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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35 Comments

  1. Jason, I agree with your advice. I’m in that boat right now, and I gave my standard response: “Tell me what you want, and let me see what I can do.” In this case, it’s a book cover, and the author wants it to be visually similar to the other book cover, because it’s a trilogy (so in theory I may be commissioned for 2 jobs.) We’re discussing his vision and my perception of it, and I will give him a rough draft of what I think he’s after. And I will re-iterate that I need to make sure it’s something I can do.

    So I’m going at this with a different angle: I am going to try, but I am not going to force it. If you’re in a place where you can experiment with a completely different style, do that. We all need to stretch our wings and get uncomfortable sometimes, yeah?

    1. Yes, there are many times where it’s close to our own desire for OUR growth…..
      Then yes, stretch.
      See if you can meet the match of desires of the client.
      As long as it’s done with integrity and not bs!
      You sound like it’s your truth to stretch and grow…. but there are others who would breech that integrity just for the commission.

  2. I had just started working in fiber. My wife happened on a trip to mention this to a priest in another city. He contacted me about doing a tapestry- a memorial. Tapestry was something I had not done and was no interested in being fascinated with loom-controlled patterns. But he was insistent and persuasive. I worked up a sketch with various size options (hoping small). Almost by return mail, the 4′ x 6′ was chosen and a deposit was included. [I told them it would be a year- only because of that learning curve and building a tapestry loom]. It was a success! I even had to weave text at the bottom which was a neat exercise.
    While this was outside what I was currently doing (then), it was within what I was beginning to explore (fiber) so it was kind of being “paid to play”. A good happenstance as it turned out.

  3. I have two experiences of this sort, on opposite ends of the scale of “outside my realm”. My specialty is birds of prey, but I’ve painted other things that worked well, all in the same style I use for the birds of prey. But someone requested a pelican… this is a bird I’d never even looked at very closely and not one I’m particularly fond of, but I decided to do the painting. It came out great and is also in my style, just not a typical subject matter.

    The second is completely outside my style AND subject matter. A friend asked if I’d do illustrations for a children’s book she’s working on writing. She caught me at a weak moment and I agreed. I regret that decision. While she’s happy with the illustrations, it has taken time away from the things I really want to be working on and is so far removed from the ‘brand’ I’m trying to build that I’m not even going to put my name to this art. I’ll use a pen name instead, and just try to get this obligation out of the way as quickly as possible. Lesson learned.

    So maybe I’ll do an unusual subject, but in my own style. But I won’t do anything outside of both realms again.

  4. When asked to do something that is not at all what I paint, I usually grin and as warmly as possible ask, “You have seen my work, yes?” then I offer to introduce them to my fellow artists who are much better at what it is they want than I am after explaining their request is not my expertise. Struggling through something that is not my strength is filled with angst for me and my customer. Plus I find that not only do I gain the respect of the customer (for potential commission work in my genre) I also have gained the respect of fellow artists, who likewise refer their off-subject or off-style requests to me. It’s a win-win all around in the long run.

  5. I had done 2 things in recent past, and luckily I knew both clients rather well so we could have an honest conversation and not worry too much about hints and appearances.
    I did a battle scene for person A, because she loved my other art and wanted to commission something very specific. I told her it would be my first, so don’t know how it will turn out and she replied “I fully trust you”. For me it was fun and new challenge combined so this is why I accepted in the first place. It turned out good, everybody who saw it, loved it, and from my perspective, it was not my best work, but yes, good.

    For person B, I made something within my style to approximate what he wanted. In my opinion, it turned out really great (opinion confirmed by others who commissioned other works of the same kind), but I felt the customer was not fully satisfied because they still want that thing they liked in the first place.

    I had done paintings for family members who were nagging me badly to have something from me (a whole separate article, I believe could be dedicated to how to deal with nagging relatives). So I made paintings for them to make them happy, something fitting THEIR subjects. I wish today those works could be burned. They were still my style but they go against everything I want in my brand! I never showed those 2 works on any of my social media sites. When I do think about them, it makes me cringe. BUT, nagging stopped, mission accomplished!)))

