Ask a Gallery Owner | How Should I Respond to a Client Who Wants me to Create Something Way Outside my Style?

I recently received the following question from an artist:

I was hanging artwork the other day at a doctor’s office. The doctor’s wife loved the pieces I had chosen and inquired about buying several of them.
I told her they were all for sale and as we continued to talk, she asked me about doing a piece for their vacation home. She then went on to describe what she wanted: aspen trees in fall with a moose walking through the scene. This is NOTHING like the type of artwork I do.

I have been asked on other occasions to do something that is not at all my style or type of artwork. How should I respond?

I do have something in mind for her that is my style, but it won’t be what she requested.

M.

My response:

I find that in this scenario it’s usually best to simply lay it all out and to be upfront with the potential client. Let her know what you are and are not comfortable with. I know how tempting it is to agree when you have a client who seems to be ready to spend money, even if the requested piece is far removed from your typical style.

Non-artists are often in such wonder of your talent and skill that they mistakenly think this means you can do anything. Here is an opportunity for you to gently educate the client. I suggest saying something like “that sounds like it would be a beautiful scene. That’s really outside my style and approach to art. From how you are describing the space, I can imagine a piece in my style that I think would be incredible in that space. Can I work up some sketches for you?”

I like this approach because you’re not giving the client time to realize that she might have made a faux pas by suggesting you could create the piece she is imagining. By immediately offering to create a sketch, you are providing an easy way out.

Some clients get an idea in their head and won’t let go. For those clients it’s important that they find the artist who can successfully realize that vision. If you have contacts with other artists in your community that might be a good fit, you can build good will by recommending them to her.

For more flexible clients, showing them your vision can cause them to realize that there are other options. If they feel a strong connection to you, proposing a piece in your own style can open up their imagination.

It’s very rare that I would ever encourage an artist to create something that just doesn’t fit their style and direction – the learning curve to do something radically different is just too great, and the potential time waste and frustration involved are rarely worth it.

What Do You Think?

Have you ever been commissioned to create something that was way outside your typical style? How did the project turn out? What did you learn? Have you ever successfully redirected a client toward work that was more appropriate to your style? How did you do it? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

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13 Comments

  1. That’s the perfect response. I myself have had to do this in that exact same manor a few times. I even had to flat out, tactfully refuse. One guy saw some of my equine watercolors in a framing shop and asked to paint a deer scene on the back of his Jean jacket. I had to explain that I didn’t have the materials for this and even if I did, I wouldn’t be comfortable with that material. Furthermore, the painting could be destroyed when you wear it, expose it to the elements, and wash it. That was probably the worst request I’ve gotten.

  2. I have had requests for quite a few commissions that are out of my style. I am happy to accommodate the client if it’s something I can nevertheless feel I can make a good job of, and I have time to work it into my schedule. Sometimes it’s good to stretch outside your comfort zone. I’ve painted abstract patterns, pets, plants and the words of a song and enjoyed each one of them, as did the client.
    Occasionally I’ve had requests for something I know I would not be able to execute well and I’ve let the potential client know and sometimes been able to make an introduction to a fellow artist I believe could complete such a commission. Occasionally this has also worked out.

  3. I had to turn down a very lucrative commission for that reason. The client wanted something way outside my style. I was upfront and I even attempted to work up some sketches that were in my style but he wanted something vastly different. When he stated that he really wanted me to do it because he loved my work, I told him he likes my way of drawing and that’s what I did. I don’t know if he found someone to do it for him but I didn’t try to compromise for the sake of the money. I wouldn’t have been happy and I doubt he would have either!

    1. I think there have been excellent answers and suggestions here. I had a collector who had purchased a number of my abstract paintings that were composed of little squares. Then he asked me to do a large portrait of his daughter..taken from a fuzzy phone picture.
      I had never done a portrait in my life and didn’t want to try it and disappoint him but he was pretty adamant.
      Suddenly I thought of Chuck Close’s work, and decided to try something similar using pixels, or squares (like my abstract paintings) to build a 40”x40” B& W portrait. It was very stressful and extremely laborious, but it turned out pretty well and he and his son loved it! A few years later he commissioned me to do another one of his daughter. He paid me very well and it really stretched me.
      So my solution was to give him what he didn’t really know he wanted, in my own style. It could easily have backfired, however. If I hadn’t been able to come up with a creative solution, I would have had to refer him to another artist.

  4. Last fall I was commissioned to carve a piece in myrtlewood. After decades of working mainly in stone I didn’t really want to do it and had all kinds of excuses. Need to learn new techniques, need to make do with suboptimal tools, it was not really my “thing”, and so on. But this was a valued client who had already commissioned a larger piece in stone that was in my style, the new piece was to be a gift for her husband’s birthday and he was also important to me, and I decided to do it. All my excuses were valid and it took longer than I thought it should have to finish the piece, but I am very glad I did. In addition to completing a sculpture that I love and making two people happy with it, I discovered that it is much more possible to translate my style into the new medium and into low relief rather than full 3D than I had thought, and I am now comfortable with the notion of working in wood.

