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. Wonderful Jason; Funny I just got the email this morning for a commission that I donated through Rotary here in town. I have done several commissions and really like doing them. Get’s me thinking about what they like don’t like etc. Much like when I was decorating and designing rooms. I just emailed the lucky winner a few questions and have told her to decide the orientation and placement of the piece as I have offered a 30″x 30″ square or a 30″x 40″ if that is better suited for their space. Not sure if they are local or not yet (will find out soon) so I might be able to drop by personally which I love to do or if they are a long way I will correspond by email which I have done. Lot’s of photos along the way and explaining the plan enough to keep on track for the piece. My most recent were mountains in oil in Alberta which I have never been or never done before and long story short they loved it so all good 😉 It’s really fun and challenging but I really love that as it is so personal. Totally agree with style etc. so I always tell them I am an abstract artist and to scan my site to see what sort of speaks to them as a starting point.

  2. Most of my work is commission work and everything you have stated is definitely my set of golden rules. And while I would rather just paint for myself and hope pieces get seen by the right people and sell, usually there are different needs the clients have re: color and/or size from what I have created.

    Generally people buy my work so they have real art that goes with their decorating. My small, more impressionistic, less expensive plein air pieces are more often bought by collectors who do not buy for decorating reasons. The purist in me has felt challenged by my two types of clients but I am now ok with it – and enjoy meeting the needs of clients.

    The biggest thing I have learned – the hard way – is to hold off on showing the client your work until you are seeking approval. The only people interested in my process are other artists – clients get nervous and begin thinking you aren’t doing what you promised because they do not understand that things can look ugly before they become beautiful – through my process.

    I also require a 25% deposit instead of 50% – it’s a bit of a psychological boost to me to be painting towards a larger payoff. I had not thought of putting a deposit towards another painting if the commissioned piece is refused (fingers are crossed – ‘hasn’t happened yet). I will now add that to my agreements with clients. Thank you!

  3. I agree with all you have said Jason. And keeping the client in the loop without overkill is very important as a final buy in, and an ease in final payment. Timeline is important also. I almost always meet my given timeframe and if I think I need more time, I ask ahead of the timeframe. Most folks have no issues, but waiting to the “holiday” or time the client needs it and then asking is bad client relations.
    I just finished a commission and shipped it from Virginia to Michigan. To insure it properly, and do the best packing on a large piece it cost $400 dollars. This particular client had no issue, but I have learned giving an estimate of shipping cost up front is also important.
    Your point and mine, communicate along the way and upfront. It saves you in the end!
    Lynn Mocarski Maurer

  4. I’m surprised that you don’t use a written agreement, as that is usually the best way to be sure that client and artist understand and agree to the process and payment. My agreement asks for a 50% deposit, with full payment due on delivery. I mention subject matter, size, medium, price, and timing in the agreement. Client has a chance to review the painting about halfway done (via photo, or in person if they’re local). Agreement says they may comment at this point, but artist is responsible for all artistic decisions. On completion, if client is happy, the sale is completed. If the client is not satisfied, they may decline to accept the painting, and are not obligated to make the final payment, but I get to keep the deposit (which compensates me for my effort) and the painting (which I can then sell to someone else). Although the agreement doesn’t say so, and I have never had this happen, if the client was only dissatisfied with a small thing in the painting (for example, the sky is too blue, could it be toned down a little?) I could choose to make a change to keep them happy – or I could refuse if I felt it would be too big a compromise.

    1. I have found that written contracts are Off putting to Clients. All of my Clients so far are well healed enough financially as to not even worry about the amount of money that is transacting between us and are comfortable with a handshake of agreement. I have never had an issue that required any resolution with a written contract to resolve any issue. They don’t want to have to read through a contract and sign to start the process. I my opinion it suggest that you have a mistrust of the client or that they are capable of listening to the agreement verbally . I do handle the 50% commission and approval the same way you do

