How To Set Up A Commission With A Client
Updated: Jan 8
Illustration provided by Wix. (I swear I'll illustrate my own posts soon!)
The word "commission" gives me a conflicting rush when I think of it. First comes the excitement of starting a new project; the initial rush and exhilaration of the seemingly endless ideas and possibilities before you. But then, as you talk to your client and the project starts to come out of dreamland and into something more tangible, it hits you. You have to start the seemingly daunting process of getting on the same page as your client.
The business side of a commission can feel like a slag, especially when you wish you could just skip it and get to work. However, a strong set up can help you deliver a piece that the client will love, and protect you in case things start going sideways.
To start off any commission strong, I go through this general set up process with a client before starting any work:
I get them to fill out a form to get as much initial detail about what they're looking for as possible.
We meet or start exchanging emails, where I try to nail down what the client envisions.
After gathering all the details I need, I put forward an informal proposal of what I envision for the final piece and see if they agree.
Once they agree, I put together a Commission Agreement and get them to sign it.
If it's a painting, I ask them what kind of finish they'd like it to have.
Here's how to nail each step of the process and deliver something that your client will love and cherish forever.
Step 1: Filling Out the Form
Screenshot from the commission request form on my site.
By getting your client to fill out an initial form, you get to start the process by getting a general idea of what they're looking for and whether it's up your alley.
Some useful information to gather from the initial form is:
The general concept (have them describe what they're looking for in the painting);
The piece medium (painting, drawing, etc);
The colour palette;
Some of the more business-side information that would be useful to gather at this stage is:
The deadline (either a specific date or general timeframe);
If they have a budget (would be good to negotiate at this stage);
The payment type (establishing this will make things easier down the line).
Once the client has filled out the initial form, then you can see if you can make it happen.
Step 2: Nail Down the Details
Some palettes and space inspiration provided by the client.
Now that you have the client's initial request in hand, you can take a look and see if this is something that you can take on artistically.
If you like the idea but want to solidify your direction more before you plunge into it, here are some things that you can ask from the client to help pull your vision together:
A vision board (inspirational pictures that convey the feeling or aesthetic of what they're looking for in the piece);
A picture of the space it's going in if possible.
Both of these can help clarify what they're looking for and help you decide if you can pull it off to their satisfaction.
Step 3: Informal Proposal
Excerpt from an email with a client detailing some options along with my recommendation.
Now is when you go back to the client and describe to them what you're envisioning and ask whether it's what they were looking for. You can even provide them with a few options if they're not fully set on a concept or on a medium.
To help with this part of the process, you can even provide them with a few sketches to help them see your vision.
Once you get the OK, it's time for the most important part on the business side of things. Although artistic in nature, this is still a business transaction.
Step 4: The Commission Agreement
Screenshot from generic commission agreement on my site.
Getting the commission agreement signed by the client, I would say, is the bread and butter of any art project.
The commission agreement essentially exists to legally bind the client to your process, your rights/their rights with regard to the artwork, and to the proceedings in case of any sort of fallout or cancellation.
You can find my generic commission agreement here on the site.
The key parts of any solid commission agreement are:
Defining the what the project entails;
Your rights/your client's rights with respect to the artwork;
Compensation/pay structure (including any deposits);
Cancellation/termination of the project;
What happens if the client doesn't pay.
To get this part done for the client, draft a version of your generic agreement that outlines this specific project's details and expectations.
Ask them to read the agreement thoroughly and offer to answer any questions that they may have, so they don't feel like you're trying to slip anything by them. It would even do well to point out any key parts in an email, like if you have a cancellation fee.
Once they sign the agreement, sign it yourself. Send them a copy signed by both parties and save a copy on your computer, in the cloud (like a Google Drive), and print one out for yourself (best to be safe and have backups, as this is an important document).
Sweet! Now you have legally set the expectations on both ends.
Step 5: The Finish
(Pun not intended.)
Visual example that I supply to clients of different finishes on a painting.
There are 4 general kinds of finish for a painting, from least light-reflective to most:
High Gloss/2 coats of Gloss
Asking the client which finish they'd like on a painting is minor step but one that most clients appreciate the hell out of.
Screenshot from an email where I ask the client their finish preference and provide an example.
You can also provide some input for the finish based off what you think would work for what they're trying to achieve or for the space the piece is going in. However, they have the final say.
Generally, you'll want to be flexible with a client in terms of pricing, timing, and vision. I've had to work with a budget with some clients, where the final product was worth a little more than they could afford, but it means more to me to to get my art into the hands of people who truly appreciate it.
In terms of vision, you can definitely try to work with the client's vision, but at the same time, you know your arena, and it's perfectly fine to reject a project if you don't think it's your style, or if you don't think you can do what they're looking for.
It's also a good idea to keep the client in the loop during the project. Send them updates and pictures of the work in progress so that if they don't like something or want to change directions, you can pivot or discuss changes very early on. They will be super appreciative of this.
All in all, having a strong starting process and giving yourself this structure sets you up for success from day 0 by eliminating any ambiguity, and setting clear expectations on both ends.