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.

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

23 Comments

  1. When a client is so specific about what they are envisioning in a particular interior, I can pretty much assure you that if you are not exactly on the same page with them, that you will not be able to please them. Be upfront and honest with them, and tell them that you understand and appreciate their concept, however you are probably not the artist for them. If you do however feel that you could provide them with a composition which would work for them, and you do have the time to work up a preliminary sketch or something, then offer that option to them. Always remember that your time is valuable, and where you are targeting your energies is important to your success.

  2. I whole heartedly agree!
    I don’t think there is a lot else to say.
    I’m a coastal/marine painter but I don’t paint ships. When asked to do so I referred him to someone I know does work like that. Win, win as he referred someone back for a seascape.

  3. I have always almost said no to a request like this. One time, I was able to make a referral to another artists (for a dog portrait).

    If it’s something that is similar to what I do and I think it’ll be possible for me to “pull off” without much frustration, I then send that person my price list for various sizes of my work. Because that person isn’t education about what artists do in general, I usually find that they re a taken back by the price of original art. Sometimes not, but usually they are surprised.

    I haven’t done any commissions in years, but when I did, I made sure I don’t embarrass them by stating prices in a crowd or public event. I email them with samples of my work with sample prices (unframed and framed) and explain my procedure for doing a commission (half down to start when they approve a sketch) and the rest on completion. Major changes cost more as do multiple changes. I’ll do a bit of tweaking for free. This protects them and me from putting too much time into something that’s not going to work well for both of us and let’s them off the hook if they aren’t prepared to go through with it.

  4. I let them know I’m happy to consider it, I compliment their idea also. If I’m not the right artist for the job, I let them know that too. This is when it’s handy to have artist friends to refer.

    Nothing is worse than taking a commission that the person ends up not liking. I’d rather refer than be in that situation!

  5. I agree as well. But one such request was not for a piece of a different style but a different medium with which I was much less familiar. I recognized the value of learning to work in the other medium (wood rather than stone) accepted the commission with real doubts about how well I would do, and learned to work in the new medium. It was a scary proposition for me but well worth the extra time it took to climb up the learning curve. I’m glad I did it.

  6. I usually paint calm peaceful skies with the colours reflected in the water.
    I was commissioned to paint a large work by a regular collector with stormy skies and rough water. I wasn’t sure at first but he supplied me with some good reference photos so I knew exactly what he wanted. He also had great faith in my ability from previous works he had bought.
    I went ahead challenged but confident I could do it. It turned out great, and he loved it. So much so he got me to paint another large stormy scene he liked.
    I learnt that you sometimes don’t realise how far you have come until you are challenged.

  7. I was asked by a relative to do a landscape image years ago. She saw a drawing I did in high school, hanging in my aunt’s house and assumed it was the same drawing (an old family home, long abandoned). I wasn’t creating art at all at the time and was very reluctant. But I gave in. I was actually able to pull it off! My favorite style is abstract and expressionism, but I do enjoy the thrill of drawing figures, still life’s and nature scenes. Occasionally I get asked to do something out of my comfort zone, but I feel out the requester to see if they are sincere and if we are in the same page.

  8. Yep that is a tough one. In my experience, listening to what the client wants and building a relationship is key. Sometimes you know that what they envision wouldn’t look right or that you dont paint that style. However, combining their wants and your vision is the challenge and the fun part. The collectors I have worked with somehow have great confidence in my recommendations, lol. I think crystal clear communication throughout the process and reference photos and a plan for color scheme is the way to go. If we as artists are confident the clients will be too and so far all my commissions have been successful. I am still learning how to sell my art but I have learned in my past business career that it is all about consultative selling, listening and recommending with confidence. Good luck to all😊

  9. I was commissioned only twice in my career. The first time, he wanted a realistic rendition of a photo from Switzerland. It was an an easy job, but he said he ” thought the clouds would be darker”. I didn’t offer to change it, he paid for it, but I learned it’s not my thing. The 2nd time, she requested a painting in my style and gave me photos of Seattle landscapes as a reference. We both loved the painting in the end. I learned that when people ask me again, I say ” you know it will be in my abstracted style, with the colors I think will work?”
    I had a recent request to do a Godzilla painting from a friend. I still don’t know if he’s kidding because he’s very familiar with my colorful, geometric style!

  10. I have bee asked to replicate something I’ve painted in the past. I always try to explain that while I can capture the same mood or feeling I won’t be able to do an exact replica. This is especially true because I paint intuitively and my work is abstract.

  11. I usually try to recommend another artist that I think can fulfill the client’s desires. Sometimes their desires spark new directions for me to explore but I still refer the client to people more experienced in that area than I am.

