The Art of the Art Commission

The Art of the Art Commission

the art of the art commission


Every week I write a brand new article to support members of our three wonderful arts groups on Facebook: The Artist Hangout, The Artists Directory, and The Artists Exchange. Each week I cover a new topic to support both artists and art lovers and provide a little insight from my own 30+ years of experience. This week we will be taking a look at the art of art commissions.

We will be covering:

  • What people commission
  • Considerations for those commissioning a work
  • What an artist needs to know before taking on a commission
  • Setting prices
  • Being professional as an artist

Bigfoot!

When I started out all those years ago I never expected that someone would ever ask me to paint their very own vision for them but over the years commissions have been one of my staples and I have had a few really interesting, odd, and sometimes some rather bizarre ones too.

I like to research thoroughly every time I take on a commission but the latest one I am working on is going to be challenging. I’m working on a Sasquatch otherwise known as Bigfoot but the only reference I have is what I have found online and I’m not too sure that the client will want a blurry image of a person dressed in a monkey costume. Thankfully I have a completion date of December 2018 to have this piece created!

I’m sure Sasquatch exists, the world is so big that it is at least possible that some creature so apparently intelligent could be lurking as far as possible away from humans, if I could do that before I drink my first ten cups of coffee in a morning, well I would be hunkering down next to one. I was reasonably sceptical about the existence of Bigfoot and Yeti for many years but some of the interviews I have been watching have been given by regular people who know that they have seen something but science doesn’t recognise what it is. It is though even on a psychological level a deeply interesting subject.

The subject of Bigfoot is something that I would never have really bothered looking into very deeply had it have not been for taking on this commission. I have produced a lot of work in the past depicting aliens and ufology, and a number of my book cover commissions have been sci-fi/ufology related. Again another fascinating subject that I only ever started looking into after taking on a commission. I have been a bit of a closet UFO watcher for the best part of two decades now.

For the past couple of decades beyond that initial commission I continue to hold a fascination in the subject of alien life and ufology which I occasionally draw upon to produce a new related work and there’s no doubt that I will create a few pieces featuring Bigfoot after I have completed this commission, it really is a fun subject. 

In short taking on commissions can broaden your artistic range and commissions can introduce you to new subjects which you might find that you have a passion for and want to create more of. But perhaps one of the biggest benefits to an artist is that you definitely will learn new techniques whenever you take on something slightly different as you endeavour to push yourself further. 

The other side to the commission coin is that sometimes they can turn into never-ending nightmares. You will be able to read about those when I publish my “Client from Zip Code Hell” article which tells you what to do when you encounter a truly special client. Thankfully most clients who fit within that description are rarer than Sasquatches and aliens. 

So what do people commission?

Before we go on to what you need to know about taking on commissions it might be worth looking at some of the things that people generally want to commission. Commissioning a piece of artwork is hugely personal for the client. 

They might want something to hang in their home but equally you might as an artist be tasked with creating something that will be in full public view and which will become a focal piece of an organisation. That’s really when the enormity of taking on commissions strikes home and panic can set in for the artist. Even today after producing many commissions, each new one comes with a healthy dose of nervousness.

As you would expect with commissions, many of them are commissioned to fulfil a personal need for very specific art. Wedding portraits, engagements, and anniversaries are always popular, and increasingly pet lovers are seeking out good artists who can capture their pets. In short, subjects that are known to the commissioner and of which they are an expert in, and that means you have to get it right. 

At Christmas it’s not unusual to take requests to create personalised greetings cards and just before the spring you might start being asked to produce wedding invitations. Of course there are many of the traditional requests for portraits which happen throughout the year and more and more people are commissioning celebrity portraits which is something that seems to be in vogue at the moment. 

Personally I have steered away from portraits and figurative work for a number of years because I don’t enjoy them as much as I do my abstracts, landscapes, and seascapes. Also I’m not really a figurative artist, it’s a completely different skill set. If you want a stick man then I’m probably going to meet your expectations but not so much if it’s a cherished moment between two people holding hands.

