My first sale, after I started painting seriously, came through the Facebook page of a local coffee
shop that invited artists to bring in their works ready to hang. They listed how many they would be able to display. This "Queen Bee" watercolor and pen painting, 7 x 5 inches (minus the brush and paint splash) looked nice in a simple black frame. It was among three others that I displayed, and I priced them all at $50.
The coffee shop got a call from someone who wanted to know if I would accept $40 for the bee. I told the owner, "no." The lady returned to the shop and purchased it for $50. Lesson learned.
One of my first commissions came from a friend who wanted this as a gift for her grandson. The challenge was that this would not be a traditional format; the canvas would be on a chair.
This baseball-themed artwork was a big hit with the family.
Commissions seemed to grow as I shared my work on Facebook and other social media. Maybe the first rule to understand is common sense: You won't have a buyer unless they know what you do.
Tip #1 - Timing is Key
Be responsive and follow up on your leads immediately. Most of the time, people will find your art displayed somewhere. It triggers something in their head that they want a similar thing done, either as a gift or for a blank spot in their home. If someone expresses interest in buying one of your pieces, but can’t make a deposit or payment right away, take down their contact info and follow up with them by the end of the day/event. Most people who buy art don’t “need” it. It’s a luxury item that is often an impulse buy — they fall in love with the art and must have it. But if you wait too long, the infatuation can fade or even transfer to another item. If the art is intended as a gift, timing is even more critical. I learned while working in advertising that no matter how well your product is advertised if you don’t make the sale at the right time, you’ve missed the chance. But luckily, people are more willing to wait when it comes to art.
Tip #2 - Don't be shy to state your terms.
First off, licensing terms should be made clear. Does the client want the right to reproduce the artwork for commercial use/sale? They may think owning the artwork is the same as owning the license to reproduce it as they see fit. It’s your job to educate them if this is the case. Most artists retain their licensing rights for their work even after a sale. But an unaware client may take your commission and innocently reproduce it on T-shirts or publish it for commercial use without informing you first. That will lead to a sticky situation that could be avoided.
Having a written contract containing the details of the commission is essential to make sure everyone sticks to their part of the deal. Explain that paying in advance is essential, allowing artists to purchase materials and cover their initial expenses. To elaborate on the price, the artist will probably list the prices of other pieces as a point of reference. I have a baseline price for my typical artwork, a 9x12 inch image, matted and framed to an 11x14 inch frame, ready to hang.
It's fair to ask for payments upfront for as much as 50% to cover the cost of materials and time. This payment will help the patron and the artist stay invested in the piece and build a credible professional relationship.
#3 - Know Exactly What You're Being Asked to Do.
Remember why the client chose you, and don’t doubt your ability.
DO take a creative license — this is why you were hired!
DO start with concepts or sketches for them to approve before moving on to costly or large-scale work.
DON’T check in too often, or seem unsure of yourself or your ideas, as this is an open invitation for your patron to suggest their ideas or perhaps drag you along a creative journey that isn’t yours. They’re trying to help, but it’s probably doing the opposite. (I have experienced this scenario recently).
#4 - Cherish your good clients, and learn to manage your difficult ones.
Not every commission will go smoothly, but don’t let a few bad experiences ruin the potential for great ones.
This is a learning curve that will take experience, but here are some cues to watch out for. The good clients will insist on paying you up front, leave a lot of the artistic license to you, and give you a broad spectrum to work with without interfering with your creative process.
Hang on to suitable clients, as their trust will inspire you to be more creative, resulting in more portfolio pieces, and you’ll love what you do even more.
The bad ones will try to dictate how you do things, change their minds after you’ve already started, or micromanage your work. They insist they’re just trying to help. Good client management skills and educating your client on your process — like what you DO and DON’T need from them regarding creative input. It is crucial to keep integrity in your work.
#5 - Know Your Market.
What type of art do you enjoy creating the most? What type of art are you best at? This should be your true market.
One of my favorite commissions came from a Facebook post where a friend shared her dog prancing around a bed of daffodils in their garden. Whoop, I thought this would be a great painting. I did this and did not expect it to turn into a commission.
I made a work-in-progress video and sent it to her. She asked if I could have prints made, as in notecards. This turned into a $200 commission, and I gave her the original. She now refers me if anyone offers interest in having a pet portrait.
#6 - Pricing
Ugh. This is a BIG burden in my head. Too low, and I'm not doing justice to my work. Too high, and I price myself out of the market.
You can find a plethora of articles on pricing your art. I will share what I finally did. I found a local watercolor artist in a similar style, and I started by browsing a gallery with working artists. The result is that my base price was a bit low. I have since upped by base price, and no one has pushed back. While browsing, I saw that gallery has monthly exhibitions, and I submitted some artwork. I took First Place, and this was another HUGH confidence builder.
Of course, you can factor in size, time, difficulty, and materials used. Whatever method you use to determine the price, make sure you retain integrity in the skill you have as an artist.
For a summary of these tips, here's one more video that is a recent commission for my physical therapist, who asked if I could paint both her dogs, Wren and Sam. Notice that I used the same element for each picture (the carpet), so they would be companion pieces on her wall. She was delighted with the portraits, which is what I want: A HAPPY CLIENT.