I often like to look up terms that get tossed around, and Oxford’s first definition is “an instruction, command, or duty given to a person or group of people.” While the commandment aspect of this is often looser with an art commission, maybe it is the sense of being ordered about that some artists find difficult.
Some artists never work on commission—dislike the disruption of their creative path, being watched and judged for the end result, value their artistic freedom above sale
But for many, commissions are very welcome—like gold--let’s look at the upside of receiving one:
May hang in public place
Unique challenges—the “assignment” aspect may push you into new ideas
Validating of your work/adds to your resume
How do they work:
Arrangements vary considerably:
Through a gallery or designer—they will ask your terms or may have their own; may ask you to be flexible if they are eager for the sale
Private commissions—artist sets the terms
May need to share with gallery if it is in same local as one of your galleries through which the client knows your work
When you set your terms—you can suit yourself. Opinions and formulas abound and in the end it is what you feel good about. Consider:
Do you want to charge extra and how much—can be as much as 50% more or your basic prices—what is it worth to you? How eager are you for it to go through?
Consider any extra expense—custom panel, special paint
Consider shipping/delivery/installation issues up front; who pays?
How much to share in-progress photos—can be inhibiting depending on your process
How much freedom do you require?
What will you do if the client is not pleased?
Be realistic about your schedule and how much time to give yourself
If it’s a private commission, are you comfortable negotiating with an unknown client? Can be hard if you’re not used to it
Artists who work often on commission have set ways of doing it that they know work for them. Ex: portrait painters of all types work almost exclusively on commission.
Ginny Herzog: I always get a 50% deposit before beginning the work. The balance is due before it is shipped.
Yes, I send in progress photos and the piece is not finished until the customer is happy with the painting.
Only once did a customer want to return a commission and that was because their interior designer wanted something different for the space. The customer said they liked the piece and it was exactly as they had requested. I told them the designer should have been in on the conversation from the beginning if that was the case. They ended up returning it and paying shipping costs. I didn’t send them a refund until I resold the painting.
Others who only do them once in a while can be confused each time the idea comes along. May have a loose approach, negotiable.
Allison B Cooke. Has done only a few--asks for ½ down and uses her base price with perhaps slight increase. Mentioned the strategy (others use as well) of creating two paintings and allowing client to choose. Downside of this is that client may not feel their piece is special and unique.
My own approach: Use my basic prices (based on sliding scale PSI) and add in extra if I need to buy custom panel. Charge the client for delivery. Ask for nonrefundable 10% down to cover supplies. Allow for right of refusal and would not charge the balance. I prefer not to send in progress photos unless I have a question about color or something.
The emotional side of all this:
Feeling of someone looking over your shoulder –someone specific as opposed to vague someone
The need to please
Often it means referring to an older work or work on a completely different scale
Pressure/stress –what if it isn’t going well
Fear of failure, judgement
Can be hard to work without a middle-person/gallery
My own private commission story/nightmare—when I thought I was doing everything to please and they didn’t like the color when they saw it. Then a decision about whether to re-work or just walk away. How badly I felt about the whole thing, jumping through hoops, in the end did not feel good about it.
And the good story—current commission; appreciative client, gave me freedom, enjoyed the challenge, felt like I was creating a personal work for someone I like
Also the commissions for MD Anderson—I learned a lot, felt good about them in a public place, some stress because of their scope and cost but rewarding financially
Wrap-up: A lot of artists have definite opinions pro and con about commissions, while others accept them with some caution. Good to go in with eyes open, recognize their benefits and difficulties.