Accepting Art Commissions
A guide to pricing, contracts, clients, and pitfalls to avoid.
It's enormously exciting, that first time someone says "I want your art and I'll pay you for it." Oh the thrills, the honor, the validation of every painstaking hour spent in study and blood and tears and oh, so much practice! Finally, you've arrived. You're an artist. And people want to buy your work!
Hang on a second though. There's so much more to it than that. And if you're reading this article, you've probably already figured that out. What about pricing? How to value the love, labor and materials that go into one piece of work, without either choking the client or selling yourself short, is one of the most essential and perplexing quandaries artists have to figure out; oh, and contracts! Do you really need them? Aren't they a waste of time? How do you protect yourself from scams, clients who back out of the deal, or clients who are never satisfied?
These are the ongoing questions of the age, and even those of us who have been doing commissions for years still struggle with it sometimes. When it comes to commissions, there's no one size fits all rule, and every client is as different as the artist they purchase from. Here are some of the most important tips I've learned from commissions (mostly by doing it wrong the first time), and wish I'd known from the very beginning.
Let's start with contracts because they're just that important. Always, always, always have a contract! Whether it's with your first client or the last, with a stranger or your own sister. You need to have an agreement on what is expected, when, the price and what is covered in that price, plus which rights the client will own. It doesn't have to be fancy, you don't need to consult a lawyer (although that's not a terrible idea). In fact, I'll post links below to pre-made templates that can be tailored to fit your individual project needs, and which I've cannibalized for my own purposes many times, to make things easier for you. But first, there are some things you need to know.
1. Method of payment
A. Always state up front how much you want, what is included in the price, when you will be paid, how much you get if the client pulls out (a "kill fee"), and what extra revisions will cost. For small projects, you may want 100 percent up front, but in almost all other cases I recommend 50 percent down and 50 percent "on completion and the client's final approval." Mention costs of materials, shipping, and ownership of copyright (more on that later), if they're extra or included in the full price.
B. Mention how many revisions you will allow before asking for more money, i.e.: "Three revisions allowable under stated price of the total project, after which an additional 20 percent will accrue per revision." This is SO important! There are people out there who will have you changing your piece et nauseam until you're old, grey and hopeless, and still won't be satisfied. Asking for more money not only ensures that you will be properly compensated for extra output, but keeps that output to a minimum.
C. Add a kill fee, in the event that a client changes their mind for whatever reason. The kill fee should at least cover your time and materials. You may chose to keep the 50 percent down or add a percentage to it, depending on how advanced or complex the project is. Whether or not the client wants or likes the result, you deserve to be paid for your efforts and costs, bottom line.
Not as difficult as it sounds. The artist owns all copyrights to their work, unless the client wants to buy them, and the artist is willing to sell. Don't just give them away, you should be paid for it! If you want to sell, a good rule of thumb on pricing copy and grant rights is one third of the total price. Generally, there aren't many reasons why you should relinquish the rights of your work, so my advice is don't.
A promise of progress reports is essential. Whether it's once a week, once a month, or simply "regularly." Stipulate that it is up to the client to notify you of changes that need to be made as you go along, whatever that may be. If the complaint is due to the unfinished nature of the artwork, explain this to your client, but if it's a real problem then it's up to you to make it right to the best of your ability. (Please be humble! Criticism can be hard, especially from clients who have no idea what you're going through, but it is their satisfaction which counts in these cases.)
Educate your client a little in regards to the extent of your labors, because they mostly have no idea. Talk about how many hours you spent just on the nose today, or how many photos you had to compile for the sky, or how difficult it was to find that perfect color, or how your cat almost ruined everything. It will help the client to better appreciate and respect your work, which otherwise may seem like magic.
Stipulate what sort of credit you need to receive for your work. The ability to show your signature on a painting, a plaque, a title page, etc. Seems like a small detail, but you don't want it slipping through the cracks. Anyone who sees your work should have an easy way to identify who did it.
5. Essential Details
Names of parties should be covered at the top of the contract, along with dates and the project specifications. Who commissioned what, and the artist's name (or names, if you're using a trade name.) Also include a space at the bottom of the contract with lines to sign and date for each name.
There are so many more things which can and should be covered by a contract, but are dependent upon your specific commission requirements. You can't be too careful with contracts! Always discuss the terms with the client ahead of time, and remember: NEVER accept a commission from someone who refuses a contract!
Huge red flag!
