09_Art Business Tip: Art Business Revenue Streams – Part 4 - Commissions

art business tip commissions copyright

Introduction to Artist Revenue Stream: Art Commission

Over the last several episodes we have been diving into some of the various revenue streams and today, we are going into one of my favorites!  ART COMMISSIONS!!!

Now I know there are many love-hate relationships out there with art commissions so today I’m going to answer some of the most popular questions about art commissions and next week we are going to dive into some tactics to gain art commissions. 

So if you are ready!  Let’s do this!!!


My 2 Negative Art Commission Experiences and the Results

Before we dive in, I’ve been doing commissions for years, and taking art commissions from collectors can be an excellent way for an artist to forge a full-time career. If someone enjoys your work, they might ask you to create a custom piece for them for their home, office, or as a gift. . . and working with the client to realize their idea can also be extremely rewarding.

Unfortunately, there are horror stories. Over the years that I’ve been doing art commissions, I have only had 2 negative experiences, and one of them I really should’ve trusted my gut BEFORE I got into an agreement with the lady and the other worked out fine. So before we get into the popular questions about commissions I’m going to tell you my 2 negative experiences out of literally hundreds of pet portrait commissions.  

I’m not going to go into detail about what happened but essentially I had worked on the painting for a duration of 6 months (which was way longer than normal for a painting of that size and number of subjects), I had made two revisions and after there was another request to make a change, and I just didn’t see a way this was going to end ….so I decided I was going to refund 50% of the deposit and I contacted her prepared with quote:

“I appreciate your feedback and the changes you have requested, however, I believe at this time I am not going to be able to meet your expectations.  The artistic representation of the XXX [dogs] name, is accurate with all my measurements and unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to produce a photographic copy of the photo.  As a result, I’ll be glad to refund 50% of the initial fee.” 

To which she replied -

“no, no you are right, I’m sorry, keep going.  When you say you are done, I’ll be happy with the results!” 

That actually surprised me. And she was happy :)  Which my lesson learned from that is sometimes you just have to stand up for your work and have confidence that it is great!

The 2nd instance was a similar issue but also someone I knew personally and knew her to be a flip-flopper - meaning, indecisive - and I didn’t trust my gut.  Again, after making 2 changes and then she requested to go back to the first iteration AND she wanted a fundamental shift in the composition as a whole - meaning a whole redo!  After giving a quote for the change control fee (because we were past the number of revisions included in the contract AND she wanted a change in the composition that had gone through the approval process) , she then began talking about God and his righteousness to me and how she’d been praying over a direction on this cat portrait (yep, seriously….) it was at this point I knew there could not be a winning situation here. As a result, I just terminated the contract and refunded the whole fee (even though I didn’t have to based on the terms and conditions).  And BTW - that terminated the friendship as well.  (and as an FYI - she continued a God conversation to me via text after 2 months after I closed the contract....yep-seriously)

Below is an image of the finished piece and then what I did to it after I terminated the contract due to unreasonable expectations. ;)  My lesson learned: trust my gut.  

Before I terminated the contract

After I terminated the contract - sometimes you've got to just have fun with it....

So that was fun.... :) LOL but also great lessons learned. Trust your gut and know when you are done.

We are going to break this down into 2 segments, and I’ll expect you to also review an article already available called  5 Key Questions to consider BEFORE you take commissions and are well prepared to actually take commissions.  (which means, you know what you can create, want to create, have a style you are comfortable with, and can communicate the points clearly).  If not, go to the show notes and click on the article “ 5 Key Questions to Ask Yourself before you take Commissions”   - cause we are going to dive right into in Part 1 where I’m going to address some of the most frequently asked questions about commissions.   

In Part 2 about art commissions, we are going to discuss some key tactics to gaining commissions.  

7 Common Questions About Commissions

1. What is a commission?

If you are here you probably already know the answer to this, but just to level set this conversation here is the definition of an art commission: 

According to Webster’s dictionary,  A commission is a formal request to produce something (especially an artistic work) in exchange for payment. 

