Conquering Commissions

Conquering Commissions

Conquering Art Commissions
Conquering Art Commissions

I regularly write a new article for members of our four wonderful art groups on Facebook, The Artists Exchange, The Artists Directory, The Artists Lounge, and The Artist Hangout. This week we take another walk through the world of taking on commissions and look at how best to approach those tricky project briefs and occasionally tricky clients!

Before we begin this week, I just want to thank those who have purchased my work over the past few months and weeks, it's a tough time for small businesses and it’s more important than ever that we all support them however we can. Thank you to all of you. On another note, yes, I was missing from here last week, in part because I really needed to catch up with getting some orders out of the door and I needed to get a few jobs completed that I have been putting on hold for way too long, and in part because I had to make a call to the doctor.

The good news is that my kidney stones have been dealt with, the not so good news is that I have something the doctor called an extra-intestinal manifestation caused by my Crohn’s Disease. I don't really need extra-anything, maybe an extra lottery win, but medically, nope, I'm good thanks. He had taken another look at an MRI scan from a year ago and it appears that my glass back isn't really made from glass, it's  Ankylosing Spondylitis, which kind of explains the back pain I’ve been having for a few years. On the upside, the medication that the doctor prescribed seems to be doing its job so I am feeling almost back to my usual self, in fact, I can't recall a time in the past few years that I have felt this good. Now I just need to wait to see a rheumatologist because by then I'm thinking I should have collected the set, and hopefully, I will be able to get back to some sort of regular presence here and on social media. I really miss you guys but whatever this thing is, it's exhausting so I am really having to prioritise my routine. 

I hope that everyone is keeping well and staying safe and that you are all managing to find some time to get creative, I've certainly been impressed with some of the work I do get to see on Facebook and it's about time I wrote another new feature to showcase some of you. If you want a mention, let me know and let's see if we can make it happen. Anywho, on to this week's ramble and a meander through the subject of creating commissioned art. 

Just one more thing, I'm getting back in the habit of creating landscapes, my default for the past thirty-something years. I'm not sure if it is due to a lack of seeing them in real life but I have created about fifteen in the past couple of months, some will make it to the upload process, some won't, this one did! 

Coastal Flight art by Mark Taylor
Coastal Flight is available right here!

And for those interested in the pallet I used, here are the primary colours and the hex codes that I use in a lot of my seascape paintings. I will be covering colour and pallets in an upcoming blog and I will be sharing Procreate Swatches very soon!

digital colour pallet for Procreate and Photoshop
The digital colour pallet for seascapes, for use in Procreate and Photoshop - let me know if you need the hex codes, luminosity settings etc!

The art of commissions...

For the past couple of years I have taken a back seat with commissions, actively not taking them on with the exception of a couple that I absolutely needed to do and didn’t need to be convinced. You know the ones, the ones that really spark a fire and you know they are going to be a joy to create. Those are the commissions I love but we don’t always get blessed with a choice. I stopped taking them on because I simply needed to find some extra time to fit in more work outside of commissions. I have a small number of retailers who sell some works that I never make available anywhere else so I had to keep my eye firmly on producing more work for them without the interruptions that taking on commissioned work can bring. No matter how many commissions you take on, it's easy to underestimate the amount of time a commission can eat up. 

If that sounds like I fell out of love with commissions, I didn’t. Commissions are a great way to go and if you are lucky to get enough of them they will ultimately pay the bills in between regular sales and sometimes even without regular sales. I know a few artists who only ever work on commissioned pieces and they do very well but it's really not something that every artist wants or even should do. Commissions can be fun but they can also be a lot of hard work and an artist making a career solely out of commissioned work has my utmost respect.

I have written about why I gave them up a few times over the past couple of years, but the short answer is that taking on a commission is about taking on a massive amount of responsibility and losing creative time on other projects. If a client trusts you with their vision and wants to hand over some cold hard cash, you have to return that level of trust ten-fold by giving them the best piece of art ever and your focus has to be firmly on the commissioner.

