There are a few aspects of commissions we discuss this week on the Self Taught Artist podcast:
- Why commissions are so hard
- As an artist or painter, when is the right time to start accepting commissions?
- How to choose when to say yes or no to a commission opportunity
- How to reduce pressure when you’re doing a commission
- How to price commissions and how I price my artwork
For any artist or painter who is considering taking on commissions, this podcast is for you! I’ve started taking commissions very recently and this week I’m talking about some of my considerations and the challenges I’ve gone through. I tell the story of the big commission I’m working on right now, how it came to be, and how it’s going.
Stay tuned to the Self Taught Artist Podcast for more art and painting tips!
Hello, and welcome back to the self taught artists Podcast. I’m Lauren Kristine, your host. First, thank you for all the love I’ve been receiving for this podcast. I’ve had listeners in seven different countries already. So if you’re out there listening in Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, India, Nepal, or Norway, Hello there! I’m so happy you’re here and that you found this podcast. As always, I encourage everyone to please take a minute to subscribe to the Self Taught Artists podcast, so you never miss an episode.
I don’t know about you, but I am still getting back in the swing of things after the holidays. Today, I thought I’d keep it simple on the podcast. I’m going to be pulling back the curtain and talking about what is really going on in my studio right now. See, I’ve been slow to produce new work lately, because I am working on a really big commission. So today, let’s talk all about commissions. There are a few aspects of commissions I want to be sure that we discuss. First, why they’re so difficult. When is the right time to start taking commissions? How to choose when to say yes or no? How to reduce pressure during the commission process? How to price commissions?
First, let me tell you about my commission and how it came about. Anyone who’s been to my website knows I wasn’t seeking commissions at all at the time, because, frankly, I was a bit worried about the commission process. My website it actually said “commissions closed” on it. I thought that commission sounded pretty difficult after I’d heard multiple artists talk about their experiences with them. And frankly, I doubted my abilities to really deliver for my clients. So that fear was holding me back. But a friend approached me and he told me he loved my floral paintings. I do a lot of floral painting. However, he wanted a different color palette than the one I normally use. He and his fiancee like more muted colors, and I use mostly bright colors in my paintings. He asked would I consider a commission. Since it was a friend, and I thought it would be a good challenge for me as an artist, I said I would try. He also asked for a pretty large piece (for me, at least!). He asked for a 16 x 20, which is a fair bit larger than how I typically work. Normally, I work on small pieces because I can get in more repetitions, and practice more. Plus, if I don’t love the piece that I create, it’s not a big waste of time or supplies or effort. Typically 11 inches by 14 inches is my favorite. By design, my painting on small canvases or paper is very low pressure.
On a few different levels, this commission was going to be a challenge. It’s an unfamiliar and difficult color palette, a larger Canvas than usual, and I felt the pressure to deliver really high quality work to my friend. All of these factors left me a bit nervous to even begin. But one day last week, I got really tired of staring at the blank canvas mocking me in the corner of my studio. I gessoed it and did my usual canvas preparation process. I figured I would start somewhere. I put some color on there to take away all the blank space. And next thing I knew I was sketching in my idea for a floral design. I really dived into the commission over the past week. Each day I added layers to my work. I’m actually incredibly pleased with how it’s shaping up and how it’s going so far. The final layers are still ahead of me. And so it’s not quite done yet. But I’m pretty confident that she’s going to get there really soon.
I haven’t shared any images with the client yet, so I’m really hoping he likes it, too. This painting is one that I’ve done in a very traditional manner. So I created an under painting and I slowly layered on top of it. When I paint like this, I find it can be hard for non artists to see the vision and where the piece is headed. This client in particular wanted white flowers. But I’m waiting to put white on the canvas until the very end. So for that reason, I’m holding it back. And I’m not going to show him what I’ve done so far. Yeah, this is probably a risky strategy. But it’s how I’m doing it for now. If the client wanted anything but white flowers, I think I would have showed it to him earlier in the process. And I would recommend showing your client a progress photo somewhere in the middle of your process, just so you don’t waste your effort. However, in my case, it can be really hard to look at the dark colored flowers that are there right now, as I’ve painted all the shadows. And I’ve painted zero highlights to date. So I think he might wonder how it’s going to ultimately come together. And I don’t want to worry him.
