If you have ever felt baffled, angry, confused, curious or whatever about the process, I hope to help a little. This is mostly aimed at those new to commission work, but I hope it can help anyone that reads it.
It seems a repeating issue that many commissions go sour-- for one side or the other, due to misunderstandings or unrealistic expectations. I am hoping that this can help both artists and clients.
Huge disclaimer: I am not a business professional, or a lawyer. I don't claim that this is the only way of doing things- each case is as unique as the individual and everyone has their own way of dealing with things. Commissioning an artist (or, being commissioned) is a fairly unique thing because you are both individuals working one-on-one. Take this advice, leave it, add to it, pour milk on it and eat it for breakfast, flush it down the toilet-- that choice is yours alone and I do not want to dictate that. I only mean to help. :) Also I want to make it clear that when I speak about legal stuff, I am basing this on US laws. I am not knowledgeable about the laws in other countries. Also, for the sake of argument- any time I mention a professional, I am referring to an individual that is making their primary income off of art as a profession. I am not referring to business sense or ethics.
TL;DR version: Everyone should have artist's terms set for every commission. Be clear on expectations upfront. Communicate. Be realistic about your time. Kindness and respect = win. Research your artist and make sure they are right for you.
Let's talk to the artists first!
The most important one: The agreement between yourself and your client
- This is so, so easy to do and would solve many problems, and yet it is often neglected. I learned the hard way, myself. But, whenever you take commission work... big, small, expensive, cheap... make sure your customer/client knows what to expect. The agreement can be very simple or very involved, but doing commission work without it will come back to bite you in the ass someday because someone will have unrealistic expectations. Someday, somewhere, you will have a client that just doesn't 'get it' and unless you help them understand up front, it's gonna be a problem.
What should be in an agreement? Here are some suggestions:
- Rights. Who gets the rights to the artwork? What is the client allowed to do with the artwork? Many clients don't realize it but the rights default with the artist, unless otherwise specified. Don't surprise your client with this. It's never nice to get an ugly letter from a client asking why the hell you're selling prints of his commission because he or she didn't know anything about image rights. Spell it out for them: "Artist retains all rights unless otherwise agreed to"- that way if they DO want rights, e.g. using it to promote their site or whatever, you can work it out and be happy. No one gets a nasty surprise. Remember if you sell the rights to your image, you are selling any profit you might later make from the image. Charge accordingly.
- Time to completion. Be realistic both with yourself and your client. Ask for a deadline. This keeps you on track and gives the client a good idea when they'll see the art. If you are being asked for a rush job, consider charging a rush fee.
- Be clear on what you will and will not draw, up front. If you don't like drawing naughty pictures, say so right away... don't wait until they've already paid.
- Be clear on the number of revisions you will do. This way if you get someone overly picky that keeps changing the picture, you won't get ripped off by drawing their piece 395 times for the same low, low cost. Consider charging for each revision after (x) number of revisions.
- Originals and shipping. Be clear on if the client receives the original or not. Also be clear on who pays shipping costs and what shipping times are like. If you work digitally, be clear on if the client gets a high res copy or not.
- Explain your process. e.g. "After I get payment, I will do a sketch, which you can then revise up to (two) times for free. Additional revisions will be an extra fee of ($5 each). After a sketch is approved I will keep in touch with you (weekly) until your piece is completed." Explaining your basic process will keep the client feeling as if they know what is going on. This will help cut down on anxiety. Be realistic though! If you explain your process and don't hold to it, expect your client to be nervous.
- Be very clear about how and when you expect payment(s). It is generally a very bad idea to do work without at least a down payment. How you work your payments is a very personal thing, but consider asking for at least 20% down before you begin. Also consider 'kill fees'- the amount you get to keep if the client backs out of the commission after you begin. State this CLEARLY! Make sure the client knows. No surprises!
- List methods a client can contact you. e.g. if you have multiple email addresses or different online galleries. I see a lot of people coming here just wanting to know how to get a hold of an artist. Provide them that info straight up! Just be very, very wary about providing IM info. IMs are a very bad place to discuss commission information and can cause a lot of distress. Keep records- do everything via email if you can.
