How to get paid for art commissions and not lose money or time

If you want to get paid for commissions you are going to have to take a deposit upfront. Period. This proves the client is ready to make a financial commitment to the artist and will weed out any time wasters who do not plan on paying an artist. I usually take a 50% deposit upfront. The lowest I accept is 20% if the total amount is large (a few hundred dollars).

The first thing to do in order to get paid for art commissions is to know how the commission process works.

Here’s how a typical happy scenario commission transaction goes:

1) Artist creates a piece of artwork for a client in exchange for money or something else that has monetary value. The artist may be working on multiple assignments at once, creating many pieces of art per month.

2) Client accepts the work from the artist and pays the agreed upon amount, which should be stated in an official written agreement or invoice.

In some cases, there might be no payment involved because it is a gift or trade deal where each party gets what they want without spending any money. However, this kind of arrangement is not typical so the focus is on collecting money.

3) Artist is happy because they were paid for their work. Client is happy because they got the artwork, whether it’s a gift or something that requires no payment.

Sadly the reality is, there are clients who take advantage of artists and there are artists who overcomplicate the sale process which may lead to a bad transaction.

If you educate yourself on the commission process, you can minimize the stress of getting paid and get ahead of any potential problems before they arise.

Understand the commission process – what is expected of both the artist and the client

Getting started

The first step in how to get paid for art commissions is knowing how to price your work. If you’re new to the commission world, then pricing might be pretty intimidating.

You can always start out with a lower price until you get more practice and experience on how to get paid for art commissions.

Later you can raise your prices after building up a loyal following of fans and buyers. Alternatively you can ask a buyer what their budget is and then negotiate a suitable price from there.

Do not be afraid to let a potential art commission go away if the client seems like they will become difficult, if they sound like they are scammers or you don’t think you can deliver what they are asking for.

I have turned down lots of commissions in the past due to these reasons.

If you need to work out how to price your artwork, I have an article that helps here.

The second step to getting paid for art commissions is to use a middleman (a.k.a. an intermediary, go-between or transaction broker).

This is someone who will hold onto the money until you have completed and delivered the art commission to the buyer’s satisfaction.

They also make sure that both parties receive what they agreed to and will usually even help with any disputes if there is a problem. Alternatively you can use an escrow service that will hold the money until the artwork is completed.

The other alternative is to sell your art commission via an eCommerce site such as eBay, etsy or catawiki who will manage the sale process and ensure that any disputes are managed.

Like an escrow service or middleman, there are fees involved which are usually around 10% of the agreed sale price and some charge a fixed rate – so do your homework when it comes to fees so that you do not get any nasty surprises.

Sign up to a payment gateway like PayPal or Stripe.

Use a third party like PayPal or Stripe, who provide merchants with the ability to accept credit and debit card payments online.

Once the customer has paid , all you need to do is send them an invoice that they can pay online.

This makes setting up commissions much quicker and easier – it also gives your customer a better first impression of you as a business, since it shows how professional your operation is.

Some artists opt to use third party payment gateways like PayPal or Stripe instead of accepting cash or checks. I am fine with accepting cash and I do not accept checks.

I also do not spend any deposits or cash received until the customer has received the commission and they are happy with it.

I value my personal brand above everything else so I ensure that if I get into a dispute with a customer, I have the money available to cover a refund or partial refund if needed and not send myself into financial trouble.

Send an invoice with clear terms of payment

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Send an invoice with clear terms or payment, a due date and how you will deliver the commission. Treat it like a contract, describe:

  • what they are being invoiced (charged) for
  • when and how often you will provide progress photos
  • what are the dimensions of the artwork
  • what materials will be used
  • how or where it will be shipped or picked up
  • when the payment is due
  • how it is meant to be paid (cash, card, check etc)
  • note any terms of sale such as refund policy (or link to one of yours online)
  • any taxes you may need to collect or charge
  • the client’s name and your name
  • A note stating that the image cannot be reproduced for commercial purposes without your written permission.

If you use a third party payment gateway, ensure that the customer knows how long it takes for their card to be charged and how to cancel a purchase if they need to before submitting their credit card information. If you do not, remind them as soon as possible after receiving the charge.

If you have an accounting app or use an online accounting service or tool, many of these come with an invoice template you can use.

I have a few examples invoices here.

Freshbooks – artist invoice (needs you to sign up)

Invoice Maker (Art commissions)

How do you write an invoice for art?

You can write an invoice for a commission quickly and easily. Like a normal invoice, art is either a product or a service. So you can write your invoice like a plumber would for a service or you can write your invoice like a shopkeeper would when they sell you art off the shelf.

At the top of your invoice, include how long you think it will take to complete the work – how many hours – and how much – the flat rate – anything else you have charged.

This means that if things go wrong once they’ve started (e.g. they wish to make changes to what you have agreed to or changes to prices or date needed), how much time it will take to make the amendments (e.g. how many hours you think it will take) you have all this information listed upfront.

You can estimate how long you think it will take but be realistic about how long things might take – keep records of how long past commissions have taken to complete so you can use this as a guide for future ones.

I know of so many buyers who have requested a refund because the artists underestimated how long it would take and then took 2 to 3 times longer.

Is the art commission a gift?

As an artist, you also need to ask if the commission is a gift or if there is a date pressure – I have had clients commission art from me mid December expecting me to have it finished and shipped to them before Christmas.

I have also had clients contact me about an art commission for an anniversary present not realising that it takes longer than a few days to paint a portrait.

Your lead times (time it takes for you to prepare, get materials, produce the artwork) and shipping times need to be advised upfront.

Don’t rush a work out of fear of losing an art commission – best to lose the commission than have your name listed as an artist who delivers horrible commissions or late commissions especially if your inability to deliver on time leads to an unhappy special occasion.

