Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Commissions--Where to start?

"Two Dogs", Oil on Panel, 6x6 Inches
Jerry Lebo, 2007

"Hot Dogs" is the commission I mentioned in my last posting. It is a bit different from "Running Dog"--but right up my alley--junk food. And it is headed to this private museum in California.

So, let's say you get a commission to do a painting or piece of art--maybe a portrait or landscape--where do you start? If you are so lucky to be in this situation (which I was the last week)--don't get too excited. There is a lot to keep in mind, from how to negotiate the price, how to get started, and what to do after the painting is finished. As this situation just happened to me, I thought I would pass on the lessons I learned doing commissions over the years-- including most recently with "Two Dogs".

First, let me tell you a bit about my latest experience. I received a rather cryptic email from a guy calling himself "Uncle Frank" (signs his emails "with relish") saying in so many words, "Paint me a hot dog". This is not the first time I have had such cryptic requests. I remember one time painting on the side of the road about ten years ago, working on a landscape, and a woman stopped by to chat. Out of the blue, in the middle of the conversation, she said "Would you paint my horse". Whoa (pun intended), that took me a bit by surprise and I blurted out something like, "I don't really do pet portraits". She stood around nervously for a few minutes and left. After A few minutes I realized that I was a total idiot. Here I was painting a landscape that no one was probably ever going to buy (in fact, that one went in the trash), and I had just had a request for a paying commission. What is wrong with that picture--for a start, a struggling artist turning down money!

Anyway, back to Uncle Frank. Having learned from the past, I quickly shot a price back to him and he agreed--and sent the money through Paypal right away. No guidance or requirements, just paint me a hot dog. So there I was, cash in hand, a pre-sold painting, with full freedom and subject matter that appealed to me. If you are an artist, other than selling everything you paint (which few of us do), this is a good position to be in--or so you might think. But, in fact, commissions can be quite troublesome, so let me give you my experience and how not to repeat some of my mistakes I have made in the past:

1. Calm Down. The adrenaline rush of someone asking for your art before it is even made is pretty heady stuff. You can make a lot of early mistakes just from the nervous energy. For example, if you are like me, a million images will poor through your mind about this yet to be created painting. What a masterpiece it will be! You want to start right away--and stay up all night creating this special commission. My advice in fact is to do nothing and not even to think about what you are going to do for at least 24 hours. Give yourself some space to digest it. If it is a portrait don't rush over to the sitter's house right away and start taking photos and setting up dates for a sitting. If it is a landscape, don't run outside and start painting in the first field you see--or tell your wife you need to run out for some milk and come back in 5 hours. In my experience, such urges will lead to bad paintings pretty quickly. Relax, it is money in the Bank--take it easy.

2. Get Paid. Ask for some portion (or all) of the money up front. I personally would not take a commission without at least 50% up front (or a signed contract). If the person is serious, they will understand and pay. In fact, most will pay entirely up front if asked. However, a word of caution, don't spend the money until you deliver! There is always a risk you will get sick, be forced to delay the project, or simply fail to deliver--in which case you will need to refund the full amount. So, my advice is not to spend any of the funds until you deliver. It is a good incentive, in any case, to know that you will not get paid until the painting is in the hands of the collector--use it as motivation. Also, use your standard pricing for the size requested, but also charge a set-up fee. Don't try to inflate your prices, use what the market has been paying for your pieces. I currently have a standard price of $3 per square inch--so I start with that. As for the setup fee, I just made this mistake, so I advise you not to make the same. There are all sorts of costs associated with a commission that you will not otherwise occur. Travel, photos, setup, time, etc., and these should be paid for as part of the commission. If is a portrait these can be high, so I especially recommend you charge at least 10-20% on top of your usual prices (or at least a flat fee) for any kind of portraiture. In the case of "two dogs" I forgot to charge a setup fee--and ended up paying for gas, a trip to the store, hot dogs, buns, setup time. It adds up--it probably cost me $20, which is a lot for a small painting. Finally, if the value of the commission is more than you usually make in a month--prepare a legal contract document. I know of a case where an organization is commissioning a portrait of its former head at the price of $25,000. Would you take such a commission without a signed contract? I wouldn't--and I think that the organization will insist on such a thing in any case. If it is a private client, you should prepare a contract--and can probably use available templates out there in books or the Internet.

