Friday, July 2, 2010

My Theory On Commissions

This particular blog is very subjective, and based on my own experiences and personal philosophy.   If you are a collector and reading this, you will know what to consider.  If you are an artist, then you will know how I approach and handle commissions.
     Most of my theory is based on my experience (I should probably say “bias”) as an illustrator and free-lance artist.  Everything I did during that period was commission work, and you learn real fast how to work with agencies or companies that require your services as an artist.
     So know up front, that I have developed this business plan because I have found that it works best for me.  What I’d like to offer to you is 1) my opinion on how to enjoy the process of doing a commission, 2) how to do it on your own terms, and 3) how to negotiate with the person who is commissioning your work.
     The majority of my commission work is paintings of longhorn cattle, horses, dogs and some figurative work.  No matter what you’re painting, each subject matter will present it’s own unique challenges.
     The commission-er is intimately involved with the subject, and when you add the issues of getting the perfect shot, in the perfect environment, you’ve got lots of possibilities for problems.
     My goal with this blog is to help you please the client and make it an enjoyable process for all the parties involved.  So, after meeting with your client and discussing his objective for the commission, I’m going to give you a piece of advice that may seem odd:  Don’t take any money up front!  My second piece of advice is: Don’t take any money up front!
     The reason I’m stressing this is because it’s real important for an artist (at least this artist) to maintain control of the project.  If you can do this, you can control the quality of the finished piece.  When you control the painting, you control the quality.  If you give up control, you will inevitably lose the quality of the painting and you will hate the final product.
     In order to do this, you have to be willing to walk away from the commission.  It’s kind of like buying a car …. follow me, now ….. If you have to have that particular car, then you’re going to pay the price for it.
     So how do you negotiate the control?   Here’s the one ground rule that I establish at the beginning of the agreement:  After discussing what the client has in mind, I will do the painting the best way I think will achieve their goal.  I will use my artistic abilities, and experience, to render a painting that interprets their vision.  If the finished piece pleases the client, they can purchase it. 
     Expressed another way:  If my experience and talent as an artist does not render a piece of art that moves you, then you are under no obligation to purchase it.  We agree that the results were not mutually satisfactory and no harm is done to either party.  It’s just that simple.
     You express to your customer:  “You hired me because you like my work.  If you like my work, let me paint the commission the way I envision it.  I trust in my ability to give you what you want.  And if you’re not satisfied, then you owe me nothing and I will retain the painting for my inventory.  We walk away friends and with no hard feelings.”
     Consider the alternate scenario:  When that customer gives you 50% up front, they have taken some of the artistic power away from you.  Now you are under an obligation to deliver something they will approve.  This can sometimes lead to a micro managing by your client, and at the very least, it introduces the potential for relinquishing your creative license.
     Here are some examples of situations you might encounter from the above scenario:
     “Can you put this little (fill in the blank) in the painting?  Can you change the color of his shirt so it matches my color scheme in my Master Bedroom?  Can you make the background a little more like the sunset I remember in my head from two years ago?”  I am not exaggerating!  I have actually run into these issues in my career.
     (I must interject a thought here:  If I have completely missed a detail that is vital to the accurate rendition of a subject, then I want it pointed out!  I’m all about the painting being “recognizable”.)  
     But when you start fighting elements such as those listed above, before long, you’ve lost control of the painting.  And now you have money involved and a project that can quickly veer off course.  You are trying to “save” a painting that you’ve taken a down payment on; you have a frustrated artist, and you have an unhappy customer.
     In 15 years, I’ve learned that if I don’t take money up front, I have given myself the freedom to complete the painting as I’ve envisioned it (with customer input).  I’ll stress again, I have to be willing to walk away from the sale if my customer is not satisfied.  My experience has been that if given that freedom, I am usually able to interpret their vision, as they have hired me to do.  It’s a win-win conclusion for both of us.
All content and images © J. Mark Kohler Studio.   

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