The Tricky Business of Commissioned Art: Accepting and Rejecting and Pricing, OH MY!

The Tricky Business of Commissioned Art: Accepting and Rejecting and Pricing, OH MY!

As my lettering practice has grown, so has my desire to share it with the world in a way that's valuable and meaningful for both consumer and creator. Until my Etsy Shop opens next month, the best, most practical way to do that has been to accept requests for commissioned art. 

Well, I have a conflicting relationship with commissions. 

First and foremost, I LOVE making custom art for others, knowing it will hang in their home or be presented as a gift for a loved one. I thrive on that feeling! As a lettering hobbyist, soon-to-be self-employed, that is one of the most rewarding feelings, like, ever! And yes, the extra money is nice to have around and pretty darn affirming as well.

However, the tremendous responsibility that comes with creating commissioned artwork can be overwhelming and unnecessarily stressful. I am an extreme perfectionist when it comes to commissions--which, I think I should be, especially if someone is paying me--but perfectionism can be stifling to the creative process. We are often our own worst critics, and because of that, a lot of us probably never view a piece of our own work as "finished," "ready to be sold," or "good enough for the client." 

Within the past year, I have done a large number of commissions. Definitely a bigger number than I had time for, and some, at skill-levels I was quite uncomfortable with. So, why did I take them on?

To put it simply: experience. Experience is everything. How would I ever hope to open up an online store, or make a fruitful career out of my hobby if I am inexperienced at creating, selling, and/or communicating with potential clients? Thankfully, I have had time on my side, and I've been able to gain experience in the scary creative world while holding a 9-5 job that pays all muh billz. I've also been #blessed to work with clients that are friendly, supportive, and understanding through the rocky and humble beginnings of my process. 

Now, as I'm in full prep-mode for my transition into full-time self-employment, I'm getting a bit more picky-choosy about the amount of commission requests I accept, the kind of requests I accept, and most importantly, the rate I charge. I have not stumbled upon these decisions by accident. It has been a tricky, risky, sometimes awkward road traveled to these personal conclusions. As I'm sure there are so many of you all in the same situation, I want to share my reasoning as to what I will accept, what I won't accept, the volume I'll accept, and how I price my commissions. I have a lot to say, and it is difficult to structure, so bear with me as I dive in.

Doing things for free is tempting in the beginning.....

The vast majority of my commission requests come from friends (even if just by Facebook standards), acquaintances, and friends of friends. Already, this is a slippery slope. In the beginning, I would often not charge a dime---EEK---because I was insecure about my abilities and didn't feel comfortable asking for money. If there's one thing I could go back and tell myself, it would be: don't. Don't do things for free. Obviously, use your judgment! There are certainly situations when it's good and fine to do commissioned work for free:

  • Donating artwork for an auction or charity
  • Creating a piece for your best friend's parents who have taken you on family vacations and fed you so many times you probably owe them your first born
  • Doing meaningful things for close friends
  • Giving art as a gift to welcome a new child
  • The list goes on!

When it comes to these kinds of situations, your judgment will not steer you wrong. But, don't do things for free out of insecurity. The client has chosen to come to you because they've already seen your artwork...they know what they're signing up for. The true danger in doing things for free is the expectation that follows. As in, it is REALLY hard to start charging those same people if they come back to you a second or third time. And what if those first clients tell their friends and family they have received this beautiful art work for free? Others will come to you, expecting the same low-to-no-cost, and it is a really tricky cycle to escape! 

What to do when a person's request is out of your wheelhouse....

In One's Wheelhouse: within the zone that is most advantageous for a batter to hit a home run; within one's area of expertise or interest.

Most of the time, commission requests are for a recreation of something that I've already done on my blog or Instagram. However, sometimes, requests are for things that another person has seen on Pinterest, or in a style or medium I'm not experienced with. 

There are a couple of things wrong with these kinds of requests.

1. Recreating something seen on Pinterest is stealing another artist's work. I don't do that, and you shouldn't either. This is a very easy explanation to give to a potential client, and, in my experience, they will be very understanding. I will even go as far as to track down the original artist's blog or website or Etsy store, and point the potential client in the direction of that artist's store of contact information. It is also helpful to re-introduce your collection of art to the potential client, because there's always a chance they will see something they like, or something they've never seen before and want to work with you!

2. Working in a style or medium that simply isn't 'you.' This should be a no-brainer, but I have taken on these kinds of commissions before because I was just SURE I could make it work, and it has always proven to be a disaster. Either it takes an embarrassing amount of time and effort to complete (and I did it for free because, hey, I was rightfully insecure), or I finished it in a timely manner but the quality of work was AW-FUL, and I've felt embarrassed to send it to the customer. Now, with lots more experience under my belt, unless the request is something I am absolutely comfortable with, I will turn it down and point the client in the direction of another artist who can better suit their needs. 

How much work to accept?

This one is up to you. Like I said, I am an extreme perfectionist. Knowing this, I don't take on as many commissions as I used to because I like to take my time on each request and stay relaxed and confident through the process. Each commission request is different, and naturally, requires a unique amount of time to complete. I try to take on one big project ('big' is a relative term here) and have just two small projects on my plate at a time. If I had to guess, I would say I have an average of about 5-8 commissions on my plate per month. This number of commissions/month is not enough to support me financially, but it's my sweet spot for feeling like I am giving my best effort to each client, and doing so in a timely and cost effective manner. 

