How Do Artists Handle Commissions?

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

“I am currently an art student, and a local company recently contacted me about creating some artwork for their office space. It’s a great opportunity, but I am worried because I have never done a commissioned work before and I don’t know where to start!”

Artists are usually excited to get a commission, but most are not prepared for how dicey commissions can be. Commissioned artwork can be anything: a portrait, a wedding gift, artwork for a hotel, etc. Unfortunately, there are no universal rules for art commissions. Consequently, many clients take advantage of artists, so follow these guidelines to protect yourself.

1) Inform your client about your art making process.

Most clients have no idea what goes into creating an artwork; it’s up to you to lay out a concrete plan for the commission. Clients have to understand that a commission is a mutual commitment, and that their continual involvement is mandatory. Walk your client through every step of the process from beginning to end. For example, steps to create a painting might be listed like this: 1) pencil sketches, 2) colored pencil sketches, 3) small acrylic paintings 4) final acrylic painting, 5) framing, delivery, and installation.

2) Clients who commission artwork usually have no idea what they want.

Assume that a client’s verbal description of what he or she wants is not going to align with your visual interpretation right away. Don’t rely on anything a client says until you’ve actually put the results in front of them. I had one colleague who created a commission exactly as agreed after many rounds of presentations. Despite how faithful my colleague had been to the client’s wishes throughout the entire process, the client’s reaction to the finished piece was “I just don’t like it.”

Clients do however, seem to always know what they don’t want, which is much less useful. I did a portrait commission once, and the client told me that the cheek of a person in the painting was “too pink.” I lightened the cheek slightly, only to be told “now it’s too pale.” One of my former professors who was a portrait painter for over 20 years told me that he was sick to death of endless complaints from clients. He used to intentionally do an exceptionally bad job on one area of the painting so that the client could complain about that area, (usually a trivial detail like the collar of a shirt, which would be easy to fix) instead of some other area on the face that would take weeks of shooting in the dark until the client was satisfied.

3) Write a detailed contract.

A contract is mandatory for any commission. Write down every detail in the contract, such as the size and media of the artwork, your compensation, due dates for payments, who is responsible for framing, installation, delivery of the artwork, etc. If your client balks at signing a contract, WALK AWAY.

4) Have down payments and/or kill fees.

Down payments and kill fees protect artists from investing labor without pay. A kill fee is charged if the client decides to end the project prematurely. Some artists don’t have a kill fee, but ask for a 50% non-refundable down payment . Other artists will ask for a smaller non-refundable down payment and have a kill fee. Clients are also less likely to end a project if they have already invested money.

5) Do not commence work until a contract is signed.

When I was a recent graduate, I received a commission from a local community center. I met with one person, who said they were thinking about a painting of a klezmer band, painted with bright colors. I got to work right away, it didn’t occur to me at the time that I had no contract. I called up a local klezmer band, drove 40 minutes to one of their performances, and shot reference photos for the paintings. I drew many sketches, and made small scale paintings.

I presented the sketches and paintings at a meeting with four people. They hated everything, in fact, one person said that the paintings looked “scary” to her (how a colorful painting of a klezmer band could be scary is beyond me). By the end of the meeting, they said they wanted to see a “mixed collage that featured singing children in a garden.” After that meeting I never heard from them again, and I lost my own time and money.

6) Have an approval process.

Divide your process into stages, and require your client to approve each stage before moving forward. Working in stages lets you catch client concerns before you get too far into the process. I once did a portrait commission where the client approved the sketches, so I proceeded onto the final painting. I was about 75% finished, when the client decided last minute that she wanted to change the black background to yellow, and her daughter’s black shirt into a red sweater. I essentially had to start from scratch. I had written nothing in the contract about making changes after approval, so my workload doubled without any additional pay.

When the commission is complete, ask your client to sign another contract that states that they have accepted the commission as complete, and that any changes made beyond that point will incur a fee.

7) Keep framing, installation, and delivery separate from the commission.

If applicable, ask the client to take financial responsibility for any framing, installation and delivery. These costs can add up quickly for an artist: professional framing is always expensive, delivering a large work involves renting a truck, and installation of the work really needs to be done by a professional art installer. You don’t want to risk a large painting falling off the wall and getting damaged, and most clients want artwork that can remain on permanent display.

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5 responses on "Handling Commissions"

  1. Profile photo of Lauryn Welch

    This goes along with being really clear with your client throughout the commission process (and also sounds a little obvious/dumb, but it’s important)- make sure your client knows the kind of work you do before proceeding with the commission! I’ve been burned several times because some people approached me with the assumption that as an artist, I can do anything! That’s really flattering and all, but this has led to problems when a client asked for a family portrait and then wanted her money back because she didn’t like the style I painted it in.

  2. Profile photo of Deepti Menon

    I’ve found that having contracts and explaining your process well in advance makes everything smoother! As an animator, people sometimes have no idea the amount of time it takes to create just a second of animation! You want to make things clear well in advance, so that when the time comes for the invoice, you don’t have a shocked client or one that doesn’t want to pay (believe me, it happens). Being on the same page is key.

  3. Profile photo of Annie Irwin

    Informing your client about your art making process is incredibly helpful and works to make the pressure easier on yourself and your client. Once a client is aware of everything that goes into the making of the piece, every other aspect is easier to justify, like pricing and timing!

  4. Profile photo of Casey Roonan

    As someone who got their career start making album artwork for friends and friends-of-friends, I didn’t get payed (at least not in anything more than drinks and CDs) for a long time! This was not ultimately because my clients were unwilling, but because I just didn’t ask… I think it’s natural for you to feel weird and intimidated asking for money on your first commissioned gig, but just being direct and maintaining professional boundaries always works out for the best, for everyone involved. So the fact that this is a company that’s contacting you, and is presumably more used to business transactions than my weird-o musician pals, should give you some kind of reassurance.

    I think a big part of that professionalism – one which I didn’t quite figure out for some time – is Professor Lieu’s #1, here. I always start by sending the client a detailed invoice that explains the process in numbered and dated steps, including each stage of “client review.” As Professor Lieu says, this makes it clear to the client, on one hand, just how much work you are doing for them (and which point certain “kill fees” apply), but it also gives the document the appearance of being more informative than the usual stuffy agreement. Some people (*cough* musicians *cough*) can get panicked when they hear the word “contract,” but “invoice” not so much. (Case in point: no one has ever heard of a “Faustian Invoice.”)

  5. Profile photo of Alexander Rowe

    The need for contracts and approval is so important! Yes it covers you if things ever get legal, but that rarely happens. What a contract does is show your client that you are professional, and are not to be messed with. They take you and your time seriously when you have a contract ready to go. I’ve found that that’s the best way to have great, long-lasting relationships: professional first, always!
    Also, side note, there is an exciting rush you get (previously only known by detectives on daytime crime dramas) as you leave a voicemail saying “If I do not receive the payment I was promised by this date, I will be forced to pursue legal action.”
    I got my check the next day! Plan for the worst, no matter what. And having contracts with key information stated is a great partner to have on your team.

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