Several MM readers have asked me to write about the commission process. I'm happy to, but I'll open this post with a caveat: Because I maintain this blog in my "spare" time and on my own dime, I'm not in a position to research every topic. Much of what I write about comes from my own experience. That's the case here.
The commission process varies widely, because there are many different kinds of commissions—everything from major corporate jobs with architect, consultant and dealer involved, to the small private project that takes place between artist and client. As an example, my buddy Steven Alexander's work, a large corporate commission, graces the top of this post. Most of my commissions have been for private collectors, and I don't want to violate their privacy by showing their work here. Not only are the kinds of commissions different, but people work differently.
While the dealer handles the financial logistics of the commission, I like to communicate directly with the client to establish the esthetic parameters. If you are working without a dealer or consultant, you’ll need to handle the finances as well as the communication. (My terms: a 50% non-refundable deposit; the balance on delivery, with client responsible for shipping and installation costs. Other artists work in thirds: at the start, midway, and at the end.)
. I acknowledge that the client is interested in having me do the commission because she likes my esthetic, technique and material sensibility.
. I ask her to tell me what she has in mind, requesting that she show me examples of work she likes—mine and that of others.
. Interaction at this point is crucial. If I don’t think I can do the commission—if a client wants a still life, for instance—or if I think the client will be too difficult, I turn the job down. You develop a sixth sense about the personal interaction.
. To offset the "non-refundable" part, I tell her I’m willing to make two paintings so that she can choose the one she likes better. I'll make paintings that are related but different. More than once it has happened that the client (often a couple) decides to purchase the second one, too. If not, you have a painting for your inventory.
. Offering a two-painting choice really puts a client at ease—makes her feel that you're not going to foist something on her that she doesn’t want. Also, the two-painting process relieves you of some pressure in that you don’t have to put every idea into one painting. I wouldn't take this tack with a large commission, however, as the work load would be too specific and too intensive.
. If the work will need special care, let the client know upfront. You don’t want this to become an issue at the end.
Starting the Project
If I can see the space, good. If not, I ask the client to show me pictures. This not only gives me a sense of the space, but how it’s furnished.
. If a client requests that you visit her home, build that cost into your job estimate or price, particularly if it involves airline travel or significant time away from the studio.
. I encourage a client to send me swatches of colors from her home furnishings, visit or not. This is a commission, so if she wants her painting to go with the sofa, OK. But I make clear that once we agree on the palette, she must trust me to put the colors together in a way that makes a good painting, not simply an adjunct to the furniture.
. I provide a swatch palette on watercolor paper so the client can see the colors I’m using, since paint is different from the dye of her fabrics. Color adjustments can be made at this time.
. A commission is different from other artwork in that is being made for a particular client. Some artists get upset when they’re asked to work within parameters, or when the parameters are displeasing to them. If you don’t want to have to factor in the sofa, don’t take on a commission.
At the beginning of the project, I usually send the client a jpeg to show her the studio setup for the commission. This is primarily to help her understand that the project is a big undertaking for me, and the painting is not something that can be whipped up in a week. It also assuages her fear that I haven’t gone on vacation with her non-refundable deposit.
. I send another Jpeg when the first painting is a little more than halfway completed.
. This is the time for the client to speak up. I ask: What do you like? What don’t you like? Is this what you were expecting? I not only pay attention to her comments about color, proportion, surface, whatever, I take notes. So if she tells me, “I love this palette,” or “I love what you’ve done so far,” if there’s a problem at the end, I can say, “At the midpoint you told me you loved it, and here’s what you said…."
. If I were doing a large project, I would ask the client to sign off on a progress report, essentially putting in writing what we’ve discussed, but because my commissions have been under $20,000, and because I’m working through a dealer, personal interaction and dealer involvement have been enough.
Toward the End
I send another J-peg. This lets the client see essentially what the painting will look like. There’s still a little flexibility here to make small changes—usually accent colors.
. Some clients ask to visit the studio. That’s fine with me. I always ask the involved gallery if they’d like to come to the studio as well
The Finished Painting
If she likes it, great. Sold.
. If she doesn’t like it, I ask her what she would like to see different and then try to incorporate her ideas into the second painting, which I have been working on more or less simultaneously but have not shown her.
. Some clients like the first painting but wish to refrain from committing until the second one is done. That’s OK with me.
The Second Painting
At the midpoint of this painting I send the client a j-peg. If she’s in love with the first one, this is usually the time when she commits to it. This allows me to take my time on the second painting and let it evolve into something that doesn’t hew to the parameters of the commission. If she wants to see the second one, I'll finish it right away.
Payment and Delivery
Because I work with dealers, they handle the contracts and the payment. But the bottom line is the non-refundable 50%. I must have my share in hand before I start the work. That money is for my materials and time--the sketches, material gathering, the back-and-forth communication with the client. Also, when clients have already paid for half a painting, their enthusiasm is likely to remain active.
. I may deliver the painting to the gallery, or the gallery may have it pickjed up, but the gallery delivers it to the client. Some dealers (typically outside New York) will install the painting for the client.
. The balance is paid to the dealer when the painting is delivered. (If you’re working on your own, this is the time to collect.)
A Note About Pricing
If I were doing a large project, particularly a project outside the scope of what I normally do, I would work up a thorough budget—cost of paint, panels, transportation, assistants, installation, and a salary for me. The moment you step outside your familiar work zone, you really need think things through. (Refer to Jackie Battenfield's The Artist's Guide for more on this matter.)
. Once you and a client agree on a price, there is no renegotiating, no discount. If you are unfamiliar with the client and you’re working without a dealer, a contract would be in order.
. If a client wishes to purchase the second painting (it has happened!), I feel a 10% or 15% “courtesy” is acceptable on the second work. The client gets a deal and you make two sales—win/win.
. If a dealer secures the commission for you, a 40% commission is appropriate (maybe 50% if they worked hard to secure the commission, or if they plan to host an unveilng party, or produce a catalog or nice brochure.) If you’re working alone, you retain the full price but you may be asked to deliver the work, to help install it—possibly having to hire help—so you’ll earn every penny. (I have worked in different ways with that non-refundable 50% deposit. One time I kept the entire deposit and dealer got most of the remainder at delivery; that was a mistake, because there was no carrot at the end. Usually the dealer and I divide the deposit up front and at the end.)
. If you are working alone, build the price of administration, delivery and installation into your final proposed price. If the client balks at this price, you can negotiate down. For instance, you could eliminate the post-painting services such as delivery and installation. This is why communication is essential. It’s also why a dealer earns her commission; she’s going to handle all that stuff.
Over to you
Readers, have you you handled commissioned projects? Please weigh in with advice, caveats and anecdotes.