Recently I had a solo show. One of the many ancillary benefits of it, was that it generated a large commission for me. A collector who owns many pieces of mine (and other artists) asked me to design a custom piece based on one of my older pieces for the most prominent wall in their lovely waterfront mansion.
A commission is a collaboration between two partie
s on one artwork.
Usually, there is a contract involved, and it often will detail the terms of the commission. It’s important to set these terms right away, even if the commission is with a family member or friend. Both parties need to know what’s expected of them and when, and what limits as well.
For example, this commission is for a giant pastel 5’x7’ (this is feet not inches) and will require a sizeable frame with glass. It requires a special support for the board, as well as a special easel to paint it on. Materials and framing will be about half the cost of the painting.
Before I accepted the commission, I gave the buyer a quote for how much the framing, materials, labor and percentage that goes to the gallery would be (yes, the gallery gets a commission on this commission because it is the direct result of the gallery exhibit. Plus, any business that comes my way through the gallery means they deserve a commission! Don’t cheap out on this or we will lose our galleries).
I purposefully round up these numbers so that there is some leeway for hidden expenses (shipping alone on the pastelbord was $300). Also, I want to give them a higher number up front so that the sticker shock happens earlier rather than later in the process.
Once the costs are laid out in a quote, I also provide a timeline. This gives the buyer benchmarks so that they will see the progress on the commission. In this case, each part of the process is contingent upon customer approval. I won’t start the main work until the maquette is approved, won’t start the maquette until the studies are approved, etc.
I’m willing to work with the buyer to make as many studies as they need to be able to picture the details on this large piece so that we are both clear on what the finished product will look like, and there will be no surprises when the large piece is finished and presented.
A commission is rarely someone paying you to paint what you want to paint-a commission is more like a collaborative effort between customer and artist. It’s like having a second voice in your head guiding your hand in color, composition and subject.
I accept this from the outset, and welcome their ideas and suggestions. I want people to be so proud of this painting that everyone who walks into their house has to see the painting, and that hopefully they will donate it to a museum when they day comes to move or divide up their estate. I want this to be a masterpiece as much as they do so I take my time and make it worthwhile.
I also use the highest quality materials I can find, and make sure they are archival. This piece may represent me in a museum someday and I sure don’t want the color to fade or the sparkle to dull.
The first benchmark on the timeline is thumbnail sketches. I usually make three sketches proposing different compositions and themes. In this example the buyers specifically wanted a bold yellow sky with clouds, and birds. Fairly typical Florida scene for me. So I gave them a few choices of birds and did a study with an egret, and a study with ibises. Both species are white and work well with colorful skies and reflected light.
The buyers chose the ibises and requested a beach scene, along with the sunset. So I made two more studies of calm waves and ibises and dramatic waves and ibises. Calm waves were chosen and a request was made for fluffier clouds so I did another cloud study.
Once the studies are approved, then I make a proportionate maquette which is like a smaller scale version of the finished piece. This is a 24x36 version which will take almost as much time as the finished painting to make.
A maquette is something the artist keeps. It’s a version of the finished piece that lays out all the details, color, and composition. Once it’s approved, it will be scaled up and painted almost exactly the same as the maquette. It’s worth the time to do it right and as good as possible. I’ve done three maquettes at this point, two are on permanent display in museums and libraries so I don’t mind doing this step. I have plans for this maquette-it will be the centerpiece of a new series and will be debuted in a Pastel Society show this Spring.
The maquette will be framed and presented for approval to the buyer, but will remain the property of the artist unless stipulated in the contract. All the studies will be the property of the artist as well unless the buyer requests them, which is what the buyer did in my case.
In all my commissions, I provided the studies on “good faith” and stipulated that the first payment of 50% of the cost of the commission be paid upon approval of the studies.
I needed this 50% to cover the costs of the materials and my time.
Once the work has begun on the commission, I send periodic updates to the buyers so that they can see the progress and have a clear idea of when to expect the completed piece. I also want to them to tacitly approve each stage so that when they see the finished piece, they won’t be surprised by anything and will approve it more readily. Nothing sucks more than having to repaint a perfect sky because the cloud looks like somebody’s nose, or something like that.
Final payment for the work comes when the customers are happy with the piece and it is ready for the framer. I opted not to include framing in the cost of this painting, and to offer the framing services of the gallery so that they could make a larger commission on the painting, and I wouldn’t have to try to deliver a framed painting using a full sheet of glass and requiring some strength to hang.
I’ll be on site when the framed piece is delivered and will help with the hanging and placement, as part of the commission. Once final payment is received, the gallery will receive their portion and I’ll receive my paycheck for the work.
While this all sounds like a dream come true, (and it is-to me) there are some potential snafus to look out for…
• Have a clause in the contract that the artist is willing to make X number of changes as part of the commission and any amount above that will require $X pre change. This is especially important for portraits which can be VERY sticky commissions.
• Keep insurance in mind, what if you are painting this piece and your studio burns down? Will your house insurance cover the cost? Do you need to include insurance on the policy? Who is responsible for it at the framer’s? Or in transit?
• Consider a resale agreement which stipulates that if the buyers sell you painting in 20 years that they pay you 10% of the profit (profit is the amount they make above the cost of the commission). This avoids the Van Gogh syndrome where an artist’s work sells for millions but the artist and descendants don’t see a nickel of these profits because the works were sold without resale contracts. There’s no real enforcement of these contracts, but it reminds the buyer that you keep the painting as intellectual property, and are entitled to the benefit of all your hard work and career building.
• As part of any contract, consider adding a clause about final disposition of the painting. Let’s say the family decides to down-size in 20 years and no longer has room for a large piece. Most people don’t know what to do with art they no longer want. Many will discount it and sell it like a piece of furniture which devalues the work, and all of your work. I include information about the tax benefits of donating large, museum-quality paintings to museums, along with a few potential museums that might take a donation this size. The family gets a large tax deduction and your work gets included in a major museum collection. This has happened to me twice now, and I have works in the Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in NY because of it. Nothing major, but my work was included in a collection of East Village artists that was donated to both museums.
• Finally, what if you and the client are unable to reconcile your ideas to the point of completing the commission? It starts off well, but sometimes people think they want something until they actually get it. Then they change their minds, or decide they want something different that is above the scope of the commission. You may wish to include a “kill clause” in the contract stipulating that the commission can be ended at any point by any party and what percentage of the funds may be refunded or retained. Usually this is 50%. Keep that in mind when you are making changes. If the client is being unreasonable, it may be less expensive time-wise to curb your losses and move on. This hasn’t happened to me yet, but has happened to several friends who do portraits. Usually with people who don’t accept how they actually look (I’m not that old! I’m not that fat!) there’s often a disconnect between how we think we look and what we actually look like!
• It’s ok to say no. I have refused commissions in the past that were more than I was willing to do. Mostly murals. I love murals and have painted many murals in my day, some of which have made national news, but today I am older, and slower, and not really up to ladders and heavy paint cans and equipment. I know my limitations. I don’t need to say yes to everything.
I’m sure I have not covered every fine point. Each contract and commission is unique and should be treated that way. My best commissions are ones where I know the clients well and have an idea of their temperament, décor, and taste.
Stay tuned to see the final piece once I have finished it. I’ll send it in an eblast and post on social media. Until then, Happy Painting.