PE: Creating art on Commission
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Published: December 4, 2013

PE: Creating art on Commission

At some point in your career as an artist, you'll be asked to create artwork on commission. Whilst it's a wonderful feeling, being able to make money creating art, it's completely different than selling a personal piece you previously completed - accepting a commission means entering a temporary relationship with your client. As simple it may sounds, there's a lot to satisfying customer's needs, sometimes the best you can do is to say no. Being picky regarding which commission you accept is not a bad thing, but try not to automatically turn down commission because it seems to be violating your artistic integrity, it's hard to survive without paid jobs. 

✐ 1. Communication and flexibility

This is the key aspect to being able to work on commission. Listen carefully, better to ask a lot of questions before you start working than having to start over. You should be able to respond to concerns and questions too, to the best of your ability and as quickly as possible. The way you communicate with your client reflects on his overall satisfaction with your work and his will to recommend you. 

Beware of customers that don't respond or ask for more and more sketches before they even pay the advance. Yes, people are busy and sometimes there's a valid reason why a person replies a month after your initial conversation (by that time, you might not have time for their commission anymore or your price-list has been updated) but there's a good chance this deal will fall apart on their part and you will loose a great deal of time.

✐ 2. Accurate Expectations 

Make sure your client is familiar with your work, this can help you avoid some serious commission nightmares. Some people think they want to commission art while they want a copy of something they saw. You know best how far you can go when trying to meet your client's expectations and you should always set ground rules before agreeing to a particular project. Watch the client react to your art, that tells you something about their taste and preferences. Ask them about the aspects of your work they don't enjoy. 

Beware of a client with unrealistic expectations and the ones that want to (metaphorically speaking) lead your hand to make every brush stroke of the work. The first will never be satisfied and the latter should paint the commission themselves, you're not a grass-mower to borrow for one afternoon.

✐ 3. Contract

Regardless of whether you're signing a contract on paper or depend on a verbal agreement, make sure you have discussed all aspects of the deal such as payment method, time and amount, completion time and final delivery. I'll be strict here, always require an advance, 1/3 of the total commission cost is a usual - this helps you cover the material, takes the pressure off of you to finish the artwork fast and commits the other party as well. It should be non-refundable, from this point on you are investing your time and labor and your client should understand that. 

Beware of not having contract or up-front payment from people you don't know and never dealt with before.

✐ 4. Work in progress

It is recommended to keep informing your client on your progress and send WIP shots of the work. This allows you to address concerns before it's too difficult to do something about them. Encourage dialogue, the other party should feel comfortable asking questions at all times. This part of the process can be really tricky and exceptionally uncomfortable for the artist, since it may disturb your usual working process, but it's very important to learn how to deal with it.

Beware of reacting negatively to potential criticism, this will only stop him from discussing things with you and lead to dissatisfaction with the commission. Also, you should know the best when it's convenient to send WIP's - client does not know your working process and often has no idea how a piece of art evolves during creation, therefore there's a chance they'll get unnecessarily scared when seeing first layers.

✐ 5. Final delivery

Just like you started with a dialogue, end with it. Caring for the finished piece to the last minute is crucial, if you're posting it as a package, keep on talking to the client and make sure it arrived properly. Write a thank you note, after all every customer helps you to survive as an artist.

Beware of bad packaging of your works or providing inaccurate pictures of the commission before the client sees the live result. 

Starving Artist by EbonyLace

Looking forward to hear your feedback :heart:

What's your personal experience with art commissions (as an artist or a customer) ?


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anonymous's avatar
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AffableDragon's avatar
AffableDragonHobbyist Digital Artist
What should you do if you're shipping a physical item and it arrives broken/damaged? They can send it back for a replacement or refund, but who pays for the shipping? I ship things pretty well (It can't move at all and the box would basically have to be crushed), but still.
jane-beata's avatar
jane-beataProfessional Traditional Artist
Good question. I guess it depends on your own customer policy. You might react to such situation differently depending on the cost of the refund. 

Your responsibility as a seller is to provide best packaging possible, even write warning on the top of your package (for example "do not warp" or "fragile"). If you are shipping a really valuable item, you should consider paying for insurance, maybe even include that when pricing your item for sale. 