As a painter, I’ve been taught to reserve my bright white and all the highlights for the very end of my painting process. The thought is that once you put pure white on the piece, there’s nowhere else for you to go. And it can be very hard to adjust value after that. The way I think about it is I don’t want to fire that bullet until the end of the painting process. I paint from darkest to lightest. I’ll keep you posted with how everything goes with my client when I do ultimately show him the piece. So keep your fingers crossed for me.
Let’s talk about why commissions are so difficult. First, there’s a lot of pressure to perform. I am feeling that pressure right now. You really want to impress the client, you think you have to make something good. That leaves very little room for error. I worry about whether or not they’ll like every single thing I put on the canvas, it’s quite exhausting.
In my creative process, and in many artists that I’ve spoken with, there’s a good amount of creative output, that isn’t quite up to our standards. See, I don’t share everything that I make on social media. And I certainly do not list everything that I make for sale. Because sometimes pieces of art just don’t work out. And that is okay. It’s part of the creative process. We artists just don’t see the junk piles of other artists because it’s not something that’s easy to share. On Instagram, we try to put our best foot forward and create consistent feeds. And that usually doesn’t include sharing the trash pile. But rest assured I think all artists have a reject pile of art that they’ve made. I think about it this way, if I don’t have a reject pile, I’m probably not pushing my artistic development hard enough. It’s through these risks that we learn and grow. Without mistakes, we can’t make any progress.
As to how all of this relates to commissions? See, when you make art for a client, versus when you make art for yourself, you really want to get it right. You can’t have their commission end up in the reject pile, so the pressure inside of your brain starts to grow. But you can’t let this happen. It does not lead to good results. The easiest way that I know to reduce the pressure is to work on multiple pieces at once. I do this all the time in my art practice. Instead of working on one Canvas for my commission. I can currently work on two if not three. I use these multiple canvases to try different things. See how different techniques look and try it again if necessary. When you have multiple canvases going at one time, you don’t get the same pressure building to get every single paint stroke right. You have multiple shots on goal
I cannot recommend this enough. In fact my current commission that I’m working on it’s the practice canvas that I made for myself as a warm up that’s actually the strongest front runner for the commission and I think that’s really because on this practice piece I took all of the pressure away from myself. Another hard thing about commissions is the way they place limitations on your creativity. I’m still new to doing commissions so this is a particularly hard thing for me. When my client said he wanted a white and neutral color palette that represented quite a stretch for me personally. I haven’t really done anything in that colorway before. It’s just not my natural go-to for colors. Anyone that knows me knows that I love bright colors. I wear bright colors. I have bright colored art in my house. I just live for bright colors. But after a while of dwelling on all the colors that I could not use for the commission, I realized when you have constraints, instead of focusing on all the things you don’t have, the only way forward is to focus on what you do have.
Limitations actually force you to solve problems differently, and to simply view the world differently. Abundance is not the key for creativity. Too much time leads to procrastination. Too many resources leaves you moving in the path of least resistance. And too many tools leaves you using the most obvious ones to solve your problem. Behavioral scientists have actually looked at scarcity versus abundance. Also, a 2015 study found that when you have fewer resources, you use them more creatively. Scarcity activates the brain differently, giving it permission to connect the dots in new and often novel ways in order to solve the problems it is presented with. So with this new white and neutrals color palette I’m working in for this commission. I’ve really had to push myself and research how to master new techniques and try new things along the way. It’s counterintuitive sure to think that limitations actually lead to more creativity. But sometimes when you take options off the table, you actually grow more. I am definitely going to come out of this commission process as a stronger artist. And I’ve had to flex muscles I didn’t even know that I had. Whether it’s a limitation on color, or design or medium that you’re faced with, see it is an opportunity for growth as an artist.
Artists have long known limitations were a secret ingredient of creativity. A technique used by master painters is to use what’s called a limited palette. Instead of using every color of paint they own, they limited themselves to just a handful of primary colors. Through mixing paints together in new ways. They create new combinations of colors. With the added bonus of increased color harmony, counter intuitively, by limiting the palette you can end up with a better looking piece of art in the end.