  5. Commissioned work is a difficult gamut for most but Portrait commissions are the most difficult to deal with. I would agree with your points in this post Jason but not all of them apply to portrait commissions. the main one being you can’t sell a portrait to someone else if the client doesn’t approve it. I too do 50% deposit to begin and I have learned to not give the client too much input. the problem is the psychology involved with doing portraits can be hard to get a handle on. I have learned to avoid clients who want a portrait done with extreme demands at the get go and I tend to say no to them as they always have been impossible to please in the long run. Some people want to control the situation at the approval stage and be able to put their 2 cents in and have me change something at the very end. I can sometimes accommodate their requests especially if they are valid requests. When they are not valid or extremely vague I learned from an older portrait artist a trick to get around these vague request you simply tell them that you understand and you will work on it to fix the issue then take the portrait to the studio wait about a month if possible and show it to them again having done nothing to the portrait except let it dry. they almost always approve the portrait and say it is much better. Luckily I haven’t had to do this very often but it works. If for some reason the client hates the piece I would simply let them keep the portrait and forfeit the remaining 50% (This has never happened ) Portraiture has to be the most difficult genre and artists shouldn’t hang a shingle as a portrait painter unless they are well seasoned at doing them. Also if I had to do nothing but portraits I would probably go insane.

  6. I am currently working on a commissioned painting. My collector bought one of my paintings that featured the famous Bluebird car that broke the land speed record between the two world wars. My commission features the collectors vintage Jaguar car. I asked for a 50% deposit, he gave me 60%. I sent him a mock up of my planned design using photos, which he replied “Looks great Terry, go for it” . So far so good…

  7. I have done commissions for years. My process has evolved based on things I have encountered. Because much of what I paint are house portraits I get the drawing approved before I paint. The photos I ask for include close ups of anything especially important and confirmation of accurate colors. Then I send an electronic image of the finished work before delivery. I don’t ask for a deposit. I should and advise others to but for some reason I need to feel I can walk away if I feel I can’t please the client. That has only happened once in 30 plus years…still that feeling frees me up somehow:-)

  8. That was a great article. Thank you. I have completed well over 300 commissions in the last 20 years and your advice is right on. Although I have been fortunate enough to have had clients that have all happily paid for the completed commission — I will remember to add your policy of their deposit going toward another painting (if they are unhappy).

    I have always involved the client(s) with updates of the painting as it progresses and have never had any regrets. They are thrilled with the progression photos that I send them and thank me profusely. In fact, I show them progression stages from previous projects in the introduction stage before I get started so that they know what to expect. I discuss it with them as I go, explaining the process. Occasionally one will say, (when they see an early “rough” stage), “I’m not nervous, I’ve seen your final work.” Or, “I’ve learned so much! This is fascinating. Thank you for including me in the process!”. I enjoy commissions because I find myself challenged to create paintings I would have never done otherwise. When I have a break in between projects I paint what I want. I love my job.

  9. As someone who does a lot of commissione work I can honestly say that commissions are challenging in many regards and they are not for everyone. I say this because when creating a commissioned work you always have to keep the clients objective in mind. For example: I’m currently working on three large pieces that are going into a high end sushi restaurant in San Fransisco. I went through a couple of different designs until the client was satisfied with the outcome. You have to be flexible when working with clients, and that may be difficult for some artists. You can’t have your feelings hurt because they may not like something you are suggesting. Remember- this is about them more then it’s about you. I also send updates and progress images often. This way my client knows the work is being done and if there’s an issue you can nip it in the butt before you get to far along in the process. Communication is key to a successful commissioned work.

    Commissiones can be very lucrative and they definitely help to pay the bills. They are also a great way to gain exposure. Leveraging your clients is important, because it brings in more work. When you make people happy they are more likely to buy from you again, because you have earned their trust. I always tell my clients that I work primarily on referrals and I would a greatly appreciate it if they would pass my info along to anyone who is looking for artwork. You have to have your ask in gear. It’s amazing what doors you can open by asking people to refer you. Just don’t be pushy and earn the trust before you ask. Good luck my fellow artists!

