Friday, March 07, 2008

The Nuts & Bolts of Commission Work

"All Strung Out" - 11 x 14" colored pencil on drafting film.
Copyright 2007 Maggie Stiefvater.
Prints available here.

Okay. Finally back on track! In this post I'm going to outline my commission portrait process. I want to emphasize that this is just the system that works for me -- anyone revamping their portrait process should regard this post as an all-you-can eat buffet. You can take as much or as little as you like, and if the carrots look gross, just leave them there. I won't know.

And as always, ask questions or comment on things you do differently in the comments -- I read every single one and try to reply to all of them. Now let's do this thing!


First things first. Let's assume someone's approached me through e-mail and asked me about portraits. The first thing we're going to talk is prices. I price my portraits by size alone. I used to price based upon complexity, number of subjects, how long it took . . . and all I did was make it hard for the client to predict my pricing and make it impossible for me to remember them off the top of my head.

So instead I averaged out the time spent on my most popular size (11 x 14") and work out what I was charging for that. I turned that into a very inexact mathematical formula which I applied to the time spent on the other common sizes and then rounded them to even numbers. They're logical for clients, easy for me to remember, and fair.


I used to do portraits without getting the money first. Gasp, right? I don't know what I was thinking -- but it didn't take me long to get burned. For awhile I reacted by asking for 100% upfront, which people did without question, but I found that I worked more slowly when I already had the money in hand. (See the painful truths I reveal for you guys? Do you see them?) So I settled on 50% down and 50% on completion. That gives me security and incentive to finish in a timely manner. And it also gives the client some confidence, I think, because they don't have to pay all of it until they actually see a .jpg of the final piece. Giving money to a perfect stranger can be scary. Remember that you're that perfect stranger in most cases.


This is a crucial step of the process. If I don't have good references, I'm not going to get a good portrait. Period. If the client is in my state, I'll go take my own. In this case, I only as for my travel expenses and I give the client a CD with the images on it with the final portrait. This is definitely an extra and don't feel like you have to do this to be a good portrait artist.

If they aren't in state -- and this happens often as I get a lot of commissions from online sources -- then I'm going to have to make do with their photos. Also, dead people and animals don't pose very well (at least for me), so any post mortem portraits will have to be done from client photographs.

This is a scary moment, waiting for the photos to appear. Will they be awful? Beautiful? I have only turned down one commission based upon terrible photos (the cat had gone to that big litter box in the sky and wasn't available for further photographic torment) -- and in the end, we actually worked out a compromise on that one, which I talk about later.

I tell my clients to send me as many photos as they think they need me to see. I need to establish:

  • actual colors (flash will obliterate proper coloration; however, even a blurry photo can establish colors)
  • pose (though I can also play with these with my sketchbook)
  • likeness (a nice crisp photo, please)
  • personality (this is not the same as the above item)
My record is a client who sent over 30 photos for her cat portrait. I didn't mind -- I'd much rather have too many than too few. I also ask for a description of the subject, if I can't meet them. I want to work as much life into this portrait as possible.

I usually get digital photos but make sure if you get snail mail photos to ask if they want them returned.


Sometimes, the client will only have terrible references available. Blurry or flashed or just plain too small. You have two choices then. 1) turn down the commission (I'm loathe to turn down a possible electric bill payment, myself), or 2) fill in the gaps in your knowledge.

This is where communication is essential. If you don't tell the client the references are unworkable, they'll just assume they're fine and be horrified at the portrait of mush that you deliver. If I get unusable references, I go back to the client and tell them right away. If the subject's still breathing, I coach them on taking photos that will give me what I need.

If the subject isn't still walking among us (I'm determined to see how many different ways I can say "dead" in one post), more drastic measures need to be taken. No, I'm not digging up any graves. But I do give the client homework in that case. I tell them about google images and Flickr and I ask them to find photos that fill in the blanks (you can tell at this point that I'm talking about animal portraits, not people). For instance, one client had no photographs that showed her moribund cat's actual eye color. Rather than just guessing at what shade blue she meant, I had her find a photo of a cat with a similar eye color.

Sometimes I do the leg work myself. For instance, if the photo has poor lighting, I'll go in search of a photo with better lighting. Or if I'm combining elements in a portrait (I get asked to do this a lot -- more in the next section), I'll often need to find images to help me out with lighting and shadows or shapes.


Often clients will ask if I can change things from the photo. The answer for me is a resounding yes. In fact, if it was a no, I'd wonder what the point was of doing the portrait in the first place. But I do have my limits. If the request is something like putting a dog on their favorite chair or having a woman snuggling her child where no snuggling had occurred, I'm very happy to do it.

But sometimes I have to say no. A man once asked me to do his portrait. He wanted to be standing on a pedestal while three former presidents stood at the base in baseball uniforms and regarded him. I said no. (this is an absolutely true story, by the way).

Other things I won't change? My style. If someone is asking you for a portrait, it should be because they love your existing body of work. The goal is to create a piece that will fit seamlessly into my current pieces. I'll ask for color input if there's going to be a large field of color in the portrait, but otherwise, my style is the default setting and is unlikely to change.


