Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about art, portraiture, free culture, and feminism.

How to commission an artist

2011 . 07 . 21 - Comments / Commentaires (7)

Commissioning art is an excellent way to get art that’s just a bit more special. Working with an artist in the development an artwork can be a complex process, but it doesn’t need to be intimidating. These are just a few things to keep in mind when thinking about entering into a commission relationship.

1) Figure out what you want.

If you want to commission an artist but don’t have a specific idea or can’t communicate what it is you’re looking for, it makes it hard for an artist to work with you. In order to commission a work of art, you should be able to answer these questions for the artist:

- What do you want the work to look like? What subject matter, size, materials, colors, and style?
- Why are you commissioning the piece? Who is it for? Is there a special occasion?
- What is your budget?

If you are looking for some quality that a particular artist’s work has but are fuzzy on what exactly you are after, a good way to figure out what you want is to sit down with the artist and talk about specific works with her-him. By looking at examples, it will be easier to talk about what you like, what you like less, and maybe even suss out what you’re really interested in.

2) Research, research, research.

Choosing the right artist is paramount to the success of the work. Since not all artists know how to say ‘no’ to a commission that isn’t right for them, it’s up to you to do a lot of research.

An artist is a good fit for you and worth commissioning:

- if she-he already makes work that resembles what you’re after.
- if you like her-his œuvre as a whole.
- if you like her-him as a person.
- if she-he is friendly and easy to communicate with.
- if she-he does a good amount of commission work and seems to enjoy it.

A lot of artists hate commission work. I tend to think that if an artist hates it, she-he is doing it wrong, but there it is. Needless to say, if an artist isn’t happy doing commission work, she-he will not be doing the best possible work.

All in all, commissioning art should be fun and fulfilling, so when you’re looking for an artist to work with, you’re looking for someone who can be trusted to make the experience just that. In the end, you are not just hiring a skilled hand to give your vision form: you are commissioning someone who has the ability to give you what you imagined and more.

3) Sign a contract.

Written agreements are the only way of insuring that everyone is on the same page—making certain that the artist knows just what you expect and making certain you will be satisfied.

If the artist does not already have a contract for you to sign, it’s very possible that they don’t do a lot of commission work, and that can be a problem in itself. Still, if you’re committed to working with an artist who doesn’t have a standard agreement for commission work, providing one yourself is important. A contract should include specifics about:

- the materials used and the size of the finished work.
- whether or not the work will be framed or how it will be presented.
- the subject matter of the work.
- the style of the work.
- whether or not you want the artist to use images of it in future promotions.
- when the work will be completed.
- how the work will be delivered.
- how and when the work will be paid for.

For more information about why contracts are crucial, visit this vlog. For an example of what a commission agreement might look like, check out this PDF of the contract I use for portrait commissions.

portrait of a baby boy

Gwenn Seemel
acrylic on panel
7 x 5 inches
(To learn more about the making of this painting, go here.)

The artist-patron relationship is an intricate one, blending business conventions with the artistic sensibilities of both the artist and the patron, but it is well worth it for both parties, especially when it turns out like this:

This portrait is so amazing! ...I really feel like you nailed [my son’s] personality, which is fascinating, since at 3 months I don’t think I had a great handle on describing his personality. In fact, I think I described him as “mellow,” and it’s become quite apparent that he’s no more mellow than I. He’s cheerful but also passionate and fiery, and he thrives on social interaction and connection, and all of that is so obvious in the way you painted his eyes, which I just cannot get over.

—-Oliver’s mom

For more information about how I do commission work, visit this page.

- An animal / Un animal
- All the ways that artists make money
- Being a person before a portraitist / Être une personne avant un portraitiste

CATEGORIES: - English - TOP POSTS - Business of art -

Gwenn Seemel on Liberapay     Gwenn Seemel on Patreon

(7) Comments / Commentaires: How to commission an artist

-- Maxine Wolodko -- 2011 . 07 . 21 --

Hi Gwenn,
I recently discovered your beautiful artwork. I love your exciting, colorful style. As an artist who rarely paints faces, I really admire your skill in capturing a person’s essence. I also love your animal portraits.

I will be a regular visitor to your blog!


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-- Carolyn Henry -- 2011 . 10 . 16 --

Stunning work, such a beautiful way to use colour and so very unique. 

I have enjoyed this article immensely as I sometimes do commissions and I needed some common sense on how to go about it all.  thank you.

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-- Gwenn -- 2011 . 10 . 19 --

Thank you!  A very similar article about the artist’s perspective on commission work can be found here if you’re interested.

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-- Janet Liesemer -- 2016 . 08 . 02 --

My last two commissions have been a challenge.  I get everything in writing, we agree on what needs to be done but then the client decides to add a bunch of things or changes their mind and wants the painting changed 2-3 times.  Do you have any advice of what to do when this happens?  I base my pricing on time, detail and size so when a bunch of changes have to be made and the client doesn’t want to pay any extra it becomes a problem.  Have you ever had a client who decided not to buy the painting in the end?  If so, I am assuming you keep the deposit.

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-- Gwenn -- 2016 . 08 . 02 --

This is really hard, Janet! I’ve never had anything quite like that happen, but I have had a few unhappy portrait clients.

It sounds to me like the problem is actually happening at the beginning of your process and not at the end. When I’m doing a commission for someone new (someone with very little experience of me, my work, and my blog), I explain exactly when they get to give me feedback and when that phase is over. I am explicit about it, too. I tell them to give me as much info as possible up front, because during the process of painting and once the painting is done they will not be invited to comment. This post about my boundaries as an artist and this one about the difference between an artist and a graphic designer may help.

As for the question about the deposit, I have two answers. First, I don’t call it a “deposit” anymore. My friend Kate pointed out that when you call it a “first payment” it changes how clients view it. “Deposit” means “nonrefundable portion” to clients; “first payment” means that the other payments must happen as well.

Second, I did return everything but the deposit on one of my early unsuccessful commissions (one that was described in the video I link to above). I did this despite being urged by every adult in my life not to. I did it because I was hurt by the whole process, because I wanted to bow out as gracefully as possible, and because my relationship with money wasn’t very solid. I didn’t feel like I deserved the money if I hadn’t made the client happy. Looking back, I believe it was a mistake. I had fulfilled the terms of my contract. I had done everything I said I would. I was not responsible for making the client happy.

That’s a long answer, but I hope it helps! If you have any other questions about this, I’m happy to keep answering. Just let me know! And bon courage!

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-- Case Anosike -- 2017 . 10 . 13 --

Good insight on art commissioning but I also wanted to know how to go about appraising a new art medium

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-- Gwenn -- 2017 . 10 . 14 --

@Case: I don’t understand what you mean. Appraising it yourself? For your use or for its value? Or do you mean finding someone to appraise a work in a new medium for you?

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