Getting Your First (or Next) Art Commission


Have people started to notice your sketches? Do you get compliments from friends, or strangers, or both?! Then your first (or next) commission may be right around the corner so get prepared!

As people begin to notice your art and that you’re actually getting pretty good, someone may approach you and ask you if you could do a drawing for them of something specific AND…they’ll pay you for it!

That, my friends, is your first commission!

Being asked to do a commission is a fantastic feeling, especially that very first time. It’s a form of validation (which you should never seek out admittedly) but it feels good when its unsolicited and genuine. 

You can tell it’s genuine because someone wants to pay you to produce some art for them. They want to hang your art on their wall or give it to a loved one as a gift – that’s the best compliment ever…lots of warm and fuzzy feelings and a few bucks in your pocket. It’s a win-win!

But ok yes, it’s a bit scary especially if it’s your first one…so let’s talk it through.

If you’re interested in checking out some of the commissions I have done over the last few years (including my first ever one!) then check out my video below:

How To Get Your First Commission

I have found the first commission usually finds you but don’t be afraid to put the idea into people’s heads that you are ready, willing and able to produce commissions.

If you post a sketch on social media, for example, maybe mention that you are accepting requests if someone wants a specific drawing or painting done.

Try to narrow down what it is you will do though, after all, if you love painting buildings and someone asks for a pet portrait, this may not be something you’re comfortable doing (and vice versa of course). More on this later.

How To Get Out of Your Own Way

You worst enemy can be (and usually is) yourself. Well, that’s what I find anyway. If we spoke to our friends the way we spoke to ourselves, we wouldn’t have any. Below are some of my thoughts on how to get out of your own way. 

Objections

“I’m not good enough”!

Yes, you are.

“I don’t know how to do this”!

Yes, you do.

If these objections were true then whoever asked you for the commission would not have asked you.

Most people ask an artist (don’t cringe when I say that, I saw you!) for a commission because they have seen their work and they like it enough to want to hang it on their wall or give it as a gift. Unless they hate the gift recipient…which is just plain unlikely.

Imposter Syndrome

Most of you have probably heard of this plenty of times. 

Imposter syndrome is:

a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud” (source).

Sound familiar? It’s something most of us have to battle with. I have heard professionals with an actual Masters degree in their chosen field say they have to deal with imposter syndrome!

If I knew how to suppress or defeat imposter syndrome, I’d probably be a millionaire but just know its something that 99% of us deal with in whatever field of study, work or creative pursuit we are in.

It’s a case of having the courage to acknowledge those feelings and trying to get on with it anyway. That’s my two cents.

What Do You Need to ASK Your Client?

When you receive your first (or next) commission, knowing what things to ask for can be most of the battle won.

Failing to get a proper ‘brief’ from your customer can set you up to fail. Not to panic though. Most of this stuff is common sense but can be easy to forget to ask.

  • What do they want painted?
  • Ask for photos of the subject matter, if the photos are not good enough then don’t be afraid to tell them you need better photos
  • Ask if they prefer you to use a specific photo from the ones they sent because of the angle or the lighting etc (I almost got caught out by this before – see below)
  • Ask when they need the painting done by
  • Confirm they have seen your work and that this is the style you will do their commission in
  • If you feel comfortable to do so, ask them the story behind what they want painted (most people provide this upfront anyway). I think having a backstory really helps
  • Any extra elements – some people want names written at the bottom, or a cat added in, or some flowers in the foreground that aren’t in the photo for example.

I was asked to paint a wedding venue (a castle) by the client. He sent me two photos from Google, both from very different angles. He didn’t express any details about which one he preferred or that it needed to be one of the other – and I didn’t ask. He effectively said, “do whatever”. 

Luckily, I did a preliminary sketch (which actually was more of a full painting but that’s my own fault) and sent it to him. He said “oh, erm, well all of our wedding photos were taken in front of the castle from the angle in the other photo. Do you think you could do that angle instead?”

I cursed him under my breath but was thankful I had sent him a sketch for approval. I did a second very quick loose pencil sketch of the second angle and sent it to him…his response was very positive. So that was the angle I did the final painting from.

This could have been a catastrophe so asking for as many details upfront and also keeping a clear line of communication open with your client is essential.


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What Do You Need to TELL Your Client?

Be honest with your client (and yourself) what you will and will not do, what you can and cannot provide. 

