How To Prepare For Your First Art Commission
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If you're trying to build a successful career that you enjoy and want to share, why not take some time to make sure all your systems are in working order, optimised and ready to help you grow. Artists are often asked to create original art in exchange for payment, this is called commissioning an artist.
You'll often hear of a gallery or curator commission, which is a different type of commission all together. When your work is sold while hung in a gallery space, you’re often asked to share percentage of that sale (aka a commission) with the gallery.
In this post, I'm sharing 15 things you should have in place before you start accepting personal art commissions.
15 things you need before accepting art commissions
1. Confidence and pride in your abilities
You and your art are probably made of magic, which is why your client came to you in the first place. They saw your magical artwork and thought about how great it would be to have it in their lives. They had the confidence to approach and ask you to make a special piece for them. So return the favour and have confidence that you can do just that. Respond without doubt that you have the ability to exceed their expectations. With confidence in your own abilities, you’ll be more likely to gain other clients, and you’ll be less likely to under price your work.
Commissions are a great way to collect things like testimonials, images of your work hung up in their homes, and emails!
2. Great samples of your work
Your clients want to see what is possible for them to buy. Do this by showing them some of what you’ve already done. If the project will be a new artistic style of work for you, then provide some small examples of the ideas you have for them.
This can be in the form of a portfolio or sketchbook that they can look through, it could be a website, or even a simple PDF. Why not go the extra mile and invite them into your studio. This can help to build up their excitement and confidence that you’ll come up with what they want.
3. Decide what you can and can't create.
Be clear and be realistic. It’s not uncommon for clients to commission artists with a style, scale, or medium that the artist isn’t really into or familiar with. Be clear about what you can and can’t create for them. Understand your limitations and strengths.
Don’t be afraid to decline a client or introduce them to the other ways that you could fulfil their request. After all, you want to enjoy making it as much as they’ll enjoy receiving it.
4. Know your turnaround times
The ‘turnaround’ is how fast you can complete the piece. Clients may ask you how long it takes to make one of your pieces, this is key information that you should know from the get go. You may make art with a variety of complexities so it may be helpful to test drive a few pieces and measure the time it typically takes to complete it from planning/conception to completed, signed and ready to hang.
Some clients may not mind how long it takes, but it’s essential you build great customer care right off the bat by being transparent and clear about how long it takes to make your magic.
5. An open channel of communication
Build trust with your client by keeping them informed. Whether it’s by email, text, call, video chat, or whatever. Just keep them in the loop. No need to contact them all day every day, but just enough so that they can feel like you are making time for their special piece.
Set ‘office hours’ for yourself, so that you don’t disturb each other at inappropriate hours.
Always respond in a polite manner, even if your client is a difficult one. It’s in poor taste to discuss your clients/conversations in a negative light on social media too, stay away from that. This will surely stain your budding career and deter new clients from approaching you.
6. A price list that you are happy and comfortable with
Please don’t undervalue yourself. I think we have all been guilty of this at one point. I quickly stopped putting my art ‘on sale’ as soon as I realised that when you sell at bargain prices, you'll find people looking for a bargain.
" When you sell at bargain prices
you'll find people looking for a bargain. "
If you want people to take you seriously, you do not want to put your art in the so called ‘bargain bin’. Elevate yourself, show your worth, but be realistic. Before you consider the happiness of your clients, consider yourself. Consider just how much work you are putting into your artwork, attention to detail, sourcing supplies, planning time, reference image research, website maintenance, etc.
Pay yourself fairly. If you don’t value yourself, you’ll begin to resent your clients. You’ll feel overworked and undervalued. That’s never good.
Don’t discourage yourself by thinking people won’t buy your art because it’s too expensive. There are art buyers at every level of your career. Have faith that there are clients out there willing to buy your art for exactly the price it’s worth. (Re-read point 1 real quick)
It will be helpful to keep a list of prices somewhere, even a list of works you’ve sold and the prices you sold them at.
7. A secure method of payment
Before you can accept any money from commissions, you need to figure out how you’ll collect all your hard earned cashola.
PayPal is a common and widely trusted option. In which case you’ll have to set up an invoice to send to clients. PayPal makes that easy and you can customise your invoices and receipts with your own branding, for that oh so professional look and feel. Alternatively you can accept card payments through your own website. Some banks allow for direct or email transfers to get your money.
However if the exchange is offline, most people these days have a card reader. PayPal has one of those too, same with Stripe, iZettle or Square. If you choose to accept cash or card offline make sure you offer a receipt detailing the transaction. You can buy receipt books at any dollar store or pound shop.
8. A Payment Plan
Often, personal commissions are paid for in 2 - 3 instalments: a deposit, a second payment half-way, and the last payment upon collection. Some artists chose to do commissions in just two instalments - first half upfront, second half in the middle. It’s really up to you.
