Is Creating Commissioned Artwork a Good Choice for You?

By Carrie Lewis in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

One of the most stable ways to generate art income is by creating commissioned art. A successful commission artist has a base of satisfied (and hopefully repeat clients) so happy with his or her work that they’re promoting it to all their friends. That’s what makes the commission art business model so easy once it’s established.

However. . .  not everyone is good at this kind of creating. Certain aspects of the commission business model simply make it a poor fit for many artists.

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Is creating commissioned artwork right for you?

That’s something you want to find out before you get started, not after you’ve been hammering away at commissions for a while.

Here are four questions to ask yourself if you’re thinking about becoming a commission artist. The right answers don’t guarantee success, but if you’re honest with yourself (and I mean brutally honest) you may be able to discover it’s not the right fit and look for something more suited to you.

So grab a pen and paper (or something digital to take notes on) and let’s get started!

1. Can you yield creative control to someone else?

When a project is taking place, there is a good deal of negotiation involved between you as the artist and your client. You’re the expert, after all, and that goes a long ways. BUT, there are still times when you as the artist have to do what the client is paying you to do.

If you’re a specialized commission artist—you do only pet portraits, for example—it’s highly likely your clients and you will be in agreement on how the project should look. But there’s no guarantee that will always happen. Can you still give up control and create the project the client wants?

Many artists can do that and still create excellent work. Many other artists may accept the challenge, but their work is not quite up to their personal standard because they didn’t have sufficient connection to the subject to put in the extra time required to get things just right. No one else may see a difference, but the artist does.

Other artists won’t even touch a project like this because they want complete control of the project beginning to end. They’ll sell the artwork afterward, but there’s just no way they’ll accept an artist-for-hire situation. No way.

Understand yourself and your artistic personality well enough to answer this question. If your answer is no, then you will definitely not enjoy being a commission artist.

2. Can you create similar works and still give each one your all?

I’ve been a portrait artist for well over 40 years, and specialized in horse portraits most of that time. Most clients preferred traditional head study portraits like the one below. They wanted to see their horse in art the same way they saw it every day: up close and personal.

commission painting of a horse portrait

There are only so many ways to paint horses like this before the process begins to get repetitive. Yes, each animal is different, and so is every portrait, but commission art can begin to feel like a cookie cutter business unless you’re able to find fresh ways to infuse individuality into each one.

For me, that meant improving my skills so that every portrait was better than the last one. The quest for excellence kept me going through all the years when almost every client wanted a portrait just like the one above.

Eventually, you’ll get clients who will say, “You’re the expert; do whatever looks best.” But that probably won’t happen right away. In the meantime, the ability to find new challenges in the “same ol’ thing” is a great talent to have.

3. Can you work creatively on a schedule?

Granted, a lot of professional artists have to create on a schedule. Freelancers work on a schedule all the time. Studio artists should, too, if they’re treating their work like a business.
But it’s especially important for commission artists to be able to set a schedule and stick to it.

Depending on your medium, it may take you anywhere from a day or two to several months to complete a commission. No matter how long it takes, you must be able to keep a project moving forward regularly in order to meet those inevitable deadlines. That means hitting the easel at least every week, if not every day.

alarm clock next to sketch pad to keep track of deadlines

Failure to meet deadlines is a great way to torpedo a commission art business. If you can learn how to make and keep schedules, you’ll have a leg up on the competition in your field.

4. Can you deal with difficult people?

How you answer this question is very important. If you do commissioned work long enough, you will encounter clients who are impossible to please. Nothing you ever do will be right, even if you do exactly what they asked for.

A successful commission artist who is good with difficult people has learned two or three invaluable skills (quite often the hard way.)

irst, a good commission artists knows when stop talking and listen. Often difficult customers don’t want excuses; they want to vent. Let them vent and when the venting is over, then conversation can begin.

Second, if you’re a commission artist and you make a mistake or miscalculation, it’s important to admit it. Tell that difficult client you’ve made a mistake, but also be prepared to tell them how you plan to make it right.

Third—and probably most important—an artist who has been dealing with clients long enough learns when to refuse a project. If a potential client is asking too much, you must learn to say “no” and do so gracefully.

What’s too much?

• Poor quality reference photos
• A subject outside your area of expertise
• A medium outside your area of expertise
• Too little time to complete the project
• A client who expects art miracles

“Too much” differs from artist to artist, and from one point in a commission career to the next. For example, I now accept commissions I would never have considered when I was getting started. But think this question over carefully. How you deal with these situations can mean the difference between a successful commission career and a struggling commission career.

If you answer the questions above honestly, you’ll have a good idea of whether or not the commission art model is for you.

Just remember, you must be able to create art on a regular basis, work with clients to create their vision, and have the patience and persistence to stick with it through the difficult times. Good luck!

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