How do you determine what to charge for?

The best way to determine how much you should charge for your art commissions is by researching how much other artists are charging.

If you’ve had a few successful sales on your etsy store or website, chances are more people will be interested in paying the same rate as they would if not already familiar with how much it costs.

Another method determine what to charge is to come up with how much time it’s going to take you to finish the commission and how many commissions you’re going to be able to complete at this pace.

The next step is determining how much money you want for your hard work. This is your profit margin.

Many artists charge an hourly rate because it allows them not only compensate for how long it will take them but how much time it takes away from their personal life.

Some artists prefer to work by how how many hours or how many pictures they produce at the end of the day because it’s easier for them to have a set schedule with deadlines.

There are advantages and drawbacks to both methods . I have an article that covers this exact topic.

In any case, whatever you charge ensure you always at least price your work appropriately, taking into account time and materials required so that at least you are not left out of pocket.

Don’t be afraid to take a deposit upfront

Don’t be afraid to take a deposit upfront and don’t be afraid to charge for each revision or each hour of your time unless you are happy to accept the change if it is a small request.

I always ask for 50% of the final price upfront. This covers the purchase of materials and also some of my time as I create the art commissioned. In fact, this covers my time and materials and the other 50% which I get at the end is my profit margin.

It is a formula that has made it a win win for me. It keeps me motivated to complete the work of art as quickly as possible. I also do not take on more work than I can manage.

I once took on so many art commissions that I felt overwhelmed and did none of them. Crazy hey. And that was the experience that forced me to learn to run my art gig as a business and follow business like rules.

Be prepared to negotiate with clients.

Know how much you need to make per hour if not per day. Discuss how long it will take to complete the work of art, what happens if there are delays and how often you will post progress shots of the work in progress.

It’s important that both parties come away happy with how this transaction has worked out. If a client is not prepared to pay your price but you still need the money, you can accept the commission and state that this price is a one-off so that they can’t expect the same price next time or you can offer them a smaller commission or an artwork made with cheaper materials.

This is what happened when I had a client ask to commission an oil painting but only had a budget of $100. My oil paintings started at $500 so I offered them a pencil portrait for $100 and offered to add some watercolor highlights here and there for no additional cost and they accepted.

Keep good records of all commissions, including contact information, dates, and payments received/owed.

This way, if a similar commission pops up in the future you will be able to reference all the details and provide an even more accurate quote.

Detailed records also help with when you have to calculate the tax you owe on your art commissions.

If you are making a casual sale and are not a professional artist, chances are you are not making enough to actually pay tax on earnings but it is best you speak to a tax agent or refer to the taxation body in your country and state as most have online calculators that tell you not only how much you may owe but how to pay them.

Respond promptly to inquiries and requests from clients

If you take too long to respond, chances are your potential client will go elsewhere. This is even more so for commission spots that are in high demand as the person who gets the first response has dibs on it, unless they do not respond back or cancel the spot within a set time limit.

Being responsive also reassures clients that they are dealing with a professional who keeps them at ease. Some clients are just as nervous as you are. Most have never ordered an art commission before and they can be a little anxious, as anxious as you may be as an artist accepting an art commission.

Decide upfront if you want to accept refunds or rework spots

Some artists will offer refunds if you are unsatisfied with how your commission turns out while others may be willing to redo the art piece until you’re happy with how it looks.

This process can take time and money for both parties involved. If you choose not to accept refunds or re-do commissions, this needs to be stated in your contract, agreement or invoice.

I do not offer refunds and I rarely do re-work but that is because I provide lots of progress shots and that is when I ask the buyer if they are happy with the progress and if they want any changes.

It is also good to summarize what you will and won’t do in a written agreement (can be email or a chat message) so that both you and the buyer know exactly what they are getting and what you will do and won’t do.

How do you charge for digital commissions?

Digital commissions should be treated just like any other art commission. The only difference I would add for digital commission is to specify the size of the digital file, any resolution if applicable, how you will deliver the digital commission (will it be email, Dropbox, Google Drive, a USB in the mail etc).

I would also add a line outlining that you still own the digital copyright of the image and that it cannot be reproduced for commercial purposes because many people are commissioning artists for digital work and then reselling it without permission – selling multiple copies of the same work or uploading it to sites that charge for digital stock images.

Are payment gateways like PayPal safe for art commissions?

The payment gateway should not have an impact on how safe it is to receive payments for your art. To avoid any problems, always take a photo of the art commission being wrapped and ready for shipping.

Always get a tracking number or a courier delivery confirmation. Having this information will reduce the chance that a scam client will request a chargeback (where they claim they did not receive the art commission and then demand a refund).

Always respond to the payment gateway emails when they ask about a sale that may have gone bad. They will never just process a refund without checking with you first. If you do the right thing, you will not have a problem.

Are there fees with selling art on merchant sites or via PayPal?

Selling art or art commissions through a merchant site or on PayPal can cost money, especially if you let them hold your funds every month. The fees will depend upon how much money is being moved and how many sales you make per year.

There are also fees for changes in currencies such as when you accept a foreign currency and then need to change it to your local currency.

They may also charge for processing the credit card payments. If you want to keep all of your earnings then use PayPal as little as possible and sell directly from your own website where you have more control over how people pay.

Alternatively, put up an ad on Craigslist instead of using PayPal, eBay or any other major service provider. Just do not post up your bank account details for everyone to see.

Consequently, there are some good services that provide very low transaction fees, but it takes time to set up an account with each one.

No matter what site or merchant you use, I have found that you will need to pay out anything from 5% to 15% for a sale.

So factor these and absorb the cost into your quotes and you won’t need to stress.

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