So You Want to Take Commissions
Originally written for Woodworks Ezine. Updated and republished in EMG-Zine in May 2007.
2007-05-01
It's a big, scary step; the realization that your custom work is worth charging for and that you are ready to take commissions. But how do you start? How do you put a price tag on your work? Where do you advertise? How do you carry on communication with your client? How do you mail things? What if you do digital art? When do you get payment, and how? These are questions that are important to ask, and to answer, before you get started in the field of taking commissions.

Getting the Job

Get your art out there. A personal webpage with a nice looking gallery is a great place to start. Having a well-traveled gallery on a major art site is a must! You can get good exposure at many general-themed art sites, such as deviantart.com, cgsociety.com or artwanted.com. Joining genre galleries can be more useful yet, because people there will be looking for fantasy and science fiction work already. Keep your contact information and commission availability current, and update in small regular doses to increase your exposure. Portrait Adoption is my own multi-artist project, and because people go to the site specifically for genre portraits, many artists have found commission opportunities by having a gallery there.

Get involved in the communities your clients may be found in. If you really enjoy drawing steampunk style characters, find a couple of steampunk message boards, clubs, or roleplaying forums. Mingle, get your name out, and make friends. Do portraits of your own characters and post them in appropriate places. Many of your clients will approach you if they like your style, so make your contact information easily available. Remember that people will commission people they like and feel comfortable with, so it's to your advantage to be charmingly social - even if that's something of an effort for shyer artists.

Look for requests. Not all of your work will come and find you. Many message boards and forums will have pleas for character portraits. Most will say 'I can't pay' or 'I can't pay much,' but there are plenty that don't mention whether they will or not. Contact these people. Point them towards your webpage or gallery, and mention that you are accepting work. If they are specific in their request, be equally specific back, otherwise don't bother going into details until you are sure of their interest. Don't be discouraged if these don't pan out right away - many times even if someone isn't interested now, they may be later, or may know someone who is. Be sure to send a polite letter back to thank them for their time, even if they've turned you down.

Don't overbook. Don't take more commissions than you think you can safely finish in three months, or you'll start to get unhappy, delayed customers. If you like, keep a mailing list of other interested people to contact when you have free spaces again, but don't get into the rut of having so much work to do that it no longer holds pleasure for you and your clients get antsy. You will get a better idea of how long it takes you to finish a commission as you do more of them, and be better able to schedule further in advance.

Pricing

This is where a lot of artists stumble. How much is artwork worth? It's a little like trying to put a price tag on your children. Remember to be flexible. If you're new to the world of commissions, you cannot charge as much as a veteran custom artist who is used to churning art out to a deadline. Don't be afraid to raise your prices as your confidence and experience increases, and you realize how much time you're spending on each commission. You should be decently reimbursed for your efforts, and no one can expect you to keep the same prices forever. Do make sure that when you quote a client a price, you stick with that price throughout that commission. The only times you should increase your price halfway through are: if they change their mind about what they want (increasing the complexity of the piece), or if you lose contact for several months and your prices have increased in the interim. You may wish to put a deadline on how long your quote is good for, and be sure to be clear about when they can make changes, or how much you are willing to adjust.

Make sure that you and your client agree on what you are actually selling them. Receiving an original is worth more than just getting a digital file that they can display on their webpage. Some media originals are also worth more than others, so be sure to specify what kind of paper or canvas you will be using, as well as what kind of paint or pencil or ink and what size it will be. Receiving a signed, single-edition print of a digital file is worth more than just a digital file, but not as much as an original. If you are mailing either a print or an original, remember to add the cost of the shipping to your bill. Discuss with your client how they would like it mailed, before they pay. You don't want to get stuck with a shipping bill that is 90% of what you were paid for the project. Keep in mind that whether or not you sell copyrights to the work can make a difference in the price as well.

Look for a more complete discussion of what to charge in the article Pricing Your Art.

