For self-employed artists, commissions become an important asset in their arsenal of income streams. However, some artists are not great negotiators, or business-minded, and art commissions that start off optimistic can sometimes turn into a sour experience.
By following a few simple savvy tips below you will maintain good clients, manage their expectations, and produce work with integrity.
Note: The holiday season is approaching which means commission season is gonna be on an up swing. Typically the months of September through December also known as the fourth quarter - art sells increase for most artists.
I am currently working on three commissions. Two for a client in Oregon and one for a client in Arizona. The client in Oregon has hired me to create a 10-piece portrait series entitled, "Inspired."
Timing Is Essential - Be Responsive To Commission Requests
I personally try my best to reply to commission requests within an hour, or two. Obviously sometimes this is just not practical and it may take a bit longer. but the point here is you have a potential new client expressing interest and you don't want them loosing, or deciding to go with another artist who may have responded to their request before you.
For this reason I have my phone setup with push notifications for my email and my messenger accounts so that I get requests as soon as they come in.
If you wait too long to respond, the infatuation they have with your art can fade, or even transfer to another item, or artist. Most people who buy art don’t “need” it. It’s a luxury item that is often an impulse buy – they fall in love with the art and have to have it.
If you provide a quote and they counter with a different number do your best to consider it, or make a counter offer back. Over the years I found that most people who contact artists about work because they like it for what ever reason do not have any idea how much art really sells for, or how much time goes into each piece.
I come across a lot people who are more, or less shocked by my quotes. Of course your quotes will be based on experience and general location of where you work. Artists in New York, or Los Angeles for example can and most likely do charge a lot more then artists in Oklahoma for example.
Have a Solid Method to Pricing Your Work.
This will prevent panic when an opportunity comes up.
Most artists including myself base their quotes on size. I personally use the linear inch method. Which is length plus width multiplied by a (dollar amount.) So for example, let's say you have a piece that is 22 inches by 28 inches. That would break down like this 22 + 28 = 50 inches. 50 multiplied by let's say $10.00 comes to $500.00. The variable in this case is the dollar amount you can charge and that will be based on your artistic experience and where you work and so forth.
Other things to consider when providing a quote would be is the piece for commercial display, or private? Does the client want to retain reproduction/licensing rights to the piece? If so, then the quote would defiantly need to go up quite a bit to compensate for these expectations.
Only Accept Jobs You Enjoy
What type of art do you enjoy creating the most?
This is important cause you don't want to get stuck working on a commission that you end up disliking because the subject is not something you would normally paint.
If you market yourself wisely, you’ll end up with commissions you absolutely enjoy. For example I paint in a contemporary abstract style known as Spontaneous Realism and I don't take on commissions that don't want a painting done in this style. I specialize in portraits, landscapes and nudes.
Know Your Terms and Stand Firm.
Once you have established what your client is looking for and both parties have come to a verbal agreement of said work and expectations it is best to put pen to paper and draw up a basic agreement so that there are no miscommunications down the road.
Don't accept, or take on terms that are not realistic. Treat your commissions as work and the hours you put in on them will be that much better. For example try not to low bid yourself just to snag a client. I promise, if you do this you will end up working on a piece for practically free.
It’s your job to educate your clients. For example, most artists retain licensing rights for their work even after a sale, but an unaware client may take your commission and innocently reproduce it on T-shirts, or publish it for commercial use without informing you first. That will definitely lead to a sticky situation that could be avoided.
Freelance artists may also ask for a “kill fee” — a mandatory fee in case the project is cancelled midway. Kill fees can be 50 – 100% of the project cost, depending on how soon the project is cancelled. I do this cause quite often a client will change their mind half way through, or they run out of funds for said project.
To eliminate this it's best to have check points where the work is turned in for review by the client and paid for at each step. especially if said project is larger in scale and may take a few months to complete.
Don't Be Afraid To Ask For Payment Upfront
When I get a commission request, I ask for 50% up front, non-refundable down-payment. I do this to cover material cost and time to develop sketches and studies for the commission.
Some clients will baulk at this request and if they do it's best to move on. The commission won't be worth your time if they baulk at this request. It's a pretty standard agreement.
You can of course always adjust the percentages based on what you and the client are both confrontable with. Large commissions that will take more then a few months to complete would best be agreed to a monthly installment plan. when doing this you as the artist would provide client with regular updates on the progress.
Be Clear On Your Client's Expectations
Be clear in your descriptions and check in with the client at certain intervals. Remember why the client chose you to begin with, and don’t doubt your ability.
DO take creative license — this is why you were hired! DO start with concepts or sketches for them to approve before moving on to costly, or large scale work.
DON’T check in too often, or seem unsure of yourself, or ideas, as this is an open invitation for your patron to suggest their ideas, or perhaps drag you along a creative journey that isn’t your own. They’re just trying to help, but it’s probably doing the opposite.
Manage Difficult Clients
Not every commission will go smoothly, but don’t let a few bad experiences ruin the potential for great ones. I’ve had my share of difficult clients, especially when I was an eager and a fresh art school graduate. This is a learning curve that will take experience, but here are some cues to watch out for.
The good clients will insist on paying you up front, leave a lot of the artistic license to you, and give you a broad spectrum to work with without interfering with your creative process. Hang on to the good clients, as their trust will inspire you to be more creative, resulting in more portfolio pieces, and you’ll love what you do even more.
The bad ones will try to dictate how you do things, change their minds after you’ve already started, or micromanage your work — but they insist they’re just trying to help. Good client management skills and educating your client on your process — like what you DO and DON’T need from them in terms of creative input — is crucial to keeping the integrity in your work.
Provide a Good Experience by Sharing Your Process.
The more open and honest you stay with your clients, the more positive the experience will be for both parties. Check in periodically, and send them some photos of work in progress, or an enthusiastic update. I can’t stress the enthusiasm enough:
YOU are the artist. If you sound excited about your piece, so will the client. If you sound unsure, or unconfident, chances are your client will also lose confidence in the project.
Commissions that go well and clients who are very pleased with the work they have received from the artist will be some of your best promotion for your art and brand you can get.
Happy clients will show off your work to their friends, family and co-workers who just might become interested in hiring you as well for some custom art.
As always, be savvy. Be positive and create some amazing work!