First payment (Deposit) - Before you start making any artwork at all, the customer should pay ⅓ of the final price right upfront before you begin their commission. This proves their commitment to owning a piece of your work. Most importantly, you’re compensated for the time it takes to plan and sketch your ideas, and sourcing any new materials you might need for the project.
After your ideas are planned, it’s a good idea to share this with your client so they know what to expect. If for some reason, the customer is unhappy with it or with you and wish to cancel the commission at this stage, you were at least compensated for your time and any costs already involved. If all is good, you’ll carry on creating.
Second payment (Half-way) - You should be about half-way by the time the client makes a second payment. It’s a great time to show them your work in progress, to check their approval, allow them to offer any revisions or additions, and fire up their excitement!
After all, you are making this for them and you want them to be happy with it. And if they’re not, you’ll have been compensated for the work you’ve done so far.
Last Payment (When it’s finished) - You should receive your last payment when the client is ready to collect the art or get it shipped. Always remember to have a record of all transactions by receipt or invoice.
9. A revision policy
To ensure your clients get the artwork of their dreams, you’ll want to consider if, how and when your clients can make adjustments or revisions to the piece before it’s completed.
Often clients are familiar with your work and allow you to have free reign on the piece. That’s good! But you should still give them a sneak peak of your work in progress.
10. An alteration fee
An alteration fee is a charge that may be applied if the client wants to make additional changes once the piece has already been completed or significant work has already been done. Some artists charge this fee to avoid doing unpaid commission work, while others don't charge this at all. When deciding on a price, use your own discretion but be reasonable here as this is typically offered at a low cost.
11. A commission schedule
Save your sanity and take your time. Probably not the best idea to accept too many commissions at once. You’ll find yourself rushing things, forgetting details, and becoming overwhelmed.
It’s good to feel busy doing something you love, but you don’t want to feel like you're being pulled in too many directions, and forgetting to enjoy the process of creating your art. This is where knowing your turnaround times comes in handy.
Decide how many commissions you have time to work on in a given month, and set up a waiting list for the rest.
12. To Ship or to Pickup?
When it’s all said and done, how will your clients receive the goods? Will they come to your home or studio to pick it up for themselves? Can they download it, or will you have to ship it to them?
Consider if you want to send internationally or just locally, and decide whether or not parcel insurance is right for you, just incase a package goes missing. Whatever you decide, factor in these costs into your pricing structure.
Remember that your client has asked for a special request from an artist they love (that’s you!) so maintain that magic by putting some effort into your packaging. It doesn't have to cost you a fortune, but the packaging is all part of the experience too, so don’t neglect it.
Why not add a little handwritten note expressing your appreciation, or a small freebie like a mini print or sticker. Give them that extra touch that will make them want to order from you again or recommend you to a friend.
Most importantly, consider the best and safest way to package your artwork for shipping to avoid damaging your items in transit.
13. An outline of your policies
Use the points from this post as a guide to write a detailed outline that clearly expresses your policies. Create a document that you can send to your clients before any commission. You want to be as transparent as possible so that there are no surprises for either of you. Consider this an agreement.
It’s also a good idea to clearly state what your clients can and can not do with your artwork once it’s been delivered to them. Can they gift it or resell it? Can they use the image for reprinting on products or merchandise? Do they own the rights to that particular piece?
Once you're clear about your rules write it down in an easy to read, straight to the point document.
14. Get your customer service skills in check
Remember when we talked about being polite? Well let's continue. There are difficult clients and customers everywhere and sometimes you just can’t avoid them. There may be a time when a client is being overly needy, picky, pushy, rude, or may even back out all together. Just be professional and always respond calmly and rationally.
Don’t let your negative emotions get the best of you. If the client is being difficult, let that be their problem. Once you join in it becomes your problem too. After all, you’re trying to make positive work for yourself that you want to enjoy and share.
Besides, good customer service will bring good clients back to you.
15. Remember to take good photos
When your piece is complete remember to photograph it well at all angles including the back and bottom. Not only will this be handy for your portfolio in the future, but these pictures can serve as insurance or evidence that you’ve shipped the item in perfect condition in the event that it gets damaged somewhere along the way or by the client.
Don’t use filters on these types of photos, just correct the true colours and sharpen details.
If you want to start taking commissions, you could open up a dedicated art Instagram page, improve your skills with an online course like Making a Living as an Artist by Brooke Glaser or join one of these free websites:
With these tips you should have a good understanding of how to setup your first set of commissions or ways to improve your current process. If you have any more advice leave a comment below!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lauren was born in London, but grew up in Canada where she received her degrees with distinction in Fine Arts and Education. Now she's back, she continues her work in creative arts by making art and teaching it, while developing opportunities for early career artists by creating and running the online platform Dark Yellow Dot.