A guide to commissioning an artist for the first time

"I remember one artist telling me he didn’t like commissions because [...] he felt it lacked creativity, yet if given carte blanche, he would likely say yes."

Navigating the nuances of the art world can be hard enough when looking to buy an artwork, let alone commission one. But with the latter adding a little more kudos to your collection, to consign an artist and end up with an entirely unique piece that suits your tastes while harnessing the creator’s skill and aesthetic can be a truly rewarding thing, not to mention a great talking point. The hardest part when it comes to commissioning can be knowing where to start. Of course, there is some etiquette (that mainly revolves around not being a demanding prick), but with much of the process varying from artist to artist, we thought it would be worthwhile to cover off a few of the main factors.

While you might be tempted to contact an artist directly — which, in many cases is perfectly acceptable — know that most will have an existing contract with a dealer and this usually applies to commissions too. What’s more, you’ll find that artists, especially experienced ones, often prefer to use their dealer as a point of contact as this protects their interests, their practice and their work (even if it means that person takes a cut). Whitespace gallery owner Deborah White explains how going through a dealer can protect the client too. “Not only can the gallerist ensure that a solid contract is set in place before the artist begins, but the gallery also becomes partly liable for the process in the case that anything goes wrong.” The contract should cover specific details such as how the payment is made, who the copyright belongs to, insurance during the piece’s creation, and insurance during, as well as confirmation of who will complete, the delivery and installation.

While there are many artists for whom commissions serve as bread and butter, not all accept them as a rule of thumb. Those who fall into the latter category, however, can sometimes be swayed. If an artist refuses to commission it’s usually because they don’t want to stray from their artistic persuasions or because they’ve had a bad experience in the past with a difficult client. I remember one artist telling me she didn’t like commissions because the expectations were often off and she felt it lacked creativity, yet if given a ‘carte blanche’ she would likely say yes. Ultimately, it depends on whether you have something specific in mind or whether you simply love an artist’s work and approach it as more of a collaboration. At the very least, it pays to ask. Although not currently accepting commissions due to a busy exhibition schedule, Wellington-based artist Jack Trolove explains that it can all depend on a person’s energy. “Generally, I don’t take on figurative commissions because my job right now is to follow a painting where it wants to go, and that’s something I can’t predict which makes commissions tricky. It depends on an artist’s process and practice. I know lots of artists who really thrive on the collaborative nature of commissions and it feeds them creatively. I have had a couple of connections with people that have developed into commissioned projects. In those cases, they felt like any good relationship — an exchange that is dynamic and alive in both directions”.

It’s a fine line to tread between getting your vision across while not disregarding everything your chosen artist stands for; they are going to need creative licence. Also, just like you wouldn’t ask Picasso to paint like Pollock, you should choose an artist whose style you admire and want to incorporate into the piece at hand. Remember, artists are sensitive by profession and you would be too if you were asked to abandon your entire creative ethos. It’s fine to request certain sizes or colours, or to depict certain meaningful objects within, but it’s not fine to dictate every element of what you want them to paint. On that note, it’s also a big no-no to ask an artist to replicate another artist’s work. There are people who do that and they’re called forgers. If you have a very particular composition in mind, ask for (or provide) a ‘stick- figure’ outline or thumbnail. Unsurprisingly, most artists are imaginative and visual thinkers, so text descriptions rarely get interpreted the way you might think. Visual references are usually well received; it’s better to be as clear as possible from the outset and give as many examples as necessary.

If you’re embarking on a commissioning journey, it depends on the nature of the artwork as to whether it’s appropriate to ask for a work-in-progress review. “To do so implies that you have the right to influence the outcome,” says White, which might be the case if you’re getting a portrait of your dog done, but less so if it’s something more abstract. Once again every artist is different and some may be open to it. If you have to, work it in with the artist beforehand so as to agree on what would be the best stage to do this. But don’t expect to be able to just waltz in and demand significant changes.

If you expect a certain turnaround time, make sure the artist accepts it from the outset i.e. in the contract. A big part of an artist agreeing on a commission piece revolves around how much time it will take away from their regular practice and exhibition schedule. Some artists actually prefer being given deadlines, but most don’t so it pays not to rush the process.

Again, this is different every time and something that should be agreed upon in the initial contract, but in almost all cases, White suggests it is customary to make some form of payment at the start. Not only is this an expression of good faith but it will go some way in helping the artist to buy supplies. In terms of the overall price, haggling is simply not acceptable. The value of a single piece can dictate the value of that artist’s entire oeuvre and therefore his/her livelihood and future projects. Therefore, if you have a strict budget, be sure to let the artist know straight off the bat so that they know what they are working with and can manage expectations. Also, don’t forget to account for extra charges such as delivery and installation.

Accepting that there is a good chance things might not go the way they are anticipated when it comes to commissioning, White also propounds that if gone about properly, there is an equal chance that the result will be one that is cherished for decades. If, as Trolove says, the journey is embarked upon as a true collaboration with the crucial elements of mutual trust and respect… well, that’s where the magic can happen.


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