Handling Commissioned Artwork

Handling Commissioned Artwork

Commissioned artwork is a goal of most serious artists. While most art commissions go smoothly for both artist and patron, some have become virtual nightmares for all those involved. Knowing what to expect out of the commission experience and planning ahead can take the stress potential out of the situation.

The commission scenario can be a stressful one for some artists. If you’re used to doing your own work and following your own taste, finding yourself in a collaboration of sorts can put a real dent in your productivity. When you make a work of art for someone else you’re no longer a solo artist – you’re in a partnership, one in which you only hold half the power. The key to making this partnership a successful one is being flexible and having great communication skills. Commissions only work when both parties respect the other, and neither is jockeying for power in the relationship.

Who Are They?

No matter how much this person says they love your work, no matter how much they may promise to rave to their friends, if you’ve never met this person before you need to do some research. What’s their artistic background? Have they commissioned pieces before – and by whom? What kind of financing do they have? If they’re likely to be problematic, it’s better to find out they have a history of causing months of headaches beforehand than to try to work with them and suffer for it.

The Interview

A meeting between an artist and a patron is a two-sided interview of sorts. They want to get to know you and your work a little better and you need to see how they react to your art. Meet them in your studio or wherever you create your art. Make sure you’ve got a good variety of your pieces on display, in as many styles as you currently work in. When first-time patrons say they want to commission a piece of art, they often want a piece that’s almost a duplicate of their favorite you’ve done. Allowing them to see the full range of your work will give them a better idea of what you can create together.

Ask questions about their history when it comes to art. Have they commissioned pieces before? What role do they see themselves playing in the collaboration? Do they have a general idea of the piece they want, or do they want to micromanage every detail of the work? Often the answers to these questions will determine whether you want to work with them or not. Most importantly, ask if they are the only one that needs to approve the piece. If they have to ask a spouse or committee before the work is approved, you may want to avoid the job.

The Contract

If you’re both satisfied that you can work with each other and you have a good, general idea of the work you’re going to do, sit down and sign a contract. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate, but it should cover the basic concepts you’re both agreeing to.

• Description of the art
• The general size and shape of the piece
• The payment schedule
• Any late payment fees
• Progress meetings planned
• Completion date and final delivery

Never proceed on a verbal agreement or a handshake. If either party has any questions about the contract, consult an attorney before going forward.


Require a down payment of at least one-third of the agreed-upon price. This gives you some leeway if you really need the money for supplies, while giving the patron motivation to stay in the partnership. This advance should always be non-refundable. If the work stops at any time before completion, they need to understand that you’ll keep that money to compensate you for your time and materials.

Encourage the patron to view the work three or four times during the creation. This allows them to discuss any changes they may want to make, and allows you to ask for any input you may need before proceeding. Always incorporate the desired changes, no matter how inspired you may be to go in a different direction. Require that final payment is due upon completion and delivery, or upon installation of the piece.

The Finish Line

Ideally, when the piece is done and delivered, your client will be ecstatic and will want to show it to all their friends and family. Wouldn’t that be a perfect time for them to have a handful of your business cards on hand? Always leave some cards that can be passed on to others that may be interested in commissioning you for a project. Some artists even go so far as to tell their clients that their signature on the back of the card will afford their friends a discount.


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