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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23 Comments

  1. I’ve done commission work and because I am a Batik artist, I don’t do any other art form for commissions. I used to do other mediums but have concentrated on this one.

    I usually do 2 pieces, somewhat different, for the client and they get to choose. I can always sell the other one. I do charge a 50% deposit and haven’t had any problems.

  2. I have only had one bad experience with a commission in over 14 years. The purchaser refused the painting because the colors did not exactly match her living room. I did not argue because it was an excellent painting. I made a few minor adjustments to the painting and sold it for more than I would have originally received. I also do not do commissions if I don’t feel the painting would sell on its own in my gallery.

  3. Good subject, Jason!
    I have done several successful commissions and also failed ones.
    The difference was always getting the deposit.
    If the client cannot agree or come up with a deposit, I have found in my experience
    they will not buy the work once it is completed.
    I no longer accept any commissions without a deposit even through Dealers,

  4. This artist can google Artist Commission Agreement to look at different forms for ideas. I have an
    easy to understand Artist Commission Agreement form on file that I use/ have used. It worked out well for me in the past.

  5. I have had two commissions. One a nightmare and failure. The other a success.
    The nightmare was breaking most of the suggestions you made and being one year out of school and invincible. It was a surprise portrait as a Christmas gift. I requested at least three well lighted photos. I got one enlarged polaroid of a face in shadow in an autumn landscape. Never fear- the gallery owner “knew” the person. I won’t say more except that the measley deposit was returned, I pulled all my work from the gallery, and kept an ear close to the ground for any hint of bad press. (there was none).
    The good one. A church wanted a tapestry. The priest found out that I was a weaver. We worked out a plan and the details. He got a couple to underwrite it. It was the traditional vertical tapestry technique and it took me 8 months. (I budgeted my time and told them it would be a year. The estimate on the cost was insanely low but I was not a tapester.) We were invited to a gathering of the commissioners and some of the church members (expenses paid for by the church). When I unveiled it, they were flabbergasted at how beautiful it was. Alas- I have only one photo of the work in progress and no installation shots. None of the principals are at the church and its story is probably myth. Anyway- a great success.
    I don’t do commissions on a regular basis and am just as happy.

  6. Last summer, about a year ago, my dance meditation teacher asked me to make a painting for her based on a sketch I did during our retreat in New Mexico. I was thrilled, honored, and nervous. That was the catalyst I needed to get me back into doing artwork, something that had fallen out of my life for 20 years. To make a long story shorter, it was quite a process, and resulted in a few more commissions from friends. Here is a link to an image of the painting and her beautiful and lengthy comments. (She is a writer, dancer, and also an artist) It has inspired me to become a professional artist. I have been making paintings ever since. I can see that it’s a long road, and I am a beginner. The idea of commissions excites me, as well as the idea of showing in galleries. I think the process should be carefully negotiated from beginning to end. When doing a commission, we want to give our client what they want, and we want them to be very happy with it, and to sing our praises.
    https://dancemeditation.org/2018/12/dunya-at-ravernock-painting-by-c-ryder/

  7. I have done one commissioned piece. It was within my scope of landscape – so that made me more comfortable. I did write things up. Jason I will email it to you. The one thing I did state was that it was to be paid for within something like 14 – 21 days. Otherwise, sold to who ever wants it. I didn’t want someone dithering for 90 – 120 or who knows when to finish up the deal. (spent the money elsewhere….)

  8. I’ve been painting and selling cloudscapes for the past five years. I am now part of a group of artists who hold outdoor shows near the Santa Fe Plaza nearly every weekend, mid-April through mid-October. I began offering to do commission work to the many visitors who eagerly pulled up images on their smart phones to show me sunsets and clouds they had photographed, most often during their trip to Santa Fe. I’ve done three this year. Two were accepted and purchased; the third was “an excellent painting but not what she had in mind.” I sold the rejected painting from my booth the following weekend.
    My approach is very casual and informal. I describe my offer as follows: “Wow, that really is beautiful. I do take commissions, and I would really enjoy the challenge of painting from your photo. I don’t ask for a deposit and you’re under no obligation to buy the work; but if you’ll send me the photo (by text or email) and tell me I have your permission to create and sell work based on it, I’ll send you an image when I’m finished. If you like it, you can buy it. If not, that’s okay; and I’ll be free to sell it to someone else.”

