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A “Newbie’s” Guide to Commissioning Artwork

June 10, 2009

So you’d like to commission an artist to paint an image for you. It might be a picture of your dog, your kid, yourself, your role-playing character, your dead grandmother, a character in your novel… it doesn’t really matter what you want painted, there’s someone out there with the skills and the talent to fulfill your vision. But commissioning art isn’t the same as going to a store or even to the hair salon. If you’ve never hired an artist before you may be unaware of how it works, or the best ways to handle the situation.

Narrow the Field

There are tons of places to find artists online. Some good places to start are http://deviantart.com or http://carbonmade.com if you’re looking for a wide variety of artists who work in different styles. Search keywords that have to do with the kind of art you’re planning to commission: portrait, animals, fantasy, etc. It’s probably a waste of your time, and the artist’s time, if they specialize in fantasy art and you want a picture of your dog. If you know the kind of medium you want the image in, look for artists who specialize in that medium (pencil, ink, oil, digital, watercolor, etc.). Again, if you have no interest in digital art, it makes no sense to hire a digital artist and expect them to do a watercolor painting for you.  Narrow the field down to several choices and rank them according to who you’d prefer to hire based on the work they’ve displayed.

Research

Once you’ve narrowed your search for the right artist down, now it’s time to start researching a few things. First, always check to see if the artist has an FAQ or a webpage that lists whether or not they do commissions, and what their standard pricing is. Artists can be expensive or inexpensive depending on a wide variety of reasons. Some are just starting out and may be looking for portfolio opportunities as well as money. Some have been in the business for a long time and have figured out what kind of base rate they can charge and make ends meet. Some use more expensive materials than others so they have to charge more to cover base costs, or maybe they work fast and can afford to charge less since they work more often. You don’t have to know the exact reasons why people charge what they do, but it will help you to budget before contacting the artist.

Make Contact

Make sure when you’re contacting an artist you’re doing it the right way. Leaving a comment on their webpage is nice, but it’s probably not going to get their immediate attention. Most artists online work through email. When you initially contact an artist you’re probably looking for a few different things:

  • Are they currently accepting commissions? Occasionally, even if their webpage states they are, they may be booked up for several months or otherwise not have time to accept commissions at that point.
  • Are they interested in doing the work you’re trying to hire for? Make sure you state clearly (although you don’t have to go into detail at this point, usually) what kind of art you’re looking for. For example, if you only say “I’d like you to paint an original character of mine” we don’t know if you want the painting for a gaming portrait, just to have, or if you’re planning on making it the cover of your self-published novel. The end product often decides the pricing, and the difference in pricing for a personal painting vs. one that will be used commercially can be HUGE. Some artists may even be restricted from doing work for publication due to moonlighting clauses in their current contracts, but don’t have any problem doing personal use work.
  • What would they charge for the kind of work you want them to do? It’s a very good idea to go in with a budget in mind. If you know you can only afford to spend $100 on a painting, don’t contact the artist who states on their website that they charge $150 as their base price. However there is often some room for negotiation, depending on the artist. It never hurts to feel out the situation.

Contracts are Important

Once you’ve established that the artist wants to take on your work, you need a contract.  In today’s world wide web based economy, emails function as a contract. Treat them as full legal contracts, or ask for a hardcopy contract from your artist if it makes you more comfortable. Things you should outline in a contract, be it email or otherwise:

  • Your name and the artist’s name
  • Date of the agreement
  • What specifically you are hiring them to do (a portrait, a full color illustration, sizes, format, etc.)
  • What specifically you are purchasing the rights to (we’ll talk about rights later in this article)
  • Milestone dates (when you would like to see sketches, etc.)
  • Final deadline and how the final image should be delivered
  • Cost, broken down if need be (any fees, or shipping charges should be noted here)
  • How and when final payment should be rendered

Treat the contract with your artist professionally. Art is just like any other service-based business in this regard. Neither you, nor your artist, want to be taken advantage of.

Artists Aren’t Mind Readers

When you describe what you want try to be as concise and clear as possible. If you want them to draw a real person or creature, you’re going to have to provide reference materials. Usually a few photos of grandma or Fido will suffice. Keep in mind that if you want an artist to “copy” a photograph, it will have to be a photo that YOU have taken. Photos taken by professional photographers are copyrighted to the photographer. They would be okay for a reference, but an artist shouldn’t exactly copy them. Reference photos should be large and clear enough for your artist to make out features and details—small photos where little Johnny is a mere blur in the background and partially hidden behind the Christmas tree won’t work.