And that’s something that you need to be very aware of when taking on a commission. If you don’t feel that you are strong in a particular area there is simply no point in doing something just to earn a buck. If you leave a client disappointed then you certainly won’t get repeat business even for something that you have a strength in creating. 

We’ll get on to the other considerations that you need to factor in as an artist soon, but first we should get a feeling of what it is like to commission a piece of art from a client’s perspective.

Commissioning an artist…

If you are someone who is looking to commission an artist you might already be aware of the artist’s work and their style may be the very reason you have approached them anyway. But if you are commissioning an artist without fully knowing anything about their style of working, you will need to find out as much as you can about them and their work before signing a contract or agreement with them.

No one ever really likes to talk about money or at least not immediately but knowing what to pay as a commissioner of artwork is something that first time commissioners will no doubt struggle with.

Here’s the blunt truth. Commissioning a piece of artwork is often going to cost a bit more than buying one of the artist’s original works. There’s a process that has to be gone through to ensure that everything you want is captured and agreed before they even pick up a pencil. 

This obviously takes time away from the artist so it gets reflected in the price. Some artists will have already factored this into their pricing but not so many years ago I heard a story where one artist provided a base cost plus lots and lots of non-optional extras. Mostly everything that needed to be done was an extra charge making the painting three times as expensive as the original quote. 

Some artists will charge by the hour, some will include unlimited revisions, others will limit the number of revisions, and again all of this will have to be paid for somehow. My advice is to always limit the number of revisions when you are commissioning a piece of art which might sound counter-productive, but there’s a good reason to do that. 

Firstly limiting the number of revisions will help to bring the cost down, secondly it focuses the artist, thirdly, if there are only a set number of revisions it also focuses the commissioner of the artwork so that they are clearer about what they want from the off. Any choices to change anything have to count and should be considered and not just made on a whim.

That’s a good thing. I don’t mean to stereotype here but the analogy to this is whenever I take my wife clothes shopping we go to a store and she finds something that she wants. We then walk around every other store over the course of a day and then return to the very first store and buy what she fell in love with at 9am. When it comes to art you will probably already know exactly what you want so focus on that. 

At that point you can come up with a clear design brief and it will save constant revisions down the line. Without a clear design brief it can all become messy and confused which will reflect in the finished work.  If you make numerous revisions it will stop being what you wanted it to be in the first place and it becomes unrecognisable from the original brief. Not only have you now paid much more than you needed to if you had provided the detail in the initial brief, you might never be totally happy with the completed work because it looks so different from what you originally wanted.

There will still be points throughout the process when you will have an opportunity to comment or change things slightly around, but always remember that the artist is the best placed person to present your vision on canvas. An artist who has experience will know what will and won’t work, so trust them and be guided by them. All the artist needs is some clarity around what your vision is.

As a commissioner you will want to be aware of how long things will take. The time that it will take to complete the work itself is made up of multiple factors and doesn’t always equate to holding a paintbrush. This is the point when artists might give you two very different answers to the time question. 

The first answer being “yes of course I can get it done by tomorrow”, knowing that this is impossible to complete by tomorrow if the client wants something that is actually any good. 

The second more realistic answer is “as long as I have a clear brief, similar pieces have taken me approximately X number of hours”, realistic in that each artwork should be quoted on a case by case basis and against a reasonably clear brief.

However even then just because an artist has quoted 100-hours of work doesn’t mean to say that the countdown begins the moment you sign on the dotted line. Artist’s might have multiple projects on the go and might have to meet deadlines for work which is of a higher priority or needs to be delivered within critical timescales. Unfortunately it’s often not possible to book an appointment in between available slots. Slotting in a hundred plus hours of work can be difficult especially if the artist has a lot of commission work going on and some artists have long waiting lists.

The only time that you should expect an artist to give up working on anything else is if you agree that they will work exclusively on your commission and nothing else. At that point an artist might say that they will work between 9-5 each day and will have X amount of time for lunch and will take X amount of time to keep you up to date with progress. If you are after an exclusive arrangement like this then yes you will definitely need to pay a little sometimes even a lot more.

