Making peace with commission work
Not too long ago, if you’d asked me if I do commissions, I’d of answered with a resounding “NO”. But to even my surprise, this past year I have done THREE! What’s up with that? What changed? Am I softening with age? Am I so broke I’ll do anything for money? I’ll answer that first. No, I’m not so broke, I’ll do anything for money. And I don’t think I am softening with age either but I do think, with age comes wisdom. Perhaps, sometimes timing helps too.
Two of the commissions I did this year were based on my Urban Landscapes and one crazy couple trusted me with some abstract oil paintings as well! What all of these folks taught me was that commission doesn't have to be scary after all! That has come over time and with both successful and a couple unsuccessful experiences…learning from each one. These three 3 clients, in particular, really helped me fine tune my “machine” and that meant I could deliver the best paintings possible FOR THEM! After all, that’s what we want right?
But let’s go back a bit. My first problem with painting commissions was the way I perceived them and it was MY problem. I thought of commissions as my performing for the person who “hired” me. Paint what they want, exactly how they want it. Jump through the hoops, ask for their approval along the way as well as at the end of the project. I think that goes back to my scenic artist days when that WAS what I did. Someone would show me a picture or a faux finish they wanted and I reproduced it just in a larger scale. That was my career for over 20 years and I was good at it but it skewed how I later thought of commission work.
Perhaps some commission work is actually like that too. If you hire someone to paint a portrait of your family or your dog, you'd expect that portrait to look like that person or pet. That is a reasonable assumption. I used to think that was the ONLY type of commission that existed. I was wrong and am happy to admit it! I have found that there are commissions where people are happy to hire an artist they trust, to deliver a painting they know they will love, because they know that artists work. But again, I'm getting ahead of myself.
I have dabbled with a few commissions over the past 6 years. I started out doing them with no formal agreement with the caveat that if the person didn’t like what I produced they didn’t have to pay anything…it’d just go into my inventory. The subjects were such that that worked. Talk about inferiority complex, eh? Well, all those worked out and the people bought in the end. But we would talk at length about what they expected, what I could deliver, what the time frame would be, size, pricing, all that good stuff.
What this gave me was the freedom to create in my own style. Since they weren’t “buying” up front I didn’t feel beholden to them. That freed me up creatively. What I learned by doing these early commissions was that some people weren’t hiring me to copy something…they wanted my painting style, my touch. Whoa - Epiphany! Ok…but they still had a subject or idea in mind. Yes, but as long as it interests me, I’m ok with that. Otherwise I can say No! Hmmmm. Interesting.
Fast forward to 2020. Early in the year 2 things happened. First, I had an unsuccessful experience with a commission…wah wah wah…because I forgot that I was not “hired”. I kept asking for approval rather than just doing my painting style and trusting my instincts. A valuable lesson learned and I’ll never do that again! Luckily she was very understanding, we mutually agreed to stop working together and she’s still a fan. Second, I got a sizable commission, which went well but I did not have an agreement yet! BAD Sarah! So when she got nervous right before I was going to ship, I realized I hadn’t protected myself…even though things were spelled out in emails. In the end she was thrilled but that was learning moment!
Believe me when the next commission came up I started researching and writing an agreement right away! This made me realize I needed to understand what the client was asking for and make sure we were on track with each other, but also that they understood how I worked and how this whole commission thing worked. How we’d communicate, how often they’d see progress, and how and when they'd have input; when and how payments would be made; when and how the painting would be delivered. It made me think about communicating all these things to my client at the beginning of the process!
So when the next commission call came. I was ready! Hahaha… at least so I thought! Someone always comes along to find the gaps in your thinking. Luckily that was Martha and Rich who wanted three large abstract paintings for their dining room which Martha was redecorating. This was going to be a very different process. Abstracts were a new market for me. I had painted them but not sold that type work. Martha and Rich were willing and flexible to work with me on this. They sent me pictures of the new decor and I decided I’d provide some thumbnail sketches for them. They could pick a few sketches they liked and that would give me a starting place for the larger paintings. It also gave us a common understanding of what the color palette, texture, “feel” would be. They understood the larger paintings would be different than these small thumbnails. Once we agreed on this process and a price, I wrote up the agreement and we were off to the races, so to speak!
All these experiences helped me define what painting a "commission" means and now that word doesn't scare me anymore. They also have made me a better communicator and helped make the process better each time. The clearer the communication, the better the project will go and the happier everyone will be in the end! That bodes well for the next person in line!
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