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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72 Comments

  1. There’s also the possibility of trying to create what the collector is commissioning, and then they feel disappointed because it’s not what they imagined. That can lead to all kinds of problems and can put everyone in a very uncomfortable situation.

  2. I had a double whammy one year that haunts me today. Your comments on this subject is very helpful!! I did turn down a commission. I hated to disappoint a promising collector. It was very much like your example but she included a hunting cabin. I told her I just didn’t have time for such a venture. It was Christmas time and I cut off all commissions by the middle of October if they are wanting it for Christmas gift. I have thought of contacting her to see if she got what she visioned from another artist. Would you do this?

  3. I get requests all the time for portraiture, architectural renderings, cars, motorcycles, tattoo designs and other subjects that you will never find on my website. I’m a landscape, seascape and still life painter and it really amazes me that people request things that are not remotely related to anything I do. Most do not want anything else that I may suggest. I have some artist and illustrator friends that I sometimes pass the clients information onto with their permission of course.

  4. This is when I take the opportunity to promote other artist friends. If we don’t help each other, then karma (or whatever you want to call it) can work against us. I know artists who can paint the aspens and the moose, and I would share the referral.

  5. This may sound odd, but I personally have no interest in commissions. I’ve worked long and hard as a writer and now an artist in a world where there are too many people who just can’t/won’t be satisfied. If the work I’m doing catches their eye and someone wants to buy something, I’m delighted and make sure they know this. If by some chance I’m asked to do a commission – and I have a couple of times – I just kindly let the inquirer know that “what you see is what you get.” (In different words, of course.) And I’d never entertain the idea that I can paint something outside my usual style – abstract expressionism.

    In my experience trying to be all things to all people rarely ends well.

    1. Yes, this sounds like me. I do commissions for people who have bought my art and ask for something very similar to the things they purchased. But, I rarely do commissions. I am too busy starting and completing my own ideas. I do refer and am happy doing it.

  6. I once accepted a weaving commission for a friend that liked what she saw of my completed pieces. I discovered (after saying yes) that having to meet someone else’s expectations completely paralyzed me. I vowed that if ever again someone asked for something specific I would (if it sounded interesting) agree to do what I thought might work, but that first we would agree that if they didn’t like what I had done, they were in no wise obligated. I wouldn’t have to feel bad, because I would have made it clear that I would still be working in a way that pleased me. This would leave me with a finished product that I would still be happy to present to others if the requesting person decided it didn’t work for her.

    1. That’s what I do as well. I know the projects that excite me and this way I’m not really turning down a client, just helping them find the best way to get what they are looking for.

    2. I have used this 100% guaranteed policy with two very unique commissioned pieces for dear friends. Working on creating these works caused me to research how to use unusual materials. In the end, I learned a great deal and my clients were very happy with the results. Well, actually, I only sell my art as 100% guaranteed, and so far I have only had a single pair of earrings exchanged for a different style.

  7. Personally I think that attempting to do something ‘not in your style’ may expand your horizons and allow you to move forward instead of staying in just one spot. Although few of us can claim to be Michelangelo–he painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling all the while reminding the Pope and the Cardinals that he was a sculptor–not a painter.

  8. It is up to the artist.
    .
    I used to hire a lot of artists for jobs back in the 1980’s in L.A. I finally settled on a system that worked for me. I would try out artists that seemed to have potential and tell them I’d pay them a set fee for the materials only if I decided their product was not for me.
    .
    I’d also take a look at the art in different stages, such as the pencil outline and when the paining was partially done. No use fooling round if they can’t do the work. They would keep the materials fee and the art. It varied from $25 to $50 materials fee.
    .
    Artists in general are a pain to work with. Some had a great portfolio and they did sh work when they were off their specialty. Just no telling. I’m glad I’m out of that area of work and only have to deal with my own photography now.
    .
    If someone asked me to do a job, I’d tell them no. I only do what I love, even if is for free, versus doing something I have no interest in for $.

    1. ” Artists in general are a pain to work with?” If that’s your opinion, I’m glad right along with you that you’re “out of that area of work.” In my own experience, people are usually only difficult if they are not communicated with clearly or are not treated with kindness and respect.

  9. Whenever I am asked to create ironwork for someone I always make sure I get photos of the surrounding. That way the style and expression fits. The moose/aspen painting might need a serious infusion of personal tint. The artist might want to make a real close-up of the moose nose with whatever color or abstract modification. Yellow background symbolizing the fall aspen color. I am thinking of a friend who likes to do cows, but they are all electrified with wild color, raised hair and electricity in the air. I think the artist might be successful with a sketch to show what it will be. Many people have not enough phantasy to envision something, that’s where the conventional moose/aspen image comes from.

