Commission Guidelines for Artists
What feelings come up for you when you think about creating a commission piece of artwork? Is it something that you long to do more of, or is it something that absolutely scares you? Commissions can be a great way to not only bring in income in between collections and exhibitions, but to make deep connections with art collectors and have them become lifelong fans and advocates for your work.
Let's chat about some things to consider when you are doing commissions, including financial boundaries, communication tips, my own commission process and the dreaded question of "What if they don't like it?!!"
If you don't want to read to end and prefer to learn while you paint, why not check out this episode that covers everything you need to know about doing commissions as an artist: Make sure you grab my free art commission template too.
Things to consider when you are doing a commission
You need to be clear on your why.
What purpose and what role will commissions play in your art business? Once you know this, then you can start to work on your strategy for commissions in your art business.
You need to decide if commissions will be your main source of income for your art business, or if it's a way to bring in money in between collections and exhibitions. To help you make this decision, think about how much joy they bring you. Remember, you are in control of shaping your life and your art career. If you see other people only doing two commission spots a year, but you actually really love commissions, then make commissions your main source of income. Don't compare. Let your own skills and desire drive your decision making.
Once you are clear on your purpose, then you can start to think about your strategy.
If commissions are your main source of joy and income, then this should be reflected in your overall communication. So likely your emails will include commission opportunities and stories. Your social media will tell the story of commissions and you might have lots of testimonials from clients. A huge chunk of your communication and storytelling should be around commissions if this is going to be your main strategy. Not to mention that applying for a commission needs to be super easy for collectors to do since this is going to be your main source of income.
I am a huge believer in scarcity building demand.
Even if technically your commissions are always open, I would still have limited times where applications are open.
Without a sense of urgency even people who genuinely want a commission will always put it off as something they'll get around to one day.
Now if commissions are your main source of income, I know it can feel really scary to say that they're closed, but it will create a sense of urgency and spur people into action next time you open them up.
If you are like me and you love commissions, but in small doses, then you need to do some planning around when commission spots are open. I highly recommend checking your schedule and your energy levels, and then deciding beforehand when you're going to open commission spots and how many you want to do. I typically only do between three and five a year.
I open up commissions right after an online launch. I do this because my audience is engaged. They already feel connected to me and they're ready to invest. Not to mention that some of them missed out during my live launch, so they are SO ready to buy some art.
Before opening up commission spots, I will always do a little bit of lead up work. And I know this sounds really simple, but a lot of artists forget to do this. They simply just announce that commission spots are open before actually warming up their audience to the idea. Warming up your audience can just look like sharing snippets of past commissions and their meanings, showing talking about the process, letting people know that commission spots are opening up soon, and that spots will be limited.
It can look like emailing subscribers to let them know that they get first dibs on spots, and to give people just a bit of time to commit to the idea before spots open up for a limited time. And this doesn't have to be a month long process. It can be if that's part of your strategy, but if you've already built connections, it can just simply be a few, post a couple of stories and an email.
Now, whether it's a full time situation or a more of an in between launches scenario, let's chat about things to consider when you do take on a few commissions to make the whole process much more enjoyable for everyone involved.
No.1 Clear communication.
There is nothing worse than a client's thinking that framing is included when it's not, or having someone ask you to do a pet portrait when you are clearly an abstract landscape artist. A lot of these awkward moments and conversations can be avoided with some really clear communication right at the beginning.
My number one recommendation is to set up a document that you can refer people to when they show interest. This document should clearly outline the process, the expectations, and I even recommend a rough price guide. This document can be sent out when people reach out showing interest about commissions, or it can be a hidden post on your blog that you can send the link to, or it can even be an automated email that immediately gets sent when someone signs up to a form on your website or your socials saying that they're interested in a commission.
There are a couple of key things that I include in my commission document that I think are worth thinking about. The first thing is that I clearly outlined that I cannot do something that's not within the scope of my style. Asking for a commission means that you already love my current style, but you're looking for something in a particular color scheme or a size or with a meaning that's specific to you. I don't want anyone asking me to do a reggae style portrait of goats. I know this is weirdly specific and you might laugh, but it's a thing people. It shouldn't be, but it is!
Anyway. Let's move right along from that. I usually give people four different sizes and a rough price guide for each. Now these prices aren't exact and the final price gets worked after meeting with the client, but it gives them a rough idea of what to expect. This saves everyone going through the whole process only to realise at the end that this is just not within their budget at the moment.
Having a pre-written place to send people that clearly outlines your price guide means that you don't have to have those awkward conversations.
