Wednesday, November 3, 2010

About doing commissions

Dear Stape,

I want to know your opinion about working on commissions. Recently I got a commission to do a big abstract painting, then I came to know that they wanted a particular painting in mind and asked me to copy it. Though I didnt feel good about copying, I went ahead because it was good money and I needed that. Does this mean that there is no freedom for the artist in commissions? Or it is not the same case all the time? How much can an artist compromise in such cases? Should I have refused the deal because there was no freedom for me to express in my own way?
Malgasay Orogeny

Dear Malgasay:

This question comes in from India. I like doing commissions, but they do take a little prenegotiation or you can end up holding the short end of the stick.
Here is what you need to tell the client up front.


If they won't give you half up front, walk away. You cannot accept their offer otherwise, because that offer is "make the picture that I describe to you, then if I like it I will buy it". That's a losing hand for you. Anyone who is serious will give you half up front without hesitation, any one who won't, is going to be a problem when the piece is finished. So NEVER, EVER do a commission without half up front. If you aren't going to get paid, find out before you do the job!

You need to agree very clearly on what it is they want you to make. It sounds like this job was a little fuzzy from the start. But now they want you to make a copy of an existing painting. That is not a moral dilemma so long as you write "after so-and so below your signature. Copies are fine but the original artist must be credited. I would suggest that you only copy paintings by artists who are dead. Do not copy anything recent enough to be covered by a copyright. Rembrandt is OK, Warhol would not be.

You do give up some freedom on a commission but that is your choice. If you don't want to do the job, don't take the commission. The person who commissions you has every right to get the painting that they contracted for, just as you have a right to expect payment,. that's the deal. If you don't feel like you have room for your self expression, don't do the job. It is nice to make the paintings and if people like them, they buy them. But you are working on spec.

If there is a dealer involved, getting you the commission I would expect them to take around 15% not half. If your dealer wants more, you will have to decide if you want to take the job, but I wouldn't allow them much more. The beauty of doing commissions is generally that there is no dealer involved and you make the full retail price for yourself.

Most people who have commissioned me to do a painting have been excited about the painting and have been a delight to work with. They chose you to do the painting because of their faith in you. That is a complement to your ability. They deserve the best you can give them. Many commissions result in more work from the client or their friends, so I work hard to make them as good as I can. I have been known to make a second painting if they were dissatisfied with the first.

I hope that works out for you and you learn something from copying that abstract. I would grid up your canvas from a photo of the painting you are copying. That will save you some time and since it is a copy you are doing an essentially mechanical exercise.


Unknown said...

I can see a John Carlson in that photo...

sage advise on the commissions. .. I've had both good and bad experiences with them, and usually the bad experience are with friends who I didn't make a firm agreement with in the first place. My bad....

James Gunter said...

Several years ago, I promised myself that I would never again accept a commission to paint someone's dearly departed pekingese from a blurry Polaroid photo. Another problem I experienced back then was when two people commissioned a painting from me, and then couldn't agree if they liked it or not. These days I insist on painting from life, or from sketches drawn from life. I may also use photos to supplement the sketches, just not blurry Polaroids.

Quote: "If there is a dealer involved, getting you the commission I would expect them to take around 15% not half."

Question: Why 15%?


Rae O'Shea said...

I once did a commission for a group of employees who wanted to give a special gift to their boss. Because there were so many making the decision I insisted that they approve a small watercolor of what I was going to do before I did the large oil. It worked out fine and he loved it, but with a hundred or so people with different opinions it could have been a nightmare.

Philip Koch said...

Stape's suggestion of insisting on a non-refundable half of the sales price up front is a really good idea. Thanks for this post.

billspaintingmn said...

Show me the money!(ha) Most my work is custom (commission) so I agree that half down is the only way.
However a lot is repeat business,
so I may not require half down with some folks.
I most recently am persuing an outlet for my paintings, a gallery is asking 30% of the sale, do I put them in a head lock? or roll over? said...

I'm working on a commission now. I only do paintings that I would paint anyway. That way, I know I can sell it if the client doesn't love it.

Copying another painter's work and selling it is a copy right infringement. They have the commercial rights to their intellectual property. I know, someone copied my work and sold it. It's good to have lawyers, sometimes.

Someone posted yesterday that "sling paint" reminded him of Sling Blade. Well, another name for a Sling Blade is aKaiser Blade, it's a nasty knife.

Cyan is typically copper based liked pthaylo. My cyan is pthaylo, titanium and syn. Ultramarine. I use the old holland cyan blue. It's not as green as a straight pthaylo blue. A bit greener than cobalt. It's a very good pigment combination for color mixing.

willek said...

I'm so happy to get a commission now and then that I don't care if I get paid at all. But so far, only one picture was a nogo. and I had no trouble selling it later. I don't think I would take a commission from someone who I did not think was sincere nor would I do a pictore of something I did not want to paint.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Getting the negotiations right up front is the key to a happy outcome. Fuzzy deals usually end up with you getting the shaft.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Dealers get more when you are a pro portrait painter, but a gallery never hangs or advertises the painting. You may be willing to give them more, but half is way out of line. I used that figure because it is one that galleries and I have used in the past.

Stapleton Kearns said...

The other way to do that is to have them choose one of their number to approve or disapprove the painting.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I won't do the job without half up front. Ever.

Stapleton Kearns said...

They want to handle your paintings for 30% and you don't mean commissions, I would say that is a low rate. Are they an established outfit with a good retail location?

Stapleton Kearns said...

That is a good point and thats why I suggested to limit yourself to copying the dead. Preferably the long dead. Copying old master paintings or 19th century art is cool. Still you must write "after so and so" by your signature. Copying art that is still in copyright is not cool.Rembrandt for instance is fair game, Warhol would not be.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Wiullek; That is OK if you are painting something someone else might want. But if the painting is of their dead poodle and its a 3,000 dollar job, you can't afford to get stuck with it.