  12. I once as a favor agreed to do a commissioned dog portrait from a photo. Dog portraiture is really not my thing. The dog was dead. The photo was terrible and when I asked for other photos they were worse. Nevertheless I did a sketch and he loved it, said it brought tears to his eyes but he wanted a bigger version.

    I scaled it up. He was non committal but said the likeness was good. I worked on it some more and texted the image to him. No response. I called and he said it really wasn’t what he envisioned.

    At this point I asked for a deposit if I was to continue. I know I know I should have done that earlier. He said he would mail it to me. It never arrived.

    I reworked the piece the way I would have painted it if it were up to me. I like it but so far it hasn’t sold. Lessons learned 1. Don’t accept commissions I’m not comfortable with. 2. Get a deposit up front 3. make the best of the situation.

  13. There have been occasions that I felt the process of commissions was fraught with landmines. Over the years I have done many commissions, and for the most part I enjoyed the process of bringing to life my client’s visions. But, there was a period of time when I was first starting out as an artist that someone asked if I could paint in a specific style, even worse, make a copy of a painting they saw somewhere, that they photographed. At first I couldn’t believe someone would ask me to do that, but then it did happen again, with another client a couple of years later. It’s sad to say, but you really have to be careful. If a client is asking you to work outside of your style perhaps all they’re looking for is an illegal copyist. Although, if you’ve been asked to depict a “subject” (landscape vs figurative, etc) that you’re not familiar with but the client likes your artistic “style”, then you should consider stepping out of your comfort zone and go for it, and use it as a learning experience.

  14. walk the other way, save yourself the grief. i have made that particular error many times and paid the price every time. sometimes its for family, friends, friends of clients and others just people wanting stuff. i now outright say NO INSTANTLY .

  15. I’ve had nothing but wonderful experiences with commissions, thanks largely to the kind of advice Jason offered above. I do the kind and quality of work that I do and I’m not interested in doing anything that lies outside that zone of interests and abilities. The bottom line for me is that if I can carve the kinds of sculptures I love to carve and can carve well, and if the price will warrant that work, I love to carve sculptures people want me to carve.

    One time in a gallery, a woman studied my honeycomb calcite Eternal Flame for a long time, then approached me. She wanted me to carve her a bathtub of the stone. Together, we looked deeply into the translucent stone of my sculpture, studying it not as a work of art but a 3D material. Suddenly, she realized that what looked like cracks in the translucent stone actually were what geologists call “healed cracks”. Her face lit up, she looked at me and laughed. We’ve stayed in touch for about 20 years.

  16. That’s interesting. I find myself in a similar predicament. I’ve moved away from impressionism and more towards abstraction but still representational–mostly landscapes. A person wants to commission me to paint one of her favorite views. That’s right up my alley. She also wants me to include several wildlife she’s photographed. That won’t work with my current style. I like the idea of offering an alternative to their original vision and giving them a quick sketch.

  17. First of all, I always appreciate Jason’s view of artist situations for I have found in the past he always has a fresh perspective. This is no exception.
    My answer here does not address commissions in particular but my thoughts here are related to this situation in general.
    This past weekend, I was visiting the big art fair in San Diego and was chatting with a collector who was inquiring about a certain type of work that they were looking for. Since it was not the kind of work I do I referred them to the gallery that carries my work for I know that they have other artists that fit the criteria that this collector was looking for. I think it is in my best interest to support the gallery that supports me so I consider my suggestion a win-win for all concerned.
    Cheers,
    Kaz

  18. As a muralist who has been doing this for 35 years, I’ve had to learn how to get out of my comfort zone and do what my client wants. Sometimes it’s really hard but I ALWAYS learn when I get out of my zone. Now that I’m doing more canvas painting, I feel like I have the experience to paint anything that strikes my or my client’s fancy. I don’t like to paint the same thing ad nauseam. I know galleries want a painter who paints the same thing or style all the time, but as an artist, I enjoy the stretch. .

  19. I have had this happen several times and it usually resulted in inefficient artistic abominations that would diminish the integrity of my brand if shown.

    These days I limit special requests to what’s already in my realm of expertise and evaluate what extra effort may be required.

    For glass art I am usually glad to make a regularly produced item in a different color, ie an octopus chandelier or damselfly. But I will not make a dolphin lamp or a preying mantis. Sometimes I have customers who knew me from my old art life when I made mostly garden sculpture and will be happy to revive old designs from which I have saved patterns. 3-D butterflies and a few of the flowers.

    For paintings this means I will only do landscapes and cityscapes, and adding in small pets or humans is pushing the limits but I’ll still more often say yes. I will NOT do portraits of pets or people, cartoons, or architectural plans. With those cases I refer them to another artist or take down the their contact information in case I do run across someone. In a couple cases I told them to go to upcoming art shows and find artists there who would likely be happy to take the job.

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