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.

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, 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.


  1. I have had awesome experiences with commissions and they often go very well. It is as you explained Jason that you have to be prepared. This is about business and it is not a personal thing with the artist. Business can go sour when we artists take our business personally. I now allow another individual handle the process for me. It allows for a very professional experience with the client and it allows me to keep my personal and emotional baggage out of the process. This other person does not take the process personally and has no problem walking the client through the process. Awesome blog entry Jason!

  2. I’ve had pretty good experiences with commissions. All the things you’ve mentioned are definitely key for a successful and smooth project. All of my sales to date have been commissioned work (I’ve been selling for just over a year). One recent commission proved a little difficult, but it’s made me realise that I need a written contract to state some simple facts to cover myself and the client.

    Great blog post Jason.

  3. Very good advice Jason. I do a lot of commission work and enjoy the interaction…but then I was an ID major in art school and solving aesthetic problems is automatically part of the client process. I was stiffed only once and that was bc the sailor (my client) didn’t flatter him enough. I stopped doing figures and stick to my atmospheric marine work.

  4. We use a proforma contract always at my gallery, and personally I want one when I am doing commissions so everything is spelled out, including that the reproduction rights stay with the artist. I think the collectors really like this and respect our professionalism. We can always amend anything in the contract by writing in and initialing the change. We ask for between a 30-50% non refundable deposit depending on the size and scope of the work,and the cost of materials at commencement. I have never done point number five, where the collector could use the deposit toward another work, but I think this is a good idea if they balk or are not satisfied (never had a dissatisfied collector though). But, I would put a time limit on the use of this credit, probably 3 to 5 months. Artists are always changing things up, and so best to do this within a short time frame. Totally agree with the part about not moving out of what you are doing. I can do portraits, but am working abstractly now, and don’t want to go back in time with my work. I recommend doing a few compositional sketches at the onset, with colors and get approval before starting the final work. This is an extra guarantee that the customer has had a chance to approve the basic design and colors, and can prevent any disputes later. AND, the artist can then sell the small studies on paper, or even gift one to the collector if this is a major job. I once made cards using the image that was done for a wedding gift, to give to the recipient of the gift, this is a nice touch. Thanks for the good tips.

  5. A written contract, copy to client, copy to artist, signed by both, with all specifics spelled out has always worked well for me. In a way, getting the business part out of the way allows me and my client to relax a little and enjoy the creative process. I’m usually quite sure before I begin what my client wants so I don’t send progress images. Meeting today with a repeat client who wants a graphite portrait drawn of number two grandchild. Since she loved the one I drew of granddaughter #1, I know where we both stand on this project. She is bringing photo prints for me to look at. It will be a good commission experience.

  6. I do almost all commission work and follow all of the steps outlined above. Initially I sent progress photos and this is a HUGE mistake – most people don’t understand the artistic process and express concerns about missing finishing touches, etc. I don’t send a photo of the project until I have it where I think it is finished. Tweaking is then a joint effort if necessary and the client feels listened to and respected. I get much repeat business because of this.

    1. Lynda your paintings are so expressive. I don’t send progress photos either for the same reason as stated. With my painting, color is a dominant matter. Have been fortunate in that all of my commissions were jubilantly received.

  7. I had a client who bought several several paintings and asked me to do some commissions. She came to the studio every day or two and wanted to change everything. It was frustrating, then she said “Why is it that I love everything you do but when it is a commission, I don’t like it?” I said it is because you are trying to paint it yourself and leaving me out. She just laughed and said I was probably right. It cleared the air and she finally let me do the work. This was early in my career and I learned a lot from these experiences.

  8. This came at the perfect time for me….thank you, Jason! I have a major overseas collector who wants a big, big piece and although I have no concerns about the success of the actual piece (he wants a triptych), I have not yet talked price to him. My concern is giving him a good price while honoring and compensating myself the fact that it’s going to be a challenging process that will take months for me to complete. Any thoughts would be appreciated!

