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Sometimes Refusing an Art Commssion is Best
Q: I've been offered a pretty sizable commission by a private collector. I'm not sure whether to take it though. One problem is that I tend to wait until the last minute to get started on these kinds of jobs and as a result, I'm sometimes a little late with the finished artwork. Another problem is that this collector wants me to paint a composition I've had almost no experience with. When I told him, he said it was OK; he likes my work and he thinks that with his help I can do it. I'm not thrilled about this but then again, I can really use the money. What do you think?
A: You probably shouldn't take this job. From what you're saying, too many things can go wrong. All the necessary ingredients are in place for a bad outcome.
To begin with, waiting until the last minute to get started can get you into trouble. Not having the painting completed when it's supposed to be done is a great excuse for the collector to turn it down if he's at all dissatisfied with it. In general, nobody likes their deliveries to be late so either get this and any other commission you're offered done on time or forget about taking commissions altogether. At the very least, advise collectors about this habit of yours up front so that they're fully aware the art may arrive late. As long as they understand ahead of time, then it shouldn't be a problem. A related point of information here-- galleries are especially reluctant to show artists who don't deliver on time, so be careful not to get a reputation for lateness or it could hurt your career. Galleries hate nothing more than for a show not to be ready to go on opening night.
As for accepting a commission you're not sure you can competently execute, be aware that a good chance exists for the collector to be dissatisfied with the finished product even though he's telling you otherwise. Worse yet, you might not like it either which could be even more problematic. If you don't think you can create a quality work of art like the collector is asking for, watch out. Both of you would be a little at fault here if you agreed to move forward and things didn't turn out well. You've let the negotiations proceed without letting the collector know how hesitant you really are; the collector seems to want too much control over the finished art.
Even if the commission does work out, it could still come back to bite you later. For example, I know a portrait painter who accepted a commission early in his career to do a series of farm animal paintings for a gourmet grocery store. He wasn't that good at painting animals and wasn't that interested in doing the paintings, but he wasn't interested in turning the money down either. So he took the commission, rushed through the job clearly not caring that much about what the finished works looked like and, as a result, turned over some pretty mediocre art to the store owner.
Several years passed and the painter began to get recognized for his portraits. He was written up in several art magazines, had a show at a regional museum, and had a catalogue of his portraits published. The store owner, meanwhile, heard of the artist's success and, to the artist's embarrassment, decided to put the "barnyard series" up for sale. The paintings, of course, reflected poorly on the artist's art and career. People wondered how he could have produced such low quality work and, to end the story quickly and mercifully, the artist is still having to live those paintings down. So think twice before you decide to step out of your comfort zone and make art simply for the money.
Successful commission arrangements come from people or organizations who basically know what you're capable of have a pretty good idea of what they're getting in advance, allow you to do what you do best, and who place minimal restrictions on your creative impulses once the basic details of the works of art are hammered out and the jobs begin. The worst commissions come from those who tie your hands with too many restrictions, requests, criticisms, and suggestions at all stages of the work in progress-- like this collector seems to want to do. Imagine him standing over you and directing your every move-- he says he'll help you along, but he could easily end up doing exactly the opposite-- making the job difficult for you. This is not a pleasant situation for any artist to find themselves in.
Should you decide to accept this commission regardless-- which, to repeat, is probably not a good idea-- perhaps at least sketch out what the finished piece might look like. In other words, give the collector as many opportunities as possible to gracefully back out of the arrangement. If he continues to say yes, then require him to visit two or three times while the work is in progress and approve of the process. If he makes any suggestions or requests for additions or alterations, hopefully they'll be minor). And ask for a third to a half of the full price up front just to make sure you don't end up with an atypical painting for your efforts and no money to show for it.
Anytime you feel uncomfortable in a commission situation, full disclosure ahead of time is best. Negotiate all sensitive areas to the complete satisfaction of both parties before you get started. There's absolutely nothing wrong with being direct and straightforward about your reluctance to get involved. If you sense any hesitancy on the commissioner's part or can't fully work through all concerns, then you should probably turn the project down. Ignoring or not mentioning potential problems early on or thinking that they'll somehow go away is unlikely to happen. More often than not, they only get worse. Lastly, be honest with yourself about whether you're the type of artist who can work on commission in the first place or whether you'd rather work by and for yourself and on your own terms. To learn more about working on commission, read Working on Commission
(art by Will Wilson)