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  • Writer's pictureKaren Ruffles

How to commission an artist - a quick guide to custom artwork.

I get a lot of commission requests and a good chunk of my work is custom orders, which is great but it's become clear that a lot of people are approaching an artist for the first time and understandably, don't know where to start. I decided it would help everyone to have a simple guide to getting what you want first time around.

If I were to give just one piece of advice, it would be to look at the artists website first before you approach them with your request. Most artists have a style, work in particular materials and have a pricing system that reflects the time it takes them to complete something of a particular size. I do fiddly pencil drawings so it takes me ages to do big pieces and so I need to have more hours paid for to cover the job than someone with a more open style. By looking at work they already have for sale, you get an idea of roughly how much certain sizes and subjects are likely to cost which will help you decide if they are the right fit for what you have in mind.

A charcoal drawing of two ghostly figures walking across the surface of a moon, towards a supernova
Moon custom album cover

This album cover is one of my most recent commissions and a good example that helps me explain what I, as an artist, need to know to give you an accurate quote. Here's the starter list.

  1. Subject. Do you know exactly what you want to commission? Are you supplying your own images for a straightforward hand drawn copy, or will I have to source reference material and come up with a design? In this case, I had some song lyrics to refer to which gave me some good ideas but it left a lot open to interpretation and I knew I'd have to factor in my research and layout work, which left less money for the final piece.

  2. Budget. Have you got an amount in mind? If you have, be upfront about it - if it's not enough I'll be honest and say so straight away so you can move on with your search. If it does look like it'll cover what needs doing, that doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to spend the lot, I price fairly and if there's some wiggle room will often give a couple of options for you to think over.

  3. Scale. Budget only helps if I know how much drawing that needs to pay for - that combined with subject means there's a limit on what I can do for any given amount. In this case the album art, while primarily being used for online promotion, would ideally be big enough for vinyl pressings, small posters and so on if the band decided to go down that route, so we agreed on 12" square. Their budget didn't cover that much fiddly but thanks to an open brief, I was able to suggest a composition that kept the focus and the money on the key aspects, the figures and the dying star, while filling in the rest with much simpler work.

A charcoal pencil drawing of a young crow standing on the ground, with a charcoal pencil laid on the paper in the bottom right hand corner
Juvenile crow commission

There are a couple of other things to consider too. What do you intend doing with the art when you have it? If it's going on the wall and that's it, like this cheeky young crow, nice and simple. If you want it for commercial use where you're using it to promote something or intend to sell copies of the work, you will need a licensing agreement from the artist. Usually, we expect to be paid more upfront for that - what I do for indie bands and so on sometimes is write a contract in which the price of the original that they have already paid to me is taken as an advance on royalties, which means they only owe me an agreed percentage on sales after it reaches that threshold. It keeps their costs down initially and covers me if they have a surprise hit and flog a million t-shirts.

Speaking of money, I require payment up front for custom work, which is pretty standard. Custom pieces generally can't quickly be sold through my regular channels, if at all, if anything happens and the client can't pay. To protect yourself as a customer, I recommend a couple of things especially if you're working with an artist new to you.

  1. Request the option to pay in instalments. If you're commissioning something especially big and expensive, see if they can invoice you at agreed stages during the work. That way you can expect to see photos of the work in progress before you release more funds, and the artist has their bills covered as they go.

  2. Check reviews and don't be afraid to get references. If you're commissioning work on a marketplace like Etsy, you'll probably have looked at their rating before you get in touch anyway. If going direct, you can either ask if they have anywhere reviews are posted such as a Facebook page or see if they can supply other testimony. Many of us have worked with other artists in the past and already have professional references we can forward on request.

a charcoal drawing in black and white of two figs on a white background
Figs custom artwork commission for a homewares company

I think that's covered the essentials, if anyone has anything else they'd like to know but were afraid to ask, either leave a comment below, or as always, you can contact me direct.

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