  10. I love this suggestion, thank you. I tell clients to look through my work online or in my portfolio. If they love what they see, they will love what I do for them. I have also sent many people to other artists I know who do something more along what they want if it is not in my area of work. Offering sketches is the way I work as well. Usually at no cost, however lately I have asked for a small deposit ($200) which will be applied to the finished piece. This shows intent on the clients part. If they do not like any of the sketches, I return their deposit. My clients are involved during several steps of the creation of an artwork, and I endeavor to give them a clear idea of their expected artwork. As for return of the deposit, this has not happened to date, but it is good to let all parties know this. It takes a lot of courage to commission an artwork and I admire clients who have the vision to do this!

  11. I agree. Don’t take on work that is outside your work process.
    When I was just out of school and teaching locally I made contact with a small gallery that specialized in landscape and “nature”. She showed a couple of my pieces. Then- one day she asked if I did commissions. (I was of course thrilled until-) It was to be a surprise portrait for a “dear friend”. I said I would need at least 3 photographs close up. No problem I’m told. The result was one polaroid with the subject in an autumn scene- face in shadow. “I can’t do this from this photo.” “You promised me you could and you’re a graduate from art school.” “I can’t see her face.” “I can tell you what she looks like and besides, I promised her husband this would happen.” (I set to work and it was totally unsuccessful) I had to remove my work from the gallery and about a month later a private adult student of mine asked what happened- so news of my “inability” had been spread around town.
    The second commission was a 4’x6′ tapestry for a church and was very successful.

  12. Molly said almost word for word what I would have said. Basically what you see is what you get. I do not do commissions because it’s too hard to know what the potential customer is wanting. What they describe I usually imagine differently.

  13. Something else that really irritates me. “Can you paint me copy of this Thomas Kinkade?” Or they ask for any number of copyrighted works by other artists. People in general have no concept of copyright laws and the penalties that can result from violating the law. My website clearly states;

    Q. Will you copy a mural or painting that I saw somewhere else?

    A. No, I honor the copyright of other artists and turn down work that is violation of federal copyright law. I design murals that are unique. That means I do not paint Sesame Street or Disney characters or any other copyrighted material that could result in a lawsuit for my client and myself.

  14. I was recently asked to do a painting with multiple figures in specific poses without the benefit of photos or live models. I’m a landscape painter. They said that they had every confidence that my God given ability would kick in and the result would be great. My response was that this was not a good fit for me and I hoped they could find the right artist to do justice to their vision.

    1. Leah, I was asked the same thing – a family group on a local beach, as a surprise wedding present. It was for a client who has commissioned work in the past so after some misgivings and a lot of discussion I took the work on. I had to work from multiple family photos, some taken years before so I did lots of sketches and a digital draft of the final composition. I took a 50% deposit before embarking on the final painting. There was lots of tweaking from the client (Grandma is shorter than that, Lucy has red hair now, etc). I hated it, although I finally produced something the client was very happy with. Never again!

  15. I’d tell the doctor’s wife that I could direct her to a gallery that has a stable of artists working in that genre – preferably one near her vacation home. It wouldn’t take much time to research. But I would take the time to research two prospective galleries that might fit, and leave one in your pocket. Why? Because if that first gallery doesn’t work out, the doctor’s wife will almost surely call you back.

  16. You need to simply ask yourself if you are an artist or an artist for hire? If you are an artist for hire and need the income, then do whatever. I’ve done both and my own work is much more satisfying to me.

  17. I used to turn down commissions as a matter of course, I now, however, consider the commission carefully… If it is within my style, I will do it.. If it is something I can do justice to, I will do it… If it’s something I feel another artist could do better, I always refer the client to the other artist (swings and roundabouts).. At the end of the day, the client is purchasing an artist’s name… They are buying an “xyz” – not a painting per say… Sometimes it’s good to push your boundaries, but never to sell your soul…

    1. “Sometimes it’s good to push your boundaries, but never to sell your soul…”
      Well said, Nicole. (And each one knows the line where they sell their soul.)

    2. I concur, Nicole, having taken on a commission that stretched my boundries and added to my portfolio. With that said, doing something with which you are not comfortable, will possibly result in a piece you are not proud of. Can’t unring the bell of bad advertising, which is what an unhappy client with substandard work will be.

  18. Jim Theriault
    I have created quite a few pieces that were not in my style. I really like to attempt them and use them as a learning experience. The ones that give me the most trouble are the ones I learn the most from. What I do in these situations is tell the customer what my style is and how I work. Then I suggest to them that I make something similar to what their idea is but in my style. I don’t ask for a down payment ( which I normally would), and about half way through I would contact them and if they like the work/ concept they can purchase it ( that’s when I accept a down payment to lock in the piece) Otherwise I will finish it in a way that pleases me and sell it someplace else.

