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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14 Comments

  1. Hi Jason — I recognize myself as the artist who contacted you for help …. and so far all is going very well. A key, I think, was that, as you advised, I presented a proposal as though I knew what I was doing and had done this several times before. At this time she has paid for more than half of the painting, loves the drawings I sent her, and is ready for me to start work in October for delivery by December. I’ll keep you posted! Helen

  2. Nearly all of my work is commissioned (custom leaded glass.) I give a budget for the kind of work they want and request a 10% non refundable design deposit to sketch out 2-3 scaled drawings. Once the concept is approved and initialed, another 40%. Balance is due on installation of 30 days from completion. I added the 30 day clause after holding work (sometimes for months!) to wait until client was ready to receive or install. This has worked well for me for over 40 years. I find the ones who want designs without paying a deposit are the ones likely to take advantage of your time and not wind up ordering. (now and then I’ve drawn without a deposit and been burned.) A serious buyer wouldn’t have qualms. If there is hesitance, I compare it to the dentist taking X-rays, non refundable if you choose not to pursue the work. Seems to be something anyone can understand.

  3. My only commission to date was handled via email (which we mutually considered binding) and I was paid $100 for a proposal. The commission was 14+ illustrations; I sent the originals to the commissioner and kept digital rights (also agreed in email in advance.) The proposal consisted of black and white drawings of each illustration, with one final in color (I actually gave them 3 because I felt the urge to keep going!) I very much like the idea of the artist being paid for the proposal, because that takes time, energy, and materials as well.

    It was good to have a benchmark at which either of us could choose to discontinue the agreement, no harm no foul. Mary Ann Celinder, here in the comments, requested a non-refundable design deposit, which I think is the same thing. I can’t say I will always insist on pay for proposal, but would consider or suggest it case-by-case. I’d like to see this practice become the norm.

  4. It started when a couple were redoing their condo and I met them in the hallway. Asked if they would like to come in and see my work. (We live in the condo complex). They loved the work and asked to have an abstract for the hallway. Asked there favorite colors, went up to their condo to see furnishings etc. They loved it and so wanted paintings in the bedroom. They have now got 7 of my original pieces of art and jokingly call it Gallery #2 of Art by Ellie Ruddle.
    Very pleased as they have many friends and consequently have had a few more. orders. I believe in who you know and networking.

  5. I love to sketch plain air and sometimes the best pieces of my watercolors are on my sketchbook or even in not professional grade paper… on random follower was looking at my work for a week or two and once I’ve posted a sketche she immedtialy asked to buy it so I suggested her for us to make a commission and dealed the price and schedule.
    Unfortunately the first one I’ve sent she was not happy but she was very kind , respectful and suggested to stay with the piece. I said no and did another one trying to be more loose and confident and hopefully she enjoyed. I finally posted with the first sketch ( ripped from sketch book) and a personal note what in the end made a nice and respectful relationship.

  6. As always excellent professional advice. I have a little to add. Since I paint historic work, commissions are always a big part of my business model. I e-mail a sketch or two to the customer to get the basic structure of the painting approved by the buyer. Never send a sketch-sometimes they will cancel the commission and keep and frame the sketch! Some artists charge a non-refundable fee for sketches. The 50% is “skin in the game” and is a commitment. If they want a lot of extras, I have it in my posted policy that it will cost more. Sometimes customers want too many things going on in a painting. I tell then that it they will be unhappy with busy work and if they do not agree to modifications i refuse the work. If they are unhappy with the work I will implement changes until they accept it. I have had only one outright refusal or a painting and I said, fine, “you will get your money back when I sell it”, minus 25%. I welcome the challenge of commissioned art, that has often pushed my abilities to higher levels.

  7. Here is how I handle a painting commission:

    No charge to meet with the client to talk about the project and confirm whether we have compatible expectations, what the fees will be, etc. to help the client decide whether to proceed.

    Retainer to begin design and prepare preliminary sketches. Perhaps 10%, maybe more if it’s a complex commission requiring lots of preparation or research. If we part ways at that point I keep the fee. If the preliminaries are approved, the client pays additional amount so the total is equal to 50% and I proceed.

    At aprx. halfway point I send progress photos or client can visit to see the progress if they are local – with the understanding that they can request slight changes in direction at that time but I still have the final say in how it is finished.

    At completion when the client sees the finished painting (or photos if they aren’t local) they can accept or refuse it. If accepted, they pay the balance and get the painting. If not, I get to keep the painting (and can sell it) and the half already paid. They do not get a refund, but neither do they have to pay the second half.

    All of this is documented in emails that we both confirm are binding. I never start a commission without an agreement and payment up front.

    Now comes the big question for Jason: If this commission is a gallery referral, how would you expect the gallery commission or referral fee to be handled?

  8. It was a commission that started my career 29 years ago. Commissions have been 80 to 90% of my business since.i get 50% down, no written contracts, balance upon delivery and have only had one incomplete sale in all 29 years. For me, knowing that my work has a home to go to as soon as it is born makes the creative process all the more thrilling. Client’s tears of joy with hugs at the time of delivery are the best! I stopped by Xanadu Gallery last Saturday, Jason. Sorry I missed you, but enjoyed the visit.