Of course, they might not ultimately be out to scam you, but you're not just an artist. You're a businessman (woman). You want to run your business professionally. And it isn't just a good idea to have a signed contract between you? It's your legal right to protect both your art and yourself. This does not reflect your opinion of anyone's trustworthiness, it's just good business practice. If the client doesn't understand this, then move on! You have better fish to fry.
As promised, here are a couple templates to get you started!
Code of Conduct
There are some basic things to keep in mind when dealing with a client, on how you should behave.
1. Be professional.
Act like your business depends on making a good impression, because it does. Never mind the quality of your art; if you're a pill to work with, clients will go elsewhere. There are plenty of friendly artists to choose from. Be polite, grateful, honest, clean and prompt.
Furnish the client with CONSTANT progress reports. Tell them what you're struggling with. Educate your client a little in regards to the extent of your labors, because they mostly have no idea. Talk about how many hours you spent just on the nose today, or how many photos you had to compile for the sky, or how difficult it was to find that perfect color, or how your cat almost ruined everything. It will help the client to better appreciate and respect your work, which otherwise may seem like magic. Let them know if something has caused you to fall behind, and make sure your photos are accurate and quality.
3. Save ALL communiques.
Think like a lawyer. You probably will have to prove something was said or agreed upon at some point, so have everything filed away neatly and easily accessible. Every text, letter, voicemail, email, everything! If it's a phone call, take notes. If there's ever a dispute, you will be so glad you had them! Trust me, it's saved my backside.
4. Make your deadlines.
Don't promise anything you can't do. In fact, I'd suggest going over the top when estimating a delivery date, to give yourself some wiggle room if something goes wrong. For me, even though my deadlines should be nice and cozy, I almost always end up needing the extra time. Some people work well under the pressure of a deadline, but if you're not one of those then don't push it. It's unprofessional to not finish on time, especially if it's in the contract—unless it's for a very good reason like a medical emergency.
5. Don't overdo it.
Know what you can handle. Start small and build your way up from there. It's easy to get excited when a bunch of people want your work at once, but if you take on too much you will regret it. Trust me, I know!
6. Stay within your expertise.
Another temptation in the beginning is to do everything asked of you. Be very careful accepting commissions outside of your comfort zone! It's important to present the client with the very best you can produce, and taking on projects you're not entirely proficient in can cause the quality of your work to suffer. So if you're a portraitist asked to do a mural, think long and hard before making that commitment. My advice is, flattering as the request may be, don't serve it if it's not on the menu.
Now, for that golden question of the ages:
How Do I Price My Work?!?!
I WISH there was an easy answer! It's a learning process, and no mistake. There are so many variables to take in, like materials, time, experience, labor, shipping, costs, what the client can afford . . .
Eh, you get it.
The trick is finding the balance between being properly compensated for your art and shocking your clients away. Starting out, begin with less. It's okay to take small amounts in the very beginning, you're on training wheels for now. Never give commissions away for free! Notice I said "commissions," and not art, because gifting your work always has an appropriate time and place. When it comes to commissions though, when a client has formally charged you to complete his or her own vision to his or her own specifications, you MUST be paid.
"Exposure" is not pay!
Write this across your mirror, your studio door, your soul. Would a restaurant serve you in exchange for some word-of-mouth recommendations? Or can you get groceries for a Yelp review? Um, like, no. It may seem obvious, but this tendency to try to get something for nothing in potential clients is so widespread. Remember, commissioning a skilled craftsman to execute a professional project unpaid, is theft. So next time someone says "I'd like yadda yadda, can't pay but it would be great exposure," don't even consider it.
Well, that's covered. So what DO you charge?
One of the best tips on pricing I ever read (and if I remembered where, I'd credit them) was this: if a client jumps up and down with glee at your quote, you've charged too little; if they turn green and you never hear from them again, it's too much; but if they suck in their breath, think for a moment and reply, "when can you start?" it's just right. So how do you get there, beyond trial and error?
Calculate your hours. Write them down if you can't keep them in your head, or download a time clock app. Keep track of all your costs and add them up. Charge yourself minimum wage (I find calculating from $10 an hour makes finding a base price easier) and add that to costs. Throw in a little something for labor. Then realize you're worth far more than minimum wage and jack it up to $15 to $20 an hour. That should help you to see what your work is potentially worth.
As you expand your business, you can charge more, just don't go high, too fast, or your clientele will evaporate. That being said, if you're being inundated with more commissions than you can handle and feel you're being taken advantage of, then you probably are. Raise your prices accordingly.
I hope this has cleared up some of your questions, or helped you in some way! If you have any questions not covered in this article, feel free to contact me through my Facebook page below and I'll do my best to answer you.
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Thank you for reading!