  9. I love commissions! They’re mostly from people who’ve seen my work so they know what they like.

    My first step is asking them which paintings they’re drawn to and why. I want to get a sense of the mood they’re after. If they want a wild seascape then I know they’ll like plenty of impasto technique, salt and grit etc.

    Sometimes a commission is to paint from a photograph. The challenge there I find, is in livening up a photo that might be quite tedious (I do often paint from photos but I use my own photos which focus on the effects I’m interested in).
    The other challenge is drawing figures/people, I find this to be a very sensitive process if I’ve not met the people in question.
    My approach is to ask if I’ve got it right, can they be honest about what I’ve captured etc. For one commission with a very vague group of figures, I made what was in fact a boy look too ‘girly’, I didn’t know the gender. Luckily the commissioner pointed this out so I could change it, but not everyone will be so blunt.

    Money-wise, I tend to ask for a third up front, and the rest at the end. Though if it was a really huge work costing a lot of money, I’d probably work up some basic sketches for them to choose, charge a small fee for that, then ask for the rest in two installments with a check -in to show progress.

    I also ask if there’s a particular date they need it by, which is essential of course for someone’s birthday or similar. But even if they don;t have a date in mind I’ll decide one, and I’ll also let them know when I’m sending the first jpeg.

    I like it if a client says something like ‘can I have more atmosphere please? More crashing waves etc’. I’m happy to tweak until they’re pleased, though sometimes it works anyway.

    As far as personal creative expression, I’d never choose a subject I’m not familiar with, or if the commissioner asked me to paint in the style of another artist I wouldn’t be interested.

    I have one coming up for a wild seascape showing the Bass Rock on the east coast of Scotland, one of my favourite subjects, also he’s very clear about the atmosphere he’d like, so that’s what I’d call a perfect commission!

  10. As usual, Jason, your advice and counsel is spot on. I’ve done a number of commission assignments for private collectors and for corporate offices. My personality fits well in your first point, as I was a business person long before I launched my art career. I have done my commission assignments slightly differently, however. I allow the client to have a little more input upfront and in the early stages of the painting, when it’s still relatively easy to make alterations to color and composition. But I do make it clear when accepting commissions that this is a custom piece being created for the client’s particular desire and the sale is final. Period. I do charge a premium for these pieces do to the collaborative process. Still, in the end, I let the client know that the piece will reflect my style and won’t be exactly what they may have in mind… but remind them that this is why they chose me to do their painting. Cheers and keep up the great work.

  11. The article and the reponses were all very helpful. Commissions can be viewed as sharing of the creative process and recognizes as such. Meeting the needs of the client become much more important than when an artist has full art reign.
    Personally, I hve found tht the portraits are the most challenging. Matching up an artists interpretation with the expectations of the client is a delicate process, and not for the faint at heart. Great article.

  12. Rick
    Does the gallery give the deposit to the artist so he can buy the supplies needed for the commission , especially if it is a very large commission where supplies are expensive, or does the artist only get paid after the commission is completed.

  13. Most all of my commissioned pieces are portraits, both human & pets. I work from the client’s personal photographs. If it is a new client I use a simple contract:1/3 down (non-refundable), 1/3 on upon approval of sketches, (non-refundable) and last 1/3 at completion of the portrait. This has worked very well for me.

  14. My first husband, an artist also, learned the way that he handled commissioned work from his teacher who was a very well respected Philadelphia painter. He split the fee into thirds, letting the client know that he was the artist, period. The first third was a non-refundable ‘deposit.’ When the work was about 1/3 to 1/2 done, the client was “allowed” to view the piece and pass on it at that point or pay an additional third of the payment for him to continue. The final payment was due upon completion. If the client didn’t like it, fine, he didn’t pay the final price and the piece was the full possession of the artist.
    Hard line, for sure, but in all the years I knew him, he never had a problem.