- Be clear if you are the type to complete artwork 'out of order'. Okay, listen, we all see this complaint a lot. "Artist so-and-so got other work done before MY art!" If you complete work out of the order that you took it, then say so. This goes hand in hand with the deadline idea though. If the client has a deadline to look forward to-- even if it's a year from now-- that will give them a goal and seeing other work you've completed before then is a moot point.
The cool thing about an agreement is that most of the time it's always the same except for the costs involved, so you can type it up in notepad, save it, then copy-paste it to anyone who wants to commission you. That way they can see what to expect up front and don't enter the commission with gross misconceptions of what to expect. This also helps cover your credibility. If you show your agreement then the client later tries to cause trouble, you can explain to them that they agreed to your terms and they must hold to them.
I didn't list price, because I am assuming that as artists, you probably tend to price artwork commissions per project and as such will need something more personal than a generic agreement form. However of course it is important to establish a firm price before a penny is paid do you.
Second most important: Communication
- An agreement will take a lot of the communication work out of things for you, because it gives a client clear expectations. As long as you hold to them you are in great shape. But, you should always make time for communication. If a client emails you with a question or concern, make a few minutes to reply. Even if it's a "Hey there, sorry for the delay, I've been super busy but I haven't forgotten you!" it is communication and will help. Be honest!! While no one likes to hear that their artwork is being delayed, feeing a client a BS answer is a lot worse than telling them up front that you haven't been able to work on their piece. BS will be met with resentment more often than not. Life happens and we've all been delayed on work before. It happens! Just make sure to let your client know what's going on. That's one of the biggest complaints I see here-- clients simply don't hear from their artist, or are frustrated with a lack of communication. Drop your client a line! Don't leave them hanging. Let them know ahead of time if you know you'll be away. "Hey I gotta make a trip to see my mom, she's sick, I might be gone a few weeks" will keep them much more at ease than not knowing where you or their artwork is.
If you find you are generally too busy to answer emails (why are you here reading this? XD) try 'paying' yourself to answer them. Tack on a dollar or two extra (or more, depending on what you like to make) to pay yourself for your email time. See if this creates an incentive for you. If you still find you don't have time or are putting off those emails... well, there is no easy way of saying it other than you probably shouldn't be taking commission work.
Why commission work?
- An important question to start with is why are you taking commissions? Are you trying to make this your career- e.g. you want to make your sole income off of freelance work? Are you just trying to make some spare 'fun money'? How important is your art-related income to you? Though it may not seem like it, this can have a big impact on your worth ethic. Keep in mind your goals. If you do it as a fun hobby, you can stop when you want to or if you get burnt out. If it becomes a career, things aren't so simple. If you are deriving a fair amount of income from your art, the reality is that (in the US at least) you are starting to run a small business-- even if you are the only one working there. Which leads me to...
Commissions as a business
- We have a lot of younger artists looking into doing art for income. Hopefully along the way someone will teach them about the business end of it, but many are not so fortunate. I was not, and had to learn by doing way more research and learning more about taxes than I ever, ever wanted to know! If you are making money off of your art, it is worth your time to research if and when you should be reporting that income. Where I am in the US, if you are required to file, you are required to file all income. Yes, this sucks, but it means even if you work a normal job and only do art on the side-- if you make enough at your normal job to file your income then you are technically required to file all income.. (including those $20 con badges you did, and oh right those sketches you did at the convention, etc etc)... not just the income you got your W2 for. Do most artists? Well.. probably not. Should they be? Technically yes. Does the IRS really care about $40 worth of commissions? Erm... well. That's pretty small beans, but that doesn't mean it's legal either. Really-- it's your choice. I won't tell you what to do with your taxes-- your financial responsibility is yours alone. Research, educate yourself, and that way if you do get hit with tax evasion you won't be blindsided. ;)
"Oh Crap! Help me Financially!" commissions
- Try to avoid taking 'emergency situation' commissions. Listen-- we all have done it. You get hit unexpectedly with a $500 bill and you don't have the money, so you take a bunch of emergency pay me now quick and you'll get a cheap commission 'cause I'm broke!" type of commissions. The pitfall is that this usually involves taking several commissions at once-- perhaps when you already have some backlogged work to do. Whatever emergency situation that prompted these in the first place gets your attention first, and it is usually stressful times. This often means that as an artist you might have less time to work on these new emergency commissions, and you are stressed and feel pressured already. It's exceedingly easy to procrastinate on these types of commissions and then 6 months down the road you are sitting there feeling guilty with a pile of work and possibly angry clients. Guilt often begets more procrastination or feeling bad about one's self and art, which can cause further delays. Instead of taking a ton of cheap 'pay me now' commissions to get you out of trouble, consider instead taking a small percent out of each normal commission you do and setting it aside. Pretend like your commission payments are your paycheck (or if you are like me, they really are your paychecks!) and set aside some from each for 'emergencies'. If you find you are not making enough money from commission work to do this, consider raising your prices a little. If your money is so tight that you need commissions to bail you out of a crisis, you should be trying to make a decent living wage off of your work anyhow. That said, I know this is all very ideal and the real world throws wrenches in our way. It's okay to take 'oh crap please help' commissions, but be very careful, they can get you in trouble.
