Commissions: They CAN be fun!

Watercolor and Ink preliminary sketch for a current commission

Watercolor and Ink preliminary sketch for a current commission

Any artist who has ever painted something on commission probably knows that commission work presents a unique set of challenges. You are painting someone else’s painting, so their vision and yours need to be on the same wavelength, otherwise, the process can become frustrating for both you and the client. I have found that I actually enjoy doing commissions if the match is right between me and the client. I have also found that being as specific as possible in a written proposal goes a long way in ensuring that there are no surprises along the way in the form of unexpected and unreasonable requests for changes, quibbling over price or delivery dates. Spell it all out upfront, and the process will go smoothly! Here are a few steps you can take to ensure the best possible experience for both you and your client:

  • Get to know your client and what they want, and have them get to know you! The first thing I do when I get a request for a commission is tell the client to visit my web site and really LOOK at my paintings. They should ask themselves the following questions: do they like my painting style? Is it appropriate for the subject they want painted? Would they enjoy having one of my paintings in their home to live with for a long time? Because I paint in a very loose and painterly style, I often will specifically say “this is not going to be a rendering of the subject, it will be an expressive painting that hopefully captures its essence, is that what you want?” You can modify that question to suit the style you work in, it’s a good way to avoid having someone who doesn’t really know what they want get started down the wrong path (with the wrong artist for their project).
  • Paint only subjects you WANT to paint–if someone wants a painting of their grandchild, I’m going to send them to a portrait artist. I love painting people, and I do enjoy capturing likeness, however, most people want a specific, formal look to a portrait of someone they know. There is also an intrinsic element that more frequently than anything else causes them to say “no, that’s not really my….”. So, I politely decline those projects and suggest other artists who specialize in portraiture. Again, it isn’t that I can’t paint a portrait, it’s just that I would rather not deal with the intangible idea of trying to capture someone I don’t really know. On the other hand, I LOVE architecture and the landscape, so if someone wants a painting of a place or of their home, I am more inclined to accept the project–providing they understand that it will be an interpretation of the place, not an architectural rendering.
  • Once you have decided that you want the job and the client wants to work with you, it’s time for the proposal. Include everything in the write up: a detailed break down of how much you will charge for each part of the process: materials, preliminary sketches, finished product. Ask for a non-refundable deposit of at least 10% up front–this will ensure that you are paid for your time and expenses during the preliminary sketching phase. I almost always do a preliminary sketch phase, unless it is a small watercolor commission where I might forego the sketches and just suggest views, but if it is an oil painting, I always provide the client with 3 sketches done monochromatically in watercolor to choose from. This is to work out the composition and format. If it is a very large painting, I might take one more intermediate step and do a color version in pastel, but only if it is a very large piece.
  • Include time frames in your proposal–tell the client how much time you will need, be realistic based on other commitments you have–you don’t want to be in the position of rushing or having to tell the client the painting will not be done on time. Finishing earlier than expected is always appreciated, not finishing on time, is not.
  • Charge enough to realistically cover your time and expenses, know what your time is worth, and spell out how open you are or aren’t to input from the client. I prefer to work with clients who do not want to micro manage me, I like initial input and direction, and then I take it from there, always doing my best to capture the essence of the subject in the way it was requested. However, I will not re-paint a painting simply because the client is buying new furniture and wants the painting to match the couch–again, it comes down to screening. You can usually pick up on these traits early in the process and if it seems like it could go that way, don’t be afraid to walk away from the job instead of taking it on. Remember, your name has to go on that painting–if you have someone directing you to do something you know is not going to work, you do have the right to say something. Again, that’s why the screening process, proposal and preliminary sketches are so important, especially on a large project.

Once you find a way of managing the process, commission work can be rewarding and a nice source of steady income. Just be sure you are enjoying the process and still painting the way you would paint something that was not a commission–that will ensure you are doing your best work, and your client will no doubt be happy with the end result!

Note: I accept commissions for a variety of subjects, landscapes, architecture and urban scenes are my specialty, if you would like to talk further about commissioning a painting, email me at


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