Which brings me to my next area of discussion.......

How the heck do you price a commission? 

After I got over the hump of doing things fo' free, I struggled with what to charge. There are so many things to take into consideration when working out your personal rate:

  • Am I trying to support myself, pay rent, pay off debt, or simply have some extra money for fun things on the weekends?
  • Should I charge by the hour? 
  • I know what my materials cost, but what is my labor worth? What is my art worth?

For me, these were the main questions I had to answer before I could come to a conclusion on pricing. I'm not trying to support myself (yet), so I am able to take on less projects, and honestly, probably still undercharge. If I charged by the hour, a simple 5x7 Floral Letter print would cost about $200 because I'm tellin' y'all.....mama works S-L-O-W. And honestly, that last bullet point is all about following your gut. But, here's another way to come to that final conclusion:

I looked at what others on my same 'level' were charging. And then I made a decision on what to charge. Once you get a taste of what is already out there, you'll have a pretty good feel for where you are on the spectrum and what you are comfortable with asking for your work. But, if you still aren't, just ask yourself: is the juice worth the squeeze? 

Sure, I could offer 8x10 floral letter prints for $20 each...I'd probably have people knocking down my doors. Well, that would be a great confidence booster, but I would be working my fingers to the bone, for next to nothing....and that truly takes the fun, rewarding feeling straight out of commissions!

How to present your rates to potential clients with confidence!

This is maybe the MOST important piece of the puzzle because communication is the key. Without communication, there's no client, no commission, and no pay day! When dealing with commissions, and talking money, there are a few awkward exchanges that are bound to pop up. Here are some that I've experienced, and the ways in which I have handled them. 

  • A potential client inquires about a piece you've done, but never mentions compensation--either they're hoping you will do it for free, or money is no object for them. How are you supposed to know which one? This leaves you in the SUPER uncomfortable position of having to bring it up.
    In these cases, I will respond to their request in a timely manner, answer their questions, and attach a price guide that states my average rates per commission and size of commission. At the end of my response e-mail, I like to say something to the effect of: I've attached my pricing guide for you to reference when deciding on the size and type of art you'd like me to create! If you decide to move forward with the commission, I'll send you an invoice, and begin work as soon as the payment has been received.
    Attaching this guide establishes several things: 
    1. This ain't your first rodeo. 
    2. You expect to be paid for your work, and you have already established what your work is worth. 
    3. You've also clearly set the initial payment standards: you won't start working on their project until you've been compensated. 
  • A potential client inquires about a piece you've done, and asks how much you charge. Then, you give them the price, and they no longer want to work with you. 
    Well, unfortunately, this happens to me a lot. And it's fine. I used to get my feelings hurt, and at times, I lowered my rate so that client would want to move forward with the request. If you're comfortable with your rates, lowering them just to get work isn't going to do much in your favor. It just makes it harder to charge your regular rate to the same client in the future, or friends of that client. 
  • A potential client, perhaps someone influential, asks you to take on a project that is incredibly lofty and/or time-consuming, and gives you the bottom line price of what they're willing to pay...take it or leave it!
    This one is tricky, because in some cases, you might want to do something for the sheer fact of publicity. I know I have definitely bitten off more than I can chew to create something for someone with a large social media following, in hopes of attracting more clients. In those cases, use your own judgement! However, if a friend or other potential client asks you to do something for a price that is so obviously not going to work for you, you have to stand your ground, and stand for what you believe is fair. I am typically an over-sharer, so I have no problem explaining that commissions account for part of my income, and without the proper compensation, it's not a smart decision for me to take the project on. Once again, I'll point the client in another direction, in hopes they will have better luck with someone else. It never hurts to share the love with other artists! 
  • Lastly, a friend approaches you, texts you, comments on your Instagram photo and says something like: Hey, can you make me one of those?
    Seriously, this is the worst. They are your FRIEND, after all! How do you say no to a friend? Well, if they're one of those exceptions to the "don't do things fo' free" rule, you will know. If they are not an exception to the rule, you will also know. In these situations, I tell the truth. It's hard and icky, but if they're truly a friend, they'll get it.
    Ex: Hey girl! I'm so sorry, but I'm so super swamped with the opening of my Etsy store, that I just don't have time. However, I will have these same prints for purchase in my store, so if you can wait about a month, you can be the first to order one!
    Like I said, it's hard, and it's icky, but if this is your job and not just a hobby, you have to make that clear in some way! I always think of it like this: would you ask your accountant friend to do your taxes for free? Would you ask your lawyer friend for free representation? Would you ask your photographer friend to photograph your wedding for free? Well, I hope not!

Ok, well I'm just about out of breath after all that! I hope this little chat about commissions has been of some help to you in navigating the tricky creative world! If you have any additional questions about my process, please feel free to  contact me! Inversely, if you have anything to add to the conversation, please comment below for all to see! 

P.S. I STARTED A NEWSLETTER per request of a couple of blog-readers that would like an e-mail notification when a blog post of mine goes live! It seems like a good idea, right? If you want to get in on the action, look below...I can't promise a new free download or printable for signing up (cause, let's be real---I don't have time for that, and you can get those anywhere), but I can guarantee some valuable insight into my life as a small business owner and self-taught hand-letterer, as well as love, support, and encouragement. <3 See you in your inbox (once a week, and no more, I swear!)