A Detailed Guide on How to Assess a Request for Custom Art

Sooner or later, every artist who sells artwork will be asked this question: “Do you take commissions?”

Some artists know the answer before the question is even finished. Absolutely not. They don’t want their art to be influenced by outside forces much less deal with difficult clients, and that’s OK.

but for many artists, taking commissions is a great area. On the one hand, small alterations to work you would undertaken anyway is a good business opportunity. For instance, if you’ve painted a scene that you love and an interior designer asks if you could create something similar, but larger, the commission opportunity could be a great fit and a welcome income opportunity. On the other hand, sometimes patrons may I ask you to create something that is not a part of your artistic vision. Even worse, sometimes people can be very difficult to please.

Before you turn down the opportunity, let’s take a look at how to evaluate and respond to a commission request.

Initial Assessment

The first task upon receiving a commission inquiry is an initial assessment. This may be one of the most critical points in your communication because it is your opportunity to determine whether or not the request is a fit before undertaking any effort. Your studio time is critical to your art practice and it is imperative that you protect it from wasted efforts and unnecessary drama.

Viewing a commission as a collaboration means that both the collector and artist are equally important and have needs that must be met in order for the project to be successful. Just like any other relationship, the parties will be dissatisfied if they are not matched both in temperament and vision.

Is the commission project right for you? 

1. Is this person someone with whom I’d like to work?

We’ve all had that feeling. Someone you’ve met and spoken with simply rubs you the wrong way. It’s not necessarily one thing, or maybe it is. Maybe they won’t look you in the eye, maybe they constantly cut you off midsentence, maybe they are very demanding and treat you as though your ideas are not important. As you begin to except commissions, eventually you will run into a person that rubs you the wrong way.

A disagreeable person is not necessarily a dealbreaker, but it can be. If you get the gut feeling that a person is not somebody with whom you want would like to work, it is best to listen to your intuition. People who ask for steep discounts, or are indecisive and ask for multiple changes, will make a project challenging. But, people who are condescending or disrespectful of your time and skill will make a project miserable.

If the person making the request is the end buyer, it is important to realize that they will be harder to work with because they are not necessarily educated on the commission process. There are a couple ways to handle this:

  • If it is clear the client is going to require an extensive amount additional time and effort than usual to help them through the commission process, charge them a little more. Your time is valuable and if a client requires more of it, it is fair that you are compensated. You do not need to itemize this charge, just add it to the overall proposal so that you know you were being compensated for the additional effort.
  • Alternatively, if you have a gallery or an art dealer that regularly represents your work, you can refer the person to the gallery or dealer who will then handle the commission from there. Should you decide to take this route, it should be made clear to all parties that the Gallery/dealer will be handling all further communications and assisting the client through the design process.

Sometimes though, the potential client is simply disagreeable or there is a personality conflict. Don’t waste your time pursuing every single opportunity. Sometimes an opportunity is actually a pitfall and it is better to simply decline the offer.

2. Is this a job I want to do?

When you are contacted about a possible commission, carefully review the request. Is this a request for the type of work you normally do? Do you currently have time in your schedule to complete the project? Are you able to procure the needed materials and/or assistance? Does the request fall within your artistic values?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, it is best to decline the job. If you make a habit of taking commissions that you do not wish to do, you will be known for a type of work that you dread. Unfortunately, the results will be referrals for more of the same type of work. It is better to decline the first job and seek work that you desire and want to be known for them to spend a lifetime doing work you do not wish to have. Remember, you became an artist in order to pursue your artistic vision. If you wanted to work towards someone else’s vision, you could easily get a job working for someone else.

If you happen to know an artist more suitable for the request, refer the job and let your colleague know that you did. Perhaps your colleague will return the favor in the future.

Are you the right artist for the job?

