Navigating the Commission Process

Several weeks ago, I received an email from an artist who was undertaking her first painting commissioned by a client. The artist wanted to make sure that she handled the commission in a professional manner and minimized her own risk of having the deal sour. I can certainly understand the concern – commissions can pose a real challenge for any artist, especially if the artist is inexperienced in dealing with the nuances of creating a custom work of art.

We have coordinated many commissions in the gallery over the years, and most have gone smoothly. Below are a number of things I have learned over the years that may help you, if you have the opportunity to create commissioned work.

Before you agree to create a custom artwork for a client you should consider the following items:

  1. Not every artist is well-suited to doing commissioned work. If you enjoy interacting with people and are patient and diplomatic, you’ll probably be fine. If, however, you prize your artistic freedom and creativity above all else, and have a hard time filtering yourself when interacting with people, you risk having an unpleasant experience in the commission process. You should probably stick to creating what you love, and let your client know you will keep them up to date on new work until they find what they are seeking.
  2. You should have an understanding in place with your client prior to beginning the project, or even perhaps, before taking a deposit. While we don’t have a formal written agreement for most commissions, we let the client know exactly how the process will work and send them the details via email.
    • Let the client know how much input they will have on the final artwork. I suggest giving the client only a little latitude here. For example, you might let them determine the general subject, size, and primary colors of the artwork, but leave decisions about the details completely at your discretion. “I want to make sure I create a masterpiece for you, and the more freedom you give me, the better I will be able to do this.”.
    • Give the client an estimated time of completion, and a schedule of the various steps along the way:
      • when you will begin
      • when they will receive images of the art for their approval
      • how long the piece will take to dry (or cast if you are a sculptor)
      • framing or basing time
      • crating and delivery time.
    • Let the client know what their responsibilities are for shipping costs and installation, if any.
  3. Decide whether you are going to charge extra to do custom artwork for a client. Often commissioned work will require extra planning, time, and effort on your part. It is not uncommon for artists to ask a 15-30% premium for commissioned work. On the other hand, a commission is a nearly guaranteed sale, and some artists feel this outweighs the added challenges of a commission. Most of the artists in my gallery do not charge extra for commissions.
  4. Consider a written agreement. We don’t have a formal written agreement. We have handled so many commissions without one, and never had any issues. We’re probably just lucky. As mentioned above, we almost always put all of the details in an email to the client and ask them to acknowledge receipt of the email and an understanding of the terms. A written agreement will help minimize the possibility of any kind of misunderstanding in the process.
  5. Ask for a deposit. This is a big one. Unless you are willing to simply do the work on spec and hope for the best, it is wise to ask for a deposit prior to beginning the project. A deposit will help formalize the agreement and will commit the client to the artwork. We ask for a 50% deposit. Some clients may hesitate to make this kind of commitment, and if they hesitate, you will have an opportunity to iron out additional details. Of course, a client may be reluctant to give a “non-refundable” deposit, but we have found a pretty elegant solution to this. We let them know that we want them to be 100% satisfied with the final artwork. If they are not, they can apply their deposit to the purchase of other work by the artist at any time in the future. In this way the artist is guaranteed the sale, even if the commissioned art doesn’t end up working out for the client (this has only happened once or twice that I can remember in 11 years of handling commissions).
  6. Don’t agree to commission work that is outside the realm of your normal subject-matter or style, or that you wouldn’t be able to sell to another buyer. This concept follows directly from the principle above of guaranteeing satisfaction. If the client ends up not taking the work, you don’t want to be stuck with a piece that is unsellable. I once met an artist who had a client that was completely in love with his work. The client bought several pieces, and then asked the artist to create a large abstract piece for her living room. The artist primarily did impressionistic landscape work and wisely declined to take the commission even though the client really wanted to give the commission to him. The artist told me that he may have successfully created the abstract piece, but he wasn’t willing to risk failure, and, as important, didn’t want to dilute his brand with the client or any other clients. (For more on the importance of consistency, read this post).
  7. Send photos prior to shipping or delivering the artwork. Once the work is completed, a photo to the client prior to shipping will give them an opportunity to confirm they are pleased with the piece. Let them know this is part of the process ahead of time (see #2 above). It’s better to find out about any concerns or issues before you have packed the artwork up or delivered it – you’ll save on return shipping cost and avoid an awkward situation. Sometimes artists will send progress photos along the way, but I discourage this as you don’t want the client to start requesting that  you move trees around or change colors mid-stream.
  8. Take final payment before shipping the artwork. We use approval of the photo as a final commitment to the purchase and ask for the balance due at that point. Again, you can only do this if you have let the client know this will be the case from the beginning (see #2 again).
  9. Ask for a photo and testimonial from the client. Once the artwork has been installed, ask the client to send a photo of the piece (or take one yourself if you do the installation). You can share this photo on your website and blog. A brief testimonial from the client will help you get future sales and commissions.

While commissions can certainly be a challenge, they can also be rewarding as your client gets to become part of the creative process and have a work of art that perfectly suits her needs. With a little forethought and planning, you can handle a commission professionally, keep your sanity, and provide excellent customer service.

What has your experience been with commissioned work? Have you had positive experiences? Challenges? Nightmares? What have you learned that makes the process work better for you? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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