Some artists will charge by the hour, others the square inch and there are a million different pricing models in between. Others might offer an all-inclusive package with everything included for a single price irrespective of how many hours are worked. 

Others might offer package prices which are predicated on the number of revisions required, the medium being used, any framing options, and some might offer a menu of options over and above the base price. 

I tend to use a menu approach for many of my corporate clients and on that menu are other things such as professional hanging and bespoke hand crafted frames as well as DIY hanging kits and pre-manufactured frames. This really helps to clarify what is and isn’t included and helps client’s stick within any budget constraints. 

It’s not a given that artists will always charge more for a commission than their original work. Some will take 50% deposit with 50% payable on completion others will stage the payments, others will offer payment over a much longer period. There is no real standard when it comes to payment options.

Some artists will offer finance options but not all will, but every artist who takes on a commission is more than likely going to need a non-refundable deposit which in some cases can be 50% of the total cost to cover materials and any initial time that is needed to gather the client’s requirements or work on some rough mock-ups of the finished work. 

Most artists will take the payment over three instalments, first the deposit followed by a second payment part way through when a milestone has been reached, and a final payment on delivery of the work. There might also be an optional payment so that the buyer can purchase all rights to the work and if this isn’t agreed you will need to understand that the artist can if they wish, reproduce your commission or sell it on as prints in the future unless agreed otherwise. 

I handle deposits a little differently, it all depends on what the commission is. If there is a commission that is a little more generic I charge a much lower deposit knowing that if the client pulls out I will be able to sell the work or prints of the work in the future and cover costs. If it is something more personal then I charge 1/3 up front, followed by two more payments at fixed stages, but existing clients don’t put down a deposit at all, they will just pay on completion. For me it is about the art and showing an appreciation to the client.


Mark taylor artist commissions


Should you commission a work?

Of course you should! Well that’s what you would expect any commission artist to say except in some cases. Commissioning might not be the best value option of acquiring a work from that particular artist unless you absolutely want something so bespoke and personal that doesn’t already exist somewhere in the artists portfolio. 

Acquiring an artist’s work and commissioning their work are two very different propositions. To own a bespoke piece of work from any single particular artist is a great enough reason for many to commission a work. If you want something in the artists unique style and with a subject that is close to you then you probably should go with commissioning a piece of work. 

However, if the commission is not personal and you can forego certain things, acquiring an original work that you love from the artist might be the smarter play. Those who have purchased an original work are more likely to be offered special deals in the future on commissions should you decide later on that something more personal is required.

Of course this may be your only chance of commissioning a work and there are no guarantees that artists will offer a deal down the line, but if something exists and it is close to what you want, decide whether you can live with it and save some money in the longer term. 

What an artist needs to know…

We have already discussed the importance of being confident enough to take on a commission and how important it is to know the extent of your own ability, but you also need to take into account how much time a commission will take you.Creating something that is bespoke is very different to creating one of your original artworks. 

At the point of taking on a commission you are suddenly working with someone else who may want to have varying amounts of input into the process. If you are not great at that thing they call humanity or communicating you might want to give commissions a miss.

At this point I am reminded that I saw a ‘how to charge clients’ price list on the internet which said something similar to:

Design Services Inc. Price List

I design everything

$100

I design, you watch

$200

I design, you advise

$300

I design, you help

$800

You design, I advise

$1500

You design, I watch

$2500

You design everything

$5000


Whilst that is a little tongue in cheek, ask any artist or designer who has experienced the ‘client designs everything’ commission and they will tell you that there is a reason why you charge the most for this service, usually because you will have to do ten times the amount of work to put it all right when it all goes wrong. 

You have to be very specific in the amount of time that a commission will take, one of the most heard stories throughout my own experience in taking on commissions is; could we just change the background from one colour to a gradient of three other colours? It won’t take you five minutes. Forget that the shadows now need tints of blue instead of red, or that the rest of the work needs redoing to match the new colour scheme, it’s a tad longer than five minutes extra work usually, it could take five hours, it could take fifty hours, then again it could take 5 minutes. 