    1. Hi Diane, I went to your website and your cloudscapes are stunning! Keep up the good work, you are doing a fantastic job of capturing the ever-changing “living art” of our skies. My approach is the same as yours, and I think the opportunity to paint more works is never a loss, whether they buy it or not. But I bet everyone buys yours!

    2. This is much like my commission process. I ask for a deposit to cover materials, typically $100, and in exchange they get first refusal. If they do not want to make the purchase, they may apply the deposit to another work at any time.

      I like my work, so I am happy to keep it or sell it to another if it does not suit the commissioner.

      1. Thanks Jimmy, I like this approach, but it raises a question:

        Suppose you get two commissions in a row that are refused. How do you manage having two clients who may want to apply their pre-paid deposit to a new piece? First come first served?

  9. I am not the greatest fan of official commissions since they lock in my creativity and I have to work on a timeline. In my mind a commission means that I am obligated to create the superb piece for a client and that I have to keep it on a strict timeline. I am a perfectionist so this to me is stressful regardless of making a sale. So far, I have painted nine commissions however they might not officially be commissions. I do not want to commit but I do really enjoy creating art for a person that really desires it. What could feel better than a good sale or somebody wanting your work so much that they ask you personally if you could make something for them?

    I usually tell people I am very busy but occasionally I will take time out for variety in my schedule and choose to paint something different. I ask them what they had in mind.
    I feel similar to Gary Eckhart and his comment that “I only paint something that I know I could sell in my studio.” If the client asks for a reasonable subject my response is, “Hey, I am unable to commit right now, however, if I am looking for a break in my schedule, I might paint your suggestion. If I do this would you be interested in the painting and could I contact you?”

    So far, every client that I asked was thrilled about that idea and has said they would be excited to hear from me. So, this has worked for me and eight of the nine paintings have been sales. I do not increase the price it remains similar to others in that size range. The one sale that fell through was a gift for someone else (they since had a falling out with that person). I sold that painting off my website. A good thing though was the client said if I ever had time, she still loved my art and would like if I paint something for her personally. I like her subject suggestion so I will do that sometime in the near future.

  10. I have taken many commissions of golf courses over the years, and all have been fabulous experiences. Most were for the superintendents of the course, the caretakers of the land. Together we would ride the course and I would learn what areas were special to them and why, and I would share what areas inspired me as a painter. Together we would determine the subject. I would photograph it in various light and would share with them my recommended version. When they agreed, I would paint it, with colors and vibrancy that exceeded what you see in the photo. They would receive a bill upon completion, along with an image of the finished work, and then I would deliver it or ship it. I never asked for a down payment because in my mind it’s a leap of faith for both of us, good practice for me, and if they decided not to take it I could probably sell it to someone else, and would never regret the opportunity to paint a beautiful golf course. Maybe not “good business” but it feels like “good life” for me.

      1. Thanks Catherine! I appreciate it! Golf courses are designed by golf course architects who are truly artists at their craft. In addition to creating each hole to be an aesthetically designed thing of beauty, it also has to create a challenging and interesting field of play for the golfers. I have so much respect for the golf course architects who I have come to know and call my friends over the years, who strike the balance between art and science.

  11. I’ve done a couple of commissions, both well received, and neither time did I take a deposit, although I agree that it’s a good idea.

    I charge $100 extra for a commission because I make reproductions from my non-commissioned originals, and this to a very small extent compensates for the income I might have made on prints.

  12. I usually do not like to do commission work, but when I lived in Ohio I painted many commissioned watercolor paintings for realtors as thank you gifts to their clients. The subject was always of the buildings, which was an easy subject. I always photographed the buildings myself and often painted more than one version of the subject, that way the client could chose which painting they liked the best, this way everyone was satisfied and I could usually do something with the left over version. These commissions led to other commissions of public buildings, such as churches, and the not chosen versions were always easy to sell in local galleries and art shows.