  6. I sell a lot of commissioned pieces and I’ve only recently started turning down work that doesn’t align with my style. And now that I’ve started, I wish I had started sooner! I’ve broken under the stress of trying to fit my work into my client’s vision, and it’s my own art and my family that suffers as a result of the stress. Don’t try to be someone you’re not – it’s a lesson I’m still working hard to learn.

  7. It is best to create what you enjoy creating, and what suits your own style, ability and comfort zone.. If a person approaches you with a style or concept outside of your area of expertise, then they more than likely have something very specific in their head which you will more than likely have a hard time living up to. If you know of another artist that you believe would satisfy the client, than by all means pass the name on. If the idea the client describes sounds alluring to you, than you might want to do a study first to see if you enjoy it and are comfortable with it. If your heart is not in it, than it will more than likely show, and it will not be an enjoyable process

  8. The general public can be quite ignorant about artists. They think we are art machines. Truthfully, some artists are adept at many different forms – representational portraits, landscapes, architectural renderings, illustration, etc. I have great respect for those who choose to work this way.

    I like to help potential clients understand why I love my abstraction and I show examples. Once they realize that I am unwilling to do otherwise, I refer them to artists who can do what the client wants. I have made friendships with many of our regional painters and sculptors, and I am happy to make introductions.

  9. Thanks for this post, Jason. I am not fond of commissions in general unless they align pretty tightly to what I am currently working on. I had a larger commission a few years ago that, although it was similar in style to some of the work that I had previously painted, it was a style that I had evolved away from. Because of the size (60″x48″) I was attracted to the idea of painting one last one, especially since I had just placed a large order for frames. Unfortunately, the commission completely got me out of my “head-space” on the new stuff that I was working on, and had been excited about. At the time, I only had one area of my studio where I could work on a piece that size and it really got in the way. The client seemed to love the piece but it still leaves me wishing that I had that time back. Who knows what might have come off the easel with a little more passion behind it.

  10. I recently did a piece that quickly became an illustration. The client and I worked together to arrive at what she wanted and she went away happy. My fine art skills allowed me to execute the illustration but in no way would I consider it a piece of fine art. I suspect she might think of it as one though.

    In my painting no matter what I envision my style prevails. So while I might accept subject matter I haven’t painted before it would be foolish for me to promise it would look different style wise from the rest of my work.

  11. I very recently had an offer at a dinner party to commission a painting of a favorite airplane. I do figurative work. My husband gave me the perfect out: she rarely takes on commissions. “Why?” they asked. “Because she hates to be told what to do.” They laughed and the subject was off the table.

    That said, I will sometimes consider a request if I think it might present a fun challenge and if I think I could do it my way, ending up with a great addition to my body of work.

  12. I actually had a gallery owner ask me to do something like a piece he was showing in the gallery from his personal collection. It was not totally out of my style but I felt very like I was being boxed into a corner, recreating a native art piece from an area of the world I have no connection with. I did do a small maquet (I am a stone sculptor) in clay which he liked but which I did not feel comfortable with. In the end the idea died and I did not have to confront the gallery owner. This was a learning experience for me. I will never allow myself to be boxed in like that. In the future it will be a simple no.

  13. You are right Jason on all counts. People feel because you are an artist you can do anything!
    I have found it easier to refer clients to artists whose style suits the image I feel the client is looking for. I was asked to paint a sign for a new client. I told them I was not a sign painter. They insisted, as it was for a gift and they had left it very late so had no time to find someone else. I was not given much information to go on but I did my best. They asked for a few adjustments, which I did. They looked at my hanging oil paintings when picking up the sign, and asked why the sign was not as good as the paintings? Could it be because I am not a sign painter? The stress was not worth the pittance I got.