Be excellent to one another.
- Okay, hopefully this goes without saying, but how you deal with clients can mean a lot for you as an artist. It's no lie that reputation is a fairly big deal. When you open your email for commission work, check your emotions and potty mouth at the door. Pretend you are signed into your work email and you've gotta be polite. If you find this is hard to do, try making a separate email account for JUST your art business. Be personal, but try to act professional. Typing in leetspeak to your client, or cursing up and down the street probably will win you a few fans, but the majority might be put off of it. The small gesture of being formal in your emails (while still being personal enough to be a person and not a robot) may seem silly-- especially if you are a fandom artist-- but eventually it can really pay off for you. Also, remember... while that $20 for the sketch you are doing may not be worth much to you, it might be a lot to the client. Be respectful and don't dismiss smaller commissions as trivial. It may not be as much work or money for you, but consider- many clients will test the waters with an inexpensive commission, and if they are impressed they very well might be the ones to come back and plunk $300 in your checking account for more work later. By treating everyone well, you may be helping yourself in the future.
Treat friends like customers.
- The biggest mistake many can make is to give friends special treatment or leeway. Then something goes wrong... the commission takes too long or someone misunderstands about the cost. Whatever happens, it becomes all the more personal because you are friends, and before you know it you have an angry friend AND an angry customer. Don't do this. Treat your friends as clients. Be clear on expectations.
Clients! So you want to commission someone??
The important one- Be familiar with their terms
- An artist may provide you with terms (see above). If not, it is in your best interest to ask what they are! Take initiate. Yes, really it is the artist's responsibility, but remember if you have these terms clearly understood by both parties, you are less likely to get ripped off. Ask the artist if you want any rights to the image. Ask how long it will take. Present your commission idea upfront and ask them if they are clear on what you want and if they are okay with drawing it. Ask how much it will cost, and what sort of payments you can make. Unless the artist is a friend or an established artist, be careful about paying 100% up front. A percent down and a percent upon completion is very fair in most cases. Talk to your artist and see what they will work out. Ask if there is a kill fee-- this is an amount the artist gets to keep in case you have to cancel the commission. Ask how many revisions you can make (if any) and if there will be a sketch to approve, etc. Give them a reasonable deadline and ask if it is realistic. Ask the artist about their commission process, and ask if they have alternative methods of contact. Make sure to clear any questions you have up front, before money exchanges hands.
No one can read your mind
- An artist can't read your mind. Be clear and upfront about what you want your commission to look like. If you are vague or unclear in your description you cannot expect an artist to create something you don't tell them about. Realize that it will likely be in the artist's style, and rarely will it match your mental image perfectly. Part of the joy of commissioning an artist is getting to see their interpretation of your ideas. If you know you will need a number of revisions, consider selecting a digital artist who may have an easier time accommodating your changes. No one is perfect- even your favorite artist- and while it is reasonable to expect them to follow your ideas, it is unreasonable for it to be a carbon copy of your mental picture. Each artist has something unique to add to their work and it is unfair to expect your artist to read your mind.
