What Would You Do? The Client Who Won’t Finish Paying

I received the following email from an artist:

[Last] year, a collector came to my studio and chose two paintings. The smaller work was priced at approx. $1100, the other $1300. He paid me a deposit of $1200 and took the smaller of the works, telling me that next month he would drop over, pay the second half and pick up painting #2. That didn’t happen. Since that time I’ve emailed and FB messaged him multiple time (probably once every couple weeks) and he either doesn’t respond or says that his schedule is crazy (he does have a high-powered downtown LA job). He always apologizes and is very friendly in his correspondence.

The bottom line is that I’m getting impatient and a little grumpy about this—not that I would ever let him sense this. I’d like the painting on his wall and the money in my bank! Of course, I don’t want to turn him off. But, on the other hand, he doesn’t seem reliable. Should I give him a gentle ultimatum? Ask him if he’s still interested in the other painting and, if not, send him a refund for the difference? I’ve offered to deliver the work to him and never got a response. What would you do?

My response:

I completely understand how frustrating this situation is. While I haven’t had the exact situation, I have had experience waiting patiently for payment. Fortunately it sounds like the way it was set up you were never at risk of not being paid for artwork the client has, which was very smart on your part.

I wouldn’t give up quite yet. Do you happen to use Square payments, or PayPal or similar? I ask, because I might try sending an email where I say something along the lines of, “I know how busy things get, but I just started using a new payment system that should make things easier. I’m sending you an invoice for the second piece using Square (or PayPal) that you can pay right from your computer. Once the payment is taken care of, we can arrange for delivery of the piece at your convenience.” You’ll want to adapt this to fit with the other conversations you’ve had, but this should give you a template to work from. I would hope to have the client see this as you providing additional convenience and service, rather than nagging.

Send a photo of the piece with your email to remind him again of the artwork.

I hope that helps, but let me know if you have further questions or concerns. I would love to hear how this turns out.

The artist responded several weeks later:

To update you on reaching my unresponsive collector, three weeks ago I emailed him exactly as you suggested, rewording the message to suit our previous correspondence. As of today, nothing. No response at all. My instinct is to message/email him more-or-less these words…Unless I hear from him in the next few days I’m going to assume that you are no longer interested in the painting, and I will return it into my collection of works that are currently for sale.

Is this the best next course of action?

My response:

You’ve definitely gone above and beyond in terms of giving him opportunities to follow through. I would word it along these lines:

I know how crazy things can get and we’ve had a hard time connecting. I also understand that sometimes circumstances will change and a piece will no longer fit into previous plans. If you are still interested in the artwork, I would love to make arrangements to deliver it to you. If I haven’t heard from you by the end of the week, I’ll assume that I can make the piece available to my other clients.

In other words, I’m not angry, and I don’t blame the client. By using passive voice, I hope to soften out any harsh edges to the ultimatum. You’ll want to use your own words and make the communication feel natural, but you can see what I’m trying to say by wording it this way. My hope is to keep the door open so that if the client ever does show up again in the future there’s nothing awkward about the situation.

The final email from the artist about the resolution of the situation

So what do you know?!?! Fifteen minutes after I emailed my client he emailed back. He has been in the process of moving and had some “unexpected financial pressures.” But he wants to revisit me in about 6 months because he would “like to continue collecting [my] works.”

Your friendly and passive response had the desired effect. I’ve retained a collector and can put a wonderful painting back up for sale at a busy time of year for me. What a huge relief!

While it remains to be seen if the client will in fact return to make future purchases, it’s always best to maintain professionalism and to try to handle these situations with diplomacy.

Have you Run Into a Similar Situation Where a Client Failed to Pay?

Has this kind of thing ever happened to you? How did you respond? What do you think of the approach I suggested to this artist? Do you have any other ideas that might help in a situation of this sort? Please share your experiences and comments in the comments below.




