Selling Custom Ordered Commissions
By Annie Strack 2006©
(First publication: March 2007, Art Calendar Magazine)
Creating art on commission can be a significant source of income for any artist. However, most
of the artists that I know routinely turn away commissions, fearing that the work is either too
difficult or just not worth the effort. We’ve all heard horror stories from other artists about
commissions gone bad, clients from hell, rejected paintings, etc., but often these situations arise
from misunderstandings and lack a of communication between the artist and the client.
Successful commissions are the result of clear understanding of the process and requirements by
both the artist and the client.
When customers initially inquire about commissioning a custom work of art, I start the process
by giving them my sales brochure, which shows color samples of my work and describes the
commission requirements and benefits. Prices are clearly listed according to the size of a piece
of art, and the brochure clearly states what is included and what is not, such as framing or
matting. Other pertinent information and limitations are also stated in the brochure, including
the clear statement that the price includes a single subject and simple backgrounds, and the
invitation but clarification that surcharges are added for multiple subjects or complex
backgrounds. Having this printed information readily available helps to introduce the client to
the commission process, and clearly spells out the basic terms of the consignment agreement.
The brochure allows the client to take this information home with them to review before making
a final decision, and it also alleviates any confusion that would ultimately arise later if the
commission prices and terms had been relayed verbally.
Rather than following a set contract, I prefer to work out the details of each commission
individually with each client. Although my prices are firm, I may offer to adjust the schedule or
stretch out the payments to better suit the needs of the client. I avoid the use of the word
“contract” when discussing or writing out the terms of the commission, preferring to use the
friendlier term “sales order.” I try to make the process comfortable for my clients by avoiding
the use of terms that the customer may find confusing or intimidating.
To write the sales orders, I use a separate order book that is larger than a regular sales receipt
book, and allows for plenty of room to write down all the necessary details of the customer’s
order. I write down the specifications for the painting such as colors, size, subjects, perspective,
background, in addition to price, payment schedule, etc. While talking with the client during this
process, I write every detail down in the order book. After the customer confirms and agrees to
the written order form, we each sign it. The client receives the original as their receipt, and I
retain the duplicate for my reference. Before the client leaves, I know exactly what they want
and they know and understand exactly what they will be receiving. I don’t start the painting
process until we are both in total agreement of expectations.
I prefer to shoot my own reference photographs for my paintings. I let the client select the final
reference photos before I start the painting, but I don’t allow him to to view the painting in
progress. Occasionally I will work from photos provided by the client. When the client provides
photos, I record these on the order form to alleviate any confusion that might later arise
concerning the number of photos that later need to be returned, and I make sure we’re not
violating someone else’s copyright.
I don’t start a painting until I am confident that the client and I are completely sure we
understand each other. Since my paintings appeal to a specific audience and I’m known for a
particular style, my clients know that they can expect a painting reflective of my established style
and they have always been happy with the final product. Many become repeat customers and
send me referrals.
A useful tip -- I don't call these works "commissions," I refer to them as "custom-ordered
commissioned paintings". My paintings for general sales and display are priced much less than
commissions; for instance, some of my 12x16 spec paintings start as low as $395, but my 12x16
commissions start at over $600. Sometimes I have to remind clients that it’s like ordering
custom made drapes from a decorator, versus buying curtains off a shelf at Walmart. Anything
that is custom ordered costs more because it is custom tailored to the client’s individual
specifications, increasing the degree of difficulty and requiring more time for production. When
I explain it this way, customers are more likely to understand why the prices are different.
Women especially understand the drapery analogy. We've all been there, and we all know what
custom made drapes cost! I also remind them that spec paintings are priced lower because they
are merely generic samples of my work, and are created to appeal to a broader audience rather
than to any individual collector with more specific expectations and taste. These lower priced
works of art do not contain the same level of detail and perfection as the custom ordered
paintings. I gently suggest that if the price of a custom painted original is currently beyond their
reach, then perhaps owning one of these less expensive paintings would be a more affordable
alternative for them at this time.
Custom ordered commissions account for 80% of my sales of original paintings. Because I do so
many commissions, I am usually fully booked a year or more in advance.
When I inform potential clients of my waiting list, I also remind them that I raise my prices after
the first of each year, however if they book their custom ordered painting now, they will lock in
at the current price rate. This strategy helps me to maintain a steady schedule of commissions by
encouraging potential customers to book well in advance, and not procrastinate. Additionally,
the client gets excited at the prospect of purchasing a work of art from a “hot and popular artist”,
and is pleased by the idea of saving money by ordering in advance. They also like the fact that
my prices are pre-scheduled to rise annually, and therefore their purchase will likely also rise in
value. Telling clients they are going to be on a waiting list often clinches the deal!
I usually schedule around four paintings for each month, but some I schedule with more or less
working time due to the size or complexity of the painting. For example, I have a couple of large
commissions scheduled for January and February, and they are very complex so I scheduled each
of them in a month all by them selves. I also figure into my schedule extra time to create
paintings for juried shows, time to sell at art festivals, etc. For instance I know that October and
April of each year I can't work in the studio at all because of my hectic seasonal exhibit schedule,
and I also need to dedicate at least two solid months to creating paintings for juried shows, so I
schedule the commissions around these times. If I finish a painting ahead of schedule I use the
free time to either get an early start on the next scheduled commission, or to paint spec paintings
to build up my inventory.
The primary keys to guaranteeing successful commissions are clear communication with the
client, advance agreement of services, and realistic scheduling. There is nothing inherently scary
or mysterious about the process, nor is there any need for either the artist or the client to be
confused by the proceedings or disappointed by the results.
Commissions not only provide a reliable and steady source of income, they can also be
A professional artist specializing in seascapes and maritime paintings, Annie Strack is a
Signature Member of five international and national artist societies and is an Official Authorized
Artist for the USCG. She draws from her experiences in her previous career in corporate
management to build her successful art career and shares her knowledge of business and marketing
through her articles for Art Calendar magazine. Visit her at www.ArtCalendar.com or her website