  19. I was contacted by a designer who saw my encaustic work at a place where I’ve installed a few pieces. She “loved” the work and wanted me to do a huge piece that she would be able to place with a client of hers. I wrote to her telling her I am unable to work that large in my studio, suggested she use two or three smaller pieces to fill the space she needed and suggested she pay a studio visit to see the work in person. We set a time and date, and I never heard anything from her again. Do I reach out again, or just chalk it up to experience?

    1. Joy J. Rotblatt, you dodged a bullet there, the designer who didn’t respect your time would not have been a good client. You were smart to suggest smaller pieces and super nice to invite her over to educate her, you did all you could. Let it go.

  20. If you have a gut feeling that something isn’t right, then it probably isn’t. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ignored my instincts and gone ahead with something to keep from disappointing someone, and it turned out to be the wrong thing to do. In Stephan’s case, he had the right instinct that told him not to do the piece, but his kindness (and wanting to do a commission) took over and he didn’t want to disappoint. Some people can be very pushy and try to guilt you into something you don’t want to do. Go with your gut, always, I say. You can push your boundaries in countless other ways.

  21. I personally choose not to do commission work. I think it’s almost impossible for someone to paint someone else’s vision. They think they’re articulating perfectly what they want, but what the artist envisions from what the client says is often very different. It’s just not worth the grief. I’m happy to suggest another artist to them though if I feel they might be able to paint what the client is looking for.

  22. I have had requests like this, requests that are way outside of my style. I find it so odd, yet if I was not an artist maybe I would expect that an artist is able and willing to do any style.

  23. I too just ‘pass on’ any commissions that aren’t pretty much what I do normally.
    Then there is no pressure nor struggle to ‘please’ the patron. It seems good and natural to do your ‘own thing’ and, in time, that too grows and changes. There is usually an artist out there that you know who would love to have the commission.
    As for the ‘mouth’ above, Mr. Teoli Jr., just be thankful he’ll never work with us !! :>)

  24. If I turned down every request for a custom commission that went outside my comfort level, I’d still be making the same little wire dragons and unicorns that I did in the 1970’s. Accepting new challenges – wolves and tigers, birds and reptiles, then humans, portraits, botanicals, architecture, signage, microbes, abstracts… compelled me to continue my personal growth and artist expertise.

    The commission that took me furthest from my “safe” subject and stray preferences was a set of wire illustrations for BBC Cable News, via BBDO/NY. They wanted disturbing scenes from the news – riot cops breaking up a peace rally, etc. I immersed myself in it, found the most expressive lines to convey the intensity of emotion… and that “BBC Cables” campaign swept the circuit for every top international award. Clio, Cannes Gold Lions, you name it… I won it!

    So when a prospective client suggests going outs die your comfort level, remember… that’s where the growth happens.

  25. How about graciously saying I appreciate your confidence in my abilities, but that is not my area of expertise, then pointing the collectors to someone who DOES paint moose and Aspen. We all have artist friends, and it would not be any skin off the back, so to speak, particularly if th collector has purchased several pieces.
    Good will, win – win.

  26. Style is very different from subject matter we normally would not seek to paint. I’m a traditional realist painter and people often react to that rather than what they want painted.
    I am delivering a pet portrait this week, which is something I really don’t care to do … but the gentleman was such a sweetheart I agreed to the commission. He’s happy, the painting was easy to execute, and it’s bumped up from my normal bread and butter. You’ll never see a pet portrait on my website because I would rather not … several have come my way and I have done a few. But oh, I’ll do livestock in a heartbeat!
    This scenario is a perfect opportunity to support your local art community. “Thank you so much for your confidence, but I really don’t do that. May I introduce you to an artist who does?” My artist friends each have their specialty and I know who to refer for a mural, a pet, a less expensive Hill Country landscape, etc.
    The situation may get into a discussion about artistic vision for a particular space. You’re almost functioning as a consultant and bumping into the decorating field. Your expertise is valuable and the whole endeavor may not make you a dollar … but goodwill may arise again in the future. Pay it forward ….

  27. I am a photographer who does a lot of landscape and wildlife work. Recently I had a sale of an image that turned itself into a commission of sorts. The client fell in love with a soft focus photo of a grove of aspens, but as we discussed size (he wanted it “as big as you can make it”), he indicated that he wanted the yellows and oranges brighter. OK, no problem. Can I lighten the bark of the trees a bit so they were more white? OK, no problem. Little by little I found myself doing extensive retouching on the piece to make the aspens white, the leaves blazing yellow and orange. Hours of work after the price had been agreed upon…incrementally added. Next time? Take the photo as is, or let’s discuss in advance what you are REALLY looking for before we settle on a price.

