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Working On Commission


Art Tips | Working On Commission


Q: Many artists have had what looks to be a golden opportunity - a commission - turn into a nightmare. What are the pitfalls an artist can expect when commissioned to do an artwork and what are the solutions?
A: Working on commission, creating a work of art on spec from scratch for someone other than yourself, is totally different than selling a finished piece at a show, at a gallery, or out of your studio. Selling a completed work of art is an event; producing a work of art on commission for another party is a relationship. Never confuse the two.

From your end, the key to making a commission work is your ability to be flexible and work with people. A commission relationship only succeeds when you respond effectively to the other party's concerns, requests, and needs (which hopefully aren't too numerous). Put another way, if you don't work well with people, don't take commissions.
The number one commission pitfall, by far, is accepting one on without knowing whom you're dealing with. No matter how badly you need the money, how well your initial contact goes, how much you each like spumoni, how much they say they love your art, or what your psychic says, if you haven't worked together before, do due diligence. Many commission nightmares can be avoided before they start.
Meet with the other party to discuss the project, preferably at your studio or where you make art. Make sure they see a representative selection of your work while there. Some people say they want to commission a work of art when what they really want is an exact duplicate of one piece, or of one of only several pieces that they've seen. The more of your art they see, assuming they continue to like it, the easier they tend to accept the finished product, and the less you'll have to worry about having to produce a very specific composition.

Watch how the other party reacts to your art; find out which pieces they like the most, and the least. Politely ask questions and encourage them to do the same. Tell them you want to make sure they're satisfied with the finished product. The two of you have to imagine the creation of the art in pretty much the same way for a commission to work. Differences in initial perception could lead to problems later. Answers to questions like the following will help you understand what you're in for if you take the job.
* "Have you commissioned art before? If so, how many pieces?" The larger the amount, the less likely you are to encounter problems. Just to make sure, though, get names of several artists, and contact them to see how things went.
* If they've never commissioned art, find out what they want and make sure you can give it to them. If they have unrealistic expectations that you can't fulfill, turn down the job.
* "What do you want to see in your art?" Look for broad answers that have to do with the way your art makes them feel, they like its message, what you stand for as an artist, that sort of thing. Very detailed or specific answers could mean they'll try to micro-manage the project later.
* "Is there anything you don't like about my art or don't want to see?" The less they don't like, the better. If they don't like something that you can't do much about, warn them now rather than later.
* "Do you have any other questions or requests?" An answer like "not really" is always good. Hopefully, you won't get a long involved answer.
* "Will you be the only one approving the art?" You want a "yes" answer here. The more people you have to please, the less likely you'll please them.

Assuming the meeting goes well and you understand each other, go ahead with the relationship. Unless you know the party well or have worked together before, write and sign a contract. It doesn't have to be complicated but it should address major points like basic characteristics of the art, payment schedule, late payment fees, completion time, and final delivery. Verbal agreements or handshakes risk He Said/She Said disputes later.
Require an advance, usually about 1/3 the total cost of the commission. Receiving partial payment ahead of time takes pressure off of you to finish the art fast, and also commits the other party to wanting a positive outcome. The advance should be nonrefundable. If the other party backs out, they should understand that you've still invested time, labor, and materials.
Arrange for the other party to periodically view the work in progress-- not every day, but perhaps three or four times before completion. That way, you can address concerns before they get serious. You don't want to present a finished piece to someone who had a totally different concept in mind. For example, if you're painting a portrait, the subject should think it looks like them.
Encourage dialogue at all times. The other party should feel comfortable asking questions, and expressing opinions about the art and its progress. Discouraging feedback or acting overly sensitive to criticism could keep them from telling you what they're thinking as they become increasingly dissatisfied with the art.
Don't change the look of the art, no matter how inspired you get, unless you talk it over with the other party first and get their permission. Taking things into your own hands usually spells trouble especially when the other party has little experience with commissions.
A handful of artists try to "self-commission" art, that is, they create works of art with particular collections or collectors in mind, and then try to sell them the finished pieces. Don't laugh; it happens. An elderly artist once gave me the grand tour while saying stuff like "This one, I painted for the Vatican."
Never automatically refuse a commission because you think it "violates your artistic integrity." For example, an internationally known watercolorist, early in his career, did a series of oil paintings of pigs for a bed and breakfast hotel because he needed the money. He would never accept such a commission now, but back then, he took it to survive as an artist.
Ultimately, you decide what you're willing to put up with when working on commission. You might take an obvious risk based on how badly you need the money, or want your art in a particular collection. Then again, peace of mind may be more important than a paycheck. Whatever the plan, do your homework first. The better you understand what you're getting into, the better you'll cope once you're into it.

1. Agreement. This is an agreement between _____________________________("the artist") and _____________________________("the client") for the creation and transfer of commissioned artwork. All rights and liabilities of either party shall be governed by this agreement.
2. Description of the artwork.  The artwork, to be created by the artist, shall be a work of art described as: ______________________________________________________________ in the medium of __________________________________dimensions ______x ______x______
3. Obligations of the artist and client.
a) The artist shall create the artwork and pay for all necessary materials and supplies. 
b) The artist shall deliver the artwork to the client. If shipping/crating is required, the client agrees to include this additional cost with the final payment.
c) The client shall be responsible for framing, mounting, and installation of the artwork.
4. Start and completion dates. The artist shall begin the creation of the artwork on or about _____/_____/_____, and shall complete the work by, dependant upon final acceptance _____/_____/_____.
5. Fee and schedule of payments. The client shall pay to the artist the sum of $_________ in total payment for the work. The amount of _________ (50% of total) shall be paid at the time this agreement is signed by both parties. The balance of __________ (remaining 50% of total) shall be paid to artist or agent upon delivery of the accepted artwork to the client.
6. Acceptance of the work. At a midway point in the production of the artwork, the client shall review and agree to the direction of the artwork. Upon completion of the artwork the client may suggest reasonable changes in a good faith effort to satisfy the any objections. After such changes, the client will pay the balance due to the artist.
7. Title of ownership. Title of ownership in the work shall pass from the artist to the client upon the client's full payment of the artist's fee.

Signature of the artist

Signature of the client


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