This article was in Andrew’s latest newsletter. I don’t have a lot of experience with commissions, having only done a few dogs and one horse portrait over the years. When I read this article, I saw that it had a lot of good information that would be of interest not only to the artists among you, but anyone who has thought about commissioning a piece of art but wasn’t sure how to go about it. I think that if everybody follows their respective “tips”, the odds are that it will be a happy experience all around.
By way of introduction: Andrew has gained national attention through his involvement with the Society of Animal Artists, feature coverage in such publications as Southwest Art, American Artist, Wildlife Art, and The Artist’s Magazine, among others. and has held three highly successful one-man shows at Pacific Wildlife Art Galleries. He has also participated in exhibits at the Bedford and Hearst Galleries, and the Oakland Museum. His work has toured nationally with Birds in Art and the Society of Animal Artists, which has honored Andrew’s work with Awards of Excellence for two consecutive years. Andrew’s work can be found in the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming, the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, Wisconsin, and numerous private collections across the country. He is currently represented by the venerable Trailside Galleries in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. You can see more of his work here.
So, without further ado, here’s Andrew Denman on “The Delicate Art of Commissions:
As long as there have been artists committed to earning a living with their work, there have been collectors and patrons eager to commission art that speaks directly to their own tastes and preferences. Many artists have a love- hate relationship with commissions; they certainly offer the comfort and convenience of a “sure sale,” but may artists feel an uncomfortable sense of restriction, of guidelines outside one’s own whims and fancies bogging down the creative process. It’s unfortunate, because commissions (like the one above) can be among the most rewarding and profitable experiences an artist can have. The following are tips for both artists and patrons on how to successfully pursue a commission.
TIPS FOR ARTISTS:
1. Only take commissions that interest you. The primary fear of many artists who refuse commissions altogether is that taking a commission necessarily means painting whatever a client demands and “selling out.” This is hardly an issue if you only take the jobs that speak to you as an artist. Moreover, remember that just because it didn’t start out as “your idea” doesn’t mean a commission can’t become a painting that fully represents you as an artist. Remember the Sistine Chapel was a commission too!
2. Spend time with the client, carefully assessing likes, dislikes and project requirements. Presumably, if a collector has sought you out, he has seen and enjoyed previous work. Take note of the client’s favorite pieces, and be sure you understand specifically what he likes about them. Be certain to learn the deal breakers. If you know the two or three things you have to avoid or must include (say the client wants a painting of a barn swallow, hates the color blue, especially loves your attention to fine detail, and wants to make sure the painting will look good in a driftwood frame) then you can exercise your creativity in all other areas.
3. Be certain to have the commissioner approve of a sketch or study before you begin work on the final piece. If some small element needs adjusting, this is the time to do it. I only ask for a deposit after this stage so the client doesn’t feel any obligation until he knows exactly what he’s getting. If the client is dissatisfied, I still have a nice study ready to use for other purposes.
4. Do take a deposit before you begin painting. One of the benefits of commissions is that you have some money coming in while you are working, not just after completion. Be prepared, however, to return the deposit if the client is dissatisfied. It may never happen to you (and it probably won’t) but a happy client might still buy from you in the future. A disappointed client stuck with a painting he doesn’t like certainly won’t and will never send any referrals your way.
5. Agree on a deadline. Many artists hate working under pressure and many of us have show schedules to consider and galleries to supply, so commission deadlines of a year or more are not uncommon. The key is to let your collector know exactly what to expect. If a hard deadline is one of the project requirements (such as for a birthday or anniversary gift) be honest about your ability to meet the deadline. It’s better to turn down a job than to take on more work than you can handle and sacrifice the quality of your art.
6. If you are still uncomfortable with commissions, consider a “First Right of Refusal” arrangement. Unlike commissions, first rights of refusal involve no deposits and no deadlines. A client who is interested in a painting of a bison, for instance, will simply have “first dibs” on your next bison painting, which you may finish next week or two years down the road. The client feels no obligation and you have total creative control, but you’ve given a collector special treatment that is unlikely to be forgotten, whether he buys the specific piece you offer him or not. Keep a running list of such requests and follow through.
TIPS FOR COLLECTORS:
1. Be selective about the artists you approach with your ideas. Entering into a commission is entering into a relationship with an artist that could last months or years. Make sure that you and the artist can communicate effectively and amicably from the start. Any artist should be flattered that you thought of him to create that special piece, but make sure your project speaks to the artist’s interests and personality before making your approach.
2. When you tell the artist your idea, don’t rattle off a laundry list of requirements. Be very clear about what’s really important to you and leave the nitty gritty details to the artist’s imagination. Start by sharing with the artist your favorite pieces and clearly describe what speaks to your sensibilities. It’s challenging enough for an artist to take the image in his own head and translate it to the canvas; it’s nearly impossible for him to take the image in your head and bring it to life. Commissioning a fine art piece isn’t about finding someone to paint that idea you’ve always had in your head; it’s about providing the seed of inspiration that inspires an artist to create something that belongs to him as much as it does to you.
3. Honesty combined with tact goes a long way. Ask to see a study up front and be frank about your impressions. Artists can be touchy about criticism, but this is your ball game, so don’t apologize for your input. Simply avoid vague criticisms, broad generalities, and major changes from the idea you originally discussed. As long as you clearly state any concerns and offer your suggestions in a respectful manner, remembering to defer to the artist’s professional judgements (except where deal breakers are concerned), no reasonable artist should take offense. If your suggestions are met with annoyance or hostility, this is the time to part ways. Either the artist is unreasonable or the two of you simply aren’t communicating effectively, in which case neither of you are likely to be pleased with the final result.
A Final Note:
Collectors, when all is said and done, make sure the artist knows how pleased you are with the final piece. Creating a work of art requires hard work and a very special talent, which is why you’re contracting it out in the first place, and a piece of original art that truly meets or surpasses your expectations is to be cherished, as is the artist who created it.
Artists, remember that a collector who admires your work, seeks you out, and wants to be a part of your creative process is a great gift, not to mention an invaluable testament to your abilities as an artist. When you find a commissioner who is a pleasure to work with, be sure to express your appreciation too, and take care to nurture the relationship in the years ahead.
I’ve seen a lot of Andrew’s work. He does what is needed to say what he wants to say and doesn’t give a fig about stylistic consistency. But this last piece is really, well, different than anything else I’ve seen him do. Maybe I’ll have him back to tell us the story of this commission.