How to Nail an Art Commission

Commissions for artists are limited only by one’s imagination: people, house, and pet portraits, funerary urns, custom jewelry, garden sculpture, and more.

Regardless of the commissions you might be offered, use these pointers to make sure you pull off your project with flying colors and enjoy the process.

Put Your Best Foot Forward

Create a special section on your website for commission information. Include steps for commissioning a piece and testimonials from happy patrons alongside images of the finished work.

SusanArtist.com tire cover

I snapped this photo in the garage of the Milwaukee Art Museum and I’m happy to say that, according to her site, Susan Weres is still doing her thing. And she’s probably surprised to see this photo. I wonder how many commissions this tire cover has landed her.

See that your marketing materials have both an email address and a phone number.

At least one artist has lost an opportunity for commission because she didn’t have a phone number on her site and her email was down. How do I know? Because I was the person looking for an artist to help a neighbor with her project.

Just Say No

Absolutely you should turn down a commission if you can’t give it your best effort.

I heard of a muralist who behaved from the start as if she didn’t want the commission.

When the patron contacted her, she whined about what her commute would be, and her daughter’s school schedule, and, and, and. Then she had the nerve to ask her potential patron if he would get the paint and trace the design if she were to accept his offer.

Talk about poor customer service!

If you ask potential patrons to do half the work, why would they need to hire you in the first place? No one should have to endure this game – and it is a game. If you can’t do the work, just say so.

Ruth de Vos Quilt

©2012 Ruth de Vos, Can You Catch Them. Quilt, 160 x 87.5 centimeters.

It’s perfectly okay to turn down projects that don’t align with your situation. Better that than wasting your time and someone else’s.

Don’t hesitate to share the name of an artist you think would be a better fit for the project. This is excellent customer service and may save you frustrations that are the result of over-promising.

Prove It

If the commission seems like a good fit for you, show the patron why you’re the best person for the job.

Prove that you can deliver what they’re asking for and that you can meet any deadlines.

Write a proposal that spells out all of the details. Offer two or three options, keeping in mind that people tend to pick the mid-priced option.

Commissioned artwork should be priced higher than your other work. Some artists charge as much as 50% more for commissioned pieces. This covers the PITA (pain in the you-know-what) factor that often enters into the commission process. Even if your patron is a dream, you still have to schedule it in with your personal projects, and personal work is what most artists prefer attending to. If you aren’t getting paid enough to take a break from your other work, you’ll be tempted to procrastinate.

Commissions aren’t for everyone. You must be willing to work as a collaborative partner and learn to enjoy the process.

How about you? What have you learned about doing commissions?

Want more commissions? My Art Biz Makeover event will help you present yourself in the most professional light.

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44 comments to How to Nail an Art Commission

  • I LOVE commissions but it is like dating – not everyone will be a perfect match. I like to take notes at the first meeting and then review what I’ve written with the client so we are all on the same thought track.

  • Portrait painter Gwenn Seemel makes it very easy for her clients to commission paintings. She puts all the relevant information on this web page: http://www.gwennseemel.com/index.php/your/

    I also admire the straightforward language in her commission agreement: http://www.gwennseemel.com/images/blog11/2011ContractsCommissionAgreement.pdf

    For the rare occasions when I accept a commission, I use a client agreement form partially based on Seemel’s example.

  • One of the best ways to impress a client is to finish BEFORE the deadline —
    and to stay on budget.
    The raves from the client to their friends is the best advertising possible- and it is FREE.

  • I love commissioned work and I know artists who hate it. A good challenge pushes us to be better. The end result may not always be what I would choose, but I do my very best to give the client exactly what they want, in my painting style. They always appreciate suggestions, which I give to help them see how the final result may look, either good or bad! I love your suggestion of a “commission” section on the website. Must get to work on that!

  • It is very important that you have a clear understanding of what the client want. What they envision for the project and what you envision may not be the same.

  • I get high blood pressure over commissions because so often I find the customer changes mid-way what they want! They THINK they want what you agree on, but then…. I’ve also had lots of last-minute commissions (“Hey, I need this for next week….”) or customers who want a figure painting (and I’m not a figure painter) and say “I don’t want it to LOOK like them… just a child… then, when their spouse sees it it gets sent back saying “It doesn’t LOOK like them..” So… commissions… a blessing and a curse. And I need to be more clear about them costing more. They are more difficult! Putting it all out there on a page on my blog is a great idea – one I will do asap! Then I can just refer them to that page!