  14. I recently did a series of commissioned pieces (7 medium/large works) in a wide variety of media, styles and subjects; as I worked with a relative who was in the process of designing and building a summer beach home. A few architectural designs needed to be addressed and I was able to help with those as well. The collaborative process was exciting, all ways interesting, sometimes challenging and overall very rewarding. The connection that I have with this person is deeper for the experience. My relative has definite artistic vision and ideas and I felt it an honor to help with bringing those visions to life. This is someone who frequently asks me to do pieces and purchases my work for himself and others. He shares the summer home with friends/family and everyone gets to enjoy the art. This was perhaps an unexpected detour but I’m so happy I did it. Now, I can redirect myself to my goals and move forward. This experience actually was a part of my decision to take this class and begin to pursue my art on a more serious level. Perhaps I am an outlier when it comes to this topic and I definitely would be selective with whom I took on this type of project. Still, after reading “strength finder” and several other similar books. I realize that being flexible, and finding connections with others is important to me, too. I enjoyed the process, explored, got paid and have a week at the beach in June for my 62 birthday. Win. 🙂

  15. Just don’t do it. It’s really okay to say no, that’s not in my wheelhouse. I’m with the others who kindly refer the client to artists who are capable of doing what the client wants.

    1. An artist can always experiment if they find the project interesting and want to give it a crack. They may find it an opportunity for growth and be willing to do it on spec so the client is not obligated.

      I’ve hired artists like that for past projects. I will pay for materials if I don’t like the finished piece. Some go for it, some don’t.

  16. I totally agree with Jason’s points here. I have had this type of request a few times. I have been fortunate that most requests have been for my style and the parameters have been in my comfort zone. The ones that want me to do something that I am not comfortable with, I explain that it is not an area that I work in and would probably not do the project very well. I suggest something that I could do and suggest sketches first. If that is not to their liking or I feel I am just not the right artist for their project, I will suggest another artist if I think that person may be a good mix. I Also suggest visiting galleries to see if an artist there may have the style that will work for their project. I always thank them for their interest in my work.

  17. I agree with your advice. I have been in this position on numerous occasions and it is the approach I regularly use. It is nice if I am able to come up with something of my own that they can be thrilled about, but when they really want what isn’t possible for me to provide, I love being able to thank them for their compliments and interest and direct them to other artists I know that better fit what they are looking for. I love that I can be involved in encouraging people to experience a greater view of the arts while also supporting fellow artists.

  18. Oh my yes! I’ve been in this position!
    I’ll take the time to sit with the person and see if we can match vision…. in other words, once I explain what I CAN do for them, I’ve either expanded their initial idea and we can go from there or at the worse, I’ve treated them with respect.
    In those instances I’ll offer to give them the name of an artist who might be the match they’re looking for.

  19. The one time that I agreed to do a particular painting for a person who had already purchased one of my pieces, did not end satisfactorily for either of us. About one third of my work is in the portrait vein. Often not even a particular person, and the piece that she had bought was on that order. She liked that one so much that she asked me to do another painting for her – this time of her daughter, from a photo taken years before. It was not a good resource photo, and I struggled with it for some time. She did accept the painting, but I know that she was disappointed with it. I don’t see myself ever accepting a commission again.

  20. Don’t cut yourself off at the pass. you might find this a fun and inviting challenge. Try a dry run, and show her the result. If she doesn’t like it, someone else might, and if not, you can always use it as underpainting for a new picture of your type.

  21. Thanks for the article. I probably average about 6 – 8 commissions per year, the vast majority of which turn out happily. Most customers ask for paintings that are within my range, in fact one gave me complete freedom to choose the subject. At the other extreme I once had a request (a mural) where the size, subject, style, painting surface and even the paint were alien to me. Very easy to decline that one. In between there is a continuum, not always with a clear answer. A couple of my best commissions were ones where only the subject was unfamiliar to me…these caused me to stretch and expand my comfort zone, a great experience.

    I don’t like to turn down commissions, in fact I feel it’s an honor to be asked to commemorate something special for a customer…but probably once every 2 – 3 years I have to say “no”, generally because it is a subject or style where I don’t think I’d do a good job. If possible I refer them to an artist I know with the right specialty. I have not tried to talk them into changing their plan to fit my style.

  22. I was asked to paint do a figure painting, while I usually do landscapes. I told her I don’t do these, but she wanted me to try, so I did. It was a challenge, but it came out beautiful. I know it will be cherished by her forever (it was of her husband who passed away). Painting this pushed my limits, and now I know I can do this!