3. Paint what you know. For commissions, the initial inclination may be to try something new. I mean, the piece is sold already--why not take a chance. Resist this temptation. First, because it is time consuming. Second, the commission came based on what someone liked about your past work--not your work 10 years down the road. So, I recommend you take a step back, think about what you have been doing and painting over the last few months--and figure out how to build on those efforts. You are not going to make a sudden leap in style or ability just because you have a commission. Think about how to paint to your strengths and what you have done successfully recently and how you can build on making a successful painting from there. The fact is that if you have not painted a portrait recently, or a landscape, you are not going to suddenly be able to rattle off a great painting. You may need to do some preparatory studies to get ready(another reason for a setup fee). In the case of "Two Dogs", I simply went back to the core work I have been doing as part of my "Bite Me" series--and took the same tack. The objective I set for myself was to apply what I had learned in the early series paintings--but to do something slightly new (note: not totally new). Don't try to do too much or rush through it, just because it is a commission.

4. Deliver on Expectations. Commissions are special pieces. People who commission pieces clearly like your work, and you want to deliver something they will like. In this regard, I would recommend you take the steps to make the process special and professional. For example, I typically include the framing costs as part of the fee. I want my buyers to receive a framed piece. If they do not like your frames, agree to help them pick one out that they like (at their costs). Make sure the painting is delivered framed to the client--ready to hang. This is important--you don't want your painting sitting around waiting to be framed--it could take months. Second, do something a little personal in the commission for the buyer. In the case of "Hot Dogs", it is clear the buyer is a flamboyant kind of guy who celebrates the hot dog as a great American icon. I appreciate that, and wanted to do something he would enjoy. During my 24hr "calm down" period, it came to me that I could go with a "red, white, and blue" variation on my "Bite Me" theme. The hot dogs are red, so I went with an off white and blue background--which gives the painting a nice "Fourth of July" feel. It is like an American Flag with two hot dogs on it.

5. Follow-up. This is true for all people who buy your art. Collectors are your most important client base. They provide free word-of-mouth marketing for your work, and they may buy another piece later on. They are probably more enthused about your work than your own parents--who probably wished you were a lawyer or doctor. Treat a person who commissions a piece as an important collector--and keep them up to date with your work and shows. They will enjoy hearing what is going on with your art career, as they have already made an investment in you. In fact, if they see you are getting successful, they may come back and buy another piece--before the prices get too high! They can also say they knew you when...

So, there you go. Some ideas that you might want to keep in mind on your next commission. As for "Two Dogs", in will shortly be in the collection of the Hot Dog Hall of Fame (a private CA museum, for purposes of the resume)--and who knows after than? Uncle Frank has been trying to find a permanent home for his collection for some time. If he gets the Smithsonian to take it off his hands, then yours truly will have a painting in the Smithsonian--and possibly someday in the far future the 135th President may ask for it to be hung in the oval office! And, even if this doesn't happen, at least I know that the painting will have a good home with Uncle Frank--a step better than the floor of my studio.

So, my advice is to never turn down a commission--unless you simply do not have the time. You never know where it will take you--and the money can be used for food or paint in the meantime.

All the best, sixtyminuteartist

31 comments:

Jason Waskey said...

Excellent advice.

GREAT painting!

Dr Koker Spanial said...

great advice :D i really enjoyed reading this latest entry :D

M.A. said...

Great post! Thanks so much, I have a couple of commissions on the go and needed this boost!

Great dogs. Cool collection they're going in.

:)

M.A.

VanDerHoekArt said...

Thank you for writing this! I've had a few comissions and will hopefully be doing more in the future. I will follow your advice and if I'm lucky fame and fortune will follow. Well, I'd settle for fortune anyway.....

I'd love to exchange links with you! Feel free to visit my blog and let me know what you think;
http://www.vanderhoekart.blogspot.com/

mongoose1 said...