  15. This is timely, as I am due to deliver my first large commissioned piece on Thursday, a 3x 8 foot triptych on canvas for a foundation. Having this information before undertaking this project would have alleviated some of the stress I am now feeling. I have received approval of photos of the three paintings, but have not asked for a deposit, so it will be sink or swim on the day. Fortunately, I should be able to sell any of the three individually, or all together to another buyer. There are so many psychological aspects to doing commission work! I have enjoyed the challenge, have already sold a set of full sized giclee prints of the paintings, and am well prepared now for the next time, thanks, Jason.

  16. Thanks again Jason for these words of wisdom. #5 is the most brilliant concept!!! Everybody wins that way. #7 and #8 also particularly resonated with me.

    I am a mixed-media artist. My very favorite commission was having the clients come to my studio and actually help to build the sculpture. I brought out many of my pre made pieces of clay and glass, and laid them on a wooden board the desired size and shape I let the clients choose some of the colors and shapes that they particularly enjoyed from my pre made collection of bits and pieces. The delighted look on their faces was precious and the knowledge that they had a pretty good understanding of the ingredients of the sculpture that I would then create for them was reassuring to both parties. I was given carte blanche from that point on to complete the sculpture. Of course, I emailed them pictures of the work in progress to make sure everyone was still on the same page. It was a truly wonderful experience.

    I had a couple of negative experiences when I first to did commission work, but I soon learned how to make it a win – win situation for both of us. I wish I had had Jason’s step-by-step instructions before I started commission work!

  17. Great post as always Jason! I do a lot of commission work myself as a wildlife artist (in fact I am at this very moment going to a meeting with a client to talk over all of these things, so fantastic timing!). I absolutely agree with everything you have said although I do recommend a basic contract just so the buyer has a copy in writing and you can’t get caught out (yes I have had run ins with clients in the early days, so I also specify what will be done exactly if they are unhappy). I also haven’t worried about asking for extra, although it was suggested to me by a gallery once that I ought to. So long as they pay a deposit so I know I will get paid for my work, I am not worried about any additional money. I already charge what I think my time is worth and research is part and parcel of what I paint. I also don’t follow point number six. I wouldn’t be painting at all if the deposit hasn’t been paid so I know I will be okay investing time into a piece and I like to view it as added experience plus a chance to show people my skill set. I don’t think it has made anyone question my brand as 99% still ask after the style I am most known for. I guess its like dabbling for an artist but a paid version. You don’t want to make a huge deal about it and mess up your brand image but there is no reason you can’t do it. So long as you are confident you can produce the piece. I think variety can actually hone an artists skills and help them create better work in the long run. I just have a separate gallery space on my website for things like that to avoid confusion and muddying my image. I did a series not that long ago where the first piece was already sold and a second ordered. They didn’t like the second piece as much but my local gallery loved them and has taken it and another two. A second client saw these and has commissioned me to do a larger one as well. So I am glad I took the gamble. I do think of that style as separate to my main image though. This month I am entering into a sculpture exhibition by invitation. Different again but at least the theme has been consistent!

  18. I have done some commissions, but on a very free basis. When someone likes my style, but hasn’t found just the right piece, I will discuss their wishes (size, subject, colors) and gladly paint several works that could fit the description. (Too many restrictions are fatal for my work). It is clear that I will paint something specifically for them, but make no stipulation that they have to purchase. Granted, a specific portrait or extravagant subject might not fit this scheme, but for my purposes, this fits just fine. When I then present two or three paintings from which to choose, the customer is delighted and may, in fact, choose more than one. The “leftovers” revert into that pool of art to sell. Nothing lost.

  19. Great advice and counsel, Jason. Thanks!
    I ask for 100% down for commissioned paintings, including a 5% – 20% fee, depending on the complexity of the work. I want my clients to be 100% on board so that I also can be 100% on board and I tell them that. I listen very carefully to what they want and I assure them that, if by any chance they’re not 100% happy with the work, that I will refund them 100%. I let them know that this has NEVER happened and that my commission clients have always been even happier with the work than they could have imagined.
    This is a pretty bold way to go I know, but it seems to work well for my cleints and me. Everybody’s happy!