  10. I have had wonderful results with doing commissioned pieces. Because I found a sample contract through The Artists’ Magazine, I have always had an actual contract to present, go over with the client and, then, both of us sign and date. The one fail I had was my choice to ship a painting without receiving the final payment. Lesson learned and it was learned early. You are correct in saying it is a steady form of sales. It’s nice to know that before I even begin, the piece is sold. I used to require half up front but am switching to doing as a more seasoned artist has been doing and requiring one-third up front then, as sketches and preliminary small color studies are done, the other third. Before shipping the piece, the final payment is due. Shipping or delivery is extra and that is spelled out in the contract. Client is responsible for having the piece framed because only they know their decor and tastes in that department. I trust the framing galleries to have good judgment in helping in the client’s decision. I once tried going out of my field (I’m an equine artist) and doing an English garden type piece at request but I ended up cancelling the deal and returning the preliminary payment when I saw that the person really didn’t know what they wanted. Again, lesson learned and it was long before contract days. I was trained as a commercial illustrator to do the preliminary sketches (thumbnails) then when one was approved, to draw a larger to-size tissue which, upon approval, was initialed by the client. I still do this with my commissioned pieces. If the client decides something needs to be changed after this point, any changes are extra in cost. This stipulation is in the contract. As I am working on the piece, they are kept up to date on the progress. Email makes this easy. The contract also spells out that, because it is a work for hire, they will own the copyright to the piece but that I do retain copyright for promotional purposes but if total payment is not completed, this section of the contract is voided.

  11. I’ve done a fair bit of commissioned work, not just portraits but a family farm, a favorite vacation spot, livestock, and a pet or two. Little of that is on my website … not because I wasn’t satisfied with the painting but because I generally prefer doing other work. I’m in the midst of one now which I expect will be very satisfying … a modest old home that has been in one family for four generations; that old house is important to this family.
    I always ask for a 50% deposit and always have a written agreement (you need to ask yourself if the piece is marketable if it were refused). It’s brief but concise and I remind clients it is for their protection as much as mine. It notes the terms, specifics, and is their receipt (some have expressed appreciation). The nonrefundable deposit covers my time investment if for some reason the painting is refused … something that has never happened. And yes, I will tweak a piece here and there if a client asks for it. That also is rare because I make sure we both understand exactly what is expected. I strive to portray my subject at their best and do a detailed drawing on canvas before I ever apply paint so there are no surprises. That is the time to make any significant changes.
    Commissions usually come after meeting me and I feel people recognize they can work with me. Commissions are a collaboration … important to remember that.

  12. I have done commission portraits but have had a bad outcome in the past so I’m cautious. My mother did them all her life and would tell clients up front the they can get two changes the third cost them more. I think I will add to my prices for doing them in the future. It just makes sense.

  13. I agree with someone who said the situation changes if it’s a portrait because it can’t be resold. I do not agree with the person who said that the artist does not keep the copyright. The buyer is paying for a piece of artwork, not the artist’s labor. If they get the copyright, what’s to keep them from putting the artwork on T-shirts or notecards or whatever else…and selling them? Terrible idea. Jason, your opinion?

    1. The artist absolutely retains copyright of everything you create, portrait or not. When you sell a painting you sell a painting. The image is yours unless you elect to sell the marketing rights (which I have done for an additional cost). Opinion is arbitrary but copyright law is very clear and artists must be knowledgeable.
      http://www.artbusiness.com/register_and_copyright_art_for_artists.html
      https://www.artslaw.com.au/info-sheets/info-sheet/copyright/
      http://emptyeasel.com/2008/03/18/copyright-information-for-artists-how-copyright-laws-protect-your-art/
      http://www.slowart.com/articles/copy.htm
      It depends how much you want to obsess on all this. Generally, you will see more artists lift/interpret/copy another artist’s idea rather than a flagrant copy by a random party.
      If an issue crops up, warmly inform/educate the person and move on … ignorance is widespread. Litigation is expensive and probably isn’t worth the cost of the piece, and that is why people infringe on copyright.
      Just paint something new.

      1. If you choose to sell the copyright, you may. The art just cost more money that way and is probably the main reason commissioned pieces cost more than usual work. There may have been more artists who mentioned that, since it was a piece for hire, the copyright goes but I know I specifically mentioned it. You have to keep in mind that I am an equine artist. In a way, that is the same as being a portrait artist. The owner of the horse is then able to use my work in advertisements of his animal without having to pay other fees to me. Once they have paid me, I really do not care where they choose to put their horse’s portrait. I retain the right to use it any way I wish for self promotion. All this is specifically spelled out in the contract. Anyone who buys one of my non-commissioned paintings does NOT get the copyright and this is made plain to the buyer.