I only had painting damaged in mail once and I shipped hundreds. A mailman didn't care for my "do not warp" warning and broke the package in half trying to push it inside someone's small mailbox. Customer reported to me and I replaced the item without hasitation, my own expences. At this point, customer could not be happy with any other solution because it wasn't his fault. However, if this happened multiple times, my expences would start growing and the point of a commission is to make profit. I would seriously rethink my packaging and pay for insurance on each painting.

Hope this helped :)
AffableDragon's avatar
AffableDragonHobbyist Digital Artist
Hm, OK, thank you so much! I couldn't find anyone talking about this and it's pretty much the only thing I had questions about. So far all of the items I've shipped have made it to their owners safely (even all the way to Turkey), so I could probably pay for the shipping as it wouldn't happen very often.
DeboraShrewbury's avatar
Great article. Thanks for the info, you made it easy to understand. BTW, if anyone needs to fill out a “My Life Planning Workbook”, I found a blank fillable form I also saw some decent tutorials on how to fill it out.
alexandersinnelius's avatar
I'm an artist and still very hard to find an interested customer.
Vincent1972's avatar

Good article, am not an artist but a commissioner since more than 3 years and I have around 4 very good artists loyal to me. I can tell you that for us can be also very frustrating sometimes; here are some of the problems:

FAKE “OPEN” ADEVERTISMENT: Very often I google to found here and in other internet places artists, but even when they announce to be “open”, and I they seem to be begging urgently for a job, when you try to contact them they are busy, closed or they are not even polite enough to give you a reply. And that’s bad because it’s not only a waste of time for us, it may be harder for us to find an artist that is really is interested in a job buried and hidden in these garbage publicity. If you are not taking commission ATM for God, place a big CLOSED note and even remove your add or account.

MONEY and DISTRUST: I understand that the artist may distrust after working so hard to receive nothing by a bad client. But me as a client had been scammed few times, I always want to make the artist comfortable and he always set the payment condition. Last year I paid 300 dollars in advance for a written commission, and the artist took the money and run!!!

Time ago I paid much more than her usual price to other artist (that honestly was very good and the result was excellent) to encourage her to work better and faster to me. I didn’t gave her deadlines, yet she took months, when I contacted her to see how it was going she told “she Forgot” (can you believe it?!) In other occasion I waited again months for a job, then I saw in her DA page that she posted a commission for other person. I contacted that other person lying asking for references about the artist and her job. He dare to tell she did it in like 4 DAYS!!! (and very funny he complained for the “long time” he waited) He paid like 1/3 from what I paid her, and his job was MUCH MORE COMPLEX!!! Mine was much simpler, I was like WTF?!!! Why she treats me in such way when I am being so nice with her? Perhaps I should had been a jerk and more demanding to pay less and receive my work faster, or someone can explain me the way to treat an artist to do a good job?

PICKY ARTISTS: I understand that some artists have their limits, and they must be clear SINCE THE BEGINNING what they can or want to do and what they cannot. I often had started to negotiate with artist about a commission, I ALWAYS check well their “no’s” in the commission add, and when they seem to be interested after few hours of detail the project, they change their opinion and reject it. My time is as valuable as theirs.

I feel often with these picky artists like you are going to hire someone to paint your car red and the painter says “sorry I don’t paint red, you must paint it green or screw up yourself”. Man I understand that you are “artists” and all that, but we are paying with our hard earned money for a job. I am very respectful of your time, in my case I am not rich and I work very hard to earn money, my money is as respectable as the artist time and hard work. But it seems that often artists forget that and sort of believe that we clients get money from the trees.

