In this post, I'm sharing 15 things you should have in place before you start accepting personal art commissions. Some artists sell their work by commission as a way to supplement their income and make some money on the side. If you're trying to build a career that you enjoy and want to share, why not take some time to make sure your systems are working, in check and good to go. Let's dig in!
There are two ways to define a commission when we speak about art.
One type of commission is when someone asks you to make something for them. This is a personal commission which is usually considered with a special price. This special price is because you’ll be making a one of a kind piece that no one else will ever have. Other times this special price is because your good friend asked you to make something, and you probably owe it to them because they had your back, like, all the time. (Optionally sold at a great discount a.k.a Mates Rates)
Another type of commission is when a gallery takes a cut of your profit. Their commission is based on the fact that they gave you a space to show, introduced your work to their nice big audience, and presented your work to the buyer that bought it.
Galleries typically take about 50% of the selling price, give or take. So whichever pricing formula you decide on, a general rule of thumb is to double the cost of materials, and triple the final price. This is so that when (yes, when) you make a sale, your costs are covered and you can still make a nice profit after that 50% has been taken off. Be sure to include the cost of things like framing and mounting.
Things you definitely need to have in place before you set off on taking personal commissions for your art.
1. Confidence and pride in your abilities
Because you are probably made of magic! So your work is also magical, obviously. That is why your client came to you in the first place. They saw your magical artwork and thought about how much they needed to have it in their lives. They had the confidence to approach you and ask you to make a special piece just for them. So return the favour with some added confidence that you can do just that. Respond without doubt that you have the ability to live up to and exceed their expectations. With confidence in your abilities, you’ll be more likely to gain other clients, and you’ll be less likely to under price your work.
2. Great samples of your work
Your clients want to see what you can give them. Do this by showing them some of what you’ve already done. If this is a new style of work then provide some small examples of the ideas you have for them. This can be in the form of a physical portfolio or sketchbook that they can look through, a website, or even a simple PDF. Why not go the extra mile and invite them into your studio. This will help 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 styles, scales, and mediums 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 get a completed 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, FaceTime, 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 under value 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 to become a serious artist 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 over-worked 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 that 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, or Square. If you choose to accept cash or card offline make sure you offer a receipt detailing your purchase. You can buy receipt books at any dollar store or pound shop.
8. A Payment Plan
Personal Commissions - this is typically paid off in 2 - 3 instalments.
The Deposit - The customer must pay ⅓ of the final price right upfront before you start any work. This proves their serious about this investment and really want your piece. Most importantly, you are getting paid for planning your ideas, getting any new materials you might need, and your time.
After you’ve made your plans, it’s good to present this to them so they know what to expect. If the customer is unhappy with it or with you and wish to cancel the commission at this stage, at least you got paid for your time and any costs. If all is good, proceed with creating the piece.
The Half-way Point - The customer pays the 2nd instalment. By now you might be about half-way finished the piece. This may be a great time to show them your work in progress, to check their approval and allow them to offer any revisions or additions.
After all, you are making this for them and you want them to be happy with it. And if they’re not, at least you’ve been paid up to this point.
The Home Run - The customer pays the final instalment as you’ve finished your commissioned piece!
Now, some artists chose to do commissions in just two instalments - first half upfront, second half in the middle. It’s really up to you.
TIP: Commissions are a great way to collect things like testimonials, images of your work hung up in their homes, and emails!
Related : Profit From Your Art With These Easy Pricing Methods
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, just incase.
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. 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. Don’t 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 your 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. The packaging is all part of the experience too, so don’t neglect it. Why not add a little hand written 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. Most importantly, consider the best and safest way to package your artwork for shipping to avoid damaging your items in transit. There are plenty of videos on YouTube, like this one and this one, showing ways to package artwork.
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. Use that as 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 the both 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 lets 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 are trying to make positive work for yourself that you want to enjoy and share. Besides, good customer service will bring good clients back.
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, here are a few websites to begin with.
With this guide you should have a good understanding of how to setup your first set of commissions or ways to improve your process. If you have any other advice or found this helpful, share it with your friends!
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Thanks for reading, and don't forget to share your art with us by submitting your work or tag #darkyellowdot on Instagram @darkyellowdot
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.