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 from start to finish with no problems, many artists have also had what looked like perfect commission jobs turn into complete disasters. The following tips and pointers on how to approach commissions and on what to expect when someone commissions you 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 hires 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 other 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.

To begin with, either meet or speak with the other party before taking the job. Discuss the project, preferably at your studio or wherever you make art. Or if you are doing this long distance, preferably by video conferencing. 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 you show them ahead of time, assuming they like what they're looking at, the better they understand the scope of your work and what your specialties are, 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 overwhelmed with 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 arrangement or process should go can 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, advise them now rather than later. If they don't like a substantial amount of what you do, you might think seriously about not taking 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 to hear "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 the job down. 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.

* Based on your conversations to this point, submit one or maybe several drawings of what the individual commissioning the job wants the finished artwork to look like. Altering or revising a drawing and settling the final composition is far easier than changing the actual commission once you've started the job.

Assuming all has gone well to this point, your meetings or conversations proceed smoothly, you understand each other, and your preliminary drawing is approved, take the next step with the relationship and make it official. Unless you know the party well or have worked together before, write and sign a contract or agreement. The agreement 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 or speak or conference to see the work in progress during the course of the commission, completion date, 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 before starting the job. This can begin with an advance deposit to cover the initial drawing or drawings, perhaps in the range of 10-20% of the full price, and depending on complexity. Once the final drawing is approved, you can ask for an additional payment to start the job, bringing the total first payment to between 40-50% of the final price. Then you can either take the remaining balance upon completion, or divide it up into two equal payments along the way. 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. Once made, all payments 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 deserve to be compensated.

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 idea of what the finished composition would look like. For example, if you're painting a portrait, make sure the subject has several opportunities along the way to discuss whether they think the art looks like them.

Encourage ongoing dialogue throughout the process. 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 the hiring party wants 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 and who you're getting into it with, the better you'll be able to cope once you get into it.


Not all commissions go smoothly and not all commissions are worth taking. Learn how to spot potential problems in advance by reading Sometimes Refusing an Art Commission is Best.


Are you being offered a commission but aren't sure whether to take it, how to price it or what the arrangement should be? I can help. Call 415.931.7875 or email either to make an appointment or with any questions you might have about my services.


(at by Charles Arnoldi)

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