by A. Richard Langley
While it may intrigue and captivate you, a piece of art that you purchase from a gallery may not have all the creative elements you desire. Ever looked at a painting, absolutely loved it but wished it was created in blue tones to complement that antique rug in your living room? You probably also wondered whether commissioning the artist to create a one-of-a-kind artwork just for you would be as much as your kids’ college funds. Commissioning artworks may sound like a luxury reserved only for the rich and the elite, but in today’s time of growing commercialization it has become easier than ever, regardless of your budget.
If you are in search for a work that truly represents your passion, taste, and style, the best way to obtain one is to commission an artist to create a custom piece for you. Famous commissioned works include Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper and Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In modern times, artists such as Andy Warhol and Julian Schnabel have done numerous portrait commissions for celebrities, while artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds was his commission in The Unilever Series for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. These allow you to acquire something completely unique, that is closest to your own artistic vision and that you will cherish for the rest of your life.
Commissioning art is a creatively engaging and rewarding process. However, it is also a commitment of time, money, faith, and trust. So, before you go ahead and commission an artist—established or emerging—you should understand these key guidelines to help you navigate the process.
Determining Creative Vision and Purpose of Commission
The first step in the commissioning process is to determine the following visual elements that comprise your creative concept:
- Subject (e.g., portraits, still life, or animals)
- Medium (e.g., digital art, paintings, or sculpture)
- Movement (e.g., abstract, modern, or contemporary)
These elements will come from your source of inspiration for the commission (e.g., a picture, a photograph, a painting, a setting, or a memory). Of course, it is not necessary for you to think of every single detail, but the more detailed description you provide the artist, the more visually similar the work will be to what you envision. It is also a good idea to receive some inputs from the artist. He or she can guide you through the technicalities of the work and answer any questions you might have in terms of the visual aesthetic or materiality.
The next most important thing to think about is the purpose of the piece, and consider the questions below that can affect the contractual arrangement between you and the artist.
- Will you commission the piece privately? This means that you will not use
the piece for commercial purposes (e.g., advertisements, logos, brochures,
- Will you give the piece as a gift to an individual? If yes, ensure that the recipient understands not to use the piece for commercial purposes. (Learn about gifting art.)
Typically, collectors who request major commissions use the work for private use or donate them for public display. Either way, you must be sure of your vision for the commissioned piece and must communicate it accurately to the artist.
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Setting the Budget and Timeline
Now that you know the creative elements you desire and the purpose of your commission, you need to determine how much you can spend on a commission and when you want it done.
Stick To Your Budget
If your budget is tight, you might consider commissioning an emerging artist. Their pay rate will be lower, and they may have more time and more interest in your commission than an established artist, who may be in high demand. A major plus for the emerging artist is that they can use your commissioned work to build their reputation and audience.
Set A Timeline
Set a realistic timeline of when you need and how long you believe it will take an artist to create the work. Factors to consider include the type of piece you’re requesting, artist workload, and artist work process.
Researching And Choosing An Artist
Finding the right artist to create your custom piece requires diligent research and concentrated focus.
Myriad resources are available to help you research artists who have created works with the subject and in the medium and movement of your request. They include:
- Online research
- Artist personal websites
- Events (e.g., fairs and auctions)
Useful Article: A Collector’s Guide To Different Types Of Artists
Review Personal Websites
Most artists have personal websites where they display their work, discuss their experience, and provide pricing information. Use these websites to find and build a list of artists who’ve done work in areas similar to your request. Review all their work—new, in progress, old—and comments and testimonials.
If the website states that the artist is currently accepting commissions, search for answers to the following questions:
- What’s their base price?
- What’s their standard pricing based on the size or style of the piece?
- Do they charge by the hour or by the completed piece?
Narrow your list down to three qualified artists. If your first choice isn’t able—or doesn’t want—to do your commission, you want to have other choices at the ready.
Useful Article: Art Prices – What Collectors Need to Know
Approaching and Evaluating the Artist
You want to make an impression every time you contact an artist—especially the first time. You may not get another chance to connect with them. While you may be able to send information or contact the artist via their website, it’s not a personal method to introduce yourself and to present your request. Email is the easiest—and most accepted—way to communicate with the artist.
If the first time you meet a suitable artist for your commission is in a gallery, their studio, or at an event, don’t hard sell them on your project. Discussing business in public can make the artist and others uncomfortable. Instead, ask the artist if you can provide them information via email.
Gauge The Artist’s Interest
In your initial contact, you want to gauge the artist’s interest in—and pique their curiosity about—your project. Present a well-crafted, high-level overview and ask the questions below:
- Are they currently accepting commissions? No matter what their website states, always ask the artist if they’re currently accepting commissions. Information on the website may not be fresh.
- Are they interested in doing your commission? Provide the artist with a clear, concise description of your request. This will show that you know what you want—and will help them make a decision.
- What’s their rate for this type of commission? Even if the information is on their website, confirm the artist’s base price, and if they charge by the hour or by the completed piece.
Additionally, provide them with accurate and open information on the purpose of the commission, your budget, and your timeline. Based on the depth and sincerity of their answers, you can sense if there is a creative connection between you and the artist.
Request Studio Visit
If the artist wants the commission, you should request a formal meeting at their studio. You will see their work close up and possibly find a piece close to what you want done. This will help clarify what exactly you have in mind.
You need to feel comfortable interacting with the artist—and be confident that they possess the desire and creative vision to interpret your request. Speaking with them directly will be more instructive than email and phone conversations.
Negotiating the Price
Negotiating the price is always a touchy subject and can end a project before it even starts. You need to understand how the artist determines the price of the piece and try to be flexible. Each project has unique requirements, which affect items such as cost of materials, time worked, and how fast the artist works on concurrent projects.
A commissioned piece is a special commitment for the artist. They can’t show it in galleries, it’s less prestigious than their individual work, and it requires a great deal of administrative time (travel, meetings, communications, and appointments). You must make sure you understand the position of the artist as well and then make any decisions.
Contracting the Commission
A contract is necessary to protect the interests of both you and the artist. Before writing or signing the contract, you should consult an attorney.
The contract should be simple to understand and include specifics such as the appearance (size and medium) of the project, payment schedule and amount, approval process, milestone dates (to see work in progress, etc.), and materials and shipping deadlines.
While emails function as full, legal contracts, it’s best to execute a formal, hard copy contract.
Remember, even though you commission an artist—and pay them—to create a custom piece for you, the artist usually retains most of the creative and usage rights to the work. Learn about the artist’s perspective on navigating art commissions. Commissioning an artist to create a custom piece for you is a special experience, one that is as unique as you and your imagination. More than a non-custom work that you purchase, your one-of-a-kind piece will reflect your creative connection with the artist—and hold deep, personal meaning that inspired you to commission it.
If you are a keen collector, you must try commissioning a piece at least once. It is truly an inspiring experience, and who knows, you might like it a lot more than purchasing ready-made pieces. If you’re interested in commissioning an artwork by one of Agora Gallery’s artists, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have more questions? Ask us in the comments or write to us at email@example.com.