<< Back to Articles for Artists
Assure Positive Outcomes
Making Art on Commission
People often ask artists to produce art on commission. In the great majority of cases, everyone's satisfied with the finished product, but not always. Problems can arise and when they do, knowing how to handle them can prevent major headaches.
The best way to avoid potentially difficult commissions is to spot them in advance and not get involved in the first place. Not everyone is easy to work with; not every artist is compatible with every person who's interested in commissioning them. By paying attention to certain warning signs, you can weed out those individuals who aren't right for you and avoid big problems down the road.
A good way to begin any commission relationship is to invite the collector to your studio. Make sure a representative sampling of your work is on display and let them them take a look around. While they're there, get an idea of how familiar they are with your art. Ask why they've chosen you from among all possible artists. Were they referred? Are they knowledgeable about your work? Have they seen it at galleries or other locations?
Ask the simple but telling question, "Do you like my art?" If you hear any hesitation, you might think twice about going ahead with the project. Some people might turn out to like only one or two pieces of your art, but be indifferent or neutral to the rest. Working under these conditions can be difficult, especially if you have to limit your style to a strict set of preferences.
Ask about the person's collection. Find out whether they've commissioned artworks in the past and if so, how things went. Hopefully they'll have been satisfied on all counts. If their results are mixed, however, think about maybe contacting artists they've commissioned in the past with see what they have to say.
Have them describe their concept of the finished product. Encourage them to elaborate and get a feel for the amount of restrictions you may be subjected to. The more direction they expect from you, the more likely the commission will go well. The more they want to control the show, the more hesitant you should be about taking the job.
Notice any indications that they may be difficult to work with. They might think they know everything, deliberately challenge you, be fussy about details, or come off as disagreeable and argumentative. In any such instance, seriously consider politely declining the job and moving on to the next commission. Little problems now often become big problems later.
Make sure you only have one person to please. If they expect their family, Aunt Mary, and the gardener to contribute their ongoing feedback every few days, this could mean a rough road ahead. Ask questions about where the piece will be displayed or who the primary viewers will be and find out whether any third party opinions could present problems during the course of the job. The more third parties are involved, the less you should consider going ahead with the commission.
Watch out for people with impossible deadlines. Either they want it done immediately or they have a schedule that you're required to follow regardless of what else is going on in your life. You want to work at your own pace rather than that of the client in order to do your best job. If they can't understand that, decline the offer. At the same time, you should be able to provide a reasonable estimate of how long the commission will take to complete.
Being asked to compromise your artistic integrity can sometimes become a problem if you are being asked to make significant departures from the types of art you normally produce. Don't be too much of a stickler if requests are minor, but at the same time, make sure you're completely comfortable with what you're being asked to do. If you're not, refusing the job might be your best option. The more insistant you are about how you create your art and what the finished works look like, the more you should avoid situations where others appear to want significant control over the outcomes. If you're an artist who wants to be in complete control at all times, perhaps think about not taking work on commission at all.
Encourage the individual to communicate with you, to make them feel like they're part of the process. This helps alleviate fears and apprehensions on their part. Those who feel like they have a vested interest in the finished product tend to give you more latitude in its creation. As for your end, being flexible, working through differences, and keeping your composure in critical situations, increases the probability of a favorable outcome.
Regarding dollars and cents, require a percentage of your fee in advance as a non-refundable deposit. A third of the total price is average; some artists take as much as half. The actual contract should be written unless you well you know the client really well and have worked with them before. But even so, a written contract or agreement is always best. Whatever you do, make sure they understand that the deposit is non-refundable. Explain that in the highly unlikely event of their dissatisfaction, you will have still committed significant time, labor and materials, and have made all reasonable efforts to create a finished product to their liking.
Once you take the job, require the individual to visit or otherwise communicate with you at least once and preferably two or three times during the process of creating the art in order to inspect the work in progress (firsthand or with images) and either approve or make suggestions. Ask for detailed feedback. This way, you won't go off in a direction they weren't prepared for and you won't have to make massive modifications to a finished piece.
Ultimately, the amount of discomfort you're willing to endure when working on commission is up to you. Depending on how badly you need money, you may decide to take on a problem client. Or perhaps you don't mind difficult people and feel you can overcome any obstacle. No matter what you decide, understand ahead of time that when you choose to go ahead with an arrangement you don't feel comfortable with, you should be prepared to accept at least half the blame if things don't work out.
Thanks to artists Virgil Elliot, APSC and Ann Basuino for their help with this article.
(art by Jun Kaneko)