So how do you know when you’re ready for commissions? I’d say anyone can do commissions if you pick the right ones. It’s less about doing commissions but more about doing the right ones for you. The easiest commissions are based on original artwork you’ve already completed. If someone points to one of your pieces of art that already sold, says that they love it and they want something similar. In my opinion, that is the best kind of commission. It’s something that you know how to do, you have already practiced the technique. And you know for a fact that you and the client have a similar vision for what you’re going to create. The hardest kinds of commissions are when a client doesn’t understand your strengths as an artist, and they’re simply wanting someone (anyone!) to create their vision for them. For example, if you’re a landscape painter, and someone asks you to paint a series of figure studies in neon pink to match their couch, that’s not a good fit for you. Another very difficult kind of commission is to paint a portrait. Those are extremely personal, and you’d better be confident that you can get it right. portraits and portrait commissions take a lot of practice. I would never do a personal portrait for someone because that’s not the kind of painting that I do. And that is okay! I think a house portrait is the only kind of portrait that I will ever do. But for portrait painters with lots of practice, portraits can be lucrative. Do what makes sense for your strengths and your skills as an artist. Don’t try to be something you’re not with your commissions and you will save yourself a lot of headaches.
One thing artists don’t talk about enough is that commissions can really be a time sink. They take longer to complete than a normal piece of art because you’re trying to achieve something very specific. Saying no to the wrong commissions leaves your time available for the right ones that serve your artistic journey better because commissions are a time sink and they take longer and are more difficult than a usual painting. They cost more, too, that is simply the industry standard. Commissions can be twice the work for the same result. Sometimes more. I personally price my work by linear inch that is the length plus the width times the price. My price goes up by 50% or more for a commission depending on the size and complexity. I’ve heard of artists charging 25% more to even tripling the price for a commission. Think about the size of the piece, the materials involved, the difficulty, and the time it will take you when you choose a price for your commissions. I’m very transparent with my clients about pricing. And they appreciate it that way. There’s a price per linear inch for small canvases, and a price per linear inch for large canvases. Works on paper have a slightly cheaper price per linear inch due to the cheaper materials. Perhaps I should dive into the topic of pricing for a later podcast.
One last note on the topic of commissions: When you accept a new commission, I highly recommend drawing up a simple contract for you and your client. Both of you should sign it. A typical payment arrangement is to get 50% of the fee upfront and 50% upon completion of the artwork. You can play around with the percentages and use the terms that work best for you. Perhaps you only need 25% of the fee upfront to know they’re serious, and you’ll get 75% upon completion of the art. Do what makes sense for you in your situation. I would recommend asking for some deposit upfront to make sure your client is serious. And be sure to spell out in the contract if that deposit is refundable or not if they don’t end up liking the final piece. I also recommend limiting the number of revisions you offer to a client. The tactful way to spell it out in a simple contract would be that say they get one hour of revisions after the completion of a piece. And any revisions beyond that scope will be charged at your hourly rate of X dollars an hour, you can pick the number of hours of revisions that you’re willing to include and the hourly rate you charged for anything above that. This is more or less of an insurance policy to make sure you don’t end up in limbo with the client forever. You may or may not actually need to charge them these fees, but you spell them out just in case you need to. Most clients will be lovely, especially if you say no to the commissions that simply are not a good fit for you. But every now and then, you might find yourself in a thorny situation. A clearly written contract in plain English can help you to avoid these issues. A little disclaimer: I am not a lawyer and I can’t provide legal advice. However, these are some simple guidelines to help you as you go forth in this process.
And with that we are out of time for today. I have really enjoyed this conversation all about commissions, but the commission sitting on my easel is not going to finish itself. I need to get back into the studio. Is there a topic you want to hear me talk about on the Self Taught Artist podcast? Do you want to be interviewed on the self taught artists podcast? Let me know. Find me on Instagram at LaurenKristineArt or my email is on my website www.LaurenKristineart.com Please leave a review for the podcast if you have a minute. It really helps to boost the show in the rankings. And it helps me to reach more self taught artists out there. Until next time, my friends happy creating
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