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How to Handle an Art Commission with Confidence in 7 Steps

    Art Commission

    Maybe you have a website, or maybe you’re showing your work through your preferred social media channel. Whatever the case, eventually it happens: you receive a message from somebody asking if you will create custom work.

    Congratulations! You have officially received your first private commission inquiry.

    If this is your first commission inquiry, you might be wondering about the best way to proceed. Unlike public commissions that have specific requirements for RFQ’s and RFP’s, here are no set directions for private commissions. Artists are basically left to figure out what works best for them through trial and error.

    The following are seven steps outlining the typical private commission process. Most artist’s develop a process that is specific to their own needs, so you should feel free to customize the following steps to your own situation.

    1. Receive the Inquiry.

    Receiving the inquiry is perhaps the easiest part of engaging in private commissions. Typically speaking, your buyer has already seen your work, already knows they like it, but needs some sort of a customization to make it work for their situation. Usually, the modification will relate to the size, subject, or coloration of the work you typically do.

    2. Quick Assessment.

    Once you have received an inquiry, make sure you obtain all the information you need about the desired finished piece in order to create it. Do not take a deposit and assume that you will figure out these details later. Instead, make sure that you have a clear vision of what it is the client desires so that you can make a determination as to whether or not the requested work is in your wheelhouse. 

    Although a lot of these communications are done in writing, sometimes it is better to schedule a 15 minute telephone call to discuss the project. Don’t be afraid to ask plenty of questions such as where the piece will be displayed, what type of hanging hardware will be needed, what type of color palette is desired. The more you know about the project, the better.

    Ask a lot of questions!

    At this point, you will decide whether the project is a fit. Remember, although it is very flattering to receive a request, you should not necessarily take on the project. When deciding if you should take the project, consider whether or not it falls within your artistic values, your skill set, and available time. If you have any doubt, it is better to decline the job. If you know of an artist that is better suited to the job, consider referring it out. 

    For more details and considerations in assessing a potential commission, check out this article.

    3. Provide an “Information Sheet.”

    If the commission seems like a good fit for you, let the buyer know that you are interested and provide an “information sheet.” 

    An information sheet is a written document that you have prepared ahead of time that describes your commission process in detail. If designed well, it will provide your buyer with all the information they need to make an informed decision before engaging your services. Many artists are uncomfortable discussing money, deposits, and what happens if the buyer is not happy with the finished work. the art doesn’t turn out as expected. The information sheet handles all of these awkward conversations for you.

    Later, if the commission is undertaken, make sure you list the “information sheet” on your invoice under “terms and conditions.” This is an important point because together, the paid invoice, proposal, and information sheet replace a contract.

    Take the time to prepare an “Information Sheet” (Your Commission Policies) ahead of time.

    Your information sheet should read like an artist statement, with sub headings covering the business aspects of a commission. First, begin the document with your name and brief bio. The document should go on to describe your process for making your art, as well as cover your policies in detail. Each section  should be addressed under its own subheading. 

    When writing your information sheet, consider creating policies that address the following topics: returns, deposits, check-ins, final payment, retained copyright, and shipping.  Your information sheet should also clearly describe what will happen if the buyer abandons the transaction, does not like the final piece or does not finish the transaction for some reason. (In this case, many artists indicate that they will retain the nonrefundable deposit.)

    Other possible policies to include are a statement about color matching (computer screens differ) as well as whether there will be any variation between a proposal/sketches/samples and the finished project. Some artistic processes cannot be duplicated exactly and if this applies to your work, make sure your information sheet states so.

    4. Provide a Quote/Proposal.

    Once you have provided your information sheet and have gathered the necessary information, prepare a quote/estimate for the job. This is your opportunity to fully describe all of the parameters of the final creation. 

    Be very careful, this is the stage of the commission process where many artists get tripped up. Often times we assume that we fully understand what the buyer is asking for, undertake the work, only to find out there was a miscommunication at this part of the process.

    ANVO = Accept No Verbal Orders. Make sure all of the parameters of the project are in writing.

    If at all possible, include a thumbnail sketch or diagram proposed work. Visual explanations help to clarify any confusion over the final outcome of the piece. Sometimes samples are created and approved at this stage.

    It should be made clear to your buyer that if it is not written in the quote/proposal, there should be no expectation that it will be included in the final work. Encourage your buyer to read the document carefully and bring up any concerns. 

    5. Invoice for the Deposit.

    Once you have agreed upon the scope of the project and feel confident that there will be no misunderstandings, invoice the buyer for the deposit. Typically, artists charge between 30 and 50% of the final purchase price as a deposit. 

    Most artists charge a non-refundable deposit that is 30-50% of the final purchase price.

    Most artists charge a non-refundable deposit. This protects the artist from buyers who request a custom work and then later change their mind. It requires the buyer to be certain of their choices before the artist spends a good deal of time creating the work.

    You will need to decide what deposit deposit policies work best for your art practice. Whatever you decide, make sure that it is laid out clearly in your information sheet described in step 3, and stick to your policies.

    Reminder:  invoice should state under terms and conditions, “pursuant to the information sheet previously provided”

    6. Create the Artwork and Check in on Schedule.

    Once you have received payment for your deposit, it is time to begin working on the project. Your information sheet should have laid out the basic steps you take in creating the artwork as well as described when you will check in for approval before proceeding to the next step. 

    Often called a “kill clause“ these checkpoints protect the artist from investing too much time and effort in to a work that could be rejected. The idea is the buyer must approve the work thus far before the artist moves on to the next stage. This provides you with an opportunity to correct course while it’s still possible. It also serves as a tactic to discourage the buyer from changing their mind because they have already committed to previous steps of the process.

    7. Final Payment and Delivery.

    Once the work has been completed, Provide the buyer with an opportunity to review it before final payment. Sometimes this is done with a studio visit and sometimes this is done with photographs if the buyer is too far to See the work in person.

    Once the buyer has seen and approved the final work, accept final payment and deliver. Of course, if the buyer is too far to pick up the work from your studio, you may have to arrange for shipping.

    Final Take-Away

    The commission process is a little different for every artist, and quite possibly every project. The most important thing to keep in mind while working a commission is clear communication. Make sure that expectations are clearly written out before doing any work.  When the needs of both the artist and the buyer are met, commissions are satisfying and worthwhile.

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