If you’re hiring an artist to paint something that doesn’t exist (your novel or RPG character, or a mermaid petting a dolphin, for example) then you need to be as specific as you can be about what you want. Keep in mind that artists can only paint visual things, moods, or scenes. They cannot paint smells, sounds, thoughts, or internal monologues. I’ve had authors send me four page descriptions of a character’s life story without ever mentioning their eye color! Try to keep descriptions as clear as possible. If you envision a particular scene, describe it as thoroughly as you can. Mention which elements are important to you visually and which you’re willing to let go of if needed. You may need to provide reference images for your artist, but be aware that providing movie stills or images, or other paintings should only be to help you illustrate what you want. A professional artist cannot legally replicate a movie scene, character, or someone else’s illustration for you.

Revisions

Depending on the artist, they should let you take peeks at the sketch stages or during the work in progress. Setting up specific milestones where you want to see the progress is a good idea for both you and the artist. It provides you with some assurance that the work is being done, and it gives the artist a chance to get some feedback from you. During these milestones make sure you mention as early as possible if something isn’t working for you—there’s nothing an artist hates quite so much as finishing a painting and finding out you want half of it changed.

Keep in mind that different mediums also have different revision requirements. A digital painting can be changed right up to the deadline, but a watercolor or inked drawing cannot be as easily changed once the inking or painting has begun. You’ll want to make any suggestions for revisions during the sketch stage. Otherwise there’s a good chance that the artist will have to start over again if you change your mind after the painting has begun. That could cause additional charges. Talk to your artist when you’re setting up your milestones about revisions and when that “unchangeable” portion of the project begins.

Revisions are a normal part of the process. It’s our job to provide a service for you, after all, and trying to meet your expectations is important.  However there comes a point when revisions go from normal to absolute hell. This is usually the point when we’ve finished the painting and the client has decided that they want it to be a night scene rather than daylight, or that the tall barbarian woman should now be a dwarf male, or when they’ve sent the final copy back for tiny changes for the fifteenth time. Excessive revisions will sour your artist toward working with you, and may cost you if the artist expects the changes to take extra time. When deciding on what you want, the sketch stage is the time for exploring options and making major changes. The painting in progress will provide chances for some revisions, but by the time the painting is almost finished there should be only a few tiny changes left to iron out.

Communication

This is perhaps the one place where artists and clients fail the most. It’s important to keep in touch during the duration of the project. On your part, you need to be checking progress, answering questions and approving or correcting details. On their part, they should be updating you regularly on that progress and letting you know if anything happens that might delay the project. Artists, sadly, are used to clients who will flake out when the time comes to pay. Just like you would like them to respond to your calls or emails about the progress of the project, they will want to be sure you’re not going to run off at the last minute. Try to respond to any emails within 24 hours. If you’re going to be out of town or unreachable for a day or two, let them know that, and touch base as soon as you’re back. Staying in touch should keep things running smoothly for everyone involved.

Do keep in mind, however, that there is a line between touching base and refusing to leave it. As I mentioned earlier, many artists work part time alongside a full time job. For those who do art full time, they often take on several projects at once in order to make ends meet. Some multitask and jump between different paintings to keep themselves fresh and interested, others work exclusively on one painting while lining up or preparing for future jobs on the side. In any case, don’t expect your artist to give you daily updates unless they prefer to work that way. Spamming them with emails demanding updates or changing your mind will only distract them and make it harder for them to work. Set a schedule ahead of time for updates and stick to it.

What To Expect When You’re Expecting

When you’re hiring your artist, it’s important to state up front what kind of end product you expect. Are you paying them for the original artwork on a canvas? A digital copy of a traditionally painted piece? A print?  Will the final image be printed on a book cover? How big will it need to be? Will you be printing it yourself? Will you need to take it to a professional printer? Do you expect the artist to print it and mail it to you? All of these are things that should be covered at the beginning of the project. In order to do the job, your artist will need to know most of this information as early as possible.

