Trade Secrets: Fulfilling Client Commissions

I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked how, as an artist, I obtain (and keep obtaining) client-orders for art commissions. And once I get the orders, how I go about fulfilling them. 

The work I do in satisfying commissions has taken many years to evolve to where it is as now: the point where I am comfortable taking almost any art “order”; where I know what to charge for my work; and where I no longer seek clients, but they seek me (at least, most of the time). Like many other artists I have my share of t-shirt designs and high school tat designs (all of which were done for free, or maybe $25 at the most).

At what point did I begin charging what I felt was a fair price for my work? When did I first begin creating work that I considered a “REAL” order? The first was about 11 years ago and was a Britney Spears drawing done in Nupastel. I remember deciding that I was going to charge for it because I had absolutely zero interest in doing the drawing… unless there was money involved. I didn’t charge much, I think it was $150 or so, for something that easily took 20 hours or more.

I’ve come a long way since then.

I’m at the point of fulfilling as many orders as I can handle in a year; commissions are something I could easily fill my calendar with, but that I prefer not to focus on entirely. I enjoy them, but I like having a break from studio work. In that sense, because they aren’t my ENTIRE livelihood, there’s less pressure. On the other hand, because I have other work, that limits the amount of time I can commit to orders, and in turn affects demand. There’s only so much time I can set aside for commissions.

As far as seeking work. 

I’m grateful I’ve never been in that position. Every once in awhile I let folks know (usually via Social Media) that I can take orders. But usually, once I share images on Facebook or Instagram of work that is in progress, it “gets the gears turning” so to speak: potential clients see the images of work that’s in progress or completed and it sparks their interest. At that point, they contact me to see if I’d do “such and such” and we talk about the order in more detail.

Art is a luxury. It is an expense that is justifiable. But if someone has a significant amount of time (6 months or so) to prepare for an expense of this nature, they are usually able to absorb the cost. I have found that often clients look at commissions as heirlooms. It is a possession (and expense) that is entirely unique. Not something that can be reproduced. It is for them, and their family.

There are many different types of commissions artists might create, but in my case, the orders I fulfill are extremely personal.

The pieces seem to be a combination of my style, and a reflection of the client’s story. 

Once they ask whether I’d take on their order we have a more in depth conversation that often includes images the client will share. Because I work in multiple different mediums we talk about what they want (pencil vs oil paint vs multi-media). I often will send them a couple samples of past work so they can see what my styles look like. The pencil work vs. oil-paintings have a completely different feel.

After looking at their images and having them looking at my past work, we have a discussion related to what their vision for the artwork entails, and how my abilities can create this vision. After years of orders, I understand where my strengths and limitations lie and I use this knowledge to ensure the artwork I create will be a realistic reflection of their expectations and my skills. Often this is the point where we discuss price and size.

Speaking of, how do you determine price? 

This is a touchy subject for artists. It really depends on how you view your art. I’ve often been told that I don’t charge enough. But, I’m comfortable with what I charge. My prices have increased over the years. They are a reflection of the demand, but also of the clients I create work for. I don’t want to out-price myself… I also would rather have artwork hanging on walls all over the country, than have a garage full of pieces that are sold at auction after I’ve died. I will gradually increase my prices, continually over time.

I’m often asked if my prices are determined hourly. They once were, but no longer. 

I’m at the point of having put so many thousands of hours into my art practice that I can complete some creations in 1/2 of the time that I used to. Does this mean I should charge 1/2 the price? No. It means that I’m arriving at a level of expertise that is an investment YEARS in the making. I can do something that is entirely unique to me. Clients aren’t paying for my time– they are paying for my unique artistic skill. For what I can do, that is different from any other artist out there.

When you determine what you are going to charge for your work, you need to consider all of the factors I’ve mentioned. Demand for your work. Your degree of skill. How “precious” you view your art. How much time you have/ want to invest in the pieces. Your name…whether you are trying to build awareness (or if you already have it), your clientele and what they’re willing and able to pay.

So, once the client is familiar with the nature of your work, you have a general idea of what they want, and you’ve got a ballpark figure on cost…you begin. Sometimes the idea the client expresses is one that you don’t have great images for. In this case you’ll either research imagery (and sometimes content), or you will take images. Sometimes I use google, sometimes I use my camera. After I know what imagery I will use, I usually share these with the client and discuss how I’ll pull the images together. I’ll ask for feedback from the client, as we go over images and discuss the ideas for the piece. If the client has a specific vision in mind, I’ll often draw up a quick gesture sketch to give them a more clear idea of layout. If it’s a larger, more involved piece (like an oil painting commission), I’ll often show them the surface (femmage) I’ve created, and we will go over images simultaneously.

The on-going client conversation is imperative, in my experience. 

You are trying to work with them to create an image in their minds’ eye. Trying to get into someone’s head can be tricky and involves very specific questions. Also, it means that you give them a chance to see what you “think” you heard them say they wanted. If you misunderstood something, by sharing images or discussing the work in progress, you can catch it before you reach the point of no-return.

Usually, we have three conversations: The initial commission convo, a middle-of-the-work convo, and a convo at 80% completion. The convo right at the end gives the client a chance to interject any feedback and lets you make any last minute changes.

Because of social media not all conversation needs to take place face to face. I’ve done commissions for local clients, and for clients on the other side of the world. With image sharing, its completely feasible to work from texting or discussions in Social Media.

After the art and the conversation comes the big reveal. Definitely the most gratifying part for the artist and the client. I’ve had clients cry with delight over finished work. I have had a couple pieces that weren’t complete successes, and where despite everything I did, the client wasn’t completely happy. The pieces that haven’t been complete successes, although I will try my best to complete satisfactorily, inform my understanding of myself as an artist. I learn what I need to work on. I also learn where my limitations exist, and that understanding informs my future work.

Commissions are something that deeply humble me.

I recognize that clients are asking me to create something that will be passed on for generations. Many clients return for multiple works, and become collectors. Artists have relied on patronage for thousands of years. The materials, the tools and the process has changed, but not the conversation. Ultimately, commissioned work is about your ability as an artist, and the vision of the client…and how the two elements are brought together in a piece of art.

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