You need to know that whatever time you quote will allow you to put everything that you have into it. Over committing to seriously short timeframes isn’t going to do you or your work any favours. Under promise and over deliver really is the way to go with commissioned work, you really do have to set out these expectations from the outset. 

The nightmare scenarios that can sometimes occur can mostly be avoided if you qualify those clients who request commissions. There are some things which might raise a red flag prior to taking on the work. It is totally fine to say to someone that you cannot take on the work or that you don’t feel you have the skills required or you don’t have the time to complete the work, equally it is also fine to just let some clients go before you start on the commission path at all. 

Ask any artist how they approach commissions and how they qualify clients and you will no doubt get very different answers. There’s no single right way of taking on commissions but there are many red flags that you should avoid. 

One of the biggest red flags that I always look out for is when a client wants me to create a piece of work which is totally outside of my skill set and experience but the client persists in giving you a pep-talk. An artist such as yourself would have no problem in painting this. Thanks for your faith in me my friend but my experience tells me differently. 

Another red flag appears when the client is unwilling to pay a deposit or wants to pay only a very small amount as a non-refundable deposit. This could be the signal that the client is unsure whether or not to pay down the line or that they might haggle further once the work has been completed. At the point of completion it is already too late to say no and those who fail to pay will need to be dealt with sometimes even through a legal process, but you can only do this if there is an agreement or contract in place first.

Setting prices…

At some point usually fairly early on in the commissioning process the conversation will turn to pricing. Make sure that you have a pricing structure available before you get asked for prices. Its fine to say that you need more details about the piece you will be working on before committing to a price but you should never be totally in the dark if you are asked for a ball-park figure. 

If you are represented by a gallery there may be clauses in your agreement with them where you have to pay a set percentage for work completed to the gallery even if the business did not come through the gallery itself. That’s a fairly standard thing with some galleries. 

If they introduced you to a client they may require a finder’s fee or introduction fee, so you need to be aware of any existing agreements that you do have. Some galleries will want to handle the entire commission process on your behalf so that they can control and assure any work that comes from you or they may have very specific pricing that you should be charging for commissions so that it does not devalue any work that they might currently be holding, and of course they will want to protect the value of existing work that has been previously sold. 

You should also consider the cost of administering a commission. We have already discussed the time it can take to work on this kind of project and gathering requirements alone could take a while. Every time you communicate with a client needs to be factored in too, and waiting time if you send work in progress photos and the client needs time to decide that work is progressing as they would like it to. There will often be periods when work stops and starts. However, you should never nickel and dime the client for absolutely everything, and you should make the process as easy as you can for the client. 

Over the years I have seen quotes that include some of the silliest things which are actually just the cost of doing business and should be spread out across everything you do, not just recovered through a single piece of commissioned art. 

You certainly need to consider delivery too. Similar to time, delivery is often the element of pricing that gets forgotten about until the last minute. Overseas commissions are even more difficult because you might have to arrange to export a piece of work. If you create a commission for $1000 and the cost of delivery comes in at $300, suddenly it starts costing you money to produce the commission. Find out shipping costs before quoting and make sure that the shipping is insured.

Once the work has been shipped the client might handle the hanging of the work and your job is essentially done, but some clients will want you to install a piece of art or arrange an expert art handler to carry out the installation. 

You also need to know what to communicate and when and how. Email, Skype, and telephone are the most convenient ways to communicate as we all know, but sometimes a client will want face to face meetings. Depending on where and how frequently these will need to happen will also have a determining factor on the price. 

The cost of a face to face meeting or two particularly if long journeys on your part are involved can significantly bump the cost of producing the commission upwards or eat into any profit. Wherever you can ask if the client can visit you for face to face meetings but know that you are working for the client.

