commissions: a creators guide

Updated: Aug 24, 2020

note: audio version of this post on my home page!


let's talk commissions. Commissions are probably the most popular way for most freelance artists to make decent money, because they cost more than a print or sticker(basically products) and are personalized(therefore more desirable to customers).

What is a commission? In simplest terms, custom artwork for a price.


Commissions range from wedding portraits to wall murals to logo designs. It is a very broad term, and doesn't just apply to the art field either.


But...I suspect you didn't click on this post for the information that you already knew. I asked you all on Instagram for your questions about commissions, and the results boiled down to these categories:


 

1. SHOULD I?

2. THE TERMS (+ pricing)

3. THE PROCESS

 

Let's start with the hardest question: should you even open commissions?

I'm going to be brutally honest with you. Your success depends almost entirely on your audience size and quality of art. Personality and personal ties also play a part, but only minimally.


I want you to take a moment to ask yourself:

will my art really sell?


If you're serious about opening commissions, you've probably already seen your fare share of examples. Are your skills on-par with what you've seen? Do you have an audience who is actually enthusiastic about your content? If not, then is your style unique enough to attract customers anyway? If it's not unique or skilled enough, does your content reflect what the mass market wants?


I'm not trying to discourage you guys. I say this to prevent the all-too familiar feeling of: "I just opened commissions! This is awesome!" which transforms into self-doubt and insecurity when you don't receive any offers. It's very easy to get excited about making money before having the abilities to successfully do so.


If you aren't in a situation where you need the money, forget about commissions and focus on honing your skills until you have a 'primed' audience. A good indication of this is if you are actually getting commission requests.


I personally did not publicly open commissions until I had actually finished my first one. Even after I opened my commissions, business was slow. Which worked out for me, because I wasn't actually looking for commissions or money-- I wanted to focus on my personal projects. In fact, I still do.


All I'm saying is: it's great to do research and be prepared for when you open commissions, but if you don't truly believe that you'll get business, you might want to hold off.


Okay, that's all the depressing stuff for this post.

So you decided you want to open commissions!

 

THE TERMS

 

Things you need to figure out:

1. WHAT YOU ARE GOING TO SELL and HOW.

How are customers going to commission you?

  • make a commission form - this is what I do, and I've found it to be easiest. This way, customers can get ALL the information they need before even contacting me: reaching out is scary for some people, but most importantly, most people are lazy and will navigate away from your page if they can't find the information they're looking for).

  • make + share a simple pricing guide and have people message or email you - this is a very popular option. Because commissions are so personalized, it's hard to get each one to fit within a category. Therefore, artists just release pricing and have customers contact them for details.

tip: if you have a website, make a detailed commission section! same goal as the form: make all your information ACCESSIBLE.


What will your art(or other product) consist of?

  • subject matter categories(head, bust, waist, and full body portraits, in my case), and..

  • medium(digital or traditional? If traditional, what medium?)


2. TERMS AND CONDITIONS.

  • What won't you draw? (For me: NSFW, blood/gore, mecha, animals, fancy clothing, etc.)

  • What will cost extra(if anything)? (For me: hands, complicated backgrounds, extra characters) (side note: for extra characters, what percentage of the price is added? I personally add 75% of the base price per extra character.)

  • Will you will draw for commercial use or only personal? (Only personal for me.)

  • Will you accept deadlines? (My terms: No shorter than 2 weeks.)

  • How about cancellations? (No cancellations after WIP sketch approved.)

  • Who has rights? (My terms: me. I suggest you ALWAYS keep rights of your artwork.)

  • If you're doing traditional art commissions, are you willing to ship the piece to them? If so, what's your shipping fee?

  • How will you communicate with the customer? Email? DM?


and finally...

3. PAYMENT STRUCTURE

This one in particular is a really hard choice to decide. First, I'll give you guys a few different options on how to structure your payment. Then, you can decide which one best fits your scenario!


1) full payment upfront. This is an option you will see most bigger artists using, because they have already built up credibility with their consumers via examples. Plus, they can afford to lose a commission or two.

Benefits:

  • prevents art theft.

  • ensures you get payed NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS.

