How to Commission Your First Piece of Art
Though it sounds like a luxury reserved for the rich and famous, commissioning a piece of artwork is easier than ever these days. Discovering artists across the globe—be they professional creatives, design students, or even moonlighters who paint on the side—is as simple as scrolling through Instagram. And making commissions isn't as cost-prohibitive as you might imagine. If you’ve ever considered commissioning an original piece, and wondered how to go about the process (or what to do if you hate the piece), keep reading for our tips and tricks.
If you have no idea what kind of piece you want, start by researching and reading about local artists in your area and checking out their portfolios. Scour design blogs and home sites, save the images that speak to you, and create a Pinterest board to collect everything in one visual space.
Once you’ve amassed a collection of images that have caught your eye, you can begin to analyze the similarities. Are they all large-scale? Do you gravitate towards one medium in particular? Are you drawn to abstract art in high-contrast color palettes? Do you like the look of street art in a traditional home? Identifying commonalities will help you figure out what pulls you in. Maybe you have already come across an artist who exclusively produces the kind of art you’re drawn to, or you might have to research artists known for a particular style of artwork.
Another tip? Many artists sell their work at flea markets, craft fairs, and other local exhibitions, including shows at design and art colleges in your area. If you come across the stall of an artist whose work you like, ask if they do commissions.
The next step is to take the initiative to reach out to the artist whose work you’re interested in. Not all artists publicize that they do commissions, and some don’t at all. Reach out, and be genuine. Tell them how you came across their work, why you’re a fan, and that you’d be interested in having a piece commissioned. If you have a general sense for what you’re looking for, state that in your initial email. It may be a subject matter or concept, such as a landscape, in their signature style, or it may be something more specific. Or, you might have absolutely no idea and want input.
Ask if you can set up a time to chat. If prices aren’t already listed on their website, the initial contact email is not the time to discuss price. First, just establish whether the artist has the interest in and time for a commission, as he or she may not.
It's best practice for the artist and client to have an initial consult (in-person or remotely), so the artist can learn more about what you’re looking for. Matters to discuss include: what you want out of the piece, where you want the piece to go (for instance, will it be part of a gallery wall or a stand-alone piece above the bed?), sizing, pricing, and timing.
If you know what you’re looking for, be clear. If you don’t, discuss what you’re unsure about—and where the artist can take artistic license.
The most interesting and fun part about a commission, other than owning something completely personal and original, is the collaboration between you and the artist. Though an artist may have set ideas, if he or she is accustomed to commissions, the two-way nature of the process will come easily. Talk openly; most artists will be excited to discuss ideas so you can mutually create something that you cherish and the artist is proud to have produced.
It’s not always possible for the artist you’re working with to come see your space and view where the artwork will potentially go, but it’s an extremely helpful step when it's in the cards. The exposure level of the artist may dictate how much access you have to his or her time, which is why it can be beneficial to work with up-and-coming local artists.
For instance, when I had my first piece of art commissioned by a local street artist in my city, he came over to my house to talk about my vision. I was able to show him where I wanted the art to go, and he was able to get a sense for my overall aesthetic. He took note of my style and tastes, the space itself, and the art/items I already owned. He paid attention to colors and subject matters I liked, which he ended up using in the piece. Overall, it helped him in his artistic process.
During or after this consult, if you feel confident about what the artist is proposing and agree on it, discuss and finalize size, price, payment terms, delivery, and the overall process. Most artists will allow you to see a proof of the work before proceeding to completion, so that you have the opportunity to make comments and suggest changes if there is something you don’t like. This is the time to discuss the what-if-I-don’t-like-it protocol. Though the purpose of a pre-production proof is to avoid this scenario, many artists offer a right of refusal whereby you don’t have to purchase the piece in full if you hate the finished work and its subject matter is generic enough to be marketable. It will depend on labor involved and material cost, the artist’s own guidelines for commissions, and the topic of your commission.
Every artist will have different pricing, timing, and production processes. Some artists may ask for half of the cost of the piece up front and the remainder upon completion if you’re satisfied with the piece, or all up front and no right of refusal. Some artists may have an installment plan for paying in thirds at predetermined intervals, so don’t hesitate to inquire about flexible payment options.
Delivery of the completed work is an important item to discuss as well. How you get the final product from the artist’s studio to its new home may involve shipping, driving, and/or specific protective and packing materials, and will also depend on the size. The artist may deliver the work as part of the overall price, or you may be expected to retrieve or pay for shipping and handling in addition. Either way, establish how you will get the finished work into your home.
When the artist I worked with on my first commission told me the piece would be on wood (like all of his portable pieces), I thought it was a genius idea for him to white-wash the wood first. I couldn’t envision the raw wood working as well as white wood in our bedroom.
Yet for some reason when the piece was finished, I wasn’t thrilled with what had been my own idea: the whitewashed wood canvas. When I later commissioned a second piece by him and let him run the show—on size, color, and canvas—the piece was exponentially cooler than the one I’d conceived. Though collaboration and back-and-forth is important, ultimately the artist knows best. Release the reins.
As a paying client, it’s tempting to want to control things, but artists do what they do, all day, every day. They are experts in their mediums and styles of work, so let them do their jobs and you’ll be rewarded with original work of art you love.
Have you ever commissioned a piece of art? What advice would you add to this list? Let us know below!