Dragona15's avatar
Dragona15Hobbyist Digital Artist
Wow... your comment was very insightful.
I had no idea that commissioners suffered this much with 'bad artists', because we normally see artists complaining about 'bad clients'.
I feel the same was as you do: to be understanding and kind to others.
I admire that you kept being kind even after being ripped off. Really brave, in my opinion.
Windklang's avatar
WindklangHobbyist General Artist
A very friendly deviant looked at one of my adoptables - at that time my first try with gimp. He/She said, he/she could only afford 20 points, and asked me not to bring the prize (100 points) down for him/her. So I did not, and by now I sold one adopt for 100 points. I am really thankful for that advise! Since it was my first proper gimp image, I thought, that it might be worth less than 100 points.... :)
Celeste-Reyes's avatar
Celeste-ReyesStudent Digital Artist
I opened my commissions during the summer of 2013 and I'm guilty of working for 80 :points:. As time went by I decided to bump up the price to 200 but I had less commissions coming in. As a result, I decided to keep the price at 500 and for the quality of the work I think the price is reasonable. Although I don't like working under minimum wage many have told me that I should lower them.

I have submitted to various groups and posted on the forums. What else can I do?
ParanoiiidA's avatar
ParanoiiidA Traditional Artist
You can also try on different sites, not just DA.
jane-beata's avatar
jane-beataProfessional Traditional Artist
Just be active in the community, that always attracts people to your profile. And keep it regular, don't let the commission-related dialogues to be the only interactions you have on the site :)
bonetags's avatar
bonetagsHobbyist General Artist
im also planning to start an art commision though i have a huge problem i confused on how to send digital work i get that you ship traditional work but with the digital one im pretty confused im afriad to start right up and not know how to manage the sending part and im qute afraid of screwing up ive been searching the net and still nothing i really need a step by step process on how to send a digital art anyone who could help?
jane-beata's avatar
jane-beataProfessional Traditional Artist
You can always upload your digital files in high resolution to some server that offers storage, for example here on DeviantArt. You than only send link to your customer.
bonetags's avatar
bonetagsHobbyist General Artist
thanks so much :>Llama Emoji-62 (Rawr I'll get you) [V3] Llama Emoji-62 (Rawr I'll get you) [V3] 
KrisCynical's avatar
KrisCynicalProfessional Digital Artist
I would recommend creating a terms of service document outlining the basics of how commissioning you works, policies about payment, ownership, usage, etc., that can be copied and pasted into your correspondence with the client. Have the client acknowledge the ToS and agree with it, so they cannot claim ignorance about anything that was clearly included in the ToS.

For quoting prices to a prospective client, a good rule of thumb is to quote a price that is at least 10% higher than what you'd be willing to do it for. If the client agrees, gravy! If they don't, you still have 10% of haggling room. Even if they end up negotiating you down to the minimum price you were willing to do the job for, you're still getting paid what you're satisfied with and the client thinks they got a good deal from you. This practice is pretty standard in the industry.

Another good habit to protect yourself is, whenever you send a WIP for the client to approve, always watermark it somehow in a way that will make it unusable for the client. I usually write "SAMPLE" across the image in red on a separate layer in Photoshop and make it transparent enough that the client can still see the image well enough to approve it.

Last but not least, I think this one is the most important:


Many artists AND clients don't know this, and the client will think they automatically own the rights to the image because they paid for it. They did not pay for ownership of the image, they paid to have the image created. All rights automatically stay with the artist by default.

If the client wants to own the image outright and dictate what you can and cannot do with it, they have to pay for that right. In the graphic art industry it's called a "buy out" because they are purchasing all of the rights to the image including the copyright. Industry standard pricing for buy outs is 100%-500% of the original cost of the image because copyrights are valuable things.

This is going to piss off some clients who believe they should own the image automatically and in some cases, if the commission is of the client's original character, the client will try to claim that they automatically own the image because they own the character. Legally, that isn't true. Yes, the client owns the character. The client does not own the IMAGE of the character. You — the artist —own the image you created. It's the same principle that allows a photographer to own the copyright to a photo of, say, the Statue of Liberty. They statue is public domain, but that specific photograph OF the statute is owned by the photographer.

Don't let the client take advantage of you! If they're trying to dink you out of what's rightfully yours, they don't respect your work OR you, and they aren't worth working for!
Dragona15's avatar
Dragona15Hobbyist Digital Artist
Very useful tips. Thank you :heart:
Windklang's avatar
WindklangHobbyist General Artist
Would this also mean, that I could sell one piece more than one time?
Exept the agreement was different?
KrisCynical's avatar
KrisCynicalProfessional Digital Artist
Yes, precisely! :)

The re-selling of usage rights is the bread and butter for many illustrators and graphic artists, which is why your copyrights are so important (and expensive if the client wants to buy you out of it). Any piece you retain the copyright to can be sold again and again infinitely until either you decide to stop selling it or someone buys you out of it.

