You’ve just been approached by someone who loves your work and is excitedly presenting you with an idea for a custom piece.
It’s easy to become swept away in the flattery, but there is a lot to keep in mind before accepting a commission.
While most commissions go off without a hitch, there are also plenty of horror stories where a seemingly promising commission turned into a miserable, never-ending nightmare.
Knowing what questions to ask before you accept a commission can help you avoid any potentially stressful or less-than-desirable situations. The more you communicate, and the more both you and your client understand about the upcoming project, the smoother the whole process will be.
We put together a list of ten questions to answer before you commit to a commission.
Am I capable of completing this project?
Especially at the start of your career, it can be tempting to say “yes” to every opportunity. However, be honest with yourself about your capabilities and your limitations. Does the proposed project include any techniques or materials with which you are unfamiliar? If the project is outside of your skillset, it’s better to say "no", than to promise something you can’t deliver. This will only stress you out, and disappoint your client.
You can’t be a master at everything. Often, clients aren’t aware of the differences or restrictions of certain materials—simply because they aren’t as familiar with the process as you. It’s your job to educate them about what is possible and what you are capable of completing—and steering them in a direction of something that is.
How long will this project take me?
Keep in mind that creating a custom piece is a different process than creating a work on your own. Unless it is a replica of one of your current pieces, it will likely take more time to complete. There is more back-and-forth, more communication, and more trial and error than with your regular line of work.
Calculate how long you think a project like this would take if it was something you were familiar with and then multiply that time by a third. You don’t want to find yourself in a position where you over-committed on a time-frame and are rushing to finish a piece, or find yourself extending the deadline. It’s better to set up a realistic timeline (even if it’s a little long) and surprise them when the project is done early than working in high-stress conditions.
Do I work well with other people?
Being an artist is inherently a solo endeavor. With long hours alone in the studio, it can be quite jarring to all of a sudden have someone else involved in your decision making and creative process. Is it appealing to you to work closely with someone else? How will you feel when you are pushed in a direction you don’t necessarily want to be pushed? Are you ready to communicate, even when you don’t feel like it?
Being social can be the key to art business success, but knowing what you are up for is just as important.
Does this project fit with my artistic goals and how much does that matter to me right now?
Not every project has to be an extension of your current aesthetic. It might be easier, but ask yourself how important that is to you at the current place in your career. It’s not selling out to take on a project outside of what you would normally be making. Everyone needs to make money, and everyone deserves a steady career. Taking on a project that is outside of your comfort zone could open up new doors, give you new ideas, and introduce you to new people and clients.
Then again, perhaps you are later in your career, and it’s just not feasible, or worth the time and stress of working on a commission that is not aligned with your current goals. It’s really up to you.
Can they put down a deposit?
The last thing you want is to put in the effort, time, and overhead, and not get paid. Ask your client to put down a percentage of the final piece before you start working on it. That way, you are both invested in the outcome.
Determine what feels fair to you. If your final product is worth $1500, perhaps $600 feels like enough to both get you through the time it takes to make the work, and as a security protection for you. We’ve seen artists take anywhere from 25-40% non-refundable down payments on their work. Set a percentage that works for you, and stick to it.
Would they like to see samples of my other work?
A good way to know that you and your client are on the same page is by going over multiple samples of your past work. Make sure they see the range of what you are capable of doing and they get a good idea of the overview of your work. Set them up with the expectation that they aren’t going to receive an exact replica of a previous piece.
See if there are certain pieces that they like more than others. Ask them what they prefer about those pieces. Ask if there is anything they specifically don’t like. What big themes, techniques or generalizations do they like? If there is something that they don’t like that you can’t change (canvas texture, certain colors, etc.) let them know ahead of time. Being clear about what is possible, or not possible, helps temper false expectations.
A good way to show them your previous work is through customizable inventory reports with Artwork Archive.
How involved will they be in the process?
How often will they check in along the way? Establish some benchmarks that you will show them your progress with, so they aren’t left in the dark, but also aren’t hovering. Let's say you set up a four-week window for a painting: ask them if sending them pictures of the sketches, and then one photo a week until completion is sufficient. This way, you dodge any potential disasters before it’s too late and they can get a feel for where the painting is heading.
What is the best way to contact them throughout the creation time?
Ask your client how they prefer to communicate throughout the process. Is e-mail best for them? Will shooting them a text with a few progress shots work? Do they prefer to see the pictures and have a follow-up phone conversation? Or, do they want to physically come by the studio and see the work in person? Depending on the size and scope of the project, as well as the person, this will vary. Communication is crucial to this process going smoothly, and establishing how that communication is going to happen is half the battle.
Have they commissioned any pieces before?
Typically, if the person you are working with has commissioned a number of pieces before, they will know how to work with you as well. If you are on the fence about it still or have reservations, don’t feel scared to ask for a reference from one of their previously commissioned artists.
Do they have any other questions?
Ongoing communication is the essential element to accepting commission work. The more you communicate, ask questions, and accept questions, the more rewarding the process will be for both parties.