5 Rookie Mistakes When Taking Commissions

Taking commission artwork requests is not a new concept when it comes to being an artist. In fact, for some, it can be an extremely lucrative aspect of their business. The problem with taking commissions, however, is that many artists don’t know where to start from an administrative perspective and end up making some key mistakes. These mistakes often end up costing them time, money, or in some cases their reputation.

While there are many things to consider in general when taking commissions, this post will explore 5 of the most common mistakes that many artists make when taking commissions.

1. Working for Exposure

We’ve all had a co-worker, acquaintance or even family member offer us “exposure” as a form of payment in exchange for our artwork. Out of all of the mistakes especially novice artists make, this one troubles me the most. It can be an elating experience when someone asks you to create a piece of art for them. I mean, who doesn’t want to be paid for their time and talent? The problem is that this is often someone whether intentionally or not who is devaluing you and your work by trying not to pay for it.

Whether you are experienced or not, you should at the bare minimum be paid for the cost of materials that it takes to create the artwork. Pricing is the bane of most artists’ existence. It’s understandable that if you’re new to all of this the idea of charging also makes you panic. You may just be happy someone wants your art on their wall at all.

Exposure as a form of payment VERY RARELY ever pans out to be worth it. Is your coworker secretly connected to a major gallery or a plethora of hungry art buyers? If so they still should have no problem paying for your artwork. Art is a luxury item, friends. A lot of people have no problem paying for brand-name clothing. You can’t walk into literally ANY store out there and say you’d like one of their items and will pay them in exposure. Artwork should be no different.

Your response to anyone who propositions this to you and has no tangible proof they can make good on what they are promising should be that you’re not able to work for free. Trust me when I say that anyone not willing to pay you for time and talent will likely be a difficult client also.

Related: 10 Effective Ways for Artists to Make Money

female artists working on a painting

2. Not Using a Contract

The word contract can sound scary to a lot of people, but if you’re running a business it’s a must-have. Contracts lay out the agreement for the work being done and protect both parties. For the artist, it states the scope of the work, any timeline details, and the price that was agreed upon. For the client, it ensures the same things and also that you aren’t just going to run off with their money and not give them any artwork in return.

People get nervous parting with their hard-earned money especially if your business doesn’t come off as very professional. You may have gotten a referral from one of their friends based on the artwork alone, but if the customer service aspect of your business is poor, you’re going to likely have a nervous client. Some people are pretty laid back, but others will not be.

Related: 5 Ways You Can Fail at Customer Service

Contracts should state all of the basic details about the project and also outline the terms and conditions for commissioning artwork from you. For example, if you expect responses from your clients within a certain time frame, put that into the contract. Perhaps you only offer a certain amount of revisions to the concept before there is an extra charge – that also needs to be in the contract.

Some things you will learn to include in your contracts over time and others are best to have right from the start. For example, you’ll want to always have a clause that states what the grounds for terminating the project are. Alternatively, if you want to offer a refund policy you should also clearly state what that is and what the terms are for that.

If you’re doing a commission for a family or friend, practice getting comfortable by getting them to sign one. This is a good chance to see if anything doesn’t make sense or needs to be reworded for more clarity. If you have the option to get a lawyer to review your contract that’s always a good idea, but it’s not necessary. Researching what a basic artist contract entails will give you an idea of the type of language and content that you should include.

I highly recommend investing in the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook. While it’s mostly geared towards artists and designers working in commercial industries there is a lot of useful information for artists in general.

person signing a contract

3. Not Taking a Deposit

In addition to not getting their client to sign a contract many artists also don’t take a deposit. When I first started out I didn’t take deposits either. It wasn’t for lack of knowing that I should, I was just afraid to ask. I thought that this would scare my clients away. The problem with not doing this is that I was always fronting the money to start the project. It also didn’t give people any incentive to follow through if they changed their minds suddenly. Fortunately, I only really had that happen one time.

Since I’ve started taking a 50% non-refundable deposit on all of my commission projects, I have had no issues with project completion. In some cases, people have totally ghosted me at the inquiry stage, but to be honest it doesn’t really upset me anymore. It just tells me they either weren’t that serious about the project or that we weren’t a good match.

In almost any other business you have to pay for something, even in part, before you actually receive it. The non-refundable deposit covers the cost of any materials, your time creating a concept or editing photos to be suitable to work from, and also the time that could have gone to someone else who was willing to complete the project. If a project takes you months to complete that’s also a long time to go without any income from the project.