I'm not sure what you mean about a different agreement, but every time you re-sell a piece to a new person/company, you create a new agreement for that specific interaction. The agreement lays out the terms of how you're allowing the image to be used, and for how long you and the client have agreed to. You can sell the usage rights to more than one client at the samd time, too, so long as a client doesn't want EXCLUSIVE usage rights.

If the client wants exclusivity for the length of time they're going to use the image, that increases the price of the usage rights because you cannot re-sell the image to anyone else for that length of time. Once their purchased time is up, you can resume reselling it.

A really great reference book for standard business practices, pricing, and actual form contracts you can use for such agreements is the Graphic Artist's Guild Handbook of Pricing and Ethical Guidelines which you can find on amazon right here:… The GAG is basically our union, and everything in that book is the industry standard.
Windklang's avatar
WindklangHobbyist General Artist
Wow - thank you!!
I really did not know!
I mean, I am only selling little adoptables :D But I thought, that I have to set, that I keep using them after selling, to breed them etc. So - I could even resell them :D Awesome! :D
Thank you so much for this information!
KrisCynical's avatar
KrisCynicalProfessional Digital Artist
You're welcome. :meow:

My only caution to you would be to post somewhere in your adoptables information that you DO re-sell them. That's your right, but unfortunately most people don't know that and assume they own it. Warning them will avoid confusion and ticked-off-ness. :roll:
Vincent1972's avatar

That can be arguable, if you work for example for Pixar and you create X character, the character is not yours even when you are the creator, Pixar is the owner because you are their employ and they are paying you to create that character. We may not be a big company as Pixar but we are also hiring you and freelancer employ artists.

So as commissioner I tell you, I HAD THE IDEA, not you, I am the one saying how the character should look, his personality, clothing and all… and am hiring you an paying you for creating MY character following MY VISION, you are already getting what you consider fair for your hard work, me on contrary am investing money.

So why the character should be yours?

And more you are saying you can profit more when I am the one with the idea and you were already paid, and I invested paying you what you asked and l get nothing for MY IDEA?

Imagine if an employ created a character for Pixar later he has the right to sell it to Dreamworks and the Japanese Anime companies….

I understand that as an artist you work very hard creating, I work very hard too to get money and my hard work is as respectful as yours.

At the end of the day you are very right in something, to avoid conflicts this should be discussed from the beginning.

KrisCynical's avatar
KrisCynicalProfessional Digital Artist
It is quite apparent that you didn't understand a lot of what I said, hun. You don't really understand basic US copyright law and contracts of employment for graphic artists, either.

I will warn you now: this is LONG. It has to be due to the amount of explanation needed to address your points. I hope I've made sense so it's not too much of a slog, though.

"That can be arguable..."

No, it really isn't. It's how copyright law works in the US.

"...if you work for example for Pixar and you create X character, the character is not yours even when you are the creator, Pixar is the owner because you are their employ and they are paying you to create that character."

They are also paying for the copyright to the material the employee has produced. It's figured into their salary. I'll explain that in more detail later, though.

"We may not be a big company as Pixar but we are also hiring you and freelancer employ artists."

And individual clients like you still have to pay for the copyrights to what the artist produces as part of the purchase price of the commission. US copyright law is the same for you as it is for Pixar.

" are already getting what you consider fair for your hard work, me on contrary am investing money."

And you are getting what is fair for the price you paid if you didn't pay for a copyright transfer. What most artists consider "fair" is retaining all of the rights that are legally ours as defined by basic visual copyright law. You are purchasing the service of having a custom piece of art created for you. The cost of owning the copyright to that custom piece of art is an additional cost.

"So why the character should be yours?"

You didn't understand what I said. If you commissioned me to create an illustration of your character "John Doe", I wouldn't own the copyright to John Doe. I would own the copyright to the specific image of John Doe that I drew for you. Those are two very different things. If you wanted to own the rights to that image of John Doe, you would pay for those rights.