    1. I had that same experience years ago. I agreed to do a painting of what seemed, at the time, to be within the normal range of my style/subject matter/medium, etc. Little by little the client started adding “things” that were not big in themselves, but we’re big in their totality. It seemed like the client wanted to be the artist and I was just his medium. That experience formed my opinion today, which is I rarely do commissions. Art is all about what is in artist’s own mind and soul, and nobody else can possibly get in there.

    2. Lin, I have a limit to the number of revisions that I will do in the contract. Then a reasonable fee for revisions beyond that number. Learned this the hard way. It sets expectations for both sides of the equation.

  28. Good topic, and for me personally, I am always compelled to gather more info and often the request is portrait in nature….. and I’m flattered but NOT a portrait artist… so… gently offer gathering several peers that “specialize” for my client.

    I’d rather have a happy client and build relationships than a quick dollar. Yet, gratitude is always expressed. It’s worth my business
    Name and does pay off. Lots of Thank you ‘s …

  29. I am most certainly not at a top level of creating but I did try to go outside of my box in a personal project piece. A fellow local artist thought she wanted it in the beginning,but it was too realistic at the end. So she asked if I was willing to try another one,same subject,but a bit more loose and borderline abstract. I was willing,I tried it,and I found it to be very inspiring and helpful. And she loves it! But like I said,I’m only barely four years into this art scene so a bit different because I’m still in the exploration stage. But I am generally a more realistic artist.

  30. I even had somewhen request I duplicate a painting as a mural for an out of state home!i like your suggestion but I also refer them to someone I know who is a better match

  31. I was asked just yesterday to paint a portrait from a wedding picture. Me : ‘Did you really looked at what I do?!!!’. (Abstract)
    I’ll follow your advice and do better next time. Your blog is often a good help for the tactless person that I am. Thanks.

  32. Jason-
    Once again you have come up with a subject many of us have encountered and
    finished a reasoned reply. Thank you.

    By the way, I am about half done with an acrylic painting of a moose wandering
    thru the aspens in fall.

  33. At this point in my life I would rather not do commissions. My paintings reflect my own interpersonal feelings and not others I would find it difficult to articulate and paint what they are feeling and therefore I doubt they would be happy with my work. I would recommend another artist who does commissions.

  34. I usualky refer these types of requests to my fellow artists depending on their expertise. I paint pretty much everything but my commission work is 95% pet portraits.

  35. I have recently been asked if I could be commissioned to do some landscape photography. This is very different than my usual landscape (deserts and ice). I’m nervous about it but like someone commented, sometimes its good to push your boundaries. I think of vineyards, etc., and think of the lines, etc., and I think about the similarities to what I have typically photographed (and my work that this person has seen). I am in process of completing the proposal but am nervous, but I do feel like I can use a lot of my technique on a different type of landscape. In the end, if I don’t capture anything worthwhile, I won’t charge him. I’m looking at this as a way to push myself, extend my capabilities, and potentially expand my portfolio.
    Alternatively, I continually get asked to do portraiture, either professional, pregnancy, or other. And I reluctantly accept. Most of these people I know however, and I am very upfront with them – this is not my specialty and I don’t know what we are going to come up with but we can go out and give it a shot.
    It is unlikely I would take this approach with anyone I don’t know to some degree. In those cases, I would be honest and say that this is not where I specialize.

  36. Absolutely wonderful advice! I think the bottom line here is that “full time working” artists need to take on commissions for bread and butter. None of us want to “sell our soul” but often we need to approach that area to survive in one of the most difficult professions out there. I don’t think Renoir liked painting portraits all the time, but he did it to survive.
    A friend of mine who is a very creative ceramist who loves to develop new glazes based on very old methods has the best advice: “Some and some”. He didn’t want to make mugs and dish sets on commission, but sometimes you need to pay the bills. Do what you love, and do what you need to do. As an added bonus, sometimes we learn a lot by working outside of our comfort zone.

  37. I’m a photographer who mostly does landscapes and flowers, with alternative methods thrown in (Mordancage, cyanotypes, etc..). When I had a regular job, the photography was my sanity release. Most of the people I worked with asked me at least once if I could take some family portraits. Um, no. I usually referred them to friends I had who were great portrait photographers. I’ve done a little darkroom work for other people as well, with mixed results. One person wanted real darkroom prints from glass plate negatives they had and those were fun and easy for me. A tougher one was when a friend wanted prints made from her negatives in her style. She showed me digital versions and then I had to match what she wanted in the darkroom. Technically, it was fairly easy, but it was the exact opposite of what I would have done. But she loved them.