By having clear financial boundaries, you can protect yourself and still protect the relationship with your collectors by not even having to have those conversations because your pre-written document already outlines the process, the expectations, and the price.
Now I know what you're thinking. "Uh, Monique, a document with all my expectations and a price guide??? The sounds like hard work" . I know. I've got. So much so that I've actually designed a beautiful commission template for you in Canva that you can just fill in the blanks and have a pre-written commission document ready to send out today.
It's got a nice little intro, outlines all the step for you andhas a place for you to fill in your price guide. The hard work is done! All you need to do is fill in the blanks. (Yussss!!!)
On the topic of communication, here are a few other things you need to make decisions about and clearly communicate at the start of the process.
Let's talk to deposits and what happens if they don't like the painting. I know this seems like a bit of a downer to talk about, but "what if they don't like it" is a major fear of a lot of artists and It's what's holding them back from giving commissions a go.
The best thing to do with a fear is to be curious and face it.
Let's just say worst case scenario, you finish the painting and they don't like it. Awkward. Am I right? Well, here's what I do. I have a non-refundable 30% deposit to get started on a commission.
This deposit covers materials because I'm a business owner and I need to cover my costs, right? I also say that I never want to part with art that people don't love, So if they don't love. They don't have to keep it, but the deposit is non-refundable and they understand that I can then sell the painting to someone else. So worst case scenario, they absolutely hate the painting. Your materials are covered. You've probably learned some really valuable lessons, and you now have a painting that you can sell to someone else at full price. So if this fear has been something that's been holding you back, you might as well go and download my free commission resource right now because I'm sorry friend, but I just pulled that excuse from under your feet.
Framing and Shipping
Something else to consider is framing. Is framing included or is it extra? It doesn't really matter what you do here. You just need to communicate it clearly at the start. Delivery is another one to decide on before you get painting, especially if it's not local.
Quick Segway before I take you through my commission process because I can literally hear you asking, "But how do I set up my price guide? How do I decide what to charge? " Well, there's not a clear cut answer for that, but here are some things to think about:
Consider what your drink of choice is. And I say this because this part involves a spreadsheet, which I know is a bit painful for some,. But, if you're going to show up in your business as a professional, it's necessary. So fill a glass and make that spreadsheet my friend. Next start by calculating the cost of your materials. It blows my mind how many artists actually have no idea how much an artwork costs them to make. I generally choose about four sizes and use that to give me a price guide. So work out how much a painting of each different size will cost you in materials. Don't forget to include things like varnish, paint, printing and I even include a small amount for general wear and tear of materials.
Then calculate your hourly rate.Roughly how much time would it take you to complete a painting of each size? Have a sip and add it to the spreadsheet, my friend, because you have to charge for your time. If you don't value your time, then there's no way other people are going to value your time. Repeat after me: I am worth charging forty time!
Once you've calculated the cost of these things, you have a baseline. From there you can add on your margin. This will be your profit, how much you are actually making with each piece. And I know this can be a scary thing to think about and really look into, but it's important and it's worth it if you want to build a life of profitable creativity. I can't tell you exactly what the amount should be that you add on top of your cost. This will change depending on where you live and the different stage of your career, but it should be something that you are happy with and that's realistic for your area. I would highly recommend asking some other artists that are a little bit further along, to chat to your local art gallery or a curator that you've struck up a relationship with. Keep in mind that your commission prices should be more than a regular painting of the same size as it's more personal, it's taken more time, and it's more taxing on you as the artist.
We can chat about commission considerations forever, but I think these are some pretty great ones to get you started. Now I'm going to take you through my entire commission process step by step, and hopefully this is helpful to fill in any blanks that you might have. Make sure you read to the end because I have a little something-something that I think you're going to love and will really propel you forward with your commission process.
My Commission Process
Open up commission spots
I open up commission spots only a few times a year, and I'm very intentional with the timing of this. The first lot of spots are opened up after I finish a bunch of paintings for a launch, but way before I start promoting the launch of this new collection. After I complete a collection of paintings, there's usually a bunch of admin things that need to happen before I get ready to launch. Because I'm not doing a lot of painting during this phase, I like to have a commission on the go to break up the admin.
The other time that I open up commission spots is pretty soon after an online launch. I have an incredible community of collectors and launchers sell out pretty quickly. But the downside to that is there are always people who miss out. These people are great candidates for commissions. They've already gone through enough connection points with me to have made the decision that they want to buy my work. They have that visceral feeling of missing out that's still fresh and they're ready to own their own piece of artwork. After a launch, I will reach out to my email list, thank them for another sold out launch, show empathy to those that missed out, and let them know that there's another opportunity coming in the form of commission spots opening up.