If the final image will need to go to a printer, you may need to find out from the printer what kind of file format they need and what size the image needs to be. Depending on the printer, you may also need some kind of release from the artist saying that you have permission to print it. You’ll find more information about that below. If you’re paying for an original image, you’ll need to discuss shipping methods and costs. It will more than likely fall to you to cover these costs in the final commission price, separately from the cost of the actual painting.

Copyrights

If you don’t know much about copyright, this is a good time to educate yourself. There are several very good resources on the web that will break copyright down for you clearly, but I’ll do my best to sum up here what you’ll need to know. Basically, from the moment something is fixed in a medium (be it a canvas, on a piece of paper, in a photograph, or in a digital file), it is copyrighted to the person who created it. That would be your artist. Even if you’ve given them the idea for the painting, the execution of the final product is copyrighted to them.  Copyright gives the artist the right to decide who can use their work and how, whether or not it can be duplicated or reproduced, and where and how it can be displayed.

When you set out your contract it’s a good idea to discuss up front with your artist exactly what rights you’re purchasing along with the commission. Are you only purchasing the original, with the intent to hang it on your wall? In that case the copyright remains with the artist and they can make prints from a digital copy of it, or use it in their portfolio, or license the image out. Are you purchasing any commercial rights to the image? Do you want to use it on a book cover, or to promote something, or as part of an ad? Do you intend to sell copies of the image? All of these things may have some impact on the final cost of the painting. If it’s a picture of your grandmother, for example, an artist probably won’t care very much if they retain all the rights to the image. If it’s an illustration that they could possibly sell prints of and make additional money, however, they may want to retain those rights for that purpose. It’s important that you discuss this with your artist in the beginning stages. Once you’ve agreed on who gets which rights, remember you are legally bound by that decision, and if you’d like to obtain further rights to the image, you’ll need to discuss it with the artist.

The Subject of Payment

I thought I’d give this topic it’s own heading, even though I mentioned it above in a few different places. Artists—like plumbers, doctors, and stylists—are skilled professionals who can provide you with a service you cannot do yourself. Some artists work at it full time, others do art part time in addition to another job. In any case, understand that artists expect to be paid for their work the same way that you would expect to be paid for yours. The myth of the starving artist makes many people think that all artists care about is the painting. That’s not true. Artists have bills to pay and families to feed, just like you. What an artist charges for their time is ultimately up to them, but if a painting is going to take several days, it’s simply not fair for you to expect them to work for less than minimum wage. Art isn’t easy, and no painting springs fully to life in moments from an artist’s hand. If your budget is small, you may want to wait and save up so you can hire the artist you want. Try to respect your artist and their need to balance their time and how much they can work for.

Occasionally in the art world you might hear the word “exposure.” No artist should ever be expected to do free work for “exposure.” Exposure, for an artist, is easy. We can find it in free online galleries, in professional publications, and by submitting our work to various agencies. Doing an illustration for a private client, even if that client is a celebrity, seldom gives an artist the kind of exposure they would need to balance out the amount of money they could have made from the project. Suggesting to an artist that they should do free work for nothing more than exposure is as insulting as suggesting that you should do free plumbing work in exchange for your name on their toilet. Exposure should be a fringe benefit, and only mentioned along with a reasonable offer of payment.

A Quick Note Just For Authors

It happens often enough that it’s worth discussing the subject here. As an artist, new authors who are trying to get their books published often approach me. They are usually full of promises of fame and fortune once their masterpiece is in print. Most of the time they want me to illustrate a cover for their book to really sell it to a publisher. Some of them want lots of illustrations to go in the book, or maybe it’s a kid’s book and they want illustrations to accompany the text.

If you are an author, listen up: IT IS NOT YOUR JOB TO HIRE AN ARTIST.

That is the publisher’s job. Most publishers want to see your writing, not a bunch of artwork. If there is artwork to be done for a book, once they’ve optioned your manuscript, the publishing company will have their art director find an artist to do the cover and the interior illustrations (if any), or have the art done in-house. Hiring an artist to do artwork for your book before it’s published is a waste of your money, and of the artist’s time. It may, in fact, hurt your chances for publication, depending on what the publisher’s submission requirements are. Don’t do it.

