One of the most common dreads I hear from many of my artist friends is having to handle an art commission. Why is creating a specific work of art for a client so nerve racking?
Yes, it would be nice if with every new commission, the artist was free to exercise their creative license at will, but this is not reality. Every once in a while, there will be those who will understand your need to be free to paint from your intuition and not interfere with your creative process. If you have such a willing art collector, you are one of the lucky ones.
The reality is for most of us, bread and butter jobs are the ones which put the food on the table and the roof over our head. The bread and butter jobs are also the projects that often seem to bind and bridle our creative processes. Some artists flatly refuse to do commission work, but I love the challenge of new and unusual projects, making the customer happy and pushing the envelope of my ego. Through this process, I am able to stretch my abilities, increase my confidence as a professional artist and broaden my reputation.
When I’m asked to paint a specific commission for a client, I want to get as much information from them as possible. I try to get into their head and be on the same page as they are. So how do we go about getting into their head? How do we overcome any objections which may or may not come up?
- Get to know as much as you can about the individual and why he wants the commission.
- If possible, go to the location where the artwork will be installed.
- Create a sketch.
- Write up a written description of the project.
- Write up a contract spelling out the size, the price, the substrate and the terms of payment, extra charge for anything added or major changes once contract is signed, etc.
- Go the extra mile and add value (extras) to your sale.
- Make arrangements to have an “unveiling” at the place of installation, connect with the clients friends for potential art sales.
- Getting to know your client
Growing up in an artist family, I was taught and had always believed that if you paint great paintings, they would sell themselves. I still believe there is some truth to this, but I’ve come to learn there is more to art sales than just making great art. For example; if you are the one displaying your artwork and tending your booth at an art fair, you need to also master the art of sales. Don’t panic! It’s easier than you might think!
Ask simple straight forward questions that get the client talking about himself/herself, then sit back and listen. Let them do most of the talking. There is much you can learn about them, their likes and dislikes, their passions, what they are looking for in the art they desire to purchase, where they envision it will hang, what size the painting needs to be and how much they are willing to spend on an individual art piece, etc. Once you know what they want and you have built their trust, hand them a sales contract form, get them to sign it and quickly close the sell.
2. Meet with them at the installation site
Whenever possible, it is often a good idea to meet with the client in the space your artwork will be on display. This gives you, the artist, a better idea how your future art piece will look in their environment. You can also gauge the client’s aesthetic taste, by observing works of other artists they’ve already collected. If they ask you what you think of their art collection, pay genuine compliments, but do not criticize the artwork. You have worked hard at gaining their trust and friendship– don’t hurt it!
3. Create A Sketch
Creating a sketch, even a rough sketch is a good idea. As an artist, we are very visual persons. If we want to know whether we are on the same page as our client, creating a sketch can help. It can also reassure the client that you know what they want. If any changes need to be made, better to do it now in a rough sketch form than after you’ve started the real job! I used to be in the sign business before I became a full-time artist. Most of the time, a rough sketch was all that was needed to sell the sign job. A few projects required a tightly rendered finish sketch, but these were the big jobs. I usually offered to draw up a sketch for free, when knowing my chances were high that I would get the job anyway.
4. Write up a Written Description
Back in 2007, Cabella’s hired me to paint five large murals for their East Hartford, Connecticut store. My next door neighbor at the time was a taxidermist. He was always swamped with work. I soon found out why. Cabella’s, a well-known outdoor outfitter for hunters, fishermen and camping gear, etc, had hired Troy as a regular subcontractor for their game bird displays. I was very interested and asked him to help me get my foot in Cabella’s door. He obliged and five years later, I got my first job with them. They sent me a thick packet of paperwork, in which I forced myself to patiently comb through and fill out. I was asked to draw up a rough sketch. They said it didn’t have to be fancy, but to just give them the idea that I understood what the wildlife habitat would look like for each mural. I was also asked to write up a detailed written description of each habitat. I was then instructed to fax it to their corporate office, where they would look over the contract, the sketch and the written description, make changes or corrections, then send it back for me to start the process all over again. I drew up a simple, but clean rough sketch and then googled photographs of wildlife habitat for Moose, White-tailed deer, mule deer, beavers, wild turkeys as well as African wildlife. I also found books with descriptions of each habitat, consuming as much knowledge as I could stick in my brain, then wrote a very descriptive story for each habitat I had drawn up. I faxed it in and a few days later, they said I had done what they required of me so well, they didn’t need to send the contract back for revisions and asked me how soon I could get started.
5. Write Up A Contract
It’s a very good idea to write up a detailed contract, spelling out clearly the size, the price, the terms of payment and any other details you deem necessary. Spanning my nearly 40-year art career, I have learned the importance of writing up a contract. I also have experienced dealing with frustrating customers who try to alter the terms of an oral agreement. For example, expecting the biggest size for the smallest price and adding additional items such as people or animals, while expecting to pay no more than the agreed original price. This subject is a whole other blog post, which I plan to write about in the near future. Be watching for it.
- Go the Extra Mile
Go the extra mile to make your client happy and continue to develop a friendship with him. For example, when you deliver or ship the painting, include a gift card with a dinner for two at a fancy restaurant. A fruit bouquet is also a popular gesture. If your client likes to golf, perhaps a day pass at the local golf course would be appreciated. The point is, do something out of the ordinary and unexpected for your client after the sale. Adding extra value, beyond the contract is a nice unexpected courtesy that will make the client feel you value their friendship.
- The Unveiling
Once the commission is finished and hung, it is time to do an “unveiling” with the client’s friends. Quite often, the client will invite their friends over to “show off” the newest artwork in their collection. If they’re planning on having an unveiling, ask the client if you could be a part of this celebration. This would be a great opportunity to network with their friends, which could lead to more potential art sales. This is also great PR for you to get your name out to the public.
Adhering to these seven secrets has made painting commissions a less painful process. Perhaps more suggestions could be added to my list, but I know that if you follow these principles I have discovered so far, painting a commission can be a positive learning experience.