"And more you are saying you can profit more when I am the one with the idea and you were already paid, and I invested paying you what you asked and l get nothing for MY IDEA?"

You may be the one with the idea, but I'm the one with the skill set to make something out of that idea. That's an important detail.

What I ask, as do ALL artists who know and understand US copyright, is for monetary compensation for the copyright/usage rights to the image I'm creating if the client wants them. That is defined in my Terms of Service and/or a basic letter of agreement before my pencil touches paper, so you would have already agreed to that before I produced the piece for you.

And, um... you don't get "nothing" for "YOUR IDEA". You get a custom piece of art for "YOUR IDEA", and that art has more value than what you seem to be giving it. Furthermore, it's a custom piece of art that you don't have the previously mentioned skill set to produce for yourself, which is why you hired me!

"Imagine if an employ created a character for Pixar later he has the right to sell it to Dreamworks and the Japanese Anime companies..."

Again, you don't really understand what you're taking about. That wouldn't happen, period.

Since you specifically said Pixar, let's use them here. One of my friends from college actually works for Pixar as a character animator. Her name is Cat.

Cat had to sign a contact of employment for Pixar before she started working for them. The contact stated that anything and everything she produces for Pixar belongs to Pixar, including ALL rights. The thing is, though? Pixar has pre-purchased those rights from her because it's included in her salary. Pixar has monetarily compensated her for giving up those rights, which is the whole point of what we're talking about here.

If you expect to receive the copyright to the specific image you commissioned from an artist, you will have paid for it within the price of the job. It's the same thing.

"I understand that as an artist you work very hard creating, I work very hard too to get money and my hard work is as respectful as yours."

Do you really, though? Do you know everything that goes into creating an illustration, how much work went in to having that ability to do so, and how back breaking that work was? I say that not as an insult or to be condescending, it's just most people think they know, but they really don't. From the way you've been talking about it, I think you're WAY underestimating it.

Now, that being said...

Respectful, yes. ALL honestly earned money is respectable. I'm not sure if that's the term you were meaning to use, though, because English probably isn't your first language since you say you're from Mexico. (My best friend of 15 years lives in Salamanca, Guanajuato even though that has nothing to do with the subject at hand. :lol: )

My following answer is going to be assuming you mean "equal" not in respectability but rather the amount of work involved in commissioning an artist (again using myself as the hypothetical artist). THAT being said...

In the situation of commissioning an artist, no. The work contributed is not the same. Yes, you worked to earn the money to pay for it in some way or another, but that's irrelevant to what is happening when you hypothetically commission me for a custom piece of art.

What you are failing to notate here, as I already mentioned previously, is that YOU came to ME because I offer the service of creating something that you are incapable of doing for yourself. That right there tips the scale of work balance.

I have spent the last 18 years of my life working, practicing, studying, and devoting my life to my craft, and four of those years were in a hellishly hard core art school to hone my talent into a professional-level skill. That hard work has affected my physical health, too.

I have back and neck problems as well as permanent damage to my nerve system from all those years spent hunched over a desk, and those issues cause me pain and discomfort every day to the point of limiting how long I can work at a time. Those problems are so severe that they almost left me permanently disabled to the point of not being able to care for myself, even. ALL OF THAT goes into the creation of your custom piece of artwork.

You have brought the money and description of what it is you want to the table, yes, but I have brought the rest. It takes an enormous amount of work to do that.

"At the end of the day you are very right in something, to avoid conflicts this should be discussed from the beginning."

That's the whole point.

Straight up, US copyright law says that artists automatically own the copyright to the specific images they create, period. There's no debating that fact; it's the law. As such, the artist retains those rights unless the rights have been purchased and legally transferred to another person.

Unfortunately many amateur and hobby artists either don't know that or they aren't confident enough about what rights they have to stand up to a demanding or pushy client. Many times the client doesn't know the artist's legal rights, either, and are under the false impression that paying for the service means paying for the rights, which just isn't true.

And that's why those rights and the compensation for them always needs to be discussed with the client before pencil touches paper.