About the Author: Jason Horejs

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


  1. Yes I have! Unfortunately, I wasn’t smart about it and let her take the painting home, following the suggestion of Jack White to trust people. I sent several, several reminders, via email and PayPal. Twice she has responded, and once even emailed me a credit card number via email…which I can’t charge and wouldn’t do anyway. I told her to just enter the credit card number and info into PayPal, which she never did. So, after making a steep discount on the painting price for her in the first place, and then only getting half the payment up front, I am out a painting and won’t be seeing the money. Lesson learned! I at least cleared the cost of framing, but it was a frustrating situation.

  2. Well done – but I would not have waited a year. What *would* be a reasonable time frame? I think someone with a “high-powered downtown LA job” is probably not going to find a $1300 price tag insurmountable. If the piece were $13,000, well, then… But I don’t know. There is also something to be said for freshness. I will say that in my previous incarnation in high tech sales I tried *never* to close the door on a prospect. But I have had prospects call me ready to close a deal with a company I’d left years earlier, and ALL sales managers talk about “creating a sense of urgency.”

  3. Your passive and understanding tone is exactly what I use in my “day job.” it’s important to draw lines, and much like with toddlers i feel that boundaries are actually appreciated. Sometimes a person isn’t in a position to manage their own boundaries, and you may need to present options more than once or twice before receiving agreement as a responce. Another tool I use is to provide options, with alternates being more undesireable than the one i want chosen.

  4. I also have a problem to get the client and painting together. It was a portrait, so it’s not something I would put up for sale. She paid 1/3 rd down, and then never responded to my emails. At least some of my time and material was covered, but should I continue to email her…with a photo of the painting attached? She had been so excited originally, I feel sorry for her not having it.
    Should I be generous and just mail it to her as a gift? What do you think?

    1. Hi Joan, that is so frustrating. I think that portraits can be challenging; is it possible she didn’t like it when it was completed? So many people just can’t bring themselves to be honest about stuff like that. Yes, email with a photo of the painting, and don’t just give it to her unless she is a friend or family. If you can, find out if there is something she isn’t happy about. It could be a long frustrating situation because some people are just so critical; they are never happy with anything. I’d get money down before I spent more time on changing it. I’ve done a few portraits, and I once had a family/friend really dislike a portrait I did of her. She wasn’t shy about saying so. That was many years ago, before I was making an effort to be a productive professional artist. I’m glad she was honest, and no money was exchanged at that time. Good luck.

      1. I think it’s worth noting, some of our most respected an beloved artists have had clients refuse portraits…I wish I could remember the details, but I read with amazement that it happened to Rembrandt! Jason’s wise advice followed these words learned in law school: ‘You want the jury to see things your way, and then to give them a way to do it’.

    2. My opinion, Joan: Do not mail it as a gift! Unless she’s a dear friend. Your work is worth whatever you charged for it. She may be a person with poor follow-through, or something dramatic may have happened in her life. You might try a different subject heading in your e-mail that tells her a photo’s included, to get her to open it. Or you might try calling her, if that doesn’t seem too intrusive. She may not actually want the piece anymore, for some reason, which would be sad. But it’s better for you to know what’s up!

    3. Years ago while studying different kinds of underpainting, including “dead painting”, I read that one of the reasons that there are a number of Joshua Reynolds portraits left in the dead-painting stage is that the clients decided not to purchase the work. What makes this interesting in relation to a client not paying or not making a final payment is that Reynolds required half of the commission up front, dead-painted the initial layer to show a basic work-up of the portrait, and showed it to the client. If they decided not to proceed, he kept the half payment and didn’t finish the portrait. If the client wanted him to continue, he collected the other half and finished the portrait. Do portrait painters follow a similar approach today? It might be a good idea.

      1. I agree, Richard. I never sign on to do a commission (especially for a new client) without a contract and a specific schedule of payments including a down payment before I begin any work.
        It presents me as a professional, lets the client know my time is valuable, and makes the process less anxiety-filled when both the client and I know we are on the same page. I also spell out the process for what happens if the client does not complete payment or rejects the work upon completion. (People are very picky especially about portraits and sometimes it’s hard to discern just what the issue is. I usually do a small 8×10 example so the client can’t say they didn’t know what they were getting. Well worth the time and effort.)
        It’s a fact of life that circumstances change and people fall completely off the radar for any number of reasons.
        I try to be kind but firm and keep communicating.