I give them all the information they need, including a link to that very handy document that I referred to earlier with all the process and the price guides, and I let them know in advance that spots are opening up and that subscribers will get early access before the public does. This lets them know that there's value to being on their list and that I value our connection.
Next, I do a little mini promotion on my socials, almost like a little run up to commission spots opening where I share stories of the process, the cost of materials, stories from past collectors who really love their work and lots of insitu shots so people can imagine artwork in their space.. I give opportunities for people to ask questions and I talk about the value of art in our homes. I let people know that spots are opening up soon, that spots are limited and that they fill really quickly. I also mentioned that email subscribers will get first dibs when spots open up which encouraged them to hop on my list. Never miss an opportunity to add more people to your list. (I assume you understand the value of an email list. If not, check out this other blog post about email marketing for artists) Once people reach out, I send them my commission info pack where I clearly outlined the process and the price guide. I suggest that they look at the information and get back to me so that we can arrange a time to meet in person or via Zoom.
In home/zoom consult
One spots are filled. The next step is the in-home consult or the Zoom meeting. To prepare for this initial meeting, I usually take my iPad with a pre-made document with spaces to fill out things like dimensions, materials, colors etc. Having this pre-made consult document means that I don't miss anything when I'm at their house, and I'm super distracted by the amazing view and their super cute cat. (just me?)
During the in-home consult, we look at the art that they already have, their furniture and decor and I help them make decisions about dimensions and colors. Now my passion is creating more than just pretty pictures. A big selling point for my work is that I create pieces that mean something important enough to take up valuable space in people's homes.Because of this I sit down with them and I ask "What do you want this painting to remind you of? " I hear about their story, and take notes as I go.
I just wanna pause and make a little side note here that you need to be true to you and operate out of your strengths. If metaphors and sentimental meanings is not your jam, then don't include that in your work. I know artists who include pieces of material, song lyrics or sentimental items like wedding bouquets in their commissions.
Just don't compare. Don't look left, don't look right. Just look within and do what comes naturally to you. For me, it's metaphors and meanings. So that's how I roll.
Post consult follow up and deposit.
After the initial consult, I take my notes home and create a follow up document where I clearly outline the price, the timeframe, the dimensions, framing, options, delivery, insulation, colors, a little sketch, and any notes. (This is all part of the free commission template I created for you!)
Before I proceed I get the okay from the client and they pay their 30% non-refundable deposit.
I get painting
The 30% deposit is my sign to get painting. Because of the nature of my work, I personally don't send any progress updates or chances for amendments to be made. I prefer to get all of the information from them at the beginning and present the final piece that they are then welcome to keep or not keep.
While the painting is at the framers I start to get busy onhe admin side of the commission. I usually work on finalising the meaning and all the pretty things like the stickers, the postcards, thank you card etc.
I love this part. I love a good home delivery if it's possible. I read the meaning and explain the nuances of the painting. This is the part where they and I usually have a little cry and we just celebrate their investment and a family heirloom.
If the painting is not local, I wrap and ship it with an email letting the customer know it's on its way I always include a tracking number.
Commissions can be an incredible way to form a deep connection with the collector. It's more personal and it creates an opportunity for them to not only become a repeat collector, but a lifelong advocate of your work.
When I sell work, I always provide a number of beautiful postcards, enough for the collector to keep one, but also enough for them to give away. These postcards will always have my details both in text, but also as a Scanable QR code for easy access.
What better advertisement is there for you as an artist than a beautiful piece of artwork that someone has a deep connection with and feels is worthy of taking up valuable space in their home.
That's why I think it's really important to make the most of these commissions by having that extra material available that people can give away.
Decide on your commission purpose and strategy in your art business.
Let this inform all of your communication- from stories to reels to emails.
Create demand for your commission spots through scarcity.
Work out your price guide and set financial boundaries.
Prioritise clear communication right from the start using the pre made commission info document I created for you.
I'm all about you finding your possible and taking your next step. I've made it super easy for you to take your next step with my free drag and drop commission info template. Create your own commission info pack to send to clients in ten minutes flat.
Download my complete commission starter kit. It includes:
A beautifully designed drag and drop template that outlines your commission process
A fill-in-the blanks price guide
A template that you can use while you are doing your in-home consults to make sure you don't miss anything
A post consult page with cost, time frame and notes to send to the collector after your consult.
Commissions are a great way to get some extra income in between collections or as your main strategy and source of income. Not to mention that it's an incredible way to really form deep connections with collectors. If you'd like to listen to the episode again, you can find it here. Okay friend- go find your possible!
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