The biggest problem I had was finding enough time to get every single piece completed in the time I had given the client. How long will that take, oh, that’s going to be around six weeks, oh dear, I was rather hoping I could have it by next Tuesday. Okay, well if I juggle some things around and work 20-hour days, I can probably get it done by a week on Thursday. Inevitably the work is completed 24-hours ahead of the original deadline the client wanted, that’s just what so many of us do. We should always be prepared to go the extra mile for any client who hands over their hard-earned cash no matter how much it is, the client has to be front and centre and if you can’t give them a hundred percent for whatever reason, it’s better to wait until you can.

When I think back, the biggest problem I had with commissions wasn’t anything to do with a lack of time at all, it was my inability to manage both mine and the client's expectations around completion time along with my inability to say no, and those things combined made it unsustainable. Seven 20-hour days in a row do not equate to creating good anything let alone art and especially when you need to keep it up week after week, month after month, and if you are unlucky, getting a bad client adds on another heap of pressure.  

I have been lucky throughout my career with having great clients, 99.9% of them have been fantastic, a teeny-tiny percentage, not so much. I once had an author commission a book cover at 9am and he phoned me at 10:30am to see how far I had got and would it be ready by noon. Well, the six weeks on the waitlist hasn’t happened yet my friend, I at least need a coffee.  At noon he phoned to say that he wanted a different font, and by 3pm the entire design brief had changed and so had the number of hours needed to complete the work. Of course, I said yes, yes, and yes, because it’s nigh on impossible to say no to a paying client, sometimes we absolutely should, it’s kinder to them and to us.

The lure of bills being paid is a real motivator at times, except this particular commission wasn’t even going to cover a single bill let alone all bills, again, my inability to say the word no came to the fore. The commission that came in immediately after I said yes to this one would have paid the bills but hindsight is a very rare thing.

So here’s the first lesson of the week, if a commission isn’t going to work for you, don’t be tempted to immediately jump in without thinking things through. Think about whether the time could be better used to spend on something more valuable, either financially or in terms of your own artistic development and then come to a decision. There’s another lesson I learned the hard way and that was that you don’t have to accept every commission that comes along.

There have been times when I have taken on commissions that I have zero interest in working on which makes them so much more difficult to create and it becomes counterproductive to what you set out to achieve. Over the past decade before I stopped taking commissions regularly, I made a conscious decision to only ever take on the ones that I knew I could get excited enough about to provide the client with something that they would love.  

That approach might not work for every artist, bills need paying and portfolios need to be maintained and they need to remain current and commissions can be a great way to build up your own skillset and maintain your portfolio. There are definite upsides in taking most projects on, but I do think that you also need to consider how creating that work will advance you as an artist or develop your skillset, it really should work for you as well as the client otherwise you could end up with a disappointed client and you might be taking a step or two backward in advancing towards that life-long goal of mastery. Sometimes it can be way more productive to say no and even signpost them to another artist who might have more experience in the subject they want painting. 

Upon a Breathing Tide Art by Mark Taylor
Upon a Breathing Tide Art by Mark Taylor - available here!

The upside of commissions…

There are a heap of positives that can come from commissions not least, that having someone choose you to realise their vision is one of the most humbling experiences an artist can ever go through, but one of the biggest upsides for me was that it helped me to develop and evolve my style. I’m no longer afraid to tackle other subjects where at one time anything outside of a landscape was well outside of my comfort zone.

Aside from the financial rewards that can come with commissions, one of the biggest upsides is that a happy client breeds new clients by word of mouth. It’s the original organic reach that can keep on giving for years. I still have clients who buy my works directly who once commissioned me to create a work after hearing about my work through one of their friends, and a restaurant owning friend became my best source of free advertising and regular work after commissioning some art and matching menu designs. Even during the past couple of months while his business is closed, I have been preparing new simplified menu designs for a much smaller take-out menu that he plans to offer, hopefully soon.