It isn't an issue of the artist being greedy. It's an issue of how US copyright law works.
Vincent1972's avatar

I beg you pardon if I sounded too aggressive (never pretend to be rude) I had a hard week, and in part my mood was related with the topic (and you are right English is not my first language sorry if I am confusing).

You may see bellow my struggles with artists:

 Add to those it that in Nov. I pre-paid a story, I just tried to contact him and it the person didn’t reply, the guy seems to start other projects and business model, he is in his right he is not my slave: he can start all the projects he will like but at least one of 2, or he finish his previews compormises or he gives back my pre-paid money, and it seems he doesn’t plan to do any of both… I consider the fairest thing to pay the half and half at the end, because as you see we also are taking big risks hiring I can count you like 4 times it had happened to me.

Now for the legal part there is something confusing (my fault). If I am not wrong THE IMAGE (drawing, illustration, whatever is yours…) but I was talking about the character that’s other thing, the character is mine; this hardly may happen since most of us rarely would take the time to register it; but I assume you may be able to re-sell it but technically part of the money you do should go to me or no?

Many of the commissions are fan art, rarely a corp. someone would take the annoyance to press charges. But if you do fan art of Mickey mouse or Darth Vader, if you are profiting technically you would have to pay royalties if they dare to go after you.

"At the end of the day you are very right in something, to avoid conflicts this should be discussed from the beginning."

I think we are ok with this part. You must say if you are selling the image and the rights too.


“Do you really, though? Do you know everything that goes into creating an illustration, how much work went in to having that ability to do so, and how back breaking that work was? I say that not as an insult or to be condescending, it's just most people think they know, but they really don't. From the way you've been talking about it, I think you're WAY underestimating it.”


That can be said from all jobs, all jobs are hard, some require skilled people, as a worker you are paid because you are covering certain need of a person or company. And I don’t underestimate the artists jobs, the point is that some their work is as worth as their money. I also work hard you don’t know if I am skilled or not or my background story, in the same way you work hard you don’t know how hard and stressing can be my job;  perhaps I also invested a lot of time and studies for the money I am earning now, even being a janitor is a hard bad paid job…. All works are respectable.

Yes you are covering a skill I don’t have; but you are not doing me a favor I am giving you the money you think fair, and I am not giving charity either, I am receiving a skilled work from you… at the end of the day should be a fair interchange for both parts. Of someone think they are giving more than the received they should not do business anymore, everyone should be happy and no one should be doing a favor to anyone.

Now I perhaps your problem is that many costumers doesn’t respect your work and you are right to be annoyed with that. The problem is that the whole environment is unprofessional with few people like you professional:

I had contacted artists very professional, doing excellent jobs and trying the best to be professional and deliver something good, very concerned to do the commission as I want, I had constantly working with some of them since 3 years ago.

The problem AND YOU MAY SEE POSTS OF THIS IN THIS VERY THREAD, many of the artists are very skilled young teens; but finally they act very unprofessional:

-Many offer their hard work for 100 DA points!!! I don’t even dare to contact that people, they are not serious if they don’t respect their own hard work how do you expect to be respected by others? and that’s also bad to you because it lowers the price of the market in general and many clients will expect much more from you for less money.“why this guy wants 80 dollars when I saw someone asking me 5?”

-Besides like I mentioned bellow I often see many of them begging for money and a chance; they promise to work with all their soul and seem very interested… But when you try to contact them it seems they were just teens wanting to earn some money for the summer and closed, or is just their interest totally faded in the same way they were enthusiastic days before. 

-As I have mentioned you they take the money but later they move to other projects leaving a paid job behind.

You see someone here saying that after being paid he “is not motivated…” do you think that’s professional?

And off course I assume many of the clients are spoiled teens too.

So the environment in general becomes very cheap and un professional; and that’s bad to you when you find clients used to move in that environment, and for me as client trying to find someone really professional and serious not making me waste my time.

And that can create problems for example because for bad experiences you may want to be covered 100% at the start, but I had bad experiences too so you would understand if I don’t want to pay you all before starting… that shouldn’t happen if everyone clients and artists would act serious and professional always…

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Windklang's avatar
WindklangHobbyist General Artist
You're right. I am going to adjust my commissions-settings :D
Thank you so much - That was really a great help :)
anonymous's avatar
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