  14. I occasionally do commissions. Usually I try not to. Even the ones that come out well and the buyer is pleased, I am miserable by the time I am done. I have done some for friends and not asked for 50% up front because I hate the pressure. I will paint by their size/ shape/ color scheme if it is not too different from what I normally do and know that if they don’t like it, I can sell it anyway. I do like the idea that the deposit can be applied to another painting and I plan to do that in the future.
    I learned the hard way to ask for 50% deposit, even from friends, for a portrait, tho. I had a “friend” who wanted a portrait of her and her husband with their back yard done in an impressionist style. I tried to hook her up with several different artists whose work was more like that, but she insisted on me doing it. She didn’t have time to sit but gave me old pre-cosmetic surgery photos to work from. She didn’t like how I painted her, so I “fixed” her face, but then she sent it back “refused” because her back yard wasn”t “right.” She is not my friend anymore, but I no longer accept commissions on work that is not like what I do anyway.

  15. This was a very insightful and useful article. I used to make my living almost entirely from commissions and never had a written contract, although I always had the project description in writing for the benefit of both parties as you suggested. My work was usually done for interior designers, so I rarely had any trouble with too much input from the customer about the creative aspect of the work. I usually knew their style and the basics of what they wanted and worked out my own image, but size, color, and style of art, whether representational or abstract, was always agreed upon in advance. I can’t emphasize enough, however, for the artist to be responsible about time limits and deadlines. My reputation for producing work that was exciting and on time is what gained me many return clients.

  16. I’ve doing a few commissions and do enjoy the interaction. The portrait folks are right, those are the hardest. I won’t do any more of those if I don’t know the person. My favorite was a Tuscan scene mural in a bathroom. It came out great. I do mostly for family and they’re always thrilled.

  17. I’m usually pretty safe on commissions because my clients tend to point to something I’ve already created and say ‘make me one of those.’ My biggest problem is wanting to add to the Portrait or collage and I wind up spending more money on making a project that I initially offered to charge the client.

  18. I have the problem that my client wants a re-creation of a painting that is on my website, but is sold. I do not believe that I should create another painting just like the original, so I have agreed to create the painting with some minor changes. The two paintings will also not be the same size. What do you do in this case? Is it ok to create another painting similar to one you have created before. There are many examples of this throughout art history.

  19. I just completed my very first commission painting. I couldn’t be more delighted with the entire process. My client had been buying note cards of my paintings at various galleries for years (without my knowing) and was already a big fan of my work. She told her husband she had reserved a wall in her house just for a painting of mine. She came to my studio and fell in love with a pastel I had done many years ago and wanted a large, 30 x 40 oil painting of that scene. I researched contracts and after viewing many came up with a good one for me. It required 1/3 up front, 1/3 half way through and final payment upon completion. I posted progress photos on Facebook and she was so happy to see the progress and even made some excellent suggestions. The scene was a farm and she had grown up on a farm. My barn was white, but her home farm had been a red barn. The changes she suggested were good and improved the painting. I wanted her to be happy as she was going to live with that painting for a long time. When she came to pick up the painting, I presented her with a gift box set of 6 note cards of the painting. She was more than delighted by the note cards too. She will probably send the cards to friends and this will be excellent advertisement for me too. She was a delight to work with and the entire process was very rewarding for both of us. She is going to have the painting framed and will invite me to come see it hung. I really like the idea of applying a deposit toward another painting if not accepted and plan to add that to my contract for future commissions. Thank you for an excellent discussion.

  20. After doing commission work for some years, I finally decided to write up how it works, a sheet to give the client. Most people have never had one done and truly, they don’t know what to expect. They also don’t know that there is considerably more to it than they realize. This sheet of information has served me well.
    I do a very simple signed contract which is done at the time the 50% non-refundable deposit is made. I have not included the idea of applying that amount to another piece of my art if the commission doesn’t work out (never had that happen crossing fingers!). I like this idea however.
    Thank you Jason for writing about this. It is very helpful. I had to figure it out for myself!

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