Custom Work + Commissions: When to Accept, Reject, and What to Charge


I just hit my one year mark of officially being in business, but I've been doing custom work and commissions for close to two years. In that time, I've experienced a LOT of ups and downs. Whether I've received requests from friends and family, acquaintances on Facebook, or through my now-closed Etsy Shop, I had seen it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I've always had a love/hate relationship with custom work and commissions.

That is not to say that I don't like doing them. In fact, 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 artist, that is one of the most rewarding feelings, like, ever! 

However, the tremendous responsibility that comes with creating commissioned artwork can be overwhelming and unnecessarily stressful. I am a 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 process of creating the art and working with the client, which can lead to an unhappy artist and unhappy client! 

Within the past two years, I have done a large number of commissions. In the first year, it was definitely a bigger number than I had time for, and for some, at skill-levels I was quite uncomfortable with. In my second year, as an official business owner, I became much more comfortable with commissioned work, because having that shop led me to creating clear boundaries and expectations that made my life (and the life of the clients) 1,000 times easier.

Now that my online shop is closed so I can put more focus into other parts of my business, I feel now is a good time to evaluate what the past two years of doing custom work has looked like, in hopes my experiences can help you! I am in NO WAY an expert, but I definitely have some valuable things to contribute.

What have I learned through my experience so far?

If you're feeling frustrated with custom work, that's normal. If you're sure you want to continue taking custom work on, just know this: Experience is everything. How does anyone ever open up an online store, or make a fruitful career if they are inexperienced at creating, selling, and/or communicating with potential clients? They just do it. If you wait until you're ready, you'll never be ready. As you continue working on projects and communicating with clients, the experience will come, and you'll improve at the process as time goes on. Hopefully, you will be #blessed to work with clients that are friendly, supportive, and understanding through the rocky and humble beginnings of your process. (I'm not saying that to scare you...I've found that most people are very friendly and supportive.)

In the first year of doing custom work, I pretty much took anything on. I wanted the experience and I wanted the money (let's be real!), and I was simply so flattered anyone had asked me. That led to a lot of difficult commissions that were probably way above my head, and a lot of undercharging on my part.

In my second year, as my Etsy shop opened and I was getting some income from a pre-made inventory, I was able to become picky-choosy about the amount of commission requests I accepted, the kind I accepted, and most importantly, the rate I charged. I did not stumble upon those decisions by accident. It was a tricky, risky, and sometimes awkward road traveled to those decisions. 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 accepted, what I rejected, the volume I accepted, and how I priced my commissions. There is 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.....

In the beginning, the vast majority of my commission requests came 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 (even then, use your judgment)
  • 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 (or is that just me?! ha)
  • Doing meaningful commissions 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.

Sometimes, commission requests are for a recreation of something the client saw somewhere else, or for things that are in a style or medium you have zero experience with.

If you're getting these requests, please read these next few paragraphs:

1. Recreating something seen on Pinterest, in Hobby Lobby, online, etc is stealing another artist's work. That's just not cool! It's hard to say no (and maybe you don't have a problem with it...I've definitely seen others take these requests with no shame. Please know that I will remember who you are, and I will judge you. #kileysharshrealities). But, if you don't want to take these requests on, there is a very easy way to explain this to a potential client, and, in my experience, they will be very understanding.

"Hey! I am so flattered you want to work with me. Unfortunately, I can't create this specific piece because of copyright laws. However, I would be happy to work with you to create a brand new piece in my signature style. If you're interested, I would love to share more about my design process with you!"

Obviously you can tweak the above response to best fit your voice, but if you are at a loss, that response is perfect. And it's true. Copyright laws are real, whether you (or the original artist) have applied to have the artwork copyrighted, and you could get in big trouble if you copy someone else's work and the original artist finds out. Best way to avoid this: just don't do it!

However, if you don't want to work with them any further, for whatever reason, I will sometimes 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 purchase something you've already done.

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. With more experience under my belt, unless the request was something I was absolutely comfortable with, I turned it down and pointed the client in the direction of another artist who could better suit their needs. 

How much work to accept?

This one is up to you. Like I said, I started out as a perfectionist, but as time went on, I eased up on myself. In the beginning, I didn't take on very much work because I liked to take my time on each request and stay relaxed and confident through the process. For me, this meant taking on anywhere from 5-8 commissions per month. I wasn't charging much, so that wasn't nearly enough to support me financially, but depending on your prices and your process, that could be too many or too little. Once again, it's up to you. As I got more comfortable with the process when my Etsy store was open, I was taking on custom work left and right because I had really limited myself to creating the type of art that was already in my shop; a type of art I was extremely skilled at, and could get done in a brief amount of time. At my busiest, I was taking on 5-8 custom requests per WEEK. This was a much better paycheck for me, but I still, to this day, never feel like I charged enough!

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. And I never stopped struggling. There are just 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 went from 'fun money' to 'I'm supporting myself,' so there was a shift there. If I charged by the hour, I would have charged twice what was listed in my Etsy shop, but honestly, I don't believe that was a fair price for the product anyway. 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. If you think others are undercharging, by all means...up your price! But, on the inverse, if you're pleasantly surprised at the high prices others are asking, you can be confident in asking about the same. (Disclaimer: I'm NOT saying to copy exact prices, people!)

But, if you aren't comfortable with this method, just ask yourself: is the juice worth the squeeze? 

Sure, I could offer custom 8x10 gold foil prints for $15 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! However, charging double that price is more along the lines of what makes me feel like I'm not wasting my time, and the client is paying for something that didn't come from Hobby Lobby! (No offense to Hobby Lobby, because I could live there.)

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 first thing 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 had 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 would point the client in another direction, in hopes they would 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__________, 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! 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!

    Update: I have since been informed that some people actually do that! I'm shocked! I always offer to pay my friends for their services, if they are professionals..and sometimes, even if they're 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!