, however, think about maybe contacting artists they've commissioned in the past with see what they have to say.

    Have them describe their concept of the finished product. Encourage them to elaborate and get a feel for the amount of restrictions that you'll be subjected to. The more direction they expects from you, the more likely the commission is to go well. The more they want to control the show, the more hesitant you should be to take the job.

    Notice any indications that they may be difficult to work with. They might think they know everything, deliberately challenge you, be fussy about details, or come off as disagreeable and argumentative. In any such instance, seriously consider politely declining the job and moving on to the next commission.

    Make sure you only have one person to please. If they expect their family, Aunt Mary, and the gardener to contribute their ongoing feedback every few days, this could mean a rough road ahead. Ask questions about where the piece will be displayed or who the primary viewers will be and find out whether third party opinions will present problems. The more third parties, the less you should consider going ahead with the commission.

    Watch out for people with impossible deadlines. Either they want it done immediately or they have a schedule that you're required to follow regardless of what else is going on in your life. You want to work at your own pace rather than that of the client in order to do your best job. If they can't understand that, decline the offer.

    Being asked to compromise your artistic integrity can also be a problem. But don't be too much of a stickler when requests are minor. If you have an overwhelming amount of principle regarding your art, avoid situations where you give outsiders control over the outcome. In other words, don't accept work on commission.

    Encourage the individual to work with you. This helps alleviate fears and apprehensions on their part. Those who feel they have a vested interest in the finished product tend to give you more latitude in its creation. As for your end, being flexible, working through differences, and keeping your composure in critical situations, increases the probability of a favorable outcome.

    Regarding dollars and cents, require a percentage of your fee in advance as a non-refundable deposit. A third of the total price is average; some artists take as much as half. The actual contract can either be written or verbal depending on the nature of the transaction or how well you know the client. Either way, make sure they understand that the deposit is non-refundable. Explain that in the highly unlikely event of their dissatisfaction, you will have still put forth significant time, labor, and materials, and have made all reasonable efforts to create a finished product to their liking.

    Once you take the job, require the individual to visit you at least once and preferably two or three times during the process in order inspect the work in progress. Ask for detailed feedback. This way, you won't go off in a direction that they weren't prepared for and you won't have to make massive modifications to a finished piece.

    Ultimately, the amount of discomfort you're willing to endure when working on commission is up to you. Depending on how badly you need money, you may decide to take on a problem client. Or perhaps you don't mind difficult people and feel that you can overcome any obstacle. In any event, understand ahead of time that when you choose to go ahead with an arrangement you don't feel comfortable with, you should be prepared to accept at least half the blame if things don't work out.

    Thanks to artists Virgil Elliot, APSC and Ann Basuino for their help with this matter.

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