Tackling other subjects builds up skills and moves you forward in terms of your artistic development, and it can also give you ideas for new works. If the commissioner wants that particular subject, chances are that another hundred people do too. Tackling other subjects is once again, not for everyone, but some diversification does help you to hone a wider skill set. 

The downsides of commissions…

As with anything, there are downsides. Commissions can take way more time than you think they will. Gathering the client's requirements can take anything from five minutes to a number of hours spread across a number of weeks, and no matter how exact you think you are, or how experienced you are, about 90% of the time, something will crop up that takes a while longer that you couldn’t have or will have completely forgot to factor in. Here’s another vital lesson, under promise and over deliver is the only way to go if you want to keep happy clients.

Costs, yes they can and frequently do escalate and even more so when a client changes the brief or when either of you hasn’t been quite as clear on the initial design brief, but more than that, art supplies just like stocks and shares can occasionally leap up in price, that's something that you will need to factor in, it really shouldn't be on the client unless they dramatically changed the brief. I once paid X for paint and suddenly I need to spend Y, each dime takes away from the bottom line and as the clock ticks, prices go up and suddenly every second spent on the commission begins to count a little more and eat away at your bottom line.

The other downside is stress, some of it, unavoidable, some of it from the client, some of it from the pressure that comes along with wanting to do your best in the time you have, and some of it self-induced and that’s probably the worst kind of stress. Knowing how to recognise any warning signs and not running the gauntlet of 18-20 hour days will certainly help, but what will help more is not giving unrealistic deadlines that you then frantically try to keep. I'm pretty sure that some stress is healthy, even needed to survive but the kind of stress that commissions can bring is often within your gift to control if you set out from the start in setting the right expectations out to your client. 

Gone Fishing art by Mark Taylor
Gone Fishing art by Mark Taylor - Available here!

Successful Commissions…

So how do we take on a commission and make sure that it is a success? The real key to this is to have an effective and clear communications strategy in place with the client, and if you think that something might be delayed, let the client know as soon as possible. Good communications mean that you are less likely to have a bad client. Many of the issues that I get told about and have seen over the years have usually been down to something as simple as not being totally clear with the client and not managing expectations. If you know the work will take six weeks, the work will take six weeks, that’s an immediate pressure that you no longer have to deal with if the expectation is set from the off.

Generally, those who commission an artwork will fall into three distinct camps. Those who know exactly what they want, those who don’t have too much of an idea and will need your expertise to guide them through the process, and the third, those who think they know exactly what they think they want but their thinking is subject to change on a whim and don’t really want you to guide them. These people need your guidance too, and sometimes in the rare case that they also think they know how to create the work, will need some polite assertiveness as you guide them through your process. Mastering diplomacy isn’t a bad skill to master in situations like this. Remember, no matter how wonderful the client, you are the artist, you own your process, they came to you because they want what you can give them.

The latter clients are not especially bad clients, at least to start with. Most of the issues associated with those ‘special kinda clients’ that we so often read about are down to a lack of communication and clarity from the onset. There will still be the occasional ‘extra special client’ who will go the extra mile by being difficult, not paying, no longer wants the work and forgets to mention it, micro-managing your process despite the clarity and irrespective of any lines you drew in the sand, but those should be the rare exception. I guess a few artists are unlucky to have had more than their fair share of them but this is why the option of no, sorry I can't do that at the moment comes into play. Most people who want a commissioned work are going to be absolutely brilliant, but clarity, direction, a little not overly arrogant assertiveness, giving good advice and making sure you listen even when it seems like the client doesn’t, will go a long way towards avoiding any murky design briefs and the potential for clients to become the wrong kind of special.

Adrift at the Golden Hour art by Mark Taylor
Adrift at the Golden Hour art by Mark Taylor - Available here!

How do we do this?

