THE DREADED "C" WORD
Artists are frequently asked if they take on commission work, and almost as frequently they never hear from the potential client again. A serious commission enquiry that is followed up and leads to an assignment is not nearly as common as one might expect from the number of enquiries received. I surmise most people that never follow up with the artist were either just making conversation, were afraid of embarrassing themselves by finding out what it might cost, or were simply apprehensive about venturing into unfamiliar territory – all understandable reasons. I doubt most of them have ever bought an original work of art in their lives.
I find it more puzzling understanding why so many artists dread commission work, have nothing but horror stories about their experiences, and avoid it like the plague.
Commission work probably does generally take a bit more of your time, and those artists that are already up to their eyeballs with shows, gallery demands, and serious collectors waiting anxiously for their new works may not be able to justify taking time out to produce one-off work that does not contribute to the advancement of their public career. That is completely understandable, but most of us are not so burdened. If you are painting with the intent or the hope of generating income from your work (and if you aren’t, why would you be showing your work in the first place?), then what is the problem with producing a piece that already has a buyer lined up?
One of the most common cries from artists is that painting a subject someone else wants somehow compromises their artistic vision and integrity. Spare me your angst! If you are trying to generate an income from your work, every single painting you do is painted in the hope that someone will like it enough to want it. The most basic rule to successful commission work is to ensure that your client fully understands your style and genre of painting, and likes the work you produce. Don’t accept an assignment that requires you to go down a path you are not familiar with.
The next most common complaint is the nightmare client that interferes by requesting many changes throughout the process, not only adding to your workload, but sabotaging any artistic merits of the piece. There is a very simple solution to this problem – don’t give the client the option of requesting changes! I often wonder about the parenting skills of artists who allow their client to push them around like this. I have only once had to make one tiny change (three brushstrokes) at the request of the client on a painting that was to be a gift to a business partner.
And then there are the stories of the artist working his butt off only to have the client decide when the painting is finished that it did not meet expectations and refuse to pay for it.
I’ve done a few commission paintings in my painting career and I can say I have NEVER had a problem with any client. Here’s the approach I take.
First and foremost, I make sure the client is familiar with my type of work, easily done through a website if the client can’t look at actual paintings. I listen very carefully to what the client wants without any preconceived ideas in my head that tend to hamper my ability to hear and absorb the client’s preferences. And I make sure the client knows the cost so we don’t waste each other’s time. Of course, I satisfy myself that this is a project I want to tackle.
If there is any question in our respective heads about how this could come together, I might prepare a sketch to give us a visual reference for the conversation. For example, my most recent client was asking for items to be included in one painting that I knew to be impossible, and after seeing my sketch he agreed that he needed two separate paintings. Generally, I don’t even do a preliminary sketch unless the client is reluctant to proceed without some idea of what I have in mind. I expect the client to trust my judgment, and prefer to surprise them with the finished painting. At the preliminary sketch stage, you should get a good sense of whether the client is a flake or a control freak, and this is the point at which to bow out gracefully if you suspect you are not going to be comfortable with this person.
At this point I require the client to sign a contract and pay me a non-refundable deposit equal to 30 – 50% of the final price. It is spelled out in the contract that if the client does not like the finished painting, the rest of the payment does not need to be made but the artist keeps the deposit as well as the finished painting. This significantly reduces the likelihood of not being paid in full, and I firmly believe having a legally binding contract reassures the client that you are a professional whose judgment can be trusted.
I’m reluctant to send the client progress pictures because it is impossible for the client to visualize the finished painting from a partially finished stage, and as we all know, paintings underway usually go through a particularly ugly stage. This could scare off the client, or encourage suggestions for changes. Only when it is far enough along to show the work favourably might I send a progress picture if the client is anxious to see how it is coming along.
Finally, full payment is due upon delivery, and do not leave the painting with the client without payment in hand unless you know and trust the client very well.
No matter how well prepared you are, there is always the chance something might go wrong, but I just shake my head at those artists who tell their tale of one bad experience and proclaim never to touch commission work again. How did they ever get this far in life? With a businesslike approach, some good judgment, a mature and confident attitude, and an empathetic temperament, there is no reason to dread taking on commission work when you can get it. And always strive to exceed both your own and the client’s expectations to derive the most satisfaction from the work. There is something especially gratifying about blowing away your client when that painting is presented.