1. Is this project within my wheelhouse?

One of the most difficult things any artist will have to do is to admit to themselves that perhaps they are not qualified for a project. While it is good to challenge yourself with interesting projects, it is not good to take a risk that you can pull off a project only to fail. If, when discussing the project with your potential client, you get the gut feeling that the project is just a little too much, you have a couple of options:

  • If the project is only a slight stretch with a few technical details to work out, make sure to add samples into your proposal, and possibly extra time to complete the project just in case you come upon any difficulties. Often times, artist will add the completion of several samples for a client to choose from. This allows the artist to ensure that they will be able to complete the work in such a way that the client will fully like and understand. Be sure to charge a sample fee so that your extra effort’s are compensated.
  • If you happen to know another artist colleague who is experienced in the area of the request, consider bringing them in to the project as a collaborator. Collaborating with another artist to finish a project will give you the experience you need to take it on fully the next time. It is an excellent way to not only get a free education, but get paid for it. In addition, you would also be helping an artist colleague gain additional work which is a win-win situation.

If your lack of experience cannot be solved with samples, extra time for completion, or a collaboration with a colleague artist, it is best to decline the project. Again, refer the job to a colleague if possible, making sure to let your colleague know.

2. How much time will this project require, and do I have this time available in my schedule?

One of the biggest complaints artist have about working on commissions is the deadlines. Keep in mind though, that you have complete control over the deadline. As you assess the project, and begin to decide whether or not it is a fit, assess exactly how long you think it will take you to complete the project. Now double that. Always make sure to add extra time in into your proposal for completing a project. For example if you honestly think that you can complete a project within a week, tell your client that you estimate it will take 2 to 3 weeks. No client has ever been disappointed by a project being completed early. Every client is disappointed when the project is completed late.

Likewise, if you have a lot going on in your personal life, or day job, make sure to add even more additional time for completing the art commission. It is not unusual for some artist to take 6 to 8 weeks to complete a project. More so if the project is highly detailed and will require untold hours to create.

Remember, once you quote the amount of time it will take to complete the project, it is difficult to increase that amount of time. It is best to account for extra time and set your clients expectation from the start. You must be willing to set a firm boundary around the amount of time you expect to complete the project without letting your client pressure you into completing it faster. If your client needs it faster, it is best to decline the project altogether.

How to Proceed If It Is a Fit

Wahoo! So far so good! Not only is the project right for you, but you are the right artist for the job. Excellent. Now what?

The next step is to offer your potential client a “Commissions Information Sheet.” The Commissions Information Sheet is a pre-made document that describes a little bit about your artwork as well as your commissions process. Think of it as a written boundary setter. The Commissions Information Sheet takes the place of an awkward conversation on any topic you choose, including non-refundable deposits, checkpoints, color matching, and shipping charges.  

Because most commission inquiries typically occur via email, the following is a snippet you can use:

Thank you again for finding my work. I would be honored to assist you with your commission. I am attaching a “Commissions Information Sheet” that provides information about my artwork as well as the process I follow for completing commissions. Please give it a thorough look over and let me know if you have any questions or concerns at all. Once you have reviewed the document, Please let me know you are ready to proceed. The next step will be to finalize the details of the artwork you wish to commission.

How to Politely Decline

Bummer. It’s not a match.

Don’t be disappointed. It is not possible for every commission inquiry to be a match to the artist. Keep in mind that the stronger your portfolio is, the more likely your requests will match the type of work you do. So keep working at it and just know that every artist receives requests that are not a match. It’s completely normal and just a part of doing business as a privately commissioned artist.

Politely decline the request with a short email indicating the reason it is not a match. Don’t be too descriptive. Only give enough that potential client knows that you gave it consideration. Always try to word the declination in such a way that the potential client realizes you are being considerate of their needs over your own. Also, suggest to the potential client that they sign up for your newsletter and/or follow your social media outlets to stay in touch. You never know, a matched commission may come out of it in the future.

The following is an example of wording you can customize for your own use:

Thank you again for finding my work. It is always a pleasure to receive a inquiry regarding a potential commission and I appreciate you considering me for the project.

After learning more about the project, I must regretfully decline. Unfortunately, [insert short reason for declination.] I do hope that we are able to work on another project in the future. To that end, please consider signing up with my newsletter so that we may stay in touch. [insert link to newsletter.] alternatively, you can find me on Instagram at [insert account name] or Facebook at [insert account name.]

I referred your project information to [insert artist colleague name and contact information.] I think [insert artist colleague name] is a great match and hope that your project is a success.

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