Making Art on Commission: Tips for Artists
Pretty much all artists are interested in either working on commission or are presented with offers to produce works of art on commission at various points during the course of their careers. While most commission arrangements progress to completion with no problems whatsoever, many artists have also had what looked to be a golden commission opportunities turn into unmitigated nightmares. The following tips and pointers on how to approach commissions and on what to expect when commissioned to make art will not only increase your chances for successful outcomes, but will also help you identify situations when the best approach is to just say no rather than take on the job.
To begin with, working on commission-- creating a specific work of art that someone asks you to make-- is completely different from working for yourself where you make whatever you want to make without any input or influence from others. Making a work of art for yourself is solo act; producing a work of art on commission for someone else is a relationship-- a partnership between you and that person. 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 or 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 much they say they love your art, how well your initial contact goes or how much you both like spumoni, if you haven't worked together before, do due diligence. Many commission disasters can be avoided before they even start.
Meet with the other party in advance to discuss the project, preferably at your studio or wherever you make art. Make sure they see a variety of work so they get a good idea of the range of your skills. Some people say they want to commission a work of art when all they really want is an exact duplicate of one particular piece, or something that looks like one of only a few pieces of your art that they've ever 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 or be given directions or instructions at every step of the way.
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 perceptions of how the process should proceed 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 number, the less likely you are to encounter problems. Just to make sure though, ask how past commissions have gone and what if any problems they might have encountered along the way. If you're feeling a little uncertain, you might even ask for names of several artists who they've commissioned art from 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. How would they like the commission to proceed? What role do they see themselves as playing? What do they expect from you? If they have unrealistic expectations that seem difficult to fulfill, turn down the job.
* "What do you want to see in your art?" Look for broad or general answers, the types of answers that will allow you leeway in how you create the finished piece. You want signs that they appreciate what you stand for as an artist and what your art represents rather than how they want the finished piece to look. If you get very specific answers about what the composition should be, what colors they want you to use or what kinds of details they'd like to see, they may well try to micromanage the project once it starts.
* "Is there anything you don't like about my art or don't want to see in the art I create for you?" The less they don't like, the better. If they don't like something you can't do much about, warn them now rather than later. If they don't like a substantial amount of what you do, you might think seriously about not accepting the job.
* "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. If you do, watch out.
* "Will you be the only one approving the art?" This is a very important question, and one where you want "Yes" for an answer. The more people you have to please, the less likely you'll please everyone 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. Being subjected to consensus by committee is not a good position to be in.
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 or agreement. It doesn't have to be complicated but it should address major points like description of the art, physical characteristics such as size and medium, payment schedule, late payment fees, how many times you meet to see the work in progress during the course of the commission, completion time and final delivery. Verbal agreements or handshakes risk He Said/She Said disputes later. If you have any questions regarding a contract or agreement, either writing one or signing one, consult an attorney.
Require a percentage of the full fee in 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 (in case you really need the money), and also commits the other party to wanting a positive outcome. The advance should be nonrefundable. If the other party backs out at any point before the work is completed, they should understand that you've still invested time, labor and materials, and should be compensated for it.
Arrange for the other party to periodically view the work in progress-- not every day, but perhaps three or four times during the course of completion. That way, you can address any concerns before they get serious. You don't want to present a finished artwork to someone who had a totally different concept of what the finished composition would look like. For example, if you're painting a portrait, the subject have several opportunities along the way to comment on whether they 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. Keep the conversation channels open and be flexible at all times.
Don't change the look of the art from what you've initially agreed upon 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 of his studio 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.
Don't automatically refuse a commission because you think it "violates your artistic integrity" or you don't like a certain aspect of what they want you to create (even though you're perfectly capable of creating it). At least hear the person out. For example, early in his career a well-known watercolorist painted 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 today, but back then he took the job in order to survive as an artist. And that's exactly what he did.
Ultimately, you decide what you're willing to put up with when working on commission. Some artists will take an obvious risk based on how badly they need the money or want to have their art in a particular collection. Then again, rejecting the commission and maintaining peace of mind may be more important than a paycheck. Whatever the plan, do your homework ahead of time. The better prepared you are and the better you understand what you're getting into, the better you'll be able to cope once you get into it.
Are you being offered a commission, but aren't sure whether to accept it, how to price it or what the arrangement should be? I can help. Call me at 415.931.7875 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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