Some authors do hire artists to create promotional pieces to use once a publishing house has optioned a manuscript. This might be because they don’t like the art provided by the publishing house, or because they picture their characters differently. In any case, this work wouldn’t go through the publisher and shouldn’t be represented to the artist that way. There are very, very few publishers out there who will accept work commissioned privately by an author for use as cover art, interior illustrations or promotional artwork.

The exception to this is for those who plan to self-publish their books. In that case you can commission whatever artist you want for as much artwork as you can afford. Just make sure you state up front that this is what you intend to use it for.

Do’s & Don’ts

To finish up, here’s a quick list of do’s and don’ts when hiring an artist for a commission:

DO research and find an artist who works in the style and medium you prefer.
DON’T expect an artist to work in a new medium or style that they aren’t familiar with.

DO research current artists and their standard rates for the kind of work you expect
DON’T contact an artist out of your budget range and expect them to lower their prices.

DO communicate your request clearly and provide good references
DON’T expect the artist to read your mind.

DO touch base frequently and give feedback as early as possible.
DON’T wait till the artwork is finished and then expect the artist to repaint it completely because you’ve changed your mind.

DO expect your artist to keep in touch with you throughout the process.
DON’T forget that they expect you to do the same.

DO set out expectations, and discuss copyrights and shipping as early in the process as you can.
DON’T assume you have rights to the artwork that haven’t been discussed, or that the artist will cover the shipping.

DO treat your artist professionally and with respect.
DON’T treat them like you’re doing them a favor by giving them a job.

This article is ©2009 Melissa Findley and may not be copied or reproduced without my express written permission. Feel free to link to it to your heart’s content, though. Just don’t put my words on your page.
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11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2009 9:13 pm

    Great article! I’m glad you brought up the point about not commissioning artwork to go in with your submissions package for a manuscript. Nearly every submissions criteria posted by publishing houses and agents state emphatically they don’t want to see your writing on scented pink paper, with photos of the author clipped to it or sprinkled with artwork. Doing so will pretty much kill your chances of even being considered beyond the query stage.

  2. caia permalink
    March 8, 2011 12:47 am

    Not sure I’ll ever commission artwork, but this was very sensible and potentially useful.

    I do have a question:

    Are you only purchasing the original, with the intent to hang it on your wall? In that case the copyright remains with the artist and they can make prints from a digital copy of it, or use it in their portfolio, or license the image out.

    I’d understand about them having it in their portfolio, but if I were buying a portrait of my grandmother, I’d find it really strange and invasive if her image later got licensed to be a book cover or a denture cream spokesperson. After all, if you make a portrait of a real person, and then put it on a product, it implies their endorsement (unless it’s a biography of them, perhaps). Would you really have to say, “Oh, you can put it in your portfolio, but no selling my grandma’s portrait to sell crackers”?

    As for children’s books… is that really true? Does it apply even to picture books, with only a few words or short sentences per page?

  3. April 4, 2012 12:38 am

    Nice! The article should be given to every prospective client. Thank you for the insight!

  4. June 29, 2012 1:30 pm

    Thanks for the information I am going to forward this site to some of my friends that wanted very custom paintings. deviantart.com is so large now that it is hard to sift out the good from the bad, but with enough time you can find some fantastic works of art!

  5. Sillyme permalink
    January 16, 2013 3:17 pm

    Great article. The only ‘subtopic’ I would add is when clients/customers commission a piece, give an idea about what they want but indicate an artist has “creative freedom”… they should truly understand what that means. Also under research, they should thoroughly research the other artwork an artist has done so that they can get a sense of the styles and pick the right artist. One cannot reasonably expect an aritst to paint whatever visual a client has in their minds, if it is not within their scope of talent or skill.

  6. June 27, 2013 11:23 am

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  7. katie permalink
    July 17, 2013 7:40 pm

    I’m hoping someone can answer this and maybe lead me to some sources. I understand an artist can not do artwork of licensed characters and then sell those images for profit, but is there possibly a loop hole? what if the artist isn’t going out and trying to sell licensed images but is commissioned for custom work and the customer requests licensed images? the artist is being hired for their time and talent, that is what they are selling…. ?

  8. July 22, 2013 1:53 pm

    Even for an artist hunting for commissions, this is a tremendous resource. Thanks for sharing. :)

  9. July 30, 2013 3:13 pm

    Reblogged this on LAH's Transition and commented:
    I needed this info…

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