These used to terrify me. I never wanted to show the portrait to the client because what if they didn't like it? I've worked out a system now, however, where I do a few two-minute thumbnail sketches and send them to the client to approve. This has eliminated 90% of the change requests, because the pose is already worked out.

Then I give my clients the option of seeing the portrait in progress or being surprised at the end. The vast majority prefer to be surprised. The others get to see the portrait twice. Once early on, when I can still make pretty major changes (colored pencil is picky this way). And then at the end, when it's all done and only minor changes can be made. A few times I've had to adjust an eye or a smile at the first stage, but really, I don't angst over this anymore. If you've done your sketches, the major things, the pose issues, are all taken care of.

I used to let my clients push me around, back when I was a tadpole. Before I said very firmly how much I could change and how much I couldn't, I was asked to do all sorts of nit-picky alterations -- colors on sofa cushions and positioning of highlights and random things. And I finally realized that this was entirely my fault. Not the client's. I wasn't emanating self-confidence in my own ability, and I was basically asking the client to second guess me. Now, I'm open to suggestions, but when it comes down to it, I'm the artist. They're just going to have to trust me.

And it works.


First, I show the client a .jpg of the image, unless they want to be surprised. If they approve (I should say when), I send them an invoice for the balance, and I wait until I've received payment to ship.

No exceptions.

Then it's time for the package to go whirling through the postal system. Two words for you:

1) sturdy cardboard
2) insurance

I don't do anything fancy to package the art. I don't frame or mat my pieces -- the client will make all those decisions anyway, and I don't sell frames. I sandwich the art between sturdy cardboard and either bubble wrap it or otherwise cushion it against the post office playing kick ball with the box. I tape a business card to the packaging and jot a little note on the back of it.

Yo! Tis Maggie thanks for buying thanx bye.

Well, slightly better than that.

Then I send it priority (always priority) with insurance and follow up to make sure they've gotten it.

Thus a commission portrait is born.

Rats, I really wanted to work in a dead reference one more time. I had a good one: "living impaired." See, that would've been funny, right?


Gillian McMurray said...

Thank you for sharing this information. I have done a few commissions in my time and have been plagued by bad reference photos - including one of a dog that was so far away I couldn't make out its features. Funnily enough the client really loved the final portrait.

Katherine Tyrrell said...

Three words Maggie, three words!

I (I'm trying to find a polite word for this) laughed out loud when I got to the man and the baseball presidents!

Great advice - you are hereby tagged with 'who's made a mark this week' on Sunday!

Nancy said...

Why wouldn't you do the man with the presidents? Sounds like fun!

Rose Welty said...

Maggie, Thanks for taking the time out to write this series on commissions and the previous ones on style and marketing. They are very thought-provoking and helpful.

Debbie Goode said...

Again, yet another well written and informative article. I have long struggled with pricing---I have also wanted to price according to complexity, size, etc. It is confusing to clients and me! I'm going to sit down today and try to work out my own mathematical formula based on size. This will be good since I flunked basic algebra back in 7th grade and never did recover. Oh well, that's why we have calculators! As to photos, I have worked with some really bad ones too. I do appreciate the tip of having clients look for other animal photos that may help clarify such things as colorations and markings etc. Thanks again for sharing your insights!

Autumnwillow said...

Oh Maggie, you are utterly generous with your wit and wisdom. All hail Maggie, Queen of the Universe!

That being said, it was comforting to realize that I already do most of the stuff you said, so now I feel more confident. I actually just turned down a human portrait due to the absolutely horrid refs, but I can see no way around a bad portrait of a human. (one of the subjects was, um, less than living)

Question... how do you handle something like, say, someone asking you to incorporate their pets into famous paintings? Copyright and all...? I once did a "Dogs Playing Poker" (more accurately, "A Bold Bluff") and was assured that it was no longer protected by copyright, but not sure if that's true... I like to justify it by thinking I'm charging the client for the time it takes to create such a tacky masterpiece rather than the painting itself... does that have any bearing in reality?? I'd rather never do that again, but it gets a lot of attention when I show my portfolio, and I want to be prepared if someone wants a Mona Lisa kitty or something...

Rhonda Hurwitz said...

I enjoyed revisiting your blog after too long away...I love really love your work.
Your comments on your commission process were right on target as far as my own experience is concerned. You would not believe some of the reference I have been given (thank goodness for google images). Still, when you deliver a good portrait and the client is really happy with is, there is no better feeling.

Reflections From Life Art Blog said...

Hi Maggie!

Great article on commissions!! I also wanted to let you know that I just wrote an article on commission contracts, and I included a link to your article for more information on commissions.


Jeanette said...

Great information and very valid points. I've turned down commissions as well due to awful photos - dark, haloed with light. Seems its more common that we think.

'living impaired' - love it! :)

Judy said...

This was a great post! Thank you.

Jo Castillo said...

Ditto the above. I laughed, I smiled, I learned. :)