  13. Through trial and error I’ve come to the same conclusions you have (so it was fun to go down the list and feel like I had some backup for my methods). While there’s some wiggle room on some of the points depending on the situation, the biggest one to follow for sure is to never let the art leave your studio until it’s 100% paid for. In my earlier years I tried to show my trust for people by allowing them to pay the rest after they receive the art. Twice I was taken for a lot of money by people I was “sure” I could trust. Sad, but it happens.

  14. I have done a few commissions. One was for a much enlarged version of a small abstract of mine which the client had seen displayed. As the original painting was the result of improvised brushwork including splashes, despite using the same materials and concept, it was almost impossible to reproduce the magic of the original image. The piece took many more weeks of intense effort to complete than anticipated, with far more input from the client needed at key stages to check that what was being created accorded with what had attracted her to the original painting. The other commission was a house portrait in watercolour. Seemingly straightforward, yet in practice hard to achieve exactly the details and atmosphere the client had in mind without many more alterations and modifications than envisioned. In summary, I’ve found that although connecting with a client’s own vision & creating to a brief can be enjoyable, commissions can take several times more time, effort and resources than you may expect, and you may have consider whether regular commissions are sustainable.

  15. I have had 2 commission from outside of my family. & the first one went very well, and the client invited me see the drawing framed & hung in the room she wanted it to be. This was really great to see the setting for the drawing.

    The next & newest one, I am working on right now, I asked for a down payment an a agreement was reached.

    I thank you for your help on this aspect of Art & business. I am still new to learning the “ How To’s “ Your information was very helpful.

  16. I have done quite a number of commissions and find it very interesting in many ways. The most recent ones where for a family who were part of a family farm. He wanted heritage paintings, being that these would be handed down through the generations of the family and could never be sold. Initially he wanted 2, one each for his children when he dies, and after returning from the farm there were 4 images that he loved so he said do four. One day he rang me and was concerned that when he died the children would get two each. I commented that it was a good idea as they would probably marry and have two children and leave the paintings to them and that way there would be no fighting between his grandchildren. He was happy with this, actually laughed and said it was a good idea!. He did want to come to the studio regularly to see the progress, often bringing other family members. That became a bit stressful at times. He would be clearly very pleased when he initially saw it then would sit down with the photos and go back and forth asking about each and every little detail. Its a good thing I am a detailed painter! I realized after a while that this was just getting too much and was not going to work toward a satisfactory work of art and so having already established a good rapport with him I tapped him on the shoulder, speaking his name. He looked up and said “Yes?” I said with a smile “If we are going to be this picky we really should just enlarge the photo”. Yes, it was a big risk but was well taken and he smiled and said “Fair enough” Everything was better from then on. This set of commissions was followed up by another 4 from another family member. They had each also purchased one of my landscape paintings and some small ones for gifts. Probably the biggest thing I would say is establishing a good rapport with your client is most important along with working out family dynamics. In this case that became very important. The family members who commissioned the second 4 have become personal friends and even invited me for Christmas one year. I find it a big honor and quite humbling to do this sort of work.

  17. I have done several murals for private clients and have recently begun taking oil painting commissions. I agree wholeheartedly with the process that you set forth. I learned the hard way early on that setting some limits at the very beginning with a written agreement is the most valuable step. when I was younger and newer at this, people tended to make umpteen changes on a work in progress and some of the people I did large murals for actually wanted me to babysit their kids while I was in their house! Writing a simple Contractual agreement has saved me many hours of frustration. While artists may be timid about asking for deposits and being assertive about what they are able to do and not able to do it’s way more stressful to have to address unhappy changes right in the middle of a project!
    I work very hard to establish contact with clients personally in their environment early on. It is so helpful to build rapport, brainstorm, assess their personalities and how they process information and ideas, and to really find out what they are looking for. (It’s not always what they tell you in the beginning.) Managing expectations is very important, especially if the client has never seen the painting process before. (I work a lot in the Colorist tradition and the first time somebody sees pink water and yellow sky as underpainting they think I have lost my mind.)
    I would say the most important thing is communication. As long as you can keep the client informed of the process, the better things will go. I always start out with a small study of the large work just so that we are all on the same page initially. I have found that to be invaluable. I also make sure that the client knows that the copyright stays with me.

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