Theoretically, this is the ideal option. But let's take a look at the drawbacks:

  • you run the risk of seeming suspicious. From a customer's perspective, they're offering you payment and they have NO guarantee that you will provide a product. Before you go off all offended, place yourself in the customer's shoes: would you pay a hefty price for a piece of artwork that might not get delivered?


2) half payment upfront. Essentially, the customer pays half the payment before you begin, and the rest at the end.

Benefits:

  • still get some amount of payment before starting just in case

  • increases customer 'trust' because you've shown them that your end goal is not JUST to steal their money

Drawbacks:

  • a hassle because you have to charge twice

  • still..a chance you won't ever receive the rest of that payment


3) full payment halfway. THIS IS THE METHOD I USE. Essentially, I draw the WIP sketch, and once that's approved I take full payment before moving ANY FURTHER.

Benefits:

  • customer trust is basically at its max (with the only superior being full payment at the end, which is dangerous)

  • just as quick/easy as any other single payment option

Drawbacks:

  • again, your sketch could be stolen/customer could disappear before any payment (*see asterisk below for how I sidestep this chance as best as possible)


*TECHNIQUES TO (attempt to) SIDESTEP GETTING YOUR ART STOLEN:

  • Slap an ugly, hard-to-remove watermark on the most valuable part of the sketch (in my case, the face). And everywhere else if you want! Before you receive payment, you can do whatever you want with that sketch, and I'm sure any legitimate customer will understand.

  • Instead of sending a screenshot (if it's digital art), take a picture of the screen(with the sketch displayed, of course) with your phone. This makes the art infinitely harder to steal properly, but the sketch is still perfectly visible. But! Don't take it at an angle, that gives the customer a false idea of what their commission is looking like.

  • Delete/unsend the picture (if you can, like on Insta DMs) after the customer has viewed it once and is done giving feedback. Yes, theoretically they could've screenshotted it right there and then, but if they're inexperienced (AKA, if it's just a normal person wanting to conserve money), they probably didn't think of it yet.


Alright. Now that you've figured out your payment structure, let's talk about

different platforms to accept payment.


Well...not really, because I'm no expert about this.

I use PayPal. You can probably use a different platform, like Venmo or Stripe(is that a thing?), or directly asking for their credit card number...? Anyway, but PayPal has worked for me...albeit with a few hiccups.


LESSONS LEARNT FROM USING PAYPAL:

Paypal has loads of hidden fees.


Here's what they state on their website:

"We charge fees for the following circumstances:

  1. When you receive money from a purchase

  2. When you receive payments from outside your country or region. There is a fee when you send a payment to someone in another country or if you receive a payment from someone in another country. The PayPal User Agreement has specific information.

  3. When you send personal payments using a debit or credit card. For more information on the fees to send money as a personal payment using a debit or credit card, please visit our fees page.

  4. When you send money from your PayPal account to your bank account using an eligible debit or prepaid card. Please visit our fees page for more information. There is no cost if you transfer money from your PayPal account directly to your bank account. If you prefer to receive a check, a small fee will be charged."


In Artist terms, tell your customers to:

  • NEVER check the box that states the transaction is a product payment or otherwise business transaction

  • Try to use their PayPal balance instead of their credit/debit cards or bank accounts.


The way I have been collecting payment nowadays is using the Paypal.me/[username] link. Mine, for example, is Paypal.me/wavylinesem (It also acts as my tip jar!). I send the customer the total price of their commission with a detailed explanation of where each extra cost comes from, if any, and have my customers enter in that amount upon clicking the link. Every PayPal account has a Paypal.me link.


I used to send requests to the customer's paypal email, but I lost some payment for whatever reason on a few transactions, and I've never run into that problem with the .me link.


BOTTOM LINE: Research your payment platform! Be aware of all the options and be flexible.


faq: How do you use PayPal when you're <18?

a: When it comes to this, not being an adult sucks. I talked to my parents(if you don't want to do that, you're out of luck) and my PayPal is actually connected to a relative's identity. Basically, the credit card and bank account connected is not mine. To be honest, most of my earnings just sit in my balance. There are plenty of buying platforms that let you use your PayPal balance (like Etsy and most small shops using Shopify or something) so I don't bother transferring the money back and forth. And because I am not an adult, I don't have to pay taxes and whatnot, so what I earn either goes to charity or for personal use, or reinvested into my art again.


Okay! Now, we're onto what is arguably what causes artists the most pain...