  5. Yes, I have had this experience and the result is a funny story!
    A couple of gay guys bought a large “Earthslide” drawing from my Studio, They put a down payment and took the drawing, agreeing to monthly payments,
    After a couple of payments, they stopped paying me,
    My assistant and I decided to “repossess” the drawing. We went over to their home and waited for them to return from work, We knocked on the door,
    They were very friendly and invited us in, We went over to the drawing, took it down from the wall, and walked out.
    Of course they called the next day, They made arrangements to pick the drawing up and pay the remainder of the price,

  6. What do you do if someone paid you but never picked up the work. I sold a mixed media sculpture for $850.00 over three years ago, received payment and was told she would be back in several days to pick it up. I don’t feel I can legitimately resell it, so it sits in my living room. When people ask me about the piece I have to tell them that it’s sold.

    1. We had the same experience with a piece we sold in our gallery for $400, almost the same length of time since the sale. I know the buyer saw my messages but never responded. The artist was paid, of course. Not sure what to do.

    2. We had a similar situation, but we were the buyers. We were visiting Santa Fe and were planning on moving there soon. While looking for and buying a house in Santa Fe, we paid for a piece of art that we liked and told the gallery representing the artist that we were moving to Santa Fe and would pick up the art when we moved in. One thing led to another and it took us three years to finally move to Santa Fe. The gallery had tried to contact us, but we had moved to another location on a consulting project and they had thought that we might have died. They were relieved to see us and had kept the artwork in the back of the gallery for us. We had completely forgotten about the artwork until we had arrived back in Santa Fe and saw the gallery. I am glad they kept the artwork for us and felt embarrassed about not contacting them!

  7. This is a particularly sensitive area when dealing with a client. You want to make purchasing a work of art as comfortable for the client, with the hope as well that he / she will view you as a good party to work with and return again for future purchases. On the other hand, you can’t let the client take advantage of you. I offer a payment plan through my gallery in which the client can put a certain amount down to hold the work and can make payments which are comfortable to them. I never release the work of art from the gallery unless it is paid in full. I let the client know that the title to the work remains with the artist until it is paid in full. My purchase agreement states that the deposit is non-refundable. That deposit can go towards the purchase of something else in the gallery, however you need to watch out for your bottom line. The only exception is for the client to view the work in their environment for a day or so on loan, and that is always with the artist’s agreement as well. I typically only loan a work out if they are a good customer and I feel certain that they are not borrowing it for a party or something. Don’t put yourself in a situation such as this for the fear of losing a sale. If the customer really wants a work of art, he/ she will come up with the money, or will find the money to hold it until they can purchase it in full. If they cannot do just that, then they are not the client for you at that time. If I were in your current situation, I would offer to extend them a little more time, (depending upon how much I trusted them), or I would offer to apply his deposit on the two paintings only towards the smaller one, and inform them that the other work will be available for sale to the general public. If he is not willing to agree to that, then you need to refund his money, and take it as a learning lesson… Have a contract which protects you, and don’t release the work until it is paid in full. I have experienced very wealthy customers who have been difficult to deal with, so stick to your sales policy for every situation.

  8. Unfortunately, because we offer layaway at my gallery, this is not an unusual situation and has happened more than you might expect. Life happens and I have learned that certain circumstances like divorce, death, illness, and other untimely situations take priority over art purchase plans. My customers who opt for layaway are made aware that payments are non-refundable (but I give clients a store credit should life turn around in the future and they wish to make a future purchase–that credit has an expiration date also). I also use Square to invoice installments and reminders that invoices were sent. It has happened too often that we will not hear from a client for months (or never). We take extra steps to call, email, text and invoice before taking steps to message “we are sorry we had trouble connecting and assume they are no longer interested before placing the artwork back on the sales floor”. I also retain a credit for that customer for 6 months (deduct a reasonable restock fee from the credit). Only once did someone come back to use their credit.

