Art Deadlines – How to Set Them, and What to Do When You Can’t Meet Them

By Carrie Lewis in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

If you’re a freelance artist working for clients, it’s vitally important that you are able to meet your deadlines.

I can’t stress this enough. . . once you’ve accepted a job, you need to do everything within your power to complete it on time. Why? Because depending on the area you’re working (portraits, commercial art, etc) it might take only a few missed due dates to sink or hurt your career.

This is especially true for commercial artists and illustrators. My own experience has been that portrait artists have a bit more latitude, but even they can suffer the consequences of missed due dates.

As bad as that sounds, there are ways to avoid most missed deadlines. When portrait work was my focus, I discovered a few methods that helped tremendously:

How to set realistic due dates:

1. Know how fast you work.

I knew I could produce one 16×20 oil portrait in a month, so I never told a client I could have one done in three weeks. Even if I really needed the sale.

2. Allow for the unexpected.

The unexpected can be anything from illness to having to start a project over again. I’ve heard some artists recommend adding two weeks to the amount of time you think it will take to complete a project.

Personally, I found it more helpful to double the time I quoted the client. If I thought I could deliver a finished portrait in four weeks, I’d tell the client eight.

3. Let your client choose their level of involvement.

I always preferred giving clients as close to a hands-on experience as possible. They had the opportunity to approve the line drawing, and each stage of the painting if they wished. They also could give input if they wanted.

But there were clients who never replied to emails or seemed interested in anything but the finished product. Waiting for approval from them delayed projects by weeks.

So I reached the point of offering clients the opportunity to participate, but always assumed they wouldn’t. That way, I could create the portrait without delay. I sent regular updates, but understood silence to be approval. That might sound a bit risky, but it always worked out for me.

4. Prepare for the inevitable.

No matter how careful you are in scheduling, getting work done, and meeting due dates, life will get in the way. Family illness, your own injury or illness, and any number of other things can derail even the best laid plans.

Don’t wait for something to happen to develop a plan of action. Even the most basic of plans is better than no plan, so take a little time to decide how you want to handle missed due dates.

Read How to Schedule (and Achieve!) Your Art Business Deadlines for more tips.

What about when you’ve missed a deadline?

Let’s say you’ve done all that, and you’re still about to miss a deadline. What do you do?

First, take a deep breath (if you haven’t already.) Take a walk, too, if that helps settle your anxiety.

Then take a hard look at your schedule between now and the deadline. Is there anything you can stop doing to make time for finishing that project? Start by looking at things like television time, but don’t stop there.

If there’s any way to finish your project on time by temporarily letting go of a few (or a lot) of other things, then do it. It’s better to sacrifice non-essential activities in order to finish on time. Especially if art income is a large portion of your monthly budget.

Communication with the client is also absolutely essential in a case like this. Be transparent. Tell them you won’t be able to meet the deadline and why. Also give them a new estimated time of completion, and be willing to work with them to bring the deal to a successful close.

Depending on the client, that may mean discounting the original price or offering a discount on something else. You might even consider an additional service of some kind, perhaps something you usually charge extra for.

In short, you want to end up with a satisfied customer no matter what happens. Sometimes, a client whose worked with you through the unexpected and is still happy with the result is better than a satisfied client with a project that went smoothly.

Remember, not all clients will react the same

My experience has been that most people understand acceptable delays. The few times I’ve had to stop working on a portrait because my back went out, or I had hand injuries, I explained why I wasn’t able to paint, and the clients were very understanding. But not all people will be.

You need to be prepared for the person who demands you either deliver on time or give them a steep discount. Unfortunately, I can’t give you a one-size-fits-all answer for those circumstances.

You might be better off refunding the purchase price in total and moving on to the next project (if you can). Perhaps by offering a full refund, the client may change their mind and soften their attitude. It has been known to happen.

Whatever the situation, work toward a solution that makes you and your client happy, or at least causes the least amount of pain for both of you. You always want to make sure the client understands that you are willing to work things out.

Ultimately, business relationships are subject to all the same ups and downs that personal relationships are. Most of the time when you put the effort in, they go well.

But when they don’t go well, and when the burden lies on you because you can’t meet a due date, just be proactive. Run toward the problem, instead of away from it. Be communicative, and take responsibilty. If you do that, chances are everyone will end up happy in the end.


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