Payment

People get funny about money. Artists generally feel awkward and uncomfortable asking for payment the first few times, and clients have to make a tremendous leap of faith to give you payment for something that they can't see beforehand. Always make sure that you have discussed all of the details about payment before anything else happens. Know how and when you will exchange payment, whether the client will get the original, what the original will be, how shipping will occur and when the artwork will be completed.

It is always a good idea to request payment before the artwork is finished. There is generally no resale value on artwork that is specifically done for a client, and all too many artists end up with 'misplaced' clients that simply never pay for their goods. A very acceptable and common method of carrying out a commission is to do sketches up to a certain point where the client says, yes, that is what my character looks like, and then to request payment before any ink or color is added. Some artists will require payment before work is started at all; this is the safest solution for the artist, but does require more trust from your client. Just make sure that your client knows what your requirement for payment is, and also that the client knows what kind of guarantee you have. A client will feel a lot better about giving you their money if you assure them that if they don't like the results, you will refund all or part of their money.

There are several ways to exchange payment.

The most common method for online transactions now is through paypal.com. This site acts as an online bank, and is able to move money from your paypal account to your bank account, or visa versa, and accept payments from your clients either directly from their own paypal account, or using a credit card. One thing to note is that you may receive notice from paypal of an 'uncleared e-check.' This, much like a written check, is a draft drawn on their bank, and you should not treat it as 'money in hand' until you have received verification that it has cleared! You do need an account with paypal to use this service, and many of their account options do charge a fee for accepting money. I pay $0.30 + 3% for all of the payments I accept. I highly recommend this method of money transfer.

Another online service that I've personally had experience with is xoom.com. This service allows you to send money to a long list of other countries, directly to a person's bank account, or to an outlet to be picked up by an individual. This is most similar to Western Union and other money sending services. There is a fairly hefty fee for using this service.

Via snail mail, you may choose to accept a personal check. Again, be sure to let the check clear before you treat the payment as completed! A money order will cost a small fee, but doesn't require the time to clear, and neither of you will need to have a checking account. There are also international money orders available in most countries, though these may have a fee associated with them (both sending and receiving). You should contact your bank to find out whether they charge fees to cash international money orders before you agree to accept them. For snail mail payment, you will need to share your mailing address - it may be worth getting a post office box to keep your physical address private if you start doing a lot of commission work.

Don't be abashed about telling your client that you will be charged a fee for their chosen method of payment, or feel bad about passing that cost on to them.

There are several less conventional methods of payment as well. US cash is accepted in many countries, and can be mailed (at some risk!) via the postal service. Also, a client can pay for a service for an artist, such as a paid LiveJournal or EZBoard account, or send them something of equal value that isn't commonly available in the artist's locale (European chocolates come to mind). In other cases, a client can make a charitable contribution in the artist's name, or provide some kind of service of their own, such as craft-making, web-hosting or advertising in a publication.

Communication

I cannot stress enough how important it is to carry on your correspondence in a professional fashion. This does not mean you can't be friendly, jovial or use humor and emoticons, but be sure that your words are spelled correctly, that you cover the information that you need to in a non-cluttered manner, and that you use proper grammar. The more professional you appear, the more likely you are to woo the potential client. A client will feel more at ease giving an artist their money if they feel like the artist is going to act like a professional.

Reply promptly. Don't ever put their email into an 'answer later' file in your head, no matter how tempting it is. Your client wants to believe that they are the most important person in your life while you are doing their commission, and the less you do to dispel that belief, the better. Even when you haven't been able to work on the commission, when the customer asks about progress, be prompt and honest. In nearly every case, they would rather know that you haven't done anything than wonder if you ran off with their money.