    1. The notion that an “artist” can do anything “art” seems to be more prevalent now. Much of the time, I’m wondering if it sin’t the happenstance of being in proximity that triggers it. I’ve had only a very few commissions and only one turned out badly for exactly the reason stated. far out of my style and subject matter. This one ironically was “managed” by a gallery long since closed and gone.
      At a workshop on artists and the business of art it was stated by an artist, “There is great liberation in saying ‘no’ “. He explained turning down a project that would have been a significant boost to his career but he knew it was the right decision even if money was tight at the time.

  5. I was once commissioned to do a large oil painting for a lady and her husband who had just purchased a new home. She invited me to look at the space and measure it and she wanted a painting that would be very large (much larger than I usually painted on canvas), but I had painted murals before, so I thought I could do it. I suggested a triptych and she liked that idea. She wanted it to be of a French landscape so I came up with sketches. She would always add things to it, so it became a landscape with lavender fields in the background. Even when I was partially finished she asked if I could include her and her husband into the painting and their dogs (not my thing) so I had to tell that I couldn’t do that. I also told her that she didn’t have to buy it from me if she wasn’t happy with the way it came out when finished, and that I would simply add it to my collection and show it and hope that someone else would purchase it someday. I showed it in a solo show and they came to see it there. They ended up buying it, which was nice and I even agreed to hang it for them in their living room. But I was very uncomfortable because I always felt that it wasn’t what she was really expecting.

  6. I am just finishing up a custom piece that started back in October. I did not know this client. She contacted me from my website. But she paid for 2 designs to be drawn up in which she did not like, even though she kept saying she loved my style. She sent an image of what she wanted (after the designs were produced), but in my style. I said I could adjust a little. I decided to take it on as a challenge to be more versatile! Little did I know she would be micro managing me the whole way through. She actually took the joy out of making it and it became a head ache for me to finish. It was difficult to communicate by email, she lives in another state. I considered giving her deposit back. But then we got over the holidays and I kept moving forward. In my 32 years as a professional artist I have never had a more difficult customer. I do regret taking this project on. …exhausted!

  7. I just completed a 5 family portrait from 5 different photos. I am a wild life artist and portraits I did many years ago, but this was for a dear friend..I was so blessed that she gave me free rein on the art work. After blood sweat and tears, hours of re-studying lessons on portraits, I delivered the finished work to her. She cried and I cried..she was so happy with the portrayal of her family. Her son cried when she gave him the portrait. I learned a lot about emotions and the sorrows this family had endured. Feathering birds or capturing and elk in the rut is my world of art..but sometimes getting of our box is a good thing. I would not have missed this challenged for all the world..

  8. Yes, that was what my reply was in a similar situation. I want to be known for the work that I think I do best, not for something that I have simply done for the money. Money is important but if you divert from your chosen path you may get pushed in that direction ongoing,

  9. I’m one of those people who has a hard time saying no, but like some others have mentioned here, I’ve actually had some good experiences doing work that wasn’t my usual style. In fact, years ago I fell into a large well-paying job to do a series of abstract paintings for several retail stores, when my work was completely figurative. Well guess what – it opened some doors in my brain and ended up setting my personal work on a completely different path, and years later all my work is abstract.
    So sometimes you never know! That said, there’s no way I would paint a moose scene. I have my limits.

  10. I had this happen last fall. I was commissioned to do a piece with a restaurant that sits on the edge of a river, which is absolutely in my wheelhouse as an artist having done hundreds of architectural landscape type commissions. The caveat was that the client wanted the view to be from across the river with her son’s white dog in the foreground of the picture. I didn’t have a good photo with the whole scene, but I did what I thought was a pretty good job. When she saw it, she said, “I wish you could’ve made the dog bigger.” I told her that I do realism and if I had made the dog larger it would have looked like a cartoon. She was quite satisfied with that answer and later told me she just loved the piece. That is the only time I have ever had anyone not be entirely happy upon first glance at a piece. I probably should have just turned it down, but it did stretch my creative muscles to do the piece.

  11. I’ve been asked several times to do work outside my style & comfort zone and depending on where I was in my life I have said yes or no, but mostly yes. My most rewarding one was being asked to do a portrait of a wife and her 2 daughters who I knew as acquaintances and the painting was to be a surprise anniversary gift to the wife. I was painting animals at the time and found out that the family also had horses they rode, so I did the portrait of the women on their respective horses after taking photos of the horses while the wife was at work. It was difficult and stressful but the end result was that the wife was so pleased she cried and said that I not only captured them [the people] but that I had also captured the personalities of their relative horses as well which to me was unexpected and pleasing. Recently I was asked to illustrate a children’s book which I turned down politely and respectfully.

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