5 Things to Consider Before Commissioning an Artist for a Custom Piece

Kathryn O'Shea-Evans
·8 min read
Photo credit: Bench Accounting / Unsplash
Photo credit: Bench Accounting / Unsplash

From House Beautiful

Whether you’ve become besotted with the work of a certain painter or just need something to fill the void above the devan, commissioning an artist to create the perfect piece could be the answer. After all, some of the most famous art pieces of all time—including the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and “The Last Supper”—were commissions. Who says your living room can't follow suit? One catch: There's a bit of risk involved in commissioning a piece, since you don't know exactly how it will turn out from the get-go. So how do you commission an artist in a way that ensures both their sanity and yours, and results in a piece you love? We broke down a few of the FAQs with the expertise of artists, designers, and art curators alike.

First, know that commissions aren’t for everybody.

You wouldn’t tell Monet how to paint a water lily—so please, don’t try with his latter-day peers. “I talked to an art consultant recently who only does commissions with seasoned collectors, because they understand the process,” says Colorado-based consultant Kate Meyers, who owns an art matchmaking service, Kate Finds Art, for residential and commercial clients across the US. “[Commissions are] not something that I would recommend. It depends on the client and how controlling they are. I just really say to people, ‘Look, these are tricky and you have to know that if you have a picture in your head that's exact, it's probably not going to be that, and if you’re not ok with that, you shouldn't do it.’

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Macon, Georgia-based artist Cedric Smith had a great experience painting a portrait of Hank Aaron for the Atlanta airport, but rarely accepts residential commissions due to how controlling the clients can be. “A lot of people, when they're commissioning you, you might as well just put the paint brush in their hands,” he says. “They don't understand a lot of times what they're asking for, it can’t be done. I think they think of it like a customized car.”

If you’re in the Type A camp, skip the commission and take Meyers’s advice for collecting readymade pieces: “Buy art that you love and we’ll figure out where to put it,” she says. “It should all look like it’s going to the same party, but an eclectic party—not like everyone is in the same sorority wearing Lululemon.”

How do you connect with an artist in a professional manner?

If you do want to go the commission route, do as Richmond, Virginia designer Janie Molster does and try their website contact information first. “Often the artist will direct you to a gallery,” she says. “I find a lot of my artist friends and clients prefer to have a third party managing the finances of their commission sales.” After all, you never know how many clients they're juggling at once. Blaire Wheeler, a Nashville-based artist who doesn't work with an agent, is currently working on 25 commissions—all from clients who contacted her directly. She agrees that you should check an artist's website before contacting them to make a new piece: "They usually will have information on how their commission process works."

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What if you get carried away and slide into someone's DMs on Instagram? Don't be surprised if you don't get a response, but just follow the artist's lead if you do: "I personally prefer that a client emails me. Simply because it is easier for me to keep everything organized that way," says Wheeler. "If they do contact me on Instagram, I ask for their email and switch our conversation over that way."

How do you set a price, or haggle?

In the rarefied world of art commissioning, haggling is pretty much a no-no. “We do not typically haggle,” Molster says. “Galleries vary in commission fees, but managing a commission can be very time-consuming, and an artist's representative will earn their fees in the commission process. If purchasing multiple pieces from an artist or gallery, it's not inappropriate to ask for a discount, but it is not standard.”

Wheeler has only had one client haggle over the price of a commission, and it was at an art show. "If you are hesitant on the cost of a custom piece, you can always ask the artist about a payment plan," she advises. "I have had clients do this in the past and I am always happy to work something out. This is a great option, especially for young collectors wanting to get started."

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What kind of downpayment should I expect?

Paying 50% of the total fee as a nonrefundable down payment on the commissioned artwork is the industry standard, whether you’re commissioning a piece for your home or something for your corporate corner office. This is paid at the outset of the agreement, and protects the artist in the event you don't like the finished result; should you like the piece, of course, it'll count towards the overall cost.

“We then pay the balance once the final images of the completed work are received,” Molster says.

What do you need to know about copy-cat artists and issues of appropriation?

Meyers has only ever seen one blatant plagiarism of another artist. “It [was] like copying Hunt Slonem’s Bunnies—it was that obvious,” she recalls. “I said something to the gallery owner who represented the artist, that I saw a fake version, and she said ‘Ugh, she would be furious.’”

Indeed,“It's heartbreaking to invest in a good piece of original art and see it copied months later and available for less on other selling platforms,” Molster says. “But it's not just art that is copied. Iconic furniture and textile designers are ‘knocked off’ all the time. And think about the red carpet on Oscar night...every successful fashion ensemble is available in a few short weeks by a copycat vendor at a lower price. You have to be comfortable that owning the real or original version is worth it to you.”

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And how do you avoid commissioning work from someone who has plagiarized another artist's style? "If you are someone who collects artwork through word of mouth and/or research, you're probably less likely to purchase something fake," says artist Ronni Robinson, whose incredibly popular plaster and paper floral reliefs have been copied by others over the years. "When I’m looking to buy from an artist, the first thing I do is Google them. My next thing is to check their website and then I head over to their social media... Their social media usually tells me everything I need to know in order to see if the person is the real deal or not." You're looking for dedication to the craft, someone who has clearly worked on and evolved their particular style. "It’s very easy to tell the difference between an artist and a person who makes art," Robinson says. "Artists blend their life into their art and their art into their life. They are one. So if you are unsure, take some time to get to know the artist first."

What do you do if—eek—you don’t like the commissioned artwork?

“Most artists are very open to someone coming back and saying once or twice: ‘I really like this, but can you just add a little of this?’ But beyond that, it can get tricky,” Meyers says.

It’s important to remember: The person you commissioned is the professional artist. “I coach my clients that we have to give the artist a bit of leeway for the interpretation of our wishes,” Molster says, adding that if too much guidance is given, the artist can feel restricted creatively. “It is often a leap of faith, which is why it's best to pursue a commission with an artist that you have studied in depth and find yourself drawn to their whole body of work—not just an individual painting.”

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It's also smart to hammer out details before a commission is in progress—for example, if tweaks are possible and if so, how many, Molster says. “If you are not dealing with a local artist, determine who will pay for freight to ship the piece back and forth,” she says. “I have never had to cancel a commission but I could only imagine it being appropriate if the artist was having difficulty delivering the work in the negotiated timeline.” Also wise: doing your homework ahead of time to find out if the artist has done commissions in the past, and having go-betweens like a designer or artist's rep who can vet prior commission practices to help to avoid a bad experience.

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Katrien van der Schueren, founder of Voila! Creative Studio in Los Angeles, has never had a client not like the commission. “[What’s] most important is to have a very open and clear communication in order to avoid any misunderstandings. Visual renderings often help alleviate unexpected surprises,” she says. In the rare case that they need to cancel a commission on their end, “we often refer the client to another artist who would be better for the job, that way we provide a solution if we can,” she says.

In other words, life is short—do your research, pay the deposit, and then play nice.

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