Research your artist
- No, I don't mean delve into their personal lives, but for goodness sakes, do look at their art. Look at their style, take note of what they draw and what you like about their work. Simply taking the time to look through their body of works as a whole can save you a lot of headache later on. This may seem like a no-brainer, but you would not believe the number of people I have, asking me for anime style pictures, which is baffling because I don't draw in an anime style, nor is there any evidence thereof in my galleries. There is a huge sea of artists out there, and taking the time to find one that draws in the way you have envisioned will save both of you a lot of problems. Expecting your favorite artist to draw something much different than their normal art might work sometimes, but is often unfair and you might end up with something much different than what you had in mind.
- Recognize that art is a luxury item, not a necessity. You need food, shelter, clean water, and other such things to live well. You do not need art. While I am not trying to lecture anyone on their financial decisions, it is important to recognize that you need to take care of your financial responsibilities before you spend money on a commission. If you are finding yourself in financial trouble, consider postponing new commissions until you have some money saved for them. Complaining to an artist that their costs are too high because you don't have enough money is very unfair to the artist. Budget yourself. Be fair to yourself and the artist. Make sure you can make payments when they expected.
Don't bait an artist
- Once you get a price you are comfortable with and feel you are ready to commission your artist, commit. Don't go back and forth and be unsure. If a commission is a major purchase for you, act like it. Find your artist, settle the terms, then commit. Many artists do depend on their commission income to support themselves, and it's unfair to 'bait' an artist with promises of entering a commission agreement with them if you cannot commit to it (after you settle terms that is). Things do come up in life and it's understandable if sometimes you cannot commit to a commission for one reason or another, but I have seen this happen to my artist peers for months, where a client will want a commission, then no never mind, then yes... then I'll pay you next week... then never mind... and on and on.
Be careful of "Help I need money, buy cheap commissions!"
- Be careful of these situations. Does the artist have a reputation for getting these types of commissions done? If so it's probably okay. But, be careful, because this type of commission is the source of many client/artist problems. I am not saying not to be compassionate, but there seems to be a far greater chance of an artist taking on more than they can handle with this situation.
Be realistic about how much your commission is worth to you
- Different people buy commissions with far different attitudes. Be realistic with yourself. Some are so laid back about the commission process that they will pay and then later forget that they even started a commission. The artwork then later comes as a happy surprise. Then at the other end of the spectrum there are those that pay, and then sit and stare at their inbox for hours at end, eyeballs bugging out, waiting for an email from their artist with the art. Where are you in the scheme of things? If your commission means that much to you, take the time to research your artist's ethics and how they have dealt with past customers. I'm not saying to get creepy-stalker on them... but do a search here on artists_beware. Look at some of the past commission work they've done. See what kind of a feel for them you get when talking to them in email about your commission idea. If you're going to be picky, take the time to make sure you have the right artist for you! You can't go out and buy a car without looking at it first and then drive it home while complaining about the features it lacks. No! You gotta look at it first and make sure it's the one for you. Just remember that it's uncool to complain about prices. Art is as unique as the artist making it- they alone can dictate how much they charge. If you don't like their costs, move on. Remember that artists often have a lot of hidden expenses- self-employment tax, self health insurance, business operation fees, etc. Their costs probably have a reason.
Be fair to your artist friends / relatives
- Unless offered, it is often unkind to expect free or cheap art from artist friends or relatives. For many, art is a job and it is unfair to ask for free goodies just because you are close. Try offering something... if not money, then a trade, and you might be surprised. On a related note-- just because you have a really cool idea doesn't mean an artist should feel obligated to draw it for free or reduced price. Be fair and offer just compensation.
Be prepared to pick any two: Quality :: Speed :: Low Cost
- Just how it sounds. Most... not all, but most artists can manage two of these. Want it cheap and fast? Be prepared to sacrifice quality. Want a kickass painting, fast? It's gonna cost you. Want a cheap but kickass painting? It can take a long, long time. Some artist out there can manage all three, and of course quality, speed and cost are all relative. Nonetheless, this is a good idea to keep in mind.
Be excellent to one another.
- Really. Treat your artist with respect and kindness and you might be surprised to receive kindness, respect, and a very well done commission in return.
Remember-- for both sides-- appreciation, kindness, communication and being clear on expectations will go a long way to prevent problems and result in a happy transaction!!