  • First, thank you for including our photo and my painting in your blog post/eblast today. :) It was a great evening

    I love commissions. One reason is because I do an extensive interview with the collectors. This not only helps me but it also gets them really engaged.

    I also deliver more than they expect. I give them a note card with their image (they use this to show off to others and/or put in their offices.) I also create a small book that shows them the process. They get this as a surprise gift several weeks after the painting has been delivered.

    There is nothing quite as satisfying as seeing a collector smile with glee and sometimes cry, after seeing their painting completed. I also like knowing that I will be paid for my efforts.(One third is given up front.)

  • and thank you Sarah for the resources!

  • Great article, Alyson! Love the suggestions from everyone.

  • Gosh, I don’t put my phone number on my websites, FB or anywhere else. I don’t even put where I live. I have had some real whack jobs approach me and I am not going to put myself out there for more. I have had commissions from people I meet personally and that works for me. If people connect with me via my email, which they do find, I consider them and decide how safe I feel with the connection. I also refer them to my rep in New York. I probably sound paranoid but I know personally that crime does happen.

  • Hi Alyson,

    Wonderful advice. I really enjoy commissions because I’m a portrait painter, although I’ve also done commissioned paintings of houses and corporate buildings. I find a commission contract to be very helpful. Before I start a project, I create a contract form that outlines what we’ve agreed to in terms of size, number of people included and date deadlines. I also explain in the contract that the reproduction rights remain with me, and that I may require to show the piece from time to time. Plus I charge an extra fee for each added person in a portrait because in fact that’s an additional portrait. I require 50% of the fee up front, which I’ve found guarantees that deadlines are met. When the client has decided to commission me, we meet and we both sign and date two copies of the contract, one for the client and one for my records. If all of the terms are clear right from the start I find that most projects go smoothly, and are quite fun.

    Barbara

  • Good advice. I ask for a deposit, a deposit lets me know that the client is committed. I break the payments into three segments. First a deposit of 50%, this is non negotiable, then another payment midway through the project and the final payment due on completion. This saves a lot of confusion and stress. A contract is imperative, now to design a commissions page for the website!

  • Most of my income is from portrait commissions, so I’m grateful to have them and enjoy the challenge, but I do wish I had more time for and more sales from personal work! I learned the hard way that a contract is a must, explaining the process, including the style of the piece, the time frame, sizes, full price and what that includes (framing, shipping are extra) plus how many revisions that includes! Once a client had me make changes over the course of a couple of YEARS (after framing and delivery!!) because her husband (who was NOT the client, his wife was) did not like the way he looked (men do NOT see themselves as they truly are. I have found them to be much pickier than women, believe it or not!). Partial payment for a non-refundable deposit are also a must. It covers the photo shoot and first meetings. For multiple people in one portrait I charge 75% for each extra person after the first. Detailed backgrounds or props are extra. All prices are clearly stated on my website so people know beforehand if I’m within their budget or not and I feel more confident stating my fees without guilt.

  • thanks for this! very timely, and helpful. I just got a commission request last week. I thought as was reading that I should get testimonials for the work I’ve sold even if it’s not commission too…

  • Hi Alyson,

    Your article is just in time for me, because I have just received a commission request and I said yes. It is a neighbor commissioning me to paint a portrait of his wife and daughter as a surprise birthday gift to his wife (her birthday is next April). It’d be my first commission piece.

    Shall we still sign contracts? I’m pretty sure your answer would be “yes”. It just feels a bit weird though.

    Thank you.

  • Karen Scharer

    In addition to all the good suggestions about dealing with the business details of a commission, I have found a very useful technique that helps to ensure the client will be happy with the painting they receive. I am an abstract painter, and my work is very intuitive and pretty varied. When someone asks for a commission, it is often not clear what they are expecting. I ask the client to spend a few minutes on my website to look at the images of existing paintings. I then have them tell me the three paintings they found that they like the best, and the three paintings that they like the least….AND WHY….very important to know why…is it color, composition, energy level, etc.? I have found that this exercise is tremendously helpful in establishing an understanding of what the client is envisioning, and it has helped me to maintain a 100% satisfaction rate with my commission projects over 20+ years.

    • Karen, I do the same thing and have had the same results. Glad you mentioned it! It’s a great way to get the conversation going also.

    • Karen: Great idea! Thank you for sharing it.

    • Karen, I’m an abstract painter too and those are excellent ideas on how to get clients to tell you what they really want. Thanks for the suggestions!

