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6 Tips for How to Accept Art Commissions and Stay Successful

Tips for Successful Art Commissions

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If you work as a creative, you will most likely receive a commission at some point in your career. Whether it's as a freelance designer or a studio artist, receiving interest in your work is always a great moment. But as you embark on an art commission, it's important to understand the best way to work with your client in order to be successful. It's one thing to create for yourself and find a buyer, but completely another to work with a client who is commissioning something specific from you.

Of course, art commissions are a fantastic way to build your business. In fact, many creatives—photographers, interior designers, tattoo artists—work almost exclusively with clients. But even if commission work is only part of your business, it's critical to get things right. If you're a creative who doesn't typically work on commission, you are most at risk of running into difficulties, mostly due to the fact that you may not know what steps to take in order to protect yourself and satisfy your client.

To set yourself up for success, we've pulled together six steps to think about when taking on commission work. This will make for a smooth ride—both for you and your client—and hopefully set you up for a longterm relationship that can continue to bring you more work and referrals in the future.

As a creative, it's likely you'll receive commissions, so we've put together 6 tips for artists, detailing how to execute art commissions successfully.

Know What's Expected of You

One of the most critical aspects of receiving a commission is understanding from the start what is expected from you. It's easy to rush over this step and dive right into pricing (due to excitement from having received a request), but it's one of the most important areas to cover. Not only will it help you price your work correctly, it will also ensure that you won't find yourself surprised later on—and the client won't find themselves disappointed.

Here are some questions to ask your client when working out the initial expectations of a commission:

  • Does the client have a design brief? 
  • What is the timeline?
  • Is the client expecting sketches of preliminary designs? If so, will those be paid separately?
  • Is there an expectation of travel? And if so, who will cover this expense?
  • If the work is to be used commercially, where will it appear (web, print, etc)?
  • Am I free to interpret a theme or are there specific elements that need to be incorporated into the design, such as a client logo?
  • If the product is a physical artwork, what is the size and medium?
  • If the product is digital, what are the technical requirements (size, file type, number of images or files)?

While some questions may change depending on whether you are working with a private or commercial client, they will give you a good starting point for success.

How to Accept Art Commissions and Stay Successful

Photo by Helena Hertz

Set the Price for Your Commission

Once you begin to have an idea of the scope of work, you'll want to give your estimate. Depending on the type of commission, the client may give you an idea of their budget, but they'll more likely ask you to give your estimate going in blind. While it's important to be competitive, don't undersell yourself.

If art commissions aren't your primary market, it's often possible that you won't think about the extra time working with a client may take. Initial sketches, possible changes, and client meetings are just some of the additional time you'll want to incorporate into your final pricing. Many creatives have an hourly rate or pricing based on the size of the artwork. This is a great starting point, and if you are unsure, it's always good to survey other creatives you know, whether in person or online, in order to understand market rates.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when setting your estimate:

  • What sort of client am I working with—non-profit, large corporation, individual?
  • What sort of images rights am I giving up? (Most artists retain copyright, so if you are being asked to give that up or for commercial imaging rights, you'll want to raise the cost.)
  • Is the image usage permanent or for a limited time?
  • How difficult, and costly, is the work to execute and/or ship?
  • Is this something that I'll be proud of display in my portfolio or does it not fall in line with my style?
  • Will I still be happy with my estimate if the work is more time consuming than I originally planned for?

Protect Yourself with an Artist Contract

Right from the beginning, even if you are having telephone conversations or face to face meetings, everything should be put down in writing via follow up emails. One good technique is to submit your estimate in writing, outlining what you've discussed as the initial expectations and stating that the estimate is based on these terms and could vary if the terms change.

It's perfectly reasonable—and standard—to ask for a deposit prior to beginning work and to build in a kill fee in case the client terminates the project before completion. Deposits are often in the 25% to 50% range, with kill fees varying from 30% to 90% depending on when the project is canceled. Of course, if you are working with a close friend or prior client who you have an established relationship with, these rules may vary, but it's always a good idea to protect yourself from the client pulling out after you've put in work.

Once your estimate has been accepted, an artist agreement signed by both parties should lay out payment terms, timeline, image rights, and any other details that should be hammered out. For instance, will you be able to post about the work on your social media or place images on your website or print in future publications? If it's commercial work, would the client like you to be available for interviews or an opening event?

Don't feel uncomfortable asking for a contract to be in place, even if the work is last minute. Too many creatives end up not getting paid simply because they didn't advocate for a contract and later had no recourse. A written contract is also essential for avoiding confusion as work gets underway and will allow both you, and your client, to rest easy knowing that the administrative details are taken care of.

If your client doesn't have a contract for you to sign, it's a good idea for you to have a standard contract handy that you can work with. Especially if it's a first time client, you'll want everything down in writing and a deposit taken before beginning your work. A little searching online will pull up art contract templates that you can modify to meet your needs. For instance, Template.net has a wide variety of artist contracts you can download for free.

Finally, if there's anything in the contract you feel uncomfortable with, don't be afraid to vocalize this. Many companies have a standard contract they don't mind adjusting, within reason. And if you are still unsure, seek out professional advice from a lawyer who can help ensure you are not being taken advantage of, especially if you are working with a large agency or corporation.

Keeping reading to find out how to follow through with your art commission successfully and make sure your client stays happy with the final product.

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