  9. LOL! I am still laughing at Susan’s story ~ love it! I did not have such a fabulous response when I repossessed a painting. I did, however, get the painting back!

    On commissioned works, I find 1/3 deposit to be not enough. I always ask (and receive) 50% before I begin any work.

    I like (and so do many of my clients) the online payments. Being able to use their credit cards online makes it easy for people to handle their schedule and money themselves. And I like the auto deposit!

  10. I am impressed with how you always manage to come up with just the right words for any situation, Jason. This situation was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, with no hard feelings on anyone’s part. I wish I had you on speed dial when I need to word an e-mail just so.

  11. I print for both artists and photographers and either they pay upon delivery or I bill them once a month as most artists cannot afford the printing and framing. I use Square for invoicing and as mentioned, this allows the customer to pay online. With framed finished work being purchased by a collector or casual buyer, I never the piece out of my sight until the bill has been settled. You can’t do that at any other store, so why would you do it.

  12. I also repossessed a piece one time, years ago, and learned a lesson re too-loose terms of sale. This past two years I have been using both PayPal and Venmo. People are accustomed to using their credit or debit card, and it just makes sense to be ready for it in the studio. If you haven’t used them, you can open a PayPal account with a desktop computer, no smartphone required. When payment is confirmed, you transfer it to your bank account. Venmo requires a phone app, but is even easier to use. I recommend them. My next step is a Square.

  13. Portrait commissions should be at least 50% down payment. Portraits being in sale able to anyone else and also with them being the most difficult genre to work means that they should be twice the price of other non portraiture work that you do. If you get half the money down and the client goes south on you, you should still be okay even if they don’t like the result and refused to pay you could still be covered. I luckily have never had a portrait client do this (knock on wood) the best policy is that nothing leaves the studio artwork or frame jobs unless it is paid in full. I have learned that lesson a couple of times with framing. My experience is most clients don’t commit to buying unless they have the disposable income to afford it

  14. I have had a similar problem. Luckily I never let a piece leave the studio that is not fully paid for unless it is family or close friend. As I had a waiting list to purchase the piece I was not worried about the sale. Anyway I sent the fellow many emails that were never answered. Finally after 3 months of no contact I sent an email that said “Hey man, your off the hook, you don’t have to hide behind the bananas at the super market. I figured your plans changed and the piece no longer fit your intention so I have sold it to another collector. I have retained the right to print the piece so in honor of you supporting me I am sending you a free print. Hope to see your smiling face around town. ” I did that to insure that he would not feel uncomfortable interacting in the future as I have know this person for 30 years.

  15. I also had an interesting experience. Years ago, I had a painting in a solo exhibit labeled NFS, because I wanted to keep that particular one for myself, but decided to include it because it fit well with the rest of the show. Unrelated to that exhibit, I received an email from a woman who practically begged me to sell her that particular piece, which she’d seen online and had fallen in love with. Against my better judgment, I agreed to sell it to her and had the painting shipped back to me (in the US at the time) from Turkey. Meanwhile, in my communications with the collector, I learned that she wouldn’t be able to pay me in full for the painting, so I offered her a payment plan, which she accepted. Once I’d received the painting back from Turkey, I let her know it was in my possession, and that I would ship it to her once I’d received her payments – of which I had yet to receive the first one. I never heard from her again! Several friendly reminders went unanswered. I think she was just too mortified…
    The painting in question later went to an exhibit in Germany, where it didn’t sell, but was kept in the gallery’s stock, where it still remains. Now I’m thinking that maybe it was really meant to stay with me, and I should get it back. What do you think?

  16. Having a contract with time limits spelled out in it would solve the problem. I take commissions, and I always require a non-refundable deposit. The clients have the option of cancelling within 7 days of signing the contract and submitting the deposit, but after that, once I start their portrait, if they change their mind they don’t have to follow through with the transaction but they DON’T get their deposit back. This helps compensate me for supplies, time and labor I may have already put into it. Full payment needs to be made before I ship the painting. If they never pay the balance, or don’t like the painting, I keep the painting and use it as a sample if it can’t be resold (as is the case with custom portraits). And I agree that using PayPal or other online payment system helps a lot!

