Marketing Mondays: You’ve Been Asked to do a Commission

Steven Alexander: Meteor Beach, 2008, acrylic on four canvases, 96 x 96 inches; commissioned for the lobby of the Hines Building, Lexington Avenue, New York City

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.

Preliminary Communication
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.

Getting Underway
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.


Nancy Natale said...

Thank you very much for posting this, Joanne. You have covered a lot of ground and obviously speak from experience. I appreciate your saving me a lot of grief in advance by pointing out where problems can arise. I have saved your post in my "Commissions" folder, and I'm glad to be prepared for all the commissions I expect to roll in once this "recession" ends. If only on both counts.

Alyson B. Stanfield said...

Wonderful post, Joanne! I'll be sending lots of people over to read this. Just for clarification, when you say " I feel a 10% or 15% “courtesy” is acceptable on the second work" do you mean a courtesy discount? How is that arranged with the gallery?

Lisa Hebden said...

This is a fantastic post, thank you so much! I've done a number of commissions, and never followed the same procedure twice (a mistake, in my mind). I really like the idea of doing two pieces, for smaller to mid-size commissions, and the idea of letting the client in at the mid-way process.

I don't really have anything of value to add, except that I think when an artist handles the whole thing herself, she gets to give the client a certain degree of "service", which I think people really appreciate from the artist. Plus, she gets the satisfaction of seeing the installed commission, which can be very gratifying.

Thanks again,

Tracy Helgeson said...

I do what I call 'semi-commissions'. Basically, the client tells the gallery director what they would like; subject matter(usually barns or no barns), colors, size are usually the items my collectors are concerned with most. I do not accept any money in advance and there is no contract, I have the director make it clear to the client that if they like it, they buy it, if they don't like it, they don't. I prefer not to work under the pressure of a client ok-ing what I do, especially while it's in progress and when I have already accepted money I find myself worrying way too much about what the client will like. If the client doesn't want the painting it would simply go into my inventory. However, I do paint several pieces for the client to choose from, and often they will buy several and once a client bought both and then asked for 2 more. All of my 'semi-commissions' have been accepted by the clients and I attribute much of that to my being relaxed enough to do the work that they liked in the first place. I know this is a very casual way to do a commission but it works for me.

Chris Rywalt said...

I just want to say: Good for Steven!

KRCampbellArt said...

Great, informative post. I have done commissions but never made two pieces so the client could choose. That is a very good idea.

Joanne Mattera said...

Thanks, all, for your generous comments.

Yes, by "courtesy" I mean a discount. I've worked with most of my dealers for a long enough time that I trust them to do the best for me while doing what they need to do to close the sale. But I stand firm on no discounts on the actual commissioned work once a price has been agreed upon.

Whatever you call it, it's a system that works for you--and for your dealers and collectors.

CMC said...

Fabulous post, Joanne. I got the link from Alyson but usually get your emails.

I've done most all of what you suggest except for the second painting idea. LOVE it, and will definitely do this next time unless it's another 12 ft one. I love painting large but where in the heck to store it is a problem.

Pamela Farrell said...

Joanne, thanks for this post. I've just completed 2 paintings for a semi-commission a la Tracy. (No barns though. My work is non-representational or abstract.) A client who has bought several of my paintings through the gallery requested a piece of a certain size and color scheme. The gallery owner/director suggested that I paint 2 pieces, which I think is a good idea, and one I might not have thought of myself.

The gallery owner saw the pieces mid-way through and responded positively. I proceeded as I felt necessary to bring the work to a resolution I was satisfied. When I completed the pieces, I told her that I was a little concerned that I may not have met the client's "criteria." Her response? "The work is what it is, and she (the client) will either like them or not. If not, I'm happy to show them in the gallery."

In either case, I'm happy--with a sale (or sales), or new paintings for the gallery.

And I'm also happy to have read this post and the comments, which provide invaluable information.

Thanks Joanne and readers.

Hylla Evans said...

In your commission contract, do you include that it's a "work made for hire?" I'm hoping you don't, unless it's so personalized a work that you don't feel you need to retain the copyright.

Hylla Evans said...

ps - the reason I mention that is that a contract can educate the client thus avoiding issues later. By default (without the specific work made for hire phrase), the artist owns and controls all right to reproduce the work.
If an artist paints a commissioned portrait for instance, the buyer may not make greeting cards with the image. They may of course display the actual painting as they wish, just not reproduce it in any form without your written permission.

Joanie Gagnon San Chirico said...

Most of my income is from commissioned artwork. I mainly work with art consultants making site-specific art for public spaces such as hospitals, corporate environments, hotel lobbies etc.

Working with a consultant is quite different. They work within a budget and you never know what their commission is. You have a wholesale price, hopefully, that you can stick to. They often try to get you to lower your price. Consultants will get detailed info and jpgs from you that they need immediately, then disappear for months only to pop back up and need the work delivered in 3 weeks! The alternative is that after you do all that legwork, you never hear from them again. I find the challenge interesting though and keep quite busy.