  38. When I am asked to do a job outside of my normal realm, I first ask if the potential customer is familiar with my work. If I know of an artist who is a better fit, I recommend that artist. If not, I ask for more specifics about what they have in mind, because this helps me understand the job and understand how they communicate. I think about whether or not I can figure out how to do what they are requesting. If they are reasonable people who communicate well and understand my limitations, I often accept these jobs.

    As a fulltime artist in a rural, poor and uneducated county for 25 years, I am established as reliable and professional, and I am still hungry enough to say yes when able. The odd jobs provide new experiences, income, and a fun topic for my blog.

  39. As it turned out, after numerous sketches, what the client REALLY wanted was something that would match her bedspread – needing the $$, I did just that (YUK!)- then she wanted to know if I could personalize some dog dishes, etc… – she also, being fairly affluent, had quite a few originals from well-known impressionists, which her husband had bought stored in her closets… not to her taste (or didn’t match her bedspread?) Oh my – righteous outrage swallowed, here, but that was Hopefully) my last attempt at ‘fitting in’ to someone else’s concepts – LOL. I paint to share my self ,my joys, sorrows, and dreams- and that works well for me, no “luxuries” but happy with what I have, can do TODAY – born to be a “grasshopper” I guess

  40. Thanks Jason. This was very informative and reassuring.
    I do get requests from time to time for things that are out of medium and style, and am very honest about what I do do, what I don’t do, and what I love to do. I do, however, acknowledge their thoughts and ideas.

  41. Thank you so much for the insight – I get often asked for commission work on areas that I do not want to go and have accepted them occasionally. Your wording however is very kind and I will be incorporating it.

  42. I also do “some & some.” Mostly I work on my own ideas/images, but do commissions on things that seem interesting to me even if it is not my normal “style.” I usually try to match another artist up with requests that seem too specific and different from my work. I have had things go either way. Some horrible experiences, usually for “friends.” With strangers, it is easier to be business-like. Some commissions outside my comfort zone have led me down interesting paths I would not have discovered.

  43. I created works out of my comfort zone on two different occasions. One was a Mural that I explained to the customer was a pilot project and I did not know how it was going to turn out. He agreed and I completed it. It turned out wonderful. The only thing is that I purchased mural paint and the colours faded after a few years even with a top coat. I am still unsure why and for that reason I am only sticking to my wheel house of paintings Oil on Linen.

    The other customer wanted a stud portrait of her horse. A very realistic painting. My style was painterly and non-representational. I again explained that this was not my style and if she was willing to go through a learning curve with me I would be willing. I was curious by the challenge and took my time painting the protrait. Again, her and her partner were so pleased with the painting that it actually sent me in a different direction with my artwork. I now paint very realistic and I love it.

    You can have bad or good experience trying something new. Just make sure you are upfront with your client and sometimes they may surprise you and you may surprise yourself.

  44. As far as working outside my comfort zone, I definitely refer people to artist friends who would be more adept at the genre.

    As far as commissions, I ask for 50% down, non refundable, and do 3 different paintings for the person. I find people feel a higher level of comfort and satisfaction when they are able to say “No” to one thing which greatly enhances their appreciation of their “Yes”
    So far this has worked wonderfully.

  45. Good advice! If you are an established artist and set with your style, etc. But if you are still in the stages of developing your style or deciding which avenue is best for you, definitely take all opportunities. I have found that every opportunity that I have accepted has taught me immeasurable new things that I have incorporated into my work, stimulated my creative thinking and made me a much better artist. It has also helped me to define where I want to put the emphasis in my creative life. I am a photographer, not a painter, so I have a lot of leeway in what to do with it. I have decided recently that I love the challenge of doing customized pieces that bring joy to the buyer and that lets me feel like they really got that unique piece they couldn’t find anywhere else. In the process, I am still able to put my unique touches on it to make it mine.

  46. Most of my art is commission work. I am up for the challenge. I believe in myself. I give a quote and take 30% down to start. Then they can have a view of the idea. I am a sculptor, and not really a painter, so when people ask me to do a painting, most of the time I refer them to some really great artist friends. Other times, I am up for a challenge, but I will do it in my own style. At times, I have taken something on and wondered how the heck am I going to swing this. But, with a little research and a lot of “no fear of failure”, I go for it. And surprise myself. What have I got to loose, cause ” I put my heart and soul into my work and lost my mind in the process a long time ago. lol

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