Monday, March 18, 2013

Negotiating commissions for paintings

 This post was prompted by someone mentioning to me that their neighbor had a big, fancy house and maybe I should paint a picture of it because the owner might buy it. That is not something I would  do. I paint what I want, that is, unless someone is willing to pay me well to paint what they want. Even then, I have to be at least half way interested in making the picture. I am too lazy to work for money alone, I need a thrill.

 Occasionally I am asked to undertake a commission to  paint a  picture for a client though. Portrait painters do this a lot, landscape painters less often. Still, over the years I have done many. When I opened my first gallery in Rockport in 1983 I decided that I would take any job that came through the door, I figured I would learn from that. I did some crazy things, like repainting part of a circus wagon and replacing a missing head in a spurious Corot. The client loved my work! He said it looked just like Elvis. I had to do a dog portrait or two in that era too. The canid is always dead in those deals, and appears only in one out of focus photograph. It was always a copy the photo job, lots of dreary work and short pay.These days I only am willing to do landscapes and there are a lot of people out there who will paint your house or last year's pup a whole lot cheaper.

Sometimes however a commission comes along for something that falls within the  bounds of my specialty.When it does, what I tell the potential client is exactly this;


 You simply MUST get half up front! Don't undertake any job without it. If they are in for half, they will still want the picture when you have made it. Not getting the down payment will result in your getting stuck working for free. Maybe not the first time or the second, but sooner or later you will get stuck.  This is particularly important if you are making something that only that client would want. You will have a hard time selling a picture of their late poodle-muskrat mix sitting obediently  on  grandmas neon orange afghan to anyone else.

Never accept the entire fee upfront. I want to be rewarded when I finish the job, if I am already paid for it, I have a hard time keeping it ahead of other projects. If I know that when I deliver the piece I get paid, that serves as a carrot on the stick for me. Also, be absolutely sure they understand that the down payment is nonrefundable, you are hired to make the art and you will make it. Thats what the down payment hires you to do.The second payment is your reward for making sure they are happy with the finished piece.

I give them a rough idea of how long it will take me to do it, usually in months. I don't accept tight deadlines. Sometimes a painting can suddenly become a lot more work than I anticipated. Illustrators are skilled in turning out art on short schedules, I am not.

I always provide a frame.That picture is going to have my name on it out there in the world. A handmade closed cornered frame makes my work look best. My client might go to the local framer and get a frame that looks like the box Velveeta comes in. Generally the client is familiar with my work and expects the high quality frames I use anyway.
I often arrange to deliver the finished work in person.  Frequently the client wants some little thing changed. I have my paint kit  in the trunk of my car and I fix whatever it is then and there. The client then has personalized the painting and feels like it is now "theirs". I delivered a painting of Polpis harbor to a client once on Nantucket, they wanted the painting because their catboat was in it. The buyer looked at the new painting with elegant concern and explained that I had failed to include the boom crutch. That's a Y shaped piece of board that secures the boom  when the boat is moored. I installed that boom crutch in about thirty seconds and the buyer was delighted. I hate boats, they sink.

  One of the dangers of  commissions and something that portrait painters face routinely, is when the painting becomes a joint effort between the artist and a second party who knows NOTHING about art. Sometimes they will want  something done in the painting that you know will weaken it. So far I have been able to dissuade my clients from what I know are bad decisions, and they have trusted my judgement. But I have had a few scary moments and I have been lucky that my employers (for that is what they are) have respected my experience enough to defer to my opinion.

As I said above, I went through a period when I accepted every commission that came my way, and that was a great learning experience. Later I decided that it was imperative to be choosier. There were jobs that were worth more than the client was willing to pay, for instance. There were jobs that were distasteful or vulgar. I was once hired to paint a picture of a young boy pulling a sled through a woods full of new fallen snow. The man wouldn't accept the picture until I made the boys butt larger and more appealing. I made it the size of a pair of grapefruit, the child sported a fixture like Jennifer Lopez when I was done with him. But I decided that was enough of that kind of work.

 An offer of a commission is just that, a proffered deal. You are under no compulsion to enter into the arrangement, you need to compare it to the profit and enjoyment you might have from doing something else with your time. Some offered commissions will be profitable for you, and some will not. Guys who build or repair houses learn that, so should you. Picking and choosing which commissions to do can make or break you. There are plenty of people who have little respect for art, or are well meaning but have little idea of the time it takes to make a painting and they will expect you to work for  short money. You deserve to be as well paid as a carpenter.

You should reject those commissions, and wait for better offers to come along.There's an old saying " I bargained with the world for a penny, and that's all it would pay!" I did a lot of that, way too much.  You should place a high value on what you do and you are in a position to insist others to do so as well. If it takes a long time to paint a picture and then you sell it for short money, you have lost money, not made it. That was a hard lesson for me. It took me years to figure that out. Never compromise your quality for money, particularly short money. You will spend the money quickly, but that painting will bear your signature for generations, and it WILL show up on e-bay someday, count on it.


 I have worked weeks to make a 300 dollar painting, but not in a long time. I was once approached by  woman who had just been married, this was in about 1984. She had a picture of herself and her new husband that had been shot  in the later hours of their wedding reception. She hadn't hired a  photographer and wanted me to make a wedding picture from the photo. The offer was 300 bucks. I did a lot of 300 dollar deals in those days. In the picture the porcine lout was grinning foolishly and  had  consumed a drink or two. I never saw the actual groom himself. I explained to her that all I could do was reproduce the photo in paint as I had nothing else to go on. I labored on that portrait for weeks, WEEKS! It was only a 16 by 20. I changed the background to a lovely rose window so it would look look a church. I straightened his tie and removed the crimson from his scelera and the dark five 0'clock shadow from his australopithicine jaw. When she came to pick up the painting I had worked so hard to make, she practically threw the money at me and stomped out of my studio. She expected somehow that I would paint the charming Romeo she knew, rather than the sodden tongueswallower in the photo. Maybe she was unhappy with the way she looked in the photo, I know I was. The moral of this story is, if you must work from a photo, be sure it is a good one. Your client has no idea of the limitations which the bad photo places on you, and expects you to paint what they think of the subject, not what the reference they have given you shows. Regardless of what they pay, people always expect a wonderful work of art. They will never say "oh well, I only paid 300 dollars for it"
My advice is, don't work for money. The world has more ordinary paintings than it needs, work to make beautiful and excellent art. The money will follow. If you absolutely have to make money to survive by your art, make 8 by10's, on spec. But make them wonderful and sincere, sell them cheaply if you must. Sell them on the web for what the market will bear. You will be running a long term plan that will lead to excellence and pride in what you do. Look at your work as building an artist.