Be clear with your customer about:

  • Subject matter – example – I only paint buildings
  • Medium – example – I only sketch in ink and watercolour
  • Size – example – I produce commissions on A4 sized paper
  • Preliminary sketch – I will send a sketch for you to approve before starting the final piece (it’s up to you if you want to do this)
  • When you can send them the final painting by
  • How you will send the painting – example – supported between cardboard in a padded envelope
  • Price and payment process, how and when? – example – PayPal or bank transfer on completion of the painting

When I got a request for a commission from a person in the UK, I had to tell them I was in South Africa and due to the pandemic at the time there were no international couriers so I would not be able to get the original painting to him.

I offered him a solution of doing the painting, scanning it at a super high resolution and then getting a printer within the UK to print a giclee print on high-quality watercolour paper and send it to him. He was happy I was honest with him and the proposed solution and went ahead with the order. He was astounded when he received the print – he wouldn’t have really known it wasn’t an original painting. 

I’ve said no to requests for painting pets and people. I probably could have done them but I just don’t find those subject matters comfortable to sketch. I have found my passion, which is predominantly architecture, and on that basis, I know what I want to say yes to and what I turn down. More about ‘how to say no’ later.

How Much Should You Charge?

Well, there’s a question. How much should you charge for your first commission? Or any commission? This is entirely down to you.

I have charged between £70 and £100 for commissions. My commissions are ink and watercolour illustrations on archival watercolour paper, unframed. 

If you are doing an oil painting, your price is going to be very different to the above. I am assuming as you are reading this post you probably fall closer into the ink and watercolour category.

You could do a hard calculation on cost of materials, your hourly rate, etc but I am not into all that. I charge what I am comfortable with.

Also, if I know for a fact someone is on a lower wage, I will lower my price. I would only know that if I know the person obviously but it is something I take into consideration personally.

I have a friend who charges more in the region of £300 for an A3 framed illustration, which seems fair too.

There is a fine balance between underselling yourself, charging what your worth and being greedy. Do a bit of market research, check out Etsy, survey some friends (or strangers) about how much they would buy a commission for (be specific on what it is, the size and unframed or framed) and try and find a median point.

Some people say I charge too little, some think its just right and maybe there’s some out there who think it’s too much (but they haven’t said it my face, ha ha).

I hope this gives you some ideas as to how to decide how much to charge for your own work.

How To Say No

Finally, I wanted to let you know, it’s ok to say no. And you get better at this with practice I promise! 

Your talents, your time and your mental health are your own and your own to protect. If you are not feeling positively towards a project you owe it to yourself and your client not to accept it. 

Not everything you are offered will be something you want to take, or can do.

Have the fortitude to say no. It is ok. I give you permission. It will save you a lot of hassle, headache and heartache in the long run. Trust me, I’ve been there. This extends outside of commissions too.

But let’s leave it there. I’m no life coach!

Final Thoughts

Being asked to do a commission is one of the biggest compliments (and ego boosts) you can get as an artist. Do not let negative emotions, such as fear, worry, anxiety and low self-esteem get in your way. 

I am the queen of low self-esteem. Not that it’s a competition. But if I can overcome my powerful issues of self-doubt, I know you can. Just keep reminding yourself this person would not have asked you to produce something that they are willing to pay actual hard-earned money for if they did not like your work.

Use the strategies we have discussed above to conquer your fears and make sure you feel confident about the piece you are producing. Ask the right questions, get all of the information you need, do some rough thumbnails or preliminary sketches, be clear about what you will deliver (and when) and stick to it.

Be clear about what you won’t do too, whether it’s a subject matter you don’t want to work with, a medium you don’t work in, a size you can’t produce or providing too many revised versions of a painting. Protect your self and be clear on your boundaries.

Even if your customer is a friend be professional, treat them as a client, if anything it’s good practice for dealing with people you don’t know. Be professional but don’t be afraid to show your personality too – you are an artist after all!

Trust your instinct. If it’s a project you are not feeling happy or excited about, say no. Don’t get caught in a scarcity trap and think if you don’t take the commission nothing else will ever come along. This is not true.

If painting commissions is not your sole source of income – which I’m guessing it’s not otherwise you probably would not be here reading this – then don’t get caught up in the pressure to say yes to every enquiry. This should be fun and as a bonus, you make a little extra cash. That’s it.

I hope this post has been useful!

If you would like more practical nuggets of wisdom dropped right into your inbox once or twice a month maximum (mainly because I’m lazy and secondly because I don’t want to spam you) then pop your email address in the box below!

PS. Did you know I’m running a travel sketching workshop in Morocco in March 2022!!! Check it out.

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