I formed a group for artists who want to connect with consultants and art administrators. In a little over a year, we have almost 2000 members. We have a blog index now at, but I'm trying to get funding for a "real" website right now. Information is on the blog about joining. It's a resource that doesn't exist currently and I think it's important for artists who mostly work alone in their studios to network. We have many consultant/gallery owner members, fabricators and suppliers, and arts administrators in addition to artists looking for work.

CMC said...

ha ha.. boy is that true, Joanie. You would think they need the work ASAP and then they are gone, maybe to return. I never actually do a commission until I get the 50% down. For pre-existing work that is the way it works. I never give over my copyright, Hylla. When I do commissions it's because they know what I do and respect that. I don't mine colors and sizes or even moods, but then let me make a painting. Like you said it is a challenge but it can also stretch you to do something you haven't done before but in your own style.

S.A. said...

Another great post Joanne! Thanks so much for featuring my piece at the top -- and thanks Chris for the nice comment.

Just to echo some of Joanie's comments -- the corporate commission really is a different animal. This particular piece was commissioned through a consultant,and involved a long process -- sending computer generated color studies, followed by a few actual pieces for the committee to see the surfaces. While the lobby space was under renovation, I went there to get an idea of the exact setting, and went back after the mahogany wall was installed. For me, the real challenge of this commission was making a piece that would hold its own on a dark wood wall. Contractually, one of the little things I thought was important for a huge public space is specifying that there has to be a wall label (artist, title, date, medium).

Ann L. E. Bach said...

Great post Joanne.
The only thing I have to add is that when I've done commissions, I've added a provision that stipulates if the institution decides to deaccession the piece that a museum of my naming be offered first refusal.
This has never been necessary but I still use it.

graceann said...

I do commissions exactly as Tracy describes- the "semi-commission". I just cannot show work in process. This method has never failed me.

CMC said...

Mentioning showing the work in progress . This just wouldn't work too well for me. Although I can show it as it's more than half done to the designer. Only my only 5 x 12 ft piece she told the hospital that they would have to trust HER that she knew what she was doing and that I did...also they had purchased two 30 x 30's that they liked of mine.
That's the way I like to work. She sent me SWilliams color #'s so we would be on the same page for colors needed.

Stephanie Clayton said...

Another insightful and informative post. Thank you, Joanne- and also to those who've commented.

I've done commission work and have actually enjoyed each one, perhaps due in part to good communications before beginning any work.

I am not currently with a gallery, so I use a written contract, which I feel is vital if there is no dealer involved. I ask for a deposit of one-third up front, another third about midway through the job (in which the client either visits my studio to see the work in progress, or I email jpegs), and the remaining third upon delivery. I do not offer to install the work unless they request up front, which, in that case I would be happy to comply.

The idea to create a second piece never occurred to me; I will do this next time.

Donna Dodson said...

I've done sculpture commissions for private collectors and I've had good experiences. One was an outdoor piece that involved proposing drawings of several compositions and from that the client selected one choice. I got 50% up front and 50% at the end. It was a 2 week job on site and they ok'd and commented as the work progressed and they were happy with it. The most recent sculptures I have been hired to do were 1. to create a sculpture from a tattoo and 2. to create a sculpture of a mythological figure of the client's choice in my own style. I dont think I've ever taken on a job for a client for more than 2 weeks b/c I'd rather be working on my own gallery shows, current series, studio investigations but I dont mind doing commissions. For me, so far, they have been enjoyable works at the right price for the right person.
On another note, Joanne, have you ever thought of doing a piece on working in collaboration for your marketing mondays series of posts?

Susan Buret said...

A great post as you already know from the response. Thank you for taking the time to share your valuable knowledge.

Joanne Mattera said...

Collaboration. Interesting idea for a post. I'll put it on the list.

Tamar Zinn said...

Terrific post on an important topic. Generally, I'll show a client jpgs of existing work to get a sense of palette and direction, but I don't send images of the work in progress. The understanding with the client is that the completed commission will capture the spirit and palette of existing work.

One area that I don't think was addressed is pricing. I generally price a commission 15% higher than a piece of similar size that is already available in the studio or gallery for a couple of reasons. When I'm asked to do a commission, it is likely that I have to interrupt work in progress in the studio to meet the deadline. Additionally, I am sometimes asked to produce a piece that reflects imagery from a series that I am no longer working on. That can be rather disruptive to my work flow and adds to the time I have to spend on the project. I've always been up front with the client about the price structure and have not run into any problems.

Thanks again Joanne.

Joanne Mattera said...


Thanks for bringing that up. I also increase the price, usually by 20%, for the same reasons you mentioned. (So much info in this post that that item disappeared during one of my edits.)

Anonymous said...

Great topic!

Here's a quote from a book I read, written by a well known artists career coach/advocate.

"Under no circumstances should you pay more than 25 percent of the artist's fee for commissioned projects obtained through an art consultant, a gallery dealer, or any form of agent. In other words, do not pay a commission on the overhead expenses of the project."


Cindy Morefield said...

Thanks for this great information, Joanne. And I'll look forward to that post on collaboration!