  9. I have done several commissions. I did four ten-foot paintings for the Bonaventure Hotel when they were constructing the building, This was handled professionally by Lonny Gans. It worked out beautifully,

    I did a painting for a bank in San Rafael handled professionally by Tamara Thomas, This worked out, though the employees did not like the painting, It photographed beautifully, however, and I was paid.

    My friend in Beverly Hills wanted a large painting for her new home and gave me the color scheme. I did it without a deposit or agreement, She was a good friend with lots of money. What could go wrong? She decided to get a divorce and never bought it.

    One of my Dealers got a couple interested at an Art Fair, They gave me the colors. They refused to put down a deposit. Wanting to please this new gallery, I went ahead and did the large drawing, The client could care less that I invested my time and materials and didn’t buy it. The perfect client came and bought it when I put it in my show in Santa Monica. She is a lovely lady with a stunning home in Pasadena where she holds salons. The drawing is beautiful in its garden-window setting. I’ve sold two other pieces because of her installation.

  10. Commissioned artwork makes up a significant amount of my annual income. Because I do landscapes, most of my clients want a large piece for above their sofa, fireplace, or bed. They are usually looking for a unique, meaningful piece, with a certain color scheme. I guide them to choose a color palette, size, and location/subject (usually somewhere in the Pacific Northwest). Because my work sells well, I don’t have them place a deposit down. I’ve required this in the past, when I did portrait work, and the work was very specific to the client (their dog, parent, or child). Having no deposit down for the landscapes lures more clients in, as they feel no risk. I do, however, really like Jason’s idea of using the deposit for a future artwork purchase. Food for thought!

  11. I’ve had only one commission so far but everything went beautifully. The client selected a topic that was a little outside of my normal subject matter – bats! — but I was free to interpret it as I wished so I sent them a rough sketch of my initial concept to make sure that we were on the same page. When that met with their approval I gave them a date by which to expect the work. On completion, I sent them a photo for their approval and my bill.

    I had been advised not to take a deposit at all, so that if the client became impossible to work with there would be no strings attached. As it turned out, there were no hitches along the way, but it was still reassuring to know I hadn’t committed myself to something I might live to regret. I wouldn’t undertake a commission that I couldn’t put in my portfolio if the client backed out. If I had a cash flow need for the deposit money, however, I’d definitely take your suggestion of guaranteeing satisfaction in terms of applying the deposit to a another purchase.

  12. I was trained as a commercial illustrator so I tend to borrow some of the business practices from that in doing commissioned work. I do use a contract and require 50% down. Years ago, The Artist’s Magazine had a sample contract which I adapted for my use and it’s served both the clients and me well plus the contract gives me a record of who, where, when, what size and how much. The price is determined by size and complexity. I do preliminary outline drawings with the client making any changes at that stage. This stage may or may not last awhile but once the outline drawing is approved, the client signs it and sends it back to me. The final work then begins and any changes made past that point are extra in price. (This is in the contract.) Having the ability to email photos of the work in progress and, then, the finished piece, is a far step above the way it used to be when using snail mail. I will also, on the final invoice, put a thumbnail of the finished work. Shipping is extra. Again, this is in the contract. [Can you tell I don’t do abstracts.]

  13. I’ve done several commissions over the years. Usually I get the client to identify paintings of mine that they like or have something in them that they like or have elements, flowers, colors, water themes, that they would like to have. We determine the size. I make a rough sketch proposal and give them an estimate.

    If they accept than I take 50% as a deposit.
    I send photos as the painting progresses for approval via email, or sometimes have them come look at the painting if they are close enough. Their liking or disliking something is taken into account.
    I take the balance when its finished.
    If I am framing the piece its extra or sometimes I include the frame in the total price estimate.

    This has always worked out well.

    Recently I took a commission that was in a acrylic. ( I am a watercolor artist who does work in acrylic occasionally.) The painting was to include a figure sitting in a garden. The view is from a short distance so she doesn’t take up much space in the painting. While I can do figures, I don’t usually include them in my paintings. The figure is the commissioners wife. He had certain ideas about the way she should look (enigmatic and thought provoking) which turned out to be an unrealistic expectation. He had a litany of parameters that he hoped to have met. Some of them seemed like “maybe’s” to me. I have painted many gardens and woods scenes, but this one was to include a lot of really tiny detail that was personal to them. In the end he was not very happy with the painting even though I thought it was really good.

    My mistake was not communicating what I thought was not workable and becoming frustrated with a feeling of uncertainty that uncharacteristically took over as I progressed.

    Fortunately, this is the first and only time this has happened. (Simultaneously I was working on another commission that went perfectly.)

    Lesson learned is when the client has too many expectations placed on the work I should probably not take it, even if it seems doable.

  14. Thank you so much. This is such an excellent and thorough explanation. I have done a lot of commissions and have had to learn what works for me and what doesn’t. I love working with people but I also need my freedom in creating so sometimes I have to do some extra work and spend the extra time and I don’t like being held down by a formal agreement… it just hasn’t worked well for me. But… if I’m patient with the process, it’s all good. Thank you for the recommendation of taking 50% and then it can apply to any of the artwork later if the commiss doesn’t work. Great idea. I’m going to use that.

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