The one thing that will determine how well the commission will go is to be clear about everything from the off. Never assume you know what the client is thinking especially if the words, you can have anything you want, have ever departed from your lips since you first met them. Ask a lot of questions, clients should be erring on the side of pleasant exhaustion from your pursuit of clarifying what it is they want from you. I say that only half tongue in cheek, clarity has to come from both sides and they’ll thank you profoundly when you finally give them what they want, it cuts down on the number of revisions too.

It’s also important to understand if what you are being commissioned to create is a design project or an art project. When it comes to taking on design projects rather than art, it’s not the commissioner you need to impress, it’s the user who ultimately has to look at that design. Their views will be just as, if not more important than those who pay the bills. There is a difference between design projects and commissioned artworks, designs usually have to solve a tangible problem, the problems that artworks solve can be less than immediately obvious and ultimately very different.

I mention this because design and art are often interchangeably used, but both have very different outcomes. When a designer takes on a design project, design solutions are often integrated responses to design problems, whereas art is often an extension of the artist. There is a difference in the mindset that has to be applied and this just seems an important thing to think about when we start to engage with clients, are they looking for a design, or do they want a piece of art, and they might not realise that what they are asking for is different.

We have to be clear about any problem we are trying to solve for the client and some of this clarity will mean that we do have to guide but not completely lead the clients in the art of what’s possible. We have to suggest from experience, but more importantly, we have to build up a relationship with the client where they trust us and our artistic instincts, at the same time, if a client categorically insists that the sky needs to be green, that’s kind of what we have to give them.

Finding that initial clarity is tricky but it will become second nature in time, so long as you remember to ask the questions that you need to ask to get the clarity you need. It’s good for the commissioner too. I would be worried about handing a commission to any artist or designer who never asked me anything or questioned at least some of my thinking to gain more clarity, and even less so if they offered no other guidance at all and just said yes, I will take the job on, come back in a week.

That initial clarity about what you are doing and setting down expectations will lead to two things, a happy client and less chance of multiple revisions, that’s if you offer revisions at all. Not every artist will offer them and where they do, the number of revisions should be capped unless the artist has completely got something that was clarified wrong, in which case, it needs to be rectified and the artist needs to own it.

How many revisions should you offer? That depends on what you have costed into the price of the commission. My default is, or at least it was when I created a lot of commissions, capped at zero, although, I would be more than happy to accommodate some small changes as part of the cost. Additional revisions were then payable unless we had already agreed a set number at the start. Revisions are sometimes necessary, but sometimes revisions can be used by some of those ‘extra special clients’ to completely change the project brief and you may have to start again from scratch. There’s a real cost in doing this, sometimes it can run into a significant cost too.

There is a way to stop this from getting out of hand though, as soon as you have some clarity, commit that clarity to paper in the form of a contract, get the client to sign it as you should too, and take a deposit. Draw lines, set the ground rules, never say words like infinite, or within the hour, unless the client is going to pay for that level of concierge based service and be clear about where the finish line is.

Why is this an issue you might ask - because from experience, that teeny-tiny small percentage of clients I have been unlucky to come across who I would place carefully in a special class of ‘extra-special’ thought that I would be okay to keep going forever before deciding on the very first piece I created. Here’s a secret, I handed the original file back to one of these clients once, relabelled it with a different file name, and after multiple revisions he asked why I didn’t just create that one the first time. I should have known the blue background was perfect and would fit in with his needs. I did and I did my friend. Was I relieved when I saw the back of that client, well, I never have seen the back of that client, he’s now one of my best friends and we’re more than thirty commissions in. Yes, he knows about the file and yes, we laugh all the time and yes, he’s signed a contract ever since, it was also the same client who first came to me with an idea or a million for a book cover.

Adrift at Eventide art by Mark Taylor
Adrift at Eventide art by Mark Taylor - available here!

WIPS and Updates…

Photos of works in progress sent out at set intervals, a small update on where you are in terms of completion, a weekly call, and setting boundaries around the times you will be available to take a call are all essential to keeping your own sanity secure, and your client's sanity too. The moment you look or act as if you have lost control, that’s the moment that freaks the commissioner out. Expect minute by minute phone calls at this point.

