Alternate title: Selling Your Soul Along With Your Paintings

Fairly early in my painting career, I went through a “berry painting” phase. I found that I had a bit of a local market for paintings of the wild fruit of our region of northern British Columbia, and so I probably painted more of these than I should, taking advantage of the increased opportunity for sales (when I should instead have focused on building my painting skills. For shame!) At one point I received a special request from a customer to paint three types of berry in one painting. This seemed like a perfect commission opportunity; a guaranteed sale (the siren song of all commissions) and a subject I knew well and could paint easily, from a customer who knew my style. What could be better?

Saskatoon Study watercolor by Angela Fehr
“Saskatoon Study,” watercolour by Angela Fehr

The problem appeared as soon as I started painting, although it’s taken me over fifteen years to be able to articulate it. But today is the day! Get ready!

When I take on a commission, I am no longer painting for myself. I’m no longer guided by what the painting needs, and I’m not able to hear that little part of myself that “sings” inside when things are working on the paper. I’m painting for the customer, trying to fulfill their desires and mental picture of what I’m going to create, essentially killing creativity.

My berry painting commission never sold. The customer studied it, proclaimed that it wasn’t quite what she was looking for, and passed on the purchase. Unfortunately, it took me many more years before I decided to adopt a policy of “no commissions, ever.” I believe that taking this stance has been better for my career than any multitude of commissions, and maybe you’ll understand why by the end of this article.

There are so many obstacles to completing a successful commissioned sale (and to the portrait painters who make commissions their livelihood; I salute you!) that I think most artists should avoid them, choosing instead to say firmly and politely, “I’m not able to take on custom work at this time, but if you are interested in my art, I can show you what I have available at this time.”

"Flight of Fancy" watercolour by Angela Fehr“Flight of Fancy” watercolour by Angela Fehr
Here are 6 reasons commissions don’t work:
  1. The temptation to discount commissioned work is strong. Unlike a completed and priced painting, unless you do commissions regularly, you probably don’t have a set price list, and you might even quote a price right on the spot. Excitement, and hope will lead you to knock a few percentage points off the price, to really assure the commission request. Commissions are usually more work than usual, and if you must quote on commissioned art, I would recommend you add at least 30% to your usual pricing strategy, to cover the therapy afterward. Working at a discount is a great way to feel taken advantage of, and that doesn’t foster good relationships with collectors.
  2. You are putting yourself in a position to be judged. Unless you are have grown your career to the point where you only work in commissions because you sell everything you make, and the customer’s only request is for an original painting by you, you are working to fit the customer’s vision, and their response to the finished painting will be judged based on what they were expecting to see. How to meet that kind of standard? I’m not saying you should always avoid having your work critiqued, but by one potential buyer with a specific image in mind? You’re giving him all the power, and that’s a recipe for disaster.
  3. Commissions are not a good time to step out of your comfort zone. I have had phone calls from people wanting me to paint murals, dog portraits and velvet Elvises (well, maybe not the last one) who have no idea why I am declining. I’m an artist, am I not? Make art! While these are extreme examples, and it is pretty easy, as a watercolour artist to say no to painting giant murals, it can be tempting to accept a commission that is just a little different than I would choose. But it’s a lot like choosing to play a new song you’ve never practiced at a piano recital. You don’t perform new work on command and end up with a masterpiece.
  4. You might be stuck with unsellable art. Taking on a commission that feels different in subject or style means you are stepping out of your comfort zone, and you are also not contributing to a consistent body of work. If that commission does fall apart in some way, do you want to be stuck with a painting you can’t show or sell?
  5. You could destroy an artist/collector relationship. Imagine this scenario:
    • Well-intentioned collector, loves your work, wants to support your emerging art career and asks you to paint a custom piece for him. You agree and even remember to request a deposit to cover your time and materials up front. You pour your heart and soul into creating a work that you think pairs both the customer’s vision and your skills and style, and present the finished painting to the client.
    • The client hates it. He respects you as an artist and admires your work, but there are still a million ways to interpret an idea, and however he had envisioned the result, what he’s seeing doesn’t fit and doesn’t please him. He has few options, and they are all lousy.
      1. He could follow through on his end of the deal and pay for the painting, quietly cutting his losses…but he won’t be displaying it, and every time he thinks of the transaction, he will feel frustrated. Not an impetus for future sales.
      2. He could tell you up front that he doesn’t like it and doesn’t want it, putting you both in the awkward position of having to decide how to move forward, and what is fair – does he pay you more if you redo the piece? Do you just cancel the job at this point? Having a contract here helps both of you know what to expect…but it’s still painful to admit that the process has broken down.
      3. If you are handling the transaction by email, he might at this point just take the easy way out and avoid making a decision at all, avoiding your calls and emails, leaving you hanging, wondering what happened.
      4. He could lie…there are a million excuses he could give, pleading financial hardship (and you wonder why he won’t agree to your offer of a generous payment plan), busyness, change of circumstance, anything to avoid telling you that he just doesn’t like the painting.
    • Most of the time, collectors don’t want to tell you to your face they aren’t interested or don’t like your work. We are all very good at feigning interest in something that we don’t actually care about (just ask my husband about my “what interesting hot rod talk” face!) to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. It’s very hard to be candid and honest about art when you are talking directly to the artist, and so a collector would rather run the other direction through burning coals than tell you they hate the painting you made for them. While this may spare your feelings, it also means that they will likely never buy from you again, because you now represent the negative emotions created by that failed commission. There will be golden experiences where you are working with someone who would love your work even if you were painting with boogers on tissue (sorry, couldn’t resist the gross analogy; I have a nine-year-old boy!), but in my experience, these come after you have established your name as an artist, built a body of work and price professionally, and not when you are struggling to get your art career going and desperately need sales.
  6. You could be stealing from yourself. Be very careful, if accepting a commission, that you are not taking on something that does not contribute to your artistic development. If you desire to achieve the full expression of your style and skills, you must avoid taking on work that will distract from that goal, whether it is choosing to paint to the market (like I did with my berry paintings, constantly asking myself “but will it sell?”) or taking on projects that don’t challenge you or stretch you in some way. Respect your career as an artist who has worked hard to develop your skills and style, rather than chasing the whims of customers or trends.
Silver Valley Sentinel 13 and quarter by 30 inches watercolour by Angela Fehr 600w“Silver Valley Sentinel” watercolour by Angela Fehr

I would encourage every artist to consider very carefully a strategy for handling commission requests. Create a commission contract with clear terms and pricing and be very businesslike from the first inquiry. Don’t quote a price on the spot; “I will estimate a quote and get back to you.” Choose to work with clients who know your work and love your style, and make requests that fit your scope and subject, you are more likely to see happy parties on both sides of the transaction. And if the deal does fall through for some reason, you will still have a painting you can exhibit with the rest of your body of work.

If, like me, you decide to decline all commission requests, consider these requests as opportunities to build relationships with a prospective buyer. If they love your work enough to request a commission, encourage them to explore your current body of work, and add them to your mailing list. Make your choice to decline commissions a positive choice, not a negative one; don’t say, “Oh, I don’t do commissions, they never work out.” or “The last buyer I worked with was a nightmare,” instead phrase it so the collector understands that your time and art is valuable. “I’m sorry, I am not accepting commissions,” comes across as “selective” and “successful” and the buyer will respect you for it.

What about you? Do you have a commission horror story? Or a golden experience to share? Can you add to my list of “commission obstacle?” Comment below!