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Creating Art on Commission Without Getting Burnt: A Short Guide for Artists

It seems like almost every artist does a little commission work at one time or another. Creating individual works of art for clients is a great way to earn some extra money and expand your portfolio—as long as the commission piece doesn’t turn into more trouble than it’s worth.

You see, unlike artwork you create by yourself, commissioned art is often subject to the whim of the buyer. Things like composition, color, and price can all become issues of contention between yourself and the person commissioning you.

Luckily there’s a way to avoid getting burnt on commissioned pieces: agree on everything beforehand with the buyer and—more importantly—put it in a contract that you both sign.

The following is a short list of things you should definitely discuss with the buyer and include in your contract:

The artwork itself

It may seem obvious, but you’ll really want to sit down and talk about the proposed artwork in extensive detail with the buyer. This could occur in one sitting, or over several days, weeks or months, as ideas are formed and agreed upon.

Once it’s clear what’s being asked of you, write down a brief one or two sentence summary of the project in the contract. Ideally this summary will provide a general framework to follow, while still allowing you some artistic freedom.

Payment

Including the terms of payment in your contract will save you a whole lot of irritation and worry down the road.

It’s often best to quote a set price for the piece being commissioned (use your other works as a guide) and ask for one-half or one-third up-front before you ever start working. I prefer half up-front, but go with whatever you feel more comfortable with.

That initial “down-payment” is yours to keep, even if the buyer backs out half-way through the project. In some circles that’s known as a “kill fee”—and you shouldn’t feel bad about keeping the money since you’ve already spent time and effort working on the project in the first place.

Your payment terms can also include when the balance must be paid (for example, 30 days after receiving the artwork) or any other specifications you’d like to set.

Progress points

Both you and the buyer should know when the piece will be finished and how much progress you’ve made (generally speaking) at any point during the creative process. Scheduling several “progress points” within the contract is a good way to do that.

Don’t be too restrictive—give yourself as much leeway as you think you’ll need, and then some. Creativity can ebb and flow unexpectedly, and as long as you’re writing the contract, you might as well take that into consideration.

Not counting the first stage of the project when the buyer explains what he or she wants in the work of art, I usually set up three additional meetings, or progress points, to get feedback from the buyer:

1. After initial sketches and/or composition. If the buyer sees a big problem with where you’re headed, it’s good to know right then instead of when the piece is finished.

2. Half-way through the project. This lets the buyer know that you’re actually working on the piece and gives them a hint of what the finished product might look like.

3. When the piece is finished. If there are any last details that need to change, this is the last time for the buyer to speak up.

Naturally, if you’re working in a separate state or country from the buyer, physical meetings won’t be possible throughout the process. However, sending photos of your progress by email does the job just as well.

Number of alterations

Depending on the personality of the buyer, there’s always the chance that they’ll try to micro-manage the final stages of the creative process.

To avoid endless requests to “just change this” or “revise that” I’d suggest writing a short paragraph into your contract that clearly limits the number of alterations you’re required to make after the piece is finished.

Another option is to allow unlimited alterations, but for a price—say $50 per hour. You’ll find this to be an excellent deterrent, too.

Framing

Some buyers will want to pay you to frame the piece for them, while others would prefer to do it themselves. Either way is fine, but with the price of frames today it’s best to make sure that this detail is agreed upon from the very beginning.

If you are asked to do the framing for them, feel free to mark up the price of the frame 10% or so to cover the time you spend on the task.

Shipping and insurance

Every situation will be different when it comes to delivering the work of art to the buyer.

If you already know that you’ll be sending the artwork to the buyer via UPS or some other shipping service, you can either figure out the price for shipping, packaging materials, and insurance, and write that into the contract; OR you can simply write “buyer will pay all shipping, packaging, and insurance costs.”

Ownership rights/copyright

And finally, in almost every case, the buyer should own the artwork but have no rights to reproduce the art themselves—that belongs solely to the artist.

Even if this is clearly understood, spell it out in your contract and you’ll never be sorry.

NOTE: To see some examples of what a commission contract should look like, just search for “commissioned art sample contract” in Google.

*Note: this post may contain affiliate links*

For years I've been photographing my paintings as they're completed. My primary goal has always been to have good documentation of all my art, particularly of any sold paintings; but on occasion I've also submitted these images to juried shows or art galleries and reproduced them as a prints.

The problem: poor image quality and resolution

When I first started taking photos of my. . . read more

If you're looking for something else. . .
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