There are of course exceptions to every situation. In extreme circumstances where no work has been started yet or someone has suffered a sudden job loss, you may decide to refund them a portion if not all of the money. You have to decide what you are comfortable doing. Refund policies tend to make people new to you more comfortable. Since I tend to do commissions based mostly on referrals this is not an issue in my business and I would handle them on a case-by-case basis if they should arise.

You could also hold the money for future artwork. You want to be flexible but also firm on what your policies are. As an independent business, it’s up to you to decide. Remember you’re not running a charity, you’re running a business. Make sure your client knows what they are agreeing to before they pay you and you shouldn’t have any issues.

man's hand handing over money

4. Not Having a Clear Pricing Structure

Pricing is a dirty word for some artists. It doesn’t help that while there are formulas you can use to price your art there is no universal standard. There are many factors that go into the pricing of an artwork which further complicates the matter.

When it comes to charging for commissioned artwork you have to find a balance between charging enough, but not too much. A great way to get a feel for where your prices should be is to research artists similar to yourself. Consider the medium, complexity, and style of the work and also size as well as the artist’s experience.

I would recommend having a starting range of prices for your artwork. This gives you the flexibility to increase the price slightly based on factors like complexity, number of subjects, and size. Ideally, you want to be giving customized quotes to each of your potential clients.

You can choose to post your starting prices publically on your website or social media or you can keep it to yourself. There’s no hard and fast rule here either but it is a good idea to be consistent regardless. Not only will this help you put a quote together quicker for your clients but it gives you a base for when you eventually decide to raise your prices.

One of the biggest mistakes inexperienced artists will make when taking on a commission is to say ” I don’t know” or aim WAY too low. Both of these scenarios put you in a position to either be taken advantage of or find you’re making the equivalent of $5/hr by the end of it.

The other mistake is quoting way too high. This is where doing some research on comparable artists is an asset.

a price tag

5. Not Tracking Your Projects

Keeping a good track record of your past and current projects allows you the ability to once again quote for similar projects more easily and also assess what your actual costs are for a project and if you are charging enough. Material costs, framing, and shipping can all eat into a large portion of your profit if you don’t plan accordingly.

In my personal commission tracker spreadsheet, I have a separate tab where I’ve listed all of the costs for certain sizes and types of projects. This helps inform what my base price will be. These factors are the minimum amount I need to charge before I start making any profit from the project.

In the tracker portion for each year, I track any important details about the project, any special materials needed, specifics on the cost of shipping, and any notes about the project I may want to remember for the future. This could include any discounts that were given or perhaps noting if you’d like to give a particular client a VIP discount in the future.

a person calculating their commission expenses

There is a lot to consider when taking on commissions especially if you are new to it. A key thing to remember is that you don’t have to accept every potential commission that comes your way. It can be tempting in some ways especially if you need the money, but your time and peace of mind are worth something as well.

Taking time to ask questions and figure out whether a potential client is a good fit or not is also important. Perhaps they are asking you to create something that you’re not really into or doesn’t reflect the type of work you want in your portfolio. Maybe you just straight up get a bad vibe from them. There’s also a hefty amount of Instagram DM scams going on out there that you need to be wary of. Bottom line there is nothing saying you have to take every commission request that comes your way.

Because I know that getting started taking commissions can be so overwhelming, I’ve put together a collection of trackers, templates, and contracts based on ones that I use for my own business for you!

The Business Ready Asset Bundle has everything you need to kickstart your business and saves you time by not having to set them up yourself. The assets are formatted for Microsoft Word and Excel as well as Apple Numbers and Pages.

To learn more and to purchase the assets you can visit: https://barbsotiart.podia.com/money-making-methods-for-artists-business-ready-asset-bundle

What was a hard lesson that you learned taking commissions? Share with me below!

Barb Sotiropoulos

Barb Sotiropoulos

I’m a Canadian artist and designer specializing in coloured pencil and mixed media. When I’m not creating art, I love helping other artists by sharing tips and tricks that have helped me. You can find me on all of my social channels @barbsotiart or check out my past Q&A articles for COLORED PENCIL Magazine or my co-hosting appearances on the Sharpened Artist Colored Pencil Podcast.

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Hey, I'm Barb!

I’m a Canadian artist and designer specializing in coloured pencil and mixed media. When I’m not creating art, I love helping other artists by sharing tips and tricks that have helped me. You can find me on all of my social channels @barbsotiart or check out my past Q&A articles for COLORED PENCIL Magazine or my co-hosting appearances on the Sharpened Artist Colored Pencil Podcast.

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