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Cathleen Lengyel > Scribbles > Artist Help > To Commission or Not To Commission, That is the Question

To Commission or Not To Commission, That is the Question

At some point in their career every artist faces the decision of whether or not to take commission work. Today we’ll discuss how to evaluate if commissions are right for you. First, before we get started I want to apologize for missing a few of my post dates.  Our family caught the flu, then that progressed into our 9 year old daughter developing pneumonia and I developed bronchitis.  It’s been rough around here and we’re all still trying to get back on our feet.  
What is a commission?
A commission is when a client asks you to create a piece of artwork especially for them, usually using photos they provide to you.  For the purpose of this post I will refer to commissions in the context of drawings, but it will apply to any medium. Emerging artists (and young artists) can be easily tempted to do commission work.  Why?  The answer is simple and twofold:
  1. Commissions are money. Lets face it, artists need money to create.  Like any other job, our skills, time and materials cost and we have to pay the bills.  Taking a commission pretty much guarantees that we’ll make a set dollar amount upon completion of the work.
  2. Commissions get your name out there. New emerging artists are virtually unknown.  It’s important to get your name out in the art world so that you begin to develop a reputation and get noticed.
Building your reputation and becoming known by your target clients are very important, especially in the beginning and taking commissions can be a good way to get started. If you decide commissions are for you then you MUST make some decisions before you get started.   Here are some things you need to consider:
  • Sizes – what sizes will you offer for your commissions?
  • Pricing – what are you going to charge  for each size you offer?  Be careful here, you do not want to undersell your value, but you don’t want to start off too high either.
  • What type of commissions will you take?  Are you a human portrait artist?  A pet portrait artist?  A landscape or architectural artist?  What”s your niche?
  • What will be your requirements for commissions? – Down payment required and the percentage? -Will it be a non-refundable down payment? – Type of photo? – A written contract? -Progress shots of the work? – Amount of changes allowed? -Final payment before they receive the piece?
Let’s talk about down payments. Why would you require a down payment and why would you want to consider it to be non-refundable? You might be surprised the number of people who will want to commission a work with no deposit and then when you’re half way done or entirely finished they decide they don’t want it.  If they have not make any sort of deposit on the piece OR if they want a refund that leaves you out the entire cost of creating the piece.  You end up with wasted materials, time and a piece of work you may or may not be able to sell to someone else (more often than not you won’t be able to sell the piece).  There have also been cases of people receiving the final scan of their commissioned piece, refusing to pay, then making a print of the final scan.   They end up getting a beautiful piece of artwork virtually for free.  Not ethical, but it happens. A non-refundable 50% down payment required before you begin a commission will weed out those who are not serious about purchasing the final commission.  If for some reason they no longer want the piece of artwork once it’s finished, you will at the very least have the deposit which should cover the amount you spent in materials.  
What are downfalls to taking commissions?
As an emerging/young artist you probably don’t have a large portfolio of work.  If you spend all your time taking commissions, this could keep you from building  your portfolio work.  This is especially true if the commissions you are taking are different from the body of work you want for your portfolio.  If you’re a human portrait artist, but most of your commissions are wildlife or landscape, you won’t have much to show for your area of specialty.   You must be mindful that your commissions will help to build your reputation within your area a specialty.  You also need to be mindful to build your portfolio with works you can sell and reproduce as prints. Another downfall can be clients who don’t / can’t provide good high resolution photos.  It’s difficult to create a highly detailed drawing when you’re using a grainy low resolution photo.  You also need to be careful that your client doesn’t send you photographs from a professional photographer’s shoot.  Even if the client paid the professional photographer for the photos, the copyright still remains with the photographer.  That means if you re-create that photo in the form of a commissioned drawing/painting, you are in direct violation of copyright.  You do not want to be in that position. Then there are those clients who will no be satisfied no matter what you do.  They will want change after change which will consume all of your time.  This is why many artists who do commission work place a limit on the number of changes the client can ask for, more often then not the limit is 2 changes.   I am so thankful I have not encountered any clients like those I mentioned above.  In my time taking commissions I’ve had some truly wonderful clients to work with, and I know I’m spoiled! LOL  Yet, hearing the tales of fellow artists I’ve chosen to learn from their situations and create my policies to better protect myself from the not so good clients.   When it comes to taking commissions it’s not a decision you will make now and never be able to change it.  Our art careers ebb and flow and you’ll find yourself re-evaluating many times whether to take commissions or stop taking commissions.  I myself am re-evaluating taking commissions currently.  While I’ve enjoyed working with my clients, most of my commissions have been human portraits.  Not my specialty.  I am finding right now I need to be more focused on building up my portfolio of wildlife work, so I may close commissions temporarily.  We’ll see. I hope this has helped you think about why or why not you should take on commission work. Until next time, Keep Creating!

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