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  • Making Art on Commission: Tips for Artists

    Pretty much all artists are presented with offers to produce works of art on commission at points in their careers. Unfortunately, many have had what looked to be a golden opportunities turn into unmitigated nightmares. The following tips and pointers on expect when commissioned to do an artwork and how to approach commissions in general will not only help you avoid problems, but will help you identify situations when the best approach is to just say no.

    To begin with, working on commission, creating a work of art on spec from scratch for someone other than yourself, is totally different than selling a finished piece at a show, at a gallery, or out of your studio. Selling a completed work of art is an event; producing a work of art on commission for another party is a relationship. Never confuse the two.

    From your end, the key to successfully working on commission is your ability to be flexible and communicate with whomever hires you. A commission relationship only succeeds when you respond effectively to the other party's concerns, requests, and needs (which hopefully aren't too numerous and demanding). Put another way, if you don't work well with people, don't take commissions.

    The number one commission pitfall, by far, is taking one on without knowing who you're dealing with. No matter how badly you need the money, how well your initial contact goes, how much you each like spumoni, how much they say they love your art, or what your astrologer tells you, if you haven't worked together before, do due diligence. Many commission nightmares can be avoided before they start.

    Meet with the other party to discuss the project, preferably at your studio or wherever you make art. Make sure they see a representative selection of your work while there. Some people say they want to commission a work of art when what they really want is an exact duplicate of one particular piece, or of one of the only several artworks that they've seen. The more of your art they see, assuming they continue to like it, the better they understand the scope of your work, the easier it becomes for them to accept the finished product, and the less you'll have to worry about having to produce a very specific composition.

    Watch how the other party reacts to your art; find out which pieces they like the most, and the least. Politely ask questions and encourage them to do the same. Tell them you want to make sure they're satisfied with the finished product. The two of you have to imagine the creation of the art in pretty much the same way for a commission to work. Differences in initial perception could lead to problems later. Answers to questions like the following will help you understand what you're in for if you take the job.

    * "Have you commissioned art before? If so, how many pieces?" The larger the amount, the less likely you are to encounter problems. Just to make sure, though, get names of several artists who they've commissioned, and contact them to see how things went.

    * If they've never commissioned art, find out what they want and make sure you can give it to them. If they have unrealistic expectations that seem difficult fulfill, turn down the job.

    * "What do you want to see in your art?" Look for broad answers that have to do with the way your art makes them feel, for example, they like its message or what it represents to them regardless of composition, they appreciate what you stand for as an artist, that sort of thing. Very detailed or specific answers about what they want where in the composition or what exact colors they want it be could mean they'll try to micro-manage the project later.

    * "Is there anything you don't like about my art or don't want to see?" The less they don't like, the better. If they don't like something that you can't do much about, warn them now rather than later.

    * "Do you have any other questions or requests?" Answers like "everything sounds fine to me" or "I want to leave the details up to you" are always good. Hopefully, you won't get a long involved answer with lots of conditions.

    * "Will you be the only one approving the art?" You want a "yes" answer here. The more people you have to please, the less likely you'll please them and the more you should think about turning down the commission. In situations where multiple parties have a say over the finished product, if one doesn't like it, you're generally screwed.

    Assuming the meeting goes well and you understand each other, go ahead with the relationship. Unless you know the party well or have worked together before, write and sign a contract. It doesn't have to be complicated but it should address major points like basic characteristics of the art, payment schedule, late payment fees, completion time, and final delivery. Verbal agreements or handshakes risk He Said/She Said disputes later.

    Require an advance, usually about 1/3 the total cost of the commission. Receiving partial payment ahead of time takes pressure off of you to finish the art fast, and also commits the other party to wanting a positive outcome. The advance should be nonrefundable. If the other party backs out, they should understand that you've still invested time, labor, and materials.

    Arrange for the other party to periodically view the work in progress-- not every day, but perhaps three or four times before completion. That way, you can address concerns before they get serious. You don't want to present a finished piece to someone who had a totally different concept in mind. For example, if you're painting a portrait, the subject should think it looks like them.

    Encourage dialogue at all times. The other party should feel comfortable asking questions, and expressing opinions about the art and its progress. Discouraging feedback or acting overly sensitive to criticism could keep them from telling you what they're thinking as they become increasingly dissatisfied with the art.

    Don't change the look of the art, no matter how inspired you get, unless you talk it over with the other party first and get their permission. Taking things into your own hands usually spells trouble, especially when the other party has little or no experience with commissions.

    A handful of artists try to "self-commission" art, that is, they create works of art with particular collections or collectors in mind, and then try to sell them the finished pieces. Don't laugh; it happens. An elderly artist once gave me the grand tour while saying stuff like "This one, I painted for the Vatican, and this one, for the White House, etc..." Of course, none of them ever went anywhere.

    Never automatically refuse a commission because you think it "violates your artistic integrity." For example, an internationally known watercolorist, early in his career, did a series of oil paintings of pigs for a bed and breakfast hotel because he needed the money. He became plenty successful over the years and would never accept such a commission now, but back then, he took it to survive as an artist.

    Ultimately, you decide what you're willing to put up with when working on commission. You might take an obvious risk based on how badly you need the money or want to have your art in a particular collection. Then again, peace of mind may be more important than a paycheck. Whatever the plan, do your homework ahead of time. The better you understand what you're getting into, the better you'll be able to cope once you're into it.


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