Let them know your timetable. Most clients aren't in a hurry, and will not take offense if you take several months to finish, as long as they know. Don't leave them guessing as to how long it will take, and always, always take the amount of time you think it will take and double or triple it when you're giving them a timeline. They will be tickled if they get their work early, and there are almost always complications that will slow down your work. If you find that you have delays, or if your scanner breaks, or you get ill, let your client know! They will appreciate being kept abreast of the situation.

Mailing

Mailing an original is an act of faith. Will the post office mangle it? Will it be left in the rain? Always ensure that your art is well protected! If you are mailing something flat, be sure that it is very stiff; many postal workers will think they are doing a favor when they fold an envelope to fit into a box. Mark it 'Do Not Bend' but do not assume that any postal worker will read it. It is always a good idea to wrap the original in plastic to protect it from the elements (saran wrap works wonderfully; just wrap the original onto a piece of cardboard). If possible, mailing via a tube saves weight (money) and is more indestructible in many cases than mailing something flat. Purchasing insurance is always an excellent idea. It is generally not expensive, and this is another charge that you should pass directly to your client - remember to take it into account when you are quoting your prices!

Be sure you mail to a correct legal name, not a pseudonym or character name. Many post offices will refuse to deliver to names that don't match their box or address names. It is always a good idea to have your client's real name, anyway!

Legalities

An email agreement can be a legally binding contract; you do not require a hardcopy with signatures to satisfy contract law. The requirements for a contract are basically that you both clearly agree to the same thing, no matter how the agreement takes place. Keep every piece of correspondence you exchange with your client, preferably in a separate folder. If you aren't in the habit of backing up your email files, you should probably print hard-copies of them and keep them in a file somewhere. Make sure that you have a concrete agreement from your client, that they say 'I agree to your terms' or even 'Everything sounds fine.' Your terms should all be contained in one email, very clearly, and prod them if you have to in order to get a specific statement of agreement. There is still no guarantee that they won't back out before they pay, and most commissions aren't worth the cost of lawsuits that cross state or international boundaries, so this is why I strongly advise getting payment before you do a significant amount of work.

Beware of copyright infringements! If you do work based on copyrighted material (Pern, Final Fantasy, Dragonlance, etc) be very wary about drawing things that are specific enough to be unique. For example, drawing a person with cybernetic implants isn't a problem, because those have shown up in plenty of movies and books, but using Geordie LaForge's visor from Star Trek is treading on dangerous ground. Likewise, drawing dragons exactly like the ones described in Anne McCaffrey's Pern books is very risky business (McCaffrey being notorious for siccing her lawyers on anyone using her creative material, even people not trying to make money off of it). Usually, a private exchange between two people regarding work with copyright-fringing materials will not be a problem, but beware of advertising your services with any images that may be on the edge of legality, and you may want to brush up on your copyright knowledge so that you know exactly what is acceptable and what isn't.

When you do custom work, you retain the copyrights to your material, unless you specifically sign a 'Work for Hire' contract. Some clients maybe confused on this issue, and you definitely want to clarify when you are agreeing on all the details that you will retain the copyrights. (Remember, sometimes, clients are as new at this as you are!)

Your client may not want you to publish the work you do for them, however, and there are several compromises you can make: You can sell the copyrights with the artwork. Be careful of doing this; your client can then make money off of your image. You can agree on limited publishing rights, for example, agreeing only to sell small prints, or agreeing to link to the client's webpage and give them written credit for the creative power behind the picture. You can agree to use the work only in your portfolio. Whatever method you agree on, remember to take this into account when you set your pricing. Exclusivity is worth money!

If you are doing a steady business in commissions, you will probably need a business license. You should check with your local laws regarding proper licensing. Usually there is a cap on how much you can sell before you need a license and need to start worrying about new tax forms, but again, this will vary by state and country. For more information, ask at your local Small Business Association office. They are generally very nice and helpful people.

Closing Remarks

Taking commissions can be the first step to a serious art career, or just a fun hobby that happens to be financially rewarding. Whatever your motivations, keep excellent records, be creative, and have fun.


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