The Challenge of Commissions


Commissioned work requires a certain focused and flexible mindset to produce artwork to suit a client’s specifications. Some artists do not work this way. They prefer to create according to their own vision and then find a market for completed artwork. But if you are an artist willing to take on the challenge of commissions, there are some useful guidelines to follow that will make the process a positive experience for all concerned:

Adopt a Business Attitude while Meeting Your Own Creative Needs

Commissions are a type of business arrangement where you have been asked to provide a product and service to meet the needs of a private or corporate client. As such, your primary goal is to produce artwork that meets their specifications.

Do not feel like this somehow translates into “selling out” your artistic soul. You are still pursuing your passion and creating a work of art characterized by your unique voice. Consider yourself fortunate to be paid to do something you love.

Furthermore, working within specific parameters may actually encourage you to be more innovative. You may be asked to create artwork with a subject matter, medium, color scheme, technique or dimensions you never would have previously considered. Welcome being pushed beyond your comfort zone as accepting the challenge will broaden skills and increase confidence. The secret to satisfying your own creative needs in any commission is to identify an aspect of the work that is new, motivating or inspiring.

Does Your Talent and Style Match the Needs of the Client?

Most clients approach you because they have seen your work and like it. Others may have been referred by someone else and may not be familiar with your artwork. By way of introduction, it is useful to show prospective clients your portfolio and testimonials from previous clients. It will save you a lot of time if prospective clients can immediately determine if your area of expertise and artistic style matches what they are looking for.

Match Your Vision with the Client’s Vision

This part of the negotiation process requires effective communication to understand exactly what the client wants. If they have a photo of what they would like painted, that makes things very clear. If they only have a vague idea, then ask questions to uncover the vision they have in their mind. There are several things you need to know in order to plan properly: the purpose for the artwork, the mood it should convey, where it will be displayed, preferred style, dimensions, medium, subject matter, color scheme and budget.

Some clients may find it hard to put these details into words. If they can show you something tangible like a color sample, an image that inspires them or any relevant reference material, this information can help you piece together what they really want. If you feel what they are requesting will not work in some way, then you should be honest with your client. Most people are very open to being guided by professional expertise.

After reflecting on this information, articulate how you see the finished artwork to the client clearly in a visual and verbal way. Often the best means to do this is with a quick sketch or a small post card sized sample painting along with notes. Remember to put your copyright notice on these samples to protect your intellectual property. When the client sees your interpretation in this concrete way they will be able to confirm if it matches their vision. Make any necessary changes during this negotiation process. You really don’t want to invest time and resources into producing an artwork that does not meet their needs.

Agree on Design and Price before Starting

Before beginning work on a commission, provide your client with a quote which outlines all aspects of the project, total cost and include the sample artwork. Find out if framing or delivery is required and include details and charges for these services. It is important to communicate verbally and in writing that after the quote is accepted and sample artwork approved, any further requests for changes in artwork will incur an additional fee to cover labor and materials. Even though you are willing to accommodate input from clients, ideally this should be fully negotiated before work commences. You must set boundaries or some clients may exploit you and expect repeated changes at no cost. This will cause a lot of frustration and ill feeling between both parties.

Doing commissioned artwork is a challenge. There’s a balance between producing artwork to meet someone else’s requirements while at the same time satisfying your own creative goals. As in all business enterprise, there may be clients who are difficult to deal with. But if you communicate expectations clearly right from the start and set boundaries, this should avoid bad experiences and costly mistakes. Most clients are a pleasure to deal with and will appreciate being involved in the creation of their own unique piece of art. Commissions can be a very rewarding and meaningful experience for all involved and can even lead to enduring friendships. AC

Elena Parashko is an artist, teacher and writer based in Sydney, Australia. Her artwork can be viewed at and she can be reached at [email protected].