Selling Art on Commission: How to Make a Great Living

Have you ever wanted to make a living by selling your art? Selling art on commission is one of the best ways that artists can do this. This blog post will discuss how commission-based sales work, and provide some helpful tips for success.

But there is some confusion as to what selling art on commission actually means.

Selling art on commission can mean a couple of things, the first being that you can create art commissioned by a buyer who pays a deposit up front and you create the work of art for them. 

The other meaning of selling art on commission is to represent an artist as an agent and make money from a sale or have a gallery or agent sell your work for you and they get paid a commission for the sale.

In this post I will cover all these scenarios below.

Scenario: Selling art commissioned by a buyer

“I am an artist, and people commission me to create art for them. How can I make a living?” 

What does it mean when art is commissioned?

When art is commissioned it means selling your artwork on commission. This means a buyer has approached the artist to produce an artwork for them.

The buyer will usually pay a deposit, may sign a commission contract or the artist may accept a commission on good faith.

The artist will produce the artwork and the buyer will then pay the remainder or the amount owed and the artist will ship the artwork or hand the artwork over to the buyer.

That’s what would happen in a sunny day scenario, but the reality is that many artists take the good faith idea literally and are scammed by a buyer who either won’t pay or try to haggle the price after the work is completed.

Personally I have never come across this issue as I have always set the ground rules at the start of the transaction and chosen to either sell in person and have money put into escrow or agree to sell the artwork using an online entity that manages the sale and any subsequent issues for me.

How do art commissions make money when it is an artist selling the artwork?

In this scenario it is the artist who makes money as they profit up front by taking a deposit. This can be used to purchase materials or as a retainer for their time.

I would ask for 50% up front since I was always taking the risk of time and materials.

The reality is that the 50% would cover my costs for time and if the buyer reneged on the deal I would at least have that cost covered and I could recoup a profit by selling the artwork to someone else.

Find what your break-even cost is and ask that amount as a deposit.

Do no be afraid to lose a sale over this, if a buyer really wants your work they will pay.

Scenario: An Art Gallery or Agent is selling my art on a commission basis

“I am an artist, and I am represented by an art gallery or an agent and they sell my artworks for me. How can I make a living?” 

Selling your artwork on commission is one way of making money as an artist. This article will discuss the basics of being commissioned by someone else to produce work that they want you to sell for them, including some tips for how to get started with this type of business venture.

How do commissions work for art in this scenario?

In this scenario , an art gallery or agent is selling the artist’s work for them. In this situation, it can be helpful to have a contract with the commissioning party that specifies how much of a percentage will go to you as well as what expenses they will cover and which ones you must pay yourself.

You may also want to consult with your lawyer before signing any agreements in order for everything to be done legally and protect both parties involved.

What are some tips?

Getting commissions requires building relationships over time, so start by showing people your portfolio at whatever events you attend regularly (school groups, local businesses) where there might already be potential customers interested in purchasing original artwork from emerging artists like yourself.

This could include craft fairs, flea markets or community centers.

How do art commissions make money when it is an art gallery commission?

In this scenario it is the gallery or agent who makes money in the form or a commission as they profit on the final sale of an artwork. The gallery will specify an amount that they will typically take as a commission. 

This can be as high as 50% of the final value of your artwork.

It may seem a lot but a good gallery or agent will ask you what you wish to earn as a base price and they will sell the work for above that amount, ensuring you get at a minimum what you are expecting and they make a tidy profit on top.

Scenario: I am selling another artist’s art and I am paid a commissioned for the sale

I am anyone, I can be an artist or an agent, and I sell an artist’s art for them. How can I make a living?” You will be making most of your money selling other artist’s work for a fee which can be a fixed fee or a percentage.

If you were an artist you would be limited by how many artworks you can produce to sell, as an agent you can sell the artworks of many artists so if you were good at this skill, your ability to make money would be limitless.

As an artist, having someone represent you and selling on your behalf removes the stress of selling and dealing with customers. Allowing you to focus on creating what you love.

How do commissions work for art in this scenario?

Similarly to an agent or gallery selling an artwork, you have taken on the role that is more like an agent and you have agree to sell another artist’s work to your own clients or fan base.

You agree to a commission percentage upfront or a fixed fee that will be deducted from the final sale amount of the artwork.

How do art commissions make money when it is an agent selling an artwork?

In this scenario it is the artist agent who makes money as they profit from a fixed fee or a percentage of the final sale amount.

What are the tips for getting started with commissions?

There are many things that you can do to sell your artwork on commission. Selling online through sites like Etsy or Big Cartel will give you exposure, but not guarantee sales. 

Selling at art fairs is another option as it gives potential buyers a hands-on experience with how they plan to display or use their purchased piece of art. 

You should also consider forming partnerships with interior designers and other businesses who might want access to quality local talent in order to provide customers what they need during projects where custom pieces may be desired. 

Finally, building up your social media accounts so people have an easy way of finding out about new work being produced by you is very helpful because then customers don’t have to go searching and can be notified of your new works.

One way I gained a lot of commissions was listing my availability to take a commission on eBay. Rather than selling an actual artwork I would create a fixed price listing to produce an artwork such as a portrait and detail how long it would take, the mediums I would use etc and then wait for the listing to be sold.

As demand grew I would also list them as an auction and that is how I found my market value.

Do you need a license to sell art commissions?

In the United States it depends on where you live. In some states you will need a license to sell any artwork that is not mass produced.

In California, there are very specific guidelines including having your own studio and being able to prove that you can produce work in a timely manner. 

There are many options when selling art commissions – eBay, Craigslist or even Facebook groups, trade/purchase/sell anything & everything , just remember to be careful when selling artworks online and only deal with buyers in a public place and never at their own home or at your own home.

I would always meet potential buyers at the mall in a crowded area or at a local pub, and even at McDonalds. In the famous words of Agent Mulder – “Trust No One”.

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Can art commissions be free?

I always wondered how can art commissions be free yet this is a common question asked.  Selling art on a commission basis is not free

Selling your work on a fee for service means you will need to charge some fees and those can be as low as $20 or as high as thousands of dollars depending on the nature of the project.

I suggest that artists start at small projects with low commissions before moving up into bigger ones, this way they get their feet wet without delving too deep into their pockets just yet! 

Are art commissions legal?

In the majority of cases ,they are. Selling art on commission is perfectly legal as long as you put in place a contract that states the rights of both parties involved, which means your client gets the right to use it for their project or publication and you get paid for making it! 

These contracts can be very detailed. Keep in mind that some projects might require additional insurance coverage so make sure your clients understand where they stand legally if something goes wrong.

Last thoughts!

Selling art on commission is definitely not easy especially when first starting out but there will always be people who want custom work done and fortunately, this avenue exists for those willing to take it.

I have always taken up this option as it is a great way to build relationships with your fans or develop new ones.

Personally I have earned a good income selling only commissions which is why my body of work to exhibit is quite low. Most if not all of my artwork was produced to order and sold off the plan.

Selling art on commission is a unique form of selling your work to people who are interested in not only the artwork but you as an artist.

Selling art on commission using a gallery is a great way to remove the stress of selling and focus on making art. Afterall, we chose to be artists and not salespeople.

Selling art on commission can be quite hard at first, especially when starting out. However, if someone likes your style and what you do there will always be opportunities for commissions which means it’s possible to make a living off them! 

If you enjoyed this post and found it useful, feel free to share it with other artists looking for an easy to understand of what it means to sell art on commission.

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