The reassurance of a work in progress photo and an unexpected email from you to say that you made a lot of progress today, or not so much progress because a certain area of the work has been challenging should never be underestimated. If you promise a daily update at 5pm, then 5pm it is, but remember that you shouldn’t be sending second-by-second updates - set the expectations initially and stick to them.

What clients expect…

Clients expect a contract, they expect to talk through their vision, they also expect in the main, to be guided a little along the way. The expect a deadline and for you to stick to it, and they usually expect that you justify however much you charge.

Breaking down the costs is a useful exercise for both you and the commissioner, more importantly, it will help you to make sure that you have everything covered. There is nothing worse than realising you forgot to add in the costs of shipping the work and finding out that any profit has to be spent on the costs you forgot to include but remember, there will be some costs that are strictly the costs of running a business, those are on you and yes, factor them in but spread those costs throughout everything else that you do.

Clients sometimes expect things that you cannot professionally do. Not that you haven’t got the talent to do them, but because the client is asking you to break some legal barriers. Please use the same copyrighted commercial font as used in this film, no one will know, or they might ask you to use a professional photo as a reference without realising that they might in some cases need permission from the copyright holder first. Some clients might even ask you to reproduce an original work from another artist that looks exactly like the original artists work, that should definitely start ringing an alarm bell. I have no budget but can pay with great exposure, yep, that one is definitely one that should be ringing a very loud alarm bell too, I still get that at least twice a month. 

Clients expect some clarity around the copyright too. If you plan on retaining some rights to the work to maybe sell prints, that should be reflected in a slightly lower price, equally if the client wants to own the copyright entirely, that too should be reflected in the price. These are things that should also be written down in the contract, what can be done with the finished work, what definitely can’t, and it is really important to remember that once you make decisions like this, they become absolute, you no longer have the option of creating another work just the same or producing prints if you no longer own the copyright.

Glow Over a Dry Stone Wall art by Mark Taylor
Glow Over a Dry Stone Wall art by Mark Taylor - Available Here!

Payment…

Commissions can be more expensive to produce than your regular work, and buyers generally accept that commissioned pieces come with a premium price tag attached. That’s not to say that offering commissions is a panacea that opens the door to nickel and diming, the costs should be based on experience and materials used along with a reasonable profit. You have bills to pay as much as the doctor or the plumber who lives down the road, and you have to up-front the cost of materials which is why getting a deposit is a reasonable ask.

Set out any payment terms, decide if you want to take instalments but my advice here is to get a legal expert to help with payment plans and the legalities of doing it, the rules are different around the world, but always ask for a deposit unless you can afford to up-front the costs and you already trust the client. I know of artists who ask for between ten-percent and fifty percent upfront, again this depends on your own circumstances.

Discounts are the elephant in the room. There is sometimes a need to offer a discount but that need should be driven by a business strategy rather than a desperate need to offload some art. Routinely offering a discount quickly becomes your new normal pricing and devalues the work you already sold at a higher price and offering discounts on commissions is a fast way to lose money. Multiple commissions are a little different, it makes sense to reward those who keep you busy in the right way, but discounts can also be as much about adding value in other ways, not just as a financial incentive.

Discounts on frames might make more commercial sense, offering free shipping because Amazon have been shaping our minds to expect free shipping for years, offering a discount on a future purchase over a set amount might be another way to go. Discounts don’t always have to be immediate or you could offer the buyer the opportunity to own a collector only work, something I have been doing for a number of years with my own collectors who have been with me for a while.

Models…

Over the years I have come across a few different models of commissioning artworks and changing the way the commission process works might make it more attractive to some people who perhaps haven’t as yet experienced the joy that comes from owning a bespoke work created just for them.

