Sometimes Refusing an Art Commssion is Best

Q: A collector wants to commission me to paint their portrait for a good price. I've done very few commissions, and I'm not sure whether to say yes. One problem is that I tend to wait until the last minute to get started when working on deadline and as a result, I'm sometimes a little late with the finished artwork. Another problem is that this collector wants me to paint a composition that I have almost no experience with. When I told him, he said it was OK; he likes my work and thinks that with his help I can do it. I'm not thrilled about this but then again, I can really use the money. He will pay me half up front and the balance upon completion What do you think?

A: Based on what you've said so far, you should probably think twice about taking it. From what you're saying, several significant things can possibly go wrong, and maybe more. You mention issues that can lead to a potentially bad outcome, so you want to do what you can to minimize the chances of that happening.

To begin with, working on commission is entirely different than working on your own. When you're on your own, you paint whatever you want to paint on your own schedule and that's that. When you're working on commission, you have to work on someone else's timeline rather than your own. They tell you want they would like you to paint and when they would it completed. If you work well with others and are OK with them giving you instructions, then fine, but if you're not, things can get touchy.

As for waiting until the last minute, that's fine if you're working for yourself, but not so good when working for others, especially if this collector is a stickler for wanting things done on time. Being late with the painting is a great excuse for the collector to turn it down, regardless of the reason. In general, nobody likes their deliveries to be late so discuss this with the collector ahead of time, tell them you work best under pressure of a deadline, and ask for their permission to be a little late. If they say OK, then the issue is settled. If they're not, you can either take your chances and work according to their timeline, or turn it down altogether. As long as the two of you come to an understanding ahead of time, on this or any other sticky issue, then you shouldn't have a problem. As an aside, galleries generally avoid artists who don't deliver on time, so be careful not to get a reputation for lateness or it could crimp your career.

As for accepting a commission that includes subject matter you have little experience painting, be aware that there's a risk the collector might not be satisfied with the finished artwork even though he's telling you otherwise. Worse yet, you might not like it either which could be even more problematic. If you are not totally sure you can create a quality work of art according to the collector's specifications, watch out. About the best you can do is to make sure collector is fully aware of how hesitant you really are. Both of you would be a little at fault here if you agreed to move forward and things didn't turn out well, but if that's a chance you're both willing to take, so be it.

The next potential problem is that the collector wants to "help" with those parts of the art that you're worried about. Imagine him standing over you and directing your every move. He says he'll help you along, but he could easily end up doing exactly the opposite-- micromanaging the situation and making the job difficult for you. This is not a good situation for any artist to find themselves in. Discuss in advance what kinds of "help" they're offering, and what exactly that involves. Make sure you're absolutely OK with the amount of control they want over the process before you say yes.

Even if the commission does work out, it could still come back to bite you later. For example, I know a landscape painter who accepted a commission early in his career to do a series of farm animal paintings for a gourmet grocery store. He wasn't that good at painting animals and wasn't that interested in doing the paintings, but he wasn't interested in turning the cash down either. So he took the job, did his best, and in the end, turned over some pretty mediocre art to the store owner.

Several years passed and the painter began to get recognized for his art. He got really good reviews online and in a couple of respected art magazines, had a show at a regional museum, and had a catalogue published of his work. The store owner, meanwhile, heard of the artist's success and to the artist's embarrassment, decided to put the "barnyard series" up for sale. The paintings, of course, reflected poorly on the artist's art and career. People wondered how he could have produced such atypical low quality work and, to end the story quickly and mercifully, the artist is still having to live those paintings down. So think twice before you decide to step out of your comfort zone and make art simply for the money.

Successful commission arrangements come from people or organizations who are familiar with your art, know what you're capable of producing, like what you do, are experienced with commissions, have a pretty good idea of what they're getting into in advance, give you the latitude to do what you do best, and who place minimal restrictions on your creative impulses once the basic details of the commissions are settled. The worst commissions come from those who aren't that familiar with your art, not that experienced with commissions, want too much control and tie your hands with too many restrictions, requests, criticisms, and suggestions at all stages of the work in progress.

Should you decide to accept this commission regardless-- which, to repeat, sounds pretty iffy-- make a drawing of what the finished piece might look like, especially the hard parts, not only to see whether you can pull it off, but even more importantly, to see how he responds. If he likes what he sees and continues to say yes, then maybe take the job, but if you see any hesitation on his part, watch out. If you take it, be sure to invite him to visit at least two or three times while the work is in progress in order to approve of what you're doing. You can also send images, but personal inspections are best. If he makes any suggestions or requests for additions or alterations, hopefully they'll be minor.

The bigger picture here is to trust your instincts anytime you feel uncomfortable in a commission situation. For both parties, full disclosure in advance about any worries or concerns is always best. Negotiate all sensitive matters to everyone's complete satisfaction before you get started. There's absolutely nothing wrong with being direct and straightforward about your reluctance to get involved. Dealing with possible problems sooner than later is the only way to go.

If you sense any hesitancy on the commissioner's part or can't fully work through all of your personal concerns, then you should probably turn the project down. Ignoring or not mentioning potential problems early on or thinking that they'll somehow go away is very risky business. More often than not, they only get worse. Ideally, you want to give the commissioner as many opportunities as possible to gracefully back out of the arrangement. Lastly, be honest with yourself about whether you're the type of artist who can work on commission in the first place or whether you'd rather work by and for yourself exclusively on your own terms.

To learn more about working on commission, read Working on Commission.

And here's even more... Tips for Artists Who Want to Work on Commission.


(art by Will Wilson)

divider line

Current Features

Services for Artists and Collectors


  • artbusiness on Facebook
  • Artbusiness on Twitter
  • Artbusiness on Instagram