      One thing I put in my commission agreement, btw, is that if the client ultimately does not like the piece, they may apply the payment to another already existing piece and I’ll keep the one that I created for them. This concept wouldn’t work well with portraits but I think will work well with abstracts (I haven’t had to use it yet).

      I also do little mini’s of what I think they want on canvas board. I do a fast, simple and rough piece just to insure that we’re all on the same page.

      Best,
      Pat

  • I do commissioned pet portraits for a living. I find it very important within the body of the proofing e-mail to tell my clients to call me with their design change requests. It is too easy for me to miss something in a quickly jotted off e-mail. If a client knows they are going to have to talk about their needed design changes using a telephone they end up using better more complete language to express their needs. It is however hard to get many people to pick up the phone.

  • Wow Rebecca, checked out your website. You really know how to work it. Fun art of pets that has some edge to it.

    Carol, yup good advice. Thank you.

    I basically do what everyone else here does for commissions. I charge 1/3 to begin, 1/3 after approval of rough draft, and 1/3 upon hanging the piece.

    Last commission I had I did not do that though, as it was new territory for me. The customer, who had commissioned other work and purchased several paintings of mine, had asked me to do a sculpture. I was not sure I could pull off the bronzing of the piece at the time. I wound up doing it in the plasticine and was stuck with the fact that I would have to do a mold for something, but I was just not sure of how to proceed. Also I had made the work too complicated and the mold alone came to $3K. I was glad I had not asked for any $ upfront as I never finished her. I am back to doing what I know, regarding sculpture and that is using high fire clay as my medium.

  • Thanks for this!
    Thank you very much and looking forward for more informative articles in the future.

  • Hi Alyson! This article is very helpful. I especially liked the part about adding a commissions section to my website and will be working on that soon. I’ve been hesitant to put my personal phone number on my site, as there are many spammers and I’d hate for them to get access to me directly. Any thoughts on this?

    Recently an artist I know told me that when he gets a commission he will sometimes paint 2 pieces which will increase his odds that the customer will like one, and perhaps he will end up selling two. I thought it was a cool concept.

    • Jason: My main thought on this is that while you think you are protecting yourself from spammers, you might be cutting off excellent opportunities from others. In other words, you’re only looking at the negative.

      Look into getting a Google phone number if you like. It could be the solution.

  • You’re right I should focus more on the positive. I will look into getting a google phone number or maybe take the plunge with my direct line. Thanks for your feedback Alyson.

  • Hi, came across this as about to put a portrait commission bit on my webpage. Writing here as am a bit taken aback about how insistent you are on a phone number – I am partially deaf and virtually never use the phone – in fact, only really have one for 111 calls and can lose it for weeks at a time. Everyone who knows me knows this and contacts me by email or facebook an have not yet had any problems with this. One of the issues, of course, is that I miss hear very easily, so something written is less likely to be misconstrued. The question is, really, should I mention this on my commission section or just be happy to miss potential clients? Face to face (as long as not in a very noisy place) generally not a problem . . .

    • Jane: Everyone who already knows you is comfortable with email and Facebook. What about the people who don’t know you? Could you get a phone # that messages you via email? Or have the voicemail say that you can’t hear well and prefer email?

      You can get a Google phone # for free. It can email you when there is a message.

  • I just saw on FB where my sister got hacked by some crazed person from another country. He posted her name along with several pics of him with weapons. There are all kinds of people who have “liked” it, that she does not even know. I looked at some of their walls and they seem to belong to some militant group.

    With that said? I am confirmed in my mind as ever, I will not post where I live or phone number on any site. Possible “clients” find me.. they do, so I do not need to open myself up to things like the above. My Gmail has been hacked before and so has many of my friends. As I wrote before, crime does happen and I know that personally. I know this is not the subject here, but I am just saying, be wise, be careful. We do not live in the same world we grew up in.

  • Hi Alyson,

    Great blog post and great comments!

    I’ve been doing commissioned work for a very long time. I’ve always done realistic portraits and am now also doing large abstract pieces. I really love doing them and have almost ALWAYS had great experiences.

    What I’d like to know is how to find the people that commission artwork.

    I used to get a lot of commissions through word of mouth because I lived in a small town. People would bump into me and talk to me about commissioning work, (they never called!!) Now that I live in a bigger city, I’m just wondering about the best way to find the people who are interested in commissions.

    Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

    (In other news, I was just reading the ‘$100 Startup’ over lunch and came upon your quote in there! Very cool!)

    :-)

    Julie

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