Hmm, now this makes me wonder. I'd brought one of my paintings into the office to show a coworker. He offered me a great deal of money on the spot to paint his portrait. I love the guy but I knew he'd be impossible to please so I passed.

Wonder if that was the right decision.

Snaggle Tooth said...

Very common-sense pricing approach.

Hay, I can do horses- but you have to invest alot of time watching them, they don't pose...

I tend to price differently for materials also, water colour is less than oils.

Snuggles said...

OK so what do you do if you take the 50% down, paint the painting and the person then says."Oh I don't like it.Its not what I had in mind."?

sixtyminuteartist said...

Snuggles, I always give a guarantee on my paintings--I don't want unhappy customers. Art sales are a business. Establish a policy on returns and stick to it. Personally, if a customer is not satisfied, I would take it back and give back the deposit. That is why I suggested it is best not to spend the money until the piece is delivered. Put the peice in your collection--for a possible future sale and move on. Jerry

sixtyminuteartist said...

Snuggles, I menat to add, if the value of the commission is high--I use he rule of thumb of more that a months income--I recommend a legal contract. Usually these contract have an step-wise review and approval process by the buyer--this can somewhat reduce the risks. Jerry

snuggles said...

You mean you would let people come by and make suggestions?
My point is..or my question is this....a commission sounds exciting..but what do you do if after it done of during it being made the person does like it or does like what is happening?

sixtyminuteartist said...

Snuggles, I would take it back and give them their money back--and sell the painting to someone who wants it. You cannot force people to buy something they don't want. If you owned a resturant, what would do if a customer sent a meal back--tell them no, they have to eat it? Selling art is a business, I recommend treating it the same way as if you were selling food, cars, clothing, or whatever. Don't confuse making art, or your own feelings about your art, with the sales part. Jerry

Cupiedoll said...

What you said about art was really ironic for me to hear. I had been looking for just the same advice/info yesterday on answerbag/yahoo answers.

Your painting is very nice, I envy you especially because it is in oil. You see, I lack the skills it takes to correctly execute anything in oil.

:]

The Queen said...

I enjoy the humble way you share your experience as an artist. It gives me hope for myself.

Judy V. said...

Good information and I love your junk food art. Yummy have you tried Pringles? May I add your link to my blog?
Judy V

Snuggles said...

Jerry,
Selling art is a business. But it isn't like sellling a $30 meal. I'm not sure your solution to just give them their deposit back works unless you very rarely do commissions. If art is a business you just can't be spending your time doing commissions that don't sell. And I'm not so sure that it would work to have a staged reviews of the commision, do you? How many times are you going to want to hear" Well we'd like a little more brown over here". Isn't the point that people pay you for your vision not to do what they want to have done? Other wise your just a illustrator.
My advice. Don't do commisions unless your very, very well known or you can assess that the client truely knows your work and would be happy with what ever you do.

The Noisy Plume said...

This is great advice even though metal and stone are my mediums instead of paint and canvas. Thanks heaps.

Susan said...

I want to thank you for all the great advice. I earned a BA years ago and I always felt like the college did not really prepare artists for the business aspects of art. Your information is what artists need to become more successful. It is not just what an artist does is the studio, but what they do with what they did in the studio. The studio is only the first step. This post takes it beyond. Thanks!

Frank Gardner said...

I agree with most of what you say on the commissions Jerry. How I approach it is like this. I'll take a commission if I feel it is something that I would be likely to paint anyway. That way I don't feel like I am compromising my integrity.
If it is a return client, I dont ask for any deposit and they can take it or leave it when it is done. I know them and they know my work. I know they will probably like what I come up with. I don't like getting coaching along the way. It messes up the creative process.
If it is a new client, sometimes I ask for money up front and sometimes I don't.
If it is an on line commission and I had never met the person I would for sure ask for money up front.
I agree with you about never making anyone take a painting that they were not happy with. Don't need them turning up in yard sales. I have never had to give anyone back their money, but I would.

barbarino said...

Fabulous post! I just found your blog somehow and it's a great find. I look forward to reading more of your painting wisdom.

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