  20. I love doing commission work. When people order a commission they already know my style. I don’t start until I receive a down payment. I have a FB art page and I post progress shots on there. People like this a lot. Then I ask if they would make a FB post with the piece when they receive it. Its great fun. I haven’t had any problems in three years of doing this.

  21. Thanks, Jason. I have done some commissioned work, and my comments have to do with #6 of your article: Don’t agree to do work that will not be sellable to another buyer. My commissions have been in the realm of portraits which I’m pretty good at. But portraits are very personal, and will usually not qualify as being sellable to another person. In addition, the requirement for likeness requires a much higher degree of time and effort and working with the client. Also, is the subject one person, or more than one person. These points have not been discussed in your article, or in the various comments here. Perhaps there will be another time for more on this subject.

  22. Jason, I agree with your comments and approach. I do many commissions, with 50% down payment, and the remainder due on completion. To show that I’m confident in my ability to deliver, I offer a money-back guarantee if the client does not want to accept the painting at the end. This means I have to be very selective on which clients I work with. So far, all my commissioned work has been accepted and paid for. Anyone who’s interested can take a look at my terms here –

  23. I’m pretty new to commissions so would love your advice please. Once you’ve done the commission can you re-sell that piece as limited edition prints? I would understand if it’s a portrait or something very personal to the client, that the answer would probably be no but just curious to get your thoughts in general. One Example would be – a lady wants me to paint her a picture of a meadow – she wants it the same as a painting she has seen on my website from ages ago, which fyi, wasn’t a commission at the time. So I was thinking of doing the painting as she wants but do I have the right to try and on-sell it as a print? Hope that makes sense and Thanks so much – Sally

    1. Interesting question Sally. Unless you have specifically sold reproduction rights, there wouldn’t seem to be an legal reason* not to use the imagery for a reproduction, but from a customer relations standpoint, I would suggest communicating with your client about your use of the image. Sell it as a positive, saying something like “I use my best imagery to create prints, and my painting of your meadow is, I feel, one of my strongest works. I am going to reproduce the piece and I would like to provide you with a copy of the print.” Your client should be flattered that their piece is good enough for a print and will appreciate the gesture if you provide them an artist’s proof.

      *I’m not an attorney – if you have questions about the legality or legal advisability of something you are considering doing, you should always consult an attorney.

  24. I’ve done well with commissioned pieces although some excite me and some don’t. A few never made my website although the client was thrilled … probably not my best work but that is personal criteria. I lay out a drawing on canvas before I ever apply paint … no surprises. I’ve never had a commissioned piece refused but have done minor changes; it is their idea and their painting. I insist on half deposit (nonrefundable) before I start, with the remainder upon approval and before delivery. You have to ask yourself if the piece is marketable if the client doesn’t accept it.
    If I sell a painting I’ve sold a painting … I did not sell marketing or reproduction rights of the image. The artist owns that by copyright law.
    Communication is essential with a commission. Although I’ve found a written agreement unnecessary it helps to lay out specifics, if nothing more than handwritten bullet points on a yellow legal pad; not because of a lack of trust but just so you completely understand each other. Most commissions are through acquaintances or referrals but a commission out of the blue might warrant one.
    I’m in the midst of a commercial piece right now that is a collaboration. It is not something I would have been inspired with but beyond the original painting our agreement will include reproductions.
    I might add a commission is harder if it doesn’t excite. It takes longer and I rarely enjoy it. If the concept doesn’t inspire me I have passed the commission on to other artist friends.

  25. Custom pet portraits are the mainstay of my art business, so of course, I do commissioned work all the time. I actually enjoy the process… meeting the pet and taking my own photos if possible. If not, I request a number of photos (and/or videos) to get a feel for the pet’s personality. I tell people that I don’t want to just paint a photo, but truly capture their beloved pet’s personality. I like being a part of people’s lives in this way and being able to provide them with an original work of art and keepsake.