  23. As a Hyper- realist I only produce maybe 10 or so paintings a year which equates to about a month or so of painting in a single work. When asked to do a commission I have to take into account whether or not I want to a stare at an image that I don’t relate to for that long. Also I have to postpone images that I am currently excited about. I do constantly look for challenges to paint but what I have learned is that is I am not excited about a subject matter the painting takes longer and it usually is not as good as one that I am excited about painting. I have turned down several commissions in the last several years as opposed to years ago when I would paint anything anyone asked for what I learned was that I always regretted taking those commissions. I do try and refer the client to someone who is capable or better suited. As I get older I realize that I only have a finite number of years left that I can paint and therefore a finite number of paintings so I don’t want to waste any of that time on paintings that aren’t exciting or inspiring to me and definitely avoid insipid art request. I simply say that I am covered up with work for an upcoming show so I can’t, then if possible refer them to someone else. This tack usually works and for the most part is the truth and it sometimes results in making the client want me to do their piece even more.

  24. I’ve discovered (through painful experience) that agreeing to a commission that is outside my usual style is just not worth it to me. Although the client is happy in the end (because I guarantee my work) I rarely am!! Besides that, it ALWAYS soaks up far more of my time than usual, so my profits are way down for all my efforts.

  25. I’ve had this happen a few times over the last few years. One request was for a portrait of a baby and I told the people asking for this: “Thank you for thinking of me, but I don’t do this kind of work anymore”.
    I get multiple requests to illustrate someone’s book and after having illustrated two books, which took about two years of my time, I say “no thank you”, and “when your book is published they will match you with an illustrator”.
    I got a request for a mural last summer; something I hadn’t done for years—and because the subject matter was in line with what I do, and I really like the people, and knew they’d be easy to work with, I took that job!

  26. I work primarily in oil and my training is in what’s popularly called “old masters” technique. In the past two years I’ve had two commissions.Each commission included an image of the client and in a way, was more like an illustration.One commission was more in line with my way of painting.The other was based upon a style the client liked which was way, way, opposite of how I work. I was a little nervous because both clients were willing to leave things up to me even when I suggested they look at the paintings from time to time before completion. I guess I was lucky because both clients really liked my work. In regards to
    the one who liked paintings that didn’t match my style,I was able to strike a balance by showing him paintings by other artists that didn’t represent my style but that I felt confident I could pull off reasonably well. The fun part was asking questions of the client such as, what were you feeling at the time, what was the weather like, and so on. This actually bridged the communication and helped me kind of get inside of their heads and pretend I was them while painting.

  27. I have been asked three times- the first two were for very large abstracts. I’d never done abstracts before- but like you said with people thinking artists can do anything, they said “you’ll figure it out”. I didn’t even charge much for the first one- I thought it was horrid. Turns out the man was willing to pay $2600 had I asked. He enjoyed the piece. I think I sold it for $250.
    Recently I had a commission for a piece I thought I could do, but again that “you can do anything” came up. But what I can’t do is copy someone else’s work. That wasn’t understood and I couldn’t come up with something in my style she liked. She wanted that other exact piece but it had already been sold. Ah well- I got practice in the subject and a lot of likes (though no sales).

  28. My experience was a bit different, the client loved my painting, asked for the price and she was ok with it, but then she asked if I could change a circle in the painting to a rectangle instead, as the painting was an abstract I thought that would be no problem she then gave me an idea of color, I did exactly what she wanted but I did something very stupid, I did not get a down payment for the painting. She came back a few days later and said she did not want the painting after all. I still have the painting and even though I have gotten interested people in it, I will not sell it, I keep that painting in my studio as a reminder to never do something like that again, You either like the painting or you don’t, She did not even apology. Good lesson.

  29. I’ve only done this a couple times. I pretty much work in abstracts, but did realistic sketching when I was younger. One friend asked for a fairly specific landscape years ago and I did it in a style comfortable to me. She loved it. The other was fairly recent; a friend asked me to paint a beloved cat from a small faded Polaroid. This was a much bigger challenge, but I knew it meant a lot to the family, and took the time to create not only the cat, but the interesting setting behind him. I’d heard lots of stories about him and tried to bring his personality to it. It took longer than I wanted it to, because I started over a couple times until I had something I that had real life to it, especially in his pose, face and eyes. I learned a lot from it, and although I’d never do something like that again, it was a good stretch. The family loved it – with tears in their eyes, they said I’d totally captured his spirit. No regrets, but I’d probably suggest another artist for future requests.

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