Art commissions, in the old days, were limited to only the upper class to have completed.  Today, with the internet and access to artists from all of the world, the ability for anyone to ask for commissions and for artists to offer them is a wide-open playing field. 

Commissioning an artwork is a unique experience that allows the patron to trust you to create something that combines a joint vision with your style. The goal should always be to create a piece that the patron will enjoy for years to come and that you are proud of.  

2. What are the Key Components of an Art Commission Contract?

When a patron commissions you for a piece of artwork there is an agreement and exchange of money for a product.  As a result, a contract is needed.  The term contract oftentimes is bothersome because it has some negative connotations, but the reality is, the purpose of the agreement is to clearly define what your responsibilities are and the client’s responsibilities.  It protects your time and communicates the expectations of the project. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate, just a clear explanation of the:

  • Payment structure, 
  • Change control process and fees, 
  • Approval process, 
  • Deadlines (if applicable) and 
  • Copyright ownership.

I’ve provided a free downloadable that is a workbook that will enable you to prepare all of the above as well as a sample Terms and Conditions that I use for every art commission. This free download is also part of what was discussed in the article “5 Key Questions to Ask Yourself BEFORE you Take Commissions” . If you get into much larger art commissions, [Post video notes] I strongly suggest you have a lawyer review the conditions of the agreement that they may right you, more often than not, when the company commissioning you creates the agreement, you get the short end of the stick in terms of copyright agreement and other fun tricky stuff like, payment penalties for delay of the project (and they are the reason for the delay of project), be ready.

3. What are the advantages for an artist to accept an art commission?

There are several advantages to making commissioned artwork as an additional artist revenue stream:

  • You get the paint something with a purpose that is outside of your desire to paint - meaning you get to use your abilities and skills as a service to others.  
    • Which I can tell you, when you see the look on a person's face and they become emotional with the piece - it is an amazing feeling. 
    • You get to paint knowing that the piece will be enjoyed in someone else's home for a very long time (unlike when you create a piece and for some reason or another it sits in your studio unappreciated by others) 
  • Art commissions can fetch a higher price than the work you create for galleries and shops because they are custom.
  • Corporate or business art commissions often hang in public places like office lobbies, hotels, public spaces, and public buildings. This leads to more exposure and a higher profile for your work.
  • Many art commission projects have an interesting story behind them which is just wonderful to know and be a part of.
  • Art Commissions can challenge your artistic abilities causing you to reach outside of your norm and expand your comfort zone. 
  • Clients become your biggest advocate and love to share the work you have completed for them, which also leads to referrals. 

4. What do you do when the client is dissatisfied with the art commission? 

This can be tricky.  If it is a quality issue, your best option is to hop on a Zoom call or Facebook video chat, ideally record the session, or meet in person and identify what specifically needs to be addressed to come to a satisfactory conclusionBe cognizant of your terms and conditions in the original agreement, meaning how many revisions are included in the contract and how much time and money is associated with a change to the piece. 

Following the conversation, send a follow-up email or invoice that outlines the changes requested, the number of hours to complete the change, and the revised expected completion date.  So for example, if you know it will take you 2 hours, but those two hours are over the course of 2 weeks, then you convey a duration of 2 weeks and charge for the 2 hours in change control fees.  If you allow for a certain number of changes in your terms and conditions be sure to make note of that as well in your correspondence.  

Always remember the goal of an art commission: create a piece of art that your client will cherish for years to come.  This piece will live in their home, so ideally you want them to love it.   Remember also, this is not a blow to your ego, but an opportunity to enhance your skill sets in not only your artwork but also your relationship-building skills AND figure out what you may need to revise in future communication with clients.  