    I’ve had good success for several years now, but there have been a few challenging moments. While I do the vast majority of my work in watercolor, I accepted a commission to paint a dog in oil. I didn’t realize at the time how switching mediums was going to be problematic. I am simply not as good with oil. Period. In the end I produced a portrait that they were thrilled with, but it took multiple “sessions,” where they came to my studio to art direct the piece.

    Two other commissions proved problematic, and they were both portraits of people. One was the deceased wife of a long-distance friend who wanted her painted as she was at the time of their wedding. So, I ended up working solely from photos without having ever met the model. Oh, and did I mention this was another oil request?

    The only more recent problematic commission was a watercolor of a couple who celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary earlier this year. Their adult children commissioned me to paint them as they were at the time of their engagement. I only had a handful of snapshots and none were very good in terms of providing clear depictions of facial features. I learned that I should have bowed out at that point, but wanting to prove to myself that I could do it, I persevered. It became a guessing game of sorts, trying to piece together a likeness of two people from various angles and lighting! After a couple of sessions in my studio, I was able to create a likeness and they not only approved, but thanked me for going beyond the call.

    I actually don’t request any money until I’ve finished the piece and this has never been an issue.

    Glad to be a part of this on-line community of artists! John

  26. For consideration; you may have a general understanding of copyright law but your customer probably does not. He may think he has the right to reproduce copies of the original painting he commissioned (or bought). I actually had a person say he was going to do that. He was surprised when I explained copyright infringement. I offered him the rights to do so figuring my cost, and half the projected profits of the image based on limited production. Understand this is a totally separate transaction. He declined. 🙂
    Certainly not the last word on the subject but the general concept:

  27. Once again Jason you have addressed this topic in with your typical thoroughness. I have done exactly 2 commissions in my career. One was a disaster, the customer gave me complete freedom to do whatever I wanted and when it was delivered I could tell he was disappointed. He did pay me, but I wanted his satisfaction more than the money. I took another commission just recently and even though the customers were happy, the process made me anxiety ridden and I don’t think the money was worth the stress. Your comment that “not every artist is well suited to doing commissioned work” made me feel better about my creative process. Thank you.

  28. Timely information. I am currently finishing a painting to be auctioned off for a great cause. I would like to retain “all rights” to the painting but, unsure how to word it on the form. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. I am new to all of this; and just getting back into creating art and finding my “own artistic voice”.

    thanks again and I am enjoying your posts.


  29. I’ve done well presenting a color sketch or Try out Artist .
    I work what the customer asks about sketches that I have in mind as future works , adapt the size and color you can define some work.
    Then I make a final sketch or if necessary a model.
    If it is not my style of work I am not accepted by the Commission .

  30. Great comments! I have had good experiences with commissioned work…except one which was stressful, not fun, and time consuming. . And it was for my best friend who owns three of my paintings. She wanted a painting of her grandchildren. I am a pastel painter who paints landscapes. Did I mention she has 11 grandchildren? Of course I said yes. 😬 There was no time table. It hung over my head like a black cloud. I dreaded starting it, I had to force myself into my studio. Lots of bad words come from my studio. But I finished it. I was not satisfied and decided to gift it to her. She LOVED it (the blindness of grandchild love) and insisted on paying me well for it. It hangs prominently in her home and I see it every time I am there. It still makes me sweaty. You will never see it on my website. ( Pay VERY close attention to #6!
    When I accept commissioned work I do two paintings. When I started this it was purely to help insure they would like at least one. I figure I can always sell # 2. In several instances the client has bought both! They can’t decide…and they find space for #2! In one case they called me back to buy #2 as a 50th anniversary gift. Dumb marketing luck on my part. Try it!
    I always tell prospective clients they are never obligated to buy it if they don’t love it. I feel it must speak to them. I think they feel relived when I tell them this. I’ve never had anyone reject a painting.
    Funny I would read this blog post today as I had a woman call today about a commission. She seems….um.. .odd…very odd. She wanted to know if she could watch me paint it. (That would be a firm no.). There is small voice telling me I should run away from this one….quickly. But…
    Thank you, Jason, for the guidelines. Will start to implement. Very professional and businesslike!

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