You do have to be flexible with client communications. Whilst it is a good idea to set some boundaries and provide the hours you will be contactable, clients are putting a lot of faith in you to reproduce their vision. Of course they will be eager to receive the finished work and they will be eager to know how you are progressing.

When it comes to pricing you have to be realistic and your pricing should be reflective of what your audience/market will pay. As I have said many times on this website, you really do have to know who your market is when you produce art. If you don’t know who your target demographic is your art is highly unlikely to sell and you are less likely to get commissions. There’s no rocket science behind this it is just the way any form of commerce or marketing works. 

Be professional…

An artist with a solid reputation and who is professional in their approach to a client and takes into account what the client needs will always win the day when it comes to commissions. When clients have worked with professional artists previously they will be able to tell the difference if you’re not up to scratch. 

Every opportunity to take on a commission is not equal. First you have to qualify the potential client and ensure that commissioning a piece of art is going to provide them with what they want and that you have the skills to present their vision on their medium of choice.

Be very clear with clients about what you feel you can and cannot create because you may be asked to produce something in a medium that you have absolutely no experience with. Saying yes to this and then creating a below standard piece of art will do neither you, the client, nor your portfolio any favours.

If something is outside of your skill set explain to the client and offer options that are more suited to your style of working, and if that doesn’t suit the client never be afraid to decline the offer of work or introduce them to another artist who may be able to complete what the client needs. 

Commissions can go belly up from the off if you don’t first qualify the client. If you have never worked with someone before then no matter how much you need the money, or no matter how much they say that they love your work, make sure that you do your own due diligence first. I have seen other artists fall victim to over payment scams and never receive a dime because they were too wrapped up in the fact that a client wanted them to create a commission and they never paused for a moment to find out a little more about the client. 

Ask if they have commissioned pieces before, what the timescales will be, and which of your existing works they like. If they can’t tell you the latter then it could be another red flag. Ask up front what colour palette they want to see and if there are any details that you should pay significantly more attention to, and always ask if there is anything in your current body of work that they don’t want replicating in the commission. This will start cutting down the need for them to micro-manage everything involved in the process. It’s also worthwhile knowing how many people will need to approve the final work, it is so much more challenging to please multiple people which is what sometimes has to happen when you take on corporate commissions and where you might have to present the finished work to a panel. 

Initial communications should also be professional. Leave out the cheesy sales speak, and remember that you are not writing a press release when you send over a quotation to carry out the work and leave out the over familiarity too if you have no existing relationship. You shouldn’t be jumping to second or third base right off the bat.

Keep any emails short and to the point because everyone is busy. The quotation isn’t the sales pitch, stick to the point and give the information that you need to give without dressing it up with spin. Check any emails you send before you send them. If you are sending an email the overuse of capitals is often seen by spam filters as an indicator that the content of the mail is spam, often we forget to take the caps lock off. 

Take time to think about the initial communications you will be having with potential clients, and think carefully about what other options you have to take on the work if the client comes back and says that the initial quotation was too expensive. If your clients are constantly declining your pricing it could be an indication that either they had no idea what a professional commission costs or it could be that you are trying to nickel and dime them for everything and this could be an indication that it is time to reflect on your pricing.

The real key to securing a commission is around you being flexible and making the client know that they matter. It is all about the art and the client and both are bigger than the artist. Five minutes extra work really doesn’t make a difference if the client is happy as a result, five hours extra work is different but wherever you can you should be as accommodating as possible, they still have to make that final payment. 

My commissions 

I won’t be taking on any more personal commissions over the next year and instead will be focusing on some of my own art projects and the art projects that come through Beechhouse Media and from existing collectors. Time is the biggest factor and committing to upwards of 50 hours of work makes taking on personal commissions increasingly difficult to fit in. 

Last year it felt like I was working continuously on commissioned work which I was deeply grateful of receiving but it also left my own portfolio not quite as up to date as I want it to be, and also I had to turn away some great opportunities too. 