BUT there are times when you just can’t make someone happy. I think this scenario is rarer than not... So, If they are still dissatisfied with the piece after the allotted iterations and refuse to pay a change control fee, then as a last resort terminate the agreement.  You keep the 50% non-refundable down payment and you go separate ways.  And then you decide what to do with the piece: trash it, repurpose it - whatever - you own the piece. 

Like I said before, I’ve only done the last resort of terminating the agreement in 2 instances: the first the client agreed that essentially I wasn’t a xerox machine and the 2nd lady I just refunded the money, even though I didn’t have to, but for me that's what I considered a “Stupid tax” I knew better and didn’t trust my gut. :) 

If you do have a dissatisfied client, look at it as an opportunity to find lessons learned so you can be better prepared next time. 

5. How do artists deal with clients who won't pay for an art commission?

Now, in this instance, they love the piece but they decided they don’t want to pay the rest.  1st of all what a tool of a person...because they think well what are you going to do with it, you might as well give it to them - right? :) Well, you have options and frankly, it depends on whether it is worth it to you.  For small commissions: 

  • My personal favorite means is to simply tag the person in social media with the image of the painting and say something to the effect (FYI - stay on the high-road!!!) “I am so excited to have completed this painting for XYZ!  They commissioned me in X month to create this lovely piece for them and it is finally ready to go home!”  Generally, that alone will do the trick, because now their friends and family will see the amazing piece, and will ooooohhhh and ahhhhhh over the piece so the person will essentially have shamed themselves by not upholding the agreement AND they'll see the social approval that the piece is good.
  • Repurpose the piece and, keeping to the high road, thank the individual via social media for originally commissioning you to complete the piece and say something to the effect of "while XYZ wasn’t fully committed to completing the art commission the completed piece is amazing and ready to go to its forever home! DM if you'd like to purchase the piece for yourself or as a gift to another."
  • And of course, the less passive-aggressive method is - let it go. Trash it, repurpose it, set it on fire. Whatever makes you happy. 
  • For large art commissions that are really large pieces that have a large investment of your time and the expected income, then court may be the next option.  After all, the agreement is in place. 

The bottom line, is they don’t get your work for free. 

6. Why do you not require payment in full before you start the art commission? 

Most service-based companies only require a deposit to get the ball rolling on creating the product.  As for a personal reason, I prefer to ensure there is skin in the game from the clients and then from mine as well.  

Another option I’ve seen is offering a percentage discount if the client pays in full for the commission.

The most important advice is to always get a percentage fee upfront to cover your expenses and ensure the client is committed to purchasing the piece.  

7. What is the best way to provide a client with an abstract art commission?

For abstracts, there is a design and feeling created with color.  To get a good understanding of what the client likes about your artwork, ask them to let you know which pieces of your existing work drew them to you and start a dialog about color scheme (like neutral with pops of red) or theme (like ocean theme or beach theme or city lights, etc)  that they may have in mind.  This will help you get a starting point for developing the look of an abstract painting commission.  

Use a mood board as a tool for abstract painting and surface design commissions.  It’s great to explore color palettes and make sure that you’re visually on the same page as your client.  Once you’ve sifted through and chose the images that best represent the mood, creative style, and energy that your client wants to communicate in your commissioned piece, you can put the images together in a one-page PDF and email it for approval.  (Canva has some wonderful mood board templates! ) .  

After the creative direction is approved by the client, you can start on your painting and send one or two work-in-progress shots along the way.  Once completed you can send a final image for approval.  Once approved, send the final invoice and prepare for shipping. 

Final Note About Art Commissions

Regardless of whether you are on the path to taking art commissions, you are on a path to create joy in yours and someone else’s life. Remember, again, the goal is to create a piece of work that you are proud of and the client will cherish for years to come.    Download this free guide and sample terms and conditions invoice Gear Up to Take Commissions 

In Part 2 about art commissions, we are going to discuss some key tactics to gaining art commissions.  

Until next time, stay safe, happy and healthy!

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