    1. To make sure everyone understands and agrees to a PayPal down payment of 50% and the 25% non-refundable amount if they decline the painting, I have my commission plan spelled out on my website. And I send the collector a written contract to sign and return before I start my sketches. They approve a sketch and I start the painting. When I finish the painting, i email an image for approval, and if it passes, I ship the painting for final approval, and I trust them for the other 50%. They would pay for the return shipping (which hasn’t happened). So far, so good. Thank God.

  17. I don’t release a painting until I’ve received payment. And after a couple of ultimately-successful-but-not-fun experiences with installment plans, I no longer offer them. It is very rarely an issue, but I don’t want to get in the mode of chasing down late payments. I do accept credit cards which gives the customer some flexility, albeit at a price. The one risk I do take is to do a commission with no deposit. I haven’t got stuck with a painting yet but of course it could happen.

  18. Interesting to read about this situation, and the back and forth. I’ve had 3 client issues in the past year. 2 were close friends. One friend who had already purchased a painting was interested in another piece that needed to first be matted and framed. Although she loved it, I suggested she see it framed before making the final decision. We made an appointment for her to view it, I waited half a day and she never showed up. I texted at the end of the day. She had a very lame excuse, although was apologetic. Then said she just “wasn’t meant to have it”. After weeks of me leaving a few messages and texts, she told me she had other expenses now and won’t be able to think about it for months. So that ended on a good note, even though I’m stuck with something I would not have paid to frame. The second situation was another friend (I’ve known for 50 yrs) who decided to overpay before I sent her the final itemized bill, for a couple of pieces and framing a third she already owned. That was great, until I mailed back a refund check, which she not only misplaced, but refused to look for because of her mess. I asked her again to either find and deposit it, or find another piece in that price range. Initially she asked I keep the money as credit, to apply to next purchase. Which means I had to keep track of it. She demanded today (1 ½ yrs after check was mailed to her, and she remembered receiving it) that I send her another check. Her mess is not my responsibility, so I am not mailing another check (not the first piece of mail from me she’s misplaced). Plus an extra cost and time on my part. I expressed my opinion to her and she is not happy. Oh well… The 3rd issue was when Square wasn’t functioning during open studio night, was stuck in a loop. Feeling it was my responsibility, I allowed a new client to take two inexpensive pieces home, with the promise she would mail a check to me next day. I waited several days, she texted apologizing for the delay. But still no check. I emailed her a Square bill and a few days later (over a week at that point), she dropped off a check…which cleared. I never let her know I was getting frustrated. And I offered a 10% discount for a future piece, as an apology for the inconvenience. However, will never send unpaid-for-work home with anyone again.

  19. Another bit of sage advice from you, Jason. One thing I’ve learned about you is that you always take the high road, demonstrating patience yet prudence. You’re the kind of gallery owner I like to work with. Thanks for sharing a steady stream of tips to help artists prosper.

  20. Two months ago I shared about a couple who had seen a work of mine in October, contacted me in January, and we began the long process of communication. Mostly, they didn’t answer my emails, or it took forever. My final email to them was a dialogue on my inspiration and process, including an additional picture of the piece, and I let it go.
    After a few weeks, they let me know that they had a major problem with their home due to the snowfall in Chicago.
    They finally sent me a 50% deposit two weeks ago through PayPal…..Well, it’s been two weeks of no communication while I had the piece crated (I live in Hawaii so have to crate a piece that is 40×50 inches). …They weren’t willing to give final payment until receipt of the tracking number…..which I gave them………And no response for three days. (BTW, I’m paying for the shipping.)
    Last night they told me they should have clarified their requirements. they want the shipper to call them when UPS picks up the crate today. Okay…enough……….They were concerned that they had no options to get their money back if it was damaged, etc. Well…….They should have said so…..I would have put the charge on their credit card. Anyway, her email told me they had had a death in the family on Monday, so that was the delay in responding.
    I won’t do it this way again…….it will go on a credit card so we both have legal recourse if something goes wrong.

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