Anyone who creates commissions full time has my deepest respect, I know exactly how much work it involves to even complete one. For some artists commissions can be a terrific opportunity but they’re not for everyone. If you’ve never tried them you should definitely consider giving them a go, many artists work only on commissioned pieces and make a great living from doing that. For me though I want to start focusing on some of the bottled up art projects I have running around in my head! Sometimes it can be just about the art rather than the money that commissions can bring. 

That might leave a gap for some of those personal commissions that I get offered so if you are an artist who wouldn’t mind taking on some commissioned work, leave a link to your own portfolio website in the comments and hopefully you might get some work coming in. I plan on creating an article in the future that identifies which artists are currently taking commissions and what they specialise in and I will try to include as many links in that as I can. 

Are you being offered a commission but are unsure whether or not to take it? Or, would you like to take on more commissions? Please feel free to leave a comment below and remember to leave a link to your online portfolio in the comment!

beechhouse Media artist Mark Taylor


Now with an added S!

You may not have noticed but I’ve made a couple of significant changes this week to this site! Firstly I finally got an opportunity to add in an additional layer of security to the site and you will notice that the web address now has a padlock meaning that if you wish to purchase my art directly from this site instead of from my Pixels or Fine Art America stores, you can do so safe in the knowledge that any transaction is secure. Orders are still fulfilled by Fine Art America and you still get a 30-day money back guarantee too! 

Even better, my print prices have been significantly reduced for a limited time because I know how difficult the economy is right now and new artwork can often be a luxury for most of us. I want you and your walls to be happy and as Spring is in the air there’s never been a better time to grab a print of my work which is printed on the best quality mediums and will last for generations with the right care. 

The other change I have made is to tidy up the site map page and made it much easier to follow. Now the newest posts will be at the top in date order of posting rather than posting every tag relevant to each post. It’s less scrolling and less clutter. You will find the previous few hundred articles and any older articles will still remain in the archive which you can reach by clicking on the hamburger icon in the top left of the page depending on which device you are using to view the site. 

I’ll be making a few minor tweaks over the next year to make the site even better and I will finally be selecting some artists from The Artists Directory Group on Facebook to feature on a directory page. I will only be selecting members of that group who are most active and engaged though, so if you want to be in with the chance to appear in the directory and you are a member of the group, engage, join in, and let me know you are there!

This will tell me how professional you are as an artist as I will only feature artists I know will produce great work for their clients and who take their art seriously. 

If you haven’t joined The Artists Directory or The Artist Hangout or The Artists Exchange yet, you can find the group details on my Beechhouse Media Facebook page. Each group is free to join but we do have very strict post policies as both I and the admins work hard to keep out the spammers! Just over 21,000 members have joined so far so the groups present a great opportunity to showcase your work and hopefully achieve a few sales! 

Look out for my new group which will support the education of independent visual artists who wish to take on a self learning approach with their continued professional development and where we will also discuss the business of art. I’ll be setting up that group very soon so please do check back here for further details! 

Just before I disappear, I hope you all have a wonderful and blessed Easter break. I will hopefully be uploading a new article before next week’s article to keep you going in between! I’ll also be heading off to the coast so expect a live stream on Facebook as I discover some new inspirations for my recent series of seascapes!

About Mark…

I am an artist and blogger who specialises in abstracts, landscapes, and seascapes. My work is sold in more than 150 retail locations across the USA and Canada including The Great Frame Up, Framing and Art Centre, and Deck the Walls and you can also buy from Fine Art America or my Pixels site here: https://10-mark-taylor.pixels.com 

All artwork and art collectibles sold through Fine Art America and Pixels also come with a 30-day money back guarantee and any proceeds from sales through Fine Art America and Pixels go back towards maintaining this site for the benefit of other independent visual artists and art buyers. It takes a huge amount of time to write articles and support the many artists who reach out to me for advice outside of this site, so even buying a greetings card through my Pixels site allows me to keep doing it! The great news is that I have just lowered my artist’s commission on Fine Art America and Pixels across a range of products for a limited time!

You can also follow me on Facebook at: https://facebook.com/beechhousemedia and on Twitter @beechhouseart

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