I have come across models where the artist has created prints on request which are added to the artists online store in the hope that the requestor then makes a purchase. Other models where no rights are handed to the commissioner to reduce the cost with future print sales offsetting some of the initial production costs. Commission models don’t have to be exactly like this or specifically like that, they have to work for both you and those who commission you, but you have to be mindful of the pitfalls of going outside the norm. There are real risks in non-tried and tested commission models in that you could end up with lots of requests and lots of unsold work and especially if contracts are loose or non-existent and where there is an as and when approach taken in terms of the work being completed.

Adrift Under a Glowing Sky Art by Mark Taylor
Adrift Under A Glowing Sky by Mark Taylor - Available Here!

And finally, the tricky client…

Qualifying a client isn’t something that you always have the luxury of doing, and it’s not always something you need to do, but it is a useful skill to have if you plan on making a career out of creating commissions. Qualifying a client is when you work out if the client who keeps phoning up to talk through a commission is likely to convert into a paying client and will be worth spending more time on.  Why would you do this, well, your time is precious and you need to protect it as much as you can. You need to filter out the time-wasters and because the real art of tackling a successful commission is about building a level of mutual trust and respect between both you and the client, after all, you are likely going to be spending a significant amount of time together working things out and committing to whatever is agreed in the contract.

Ideally, you have to work out who the kind of person is that you want to work with and expect that your ideal client might not turn up every time, and you need to work out the type of art you are able and willing to create. Being more selective about clients really is another elephant in the room, it feels cold and awkward but we have to remember that your business is a business too, just like the huge corporations who qualify clients every single day, even the sale assistant asking if you need anything, as you walk through the door of the store, is starting the process of building trust and qualifying you. There’s no discernible difference between the small business and the business giants at this point, no business can afford to chase unicorns all day every day. If you get this part right then you are more likely to filter out those who might become a little tricky down the line.

As I said earlier, draw lines, set boundaries, set times when you can be contacted, have a communications strategy, have a contract, agree on the terms, and set expectations based on a clear understanding, these things really are important when it comes to a career based on taking on commissions.

Not being paid for creating art that has been commissioned and might never be able to be sold on, just isn’t fun and it happens way more than it should. Over thirty-something years I have had a few, I even have a drawer full of promises to this day, and none of them pay the bills. More importantly than anything else, if a project is going to stress you in the wrong kind of way, you can say no. Get this right and the chances become much higher that you will have a long and very successful commission career and you will be so much more likely to avoid owning a drawer filled with promises and a room full of art.

The Adrift Collection by Mark Taylor
The Adrift Collection by Mark Taylor - Available Here!

Going Out!

That’s all for this week and I hope everyone is keeping well and staying safe. Lockdown over here in the UK is beginning to ease and non-essential shops have started to open. I had nine weeks not going outside other than visiting the hospital twice before the lockdown so in total, I spent 123-days in the house under doctors orders. Last week, the clinically extremely vulnerable were allowed back out once a day for exercise and this week, I took my first tentative steps outdoors supervised by two dogs.

I was surprised at just how green everything looked, last time I spent any real time outdoors there were no leaves on the trees but what surprised me more than anything was just how busy it was at just after 4am! I thought there would be less chance of bumping into people, after 123 days, I’m not too sure I’m ready to become full-on peopley just yet so I’m taking advantage of the early mornings and think I might be doing that for a while longer.  

So, until next time, stay safe, stay well, and happy creating!

Mark x

About Mark…

I am an artist and blogger and live in Staffordshire, England. You can purchase my art through my Fine Art America store or my Pixels site here.   

 Any art sold through Fine Art America and Pixels contributes to the ongoing costs of running and developing this website and making sure that I can bring you independent writing every time and without any need to sign up to anything! You can also view my portfolio website here

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Any donations received will be used to ensure I can continue writing independently for independent artists as my art sales via Pixels and Fine Art America and donations via Go Fund Me are the only way I monetise these pages so I don’t have to fill them with irrelevant ads or ask you to sign up via a paywall!

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