The High Price of Commissions

April 22, 2010 at 2:58 am (Artist Musings)

Francesca’s Cross, Commission Piece

[Note: The commission piece pictured is not either one of the commission pieces discussed in this post. In fact, this piece, Francesca’s Cross, was commissioned by one of my best collectors.]

When someone tells me they hate my work (and they sometimes do), I say, “it’s not for everyone.” When someone tells me they love my work, I ask, “what do you like best about it?” But then there is the customer who says, “I like your work, but…”

Recently, I had a customer who purchased a bracelet for his wife. Within hours of purchasing the bracelet (literally hours), he returned the bracelet. Although I offered to giive him a refund,  he decided to take a credit instead.  A month later, his wife came into the studio to pick out a piece. After seeing what I had in my inventory she said, “I like your work, but…”

What followed was her commissioning a piece that she designed. She specified what color beads she wanted me to make, what color crystals she wanted me to use, what size to make the bracelet, and what color and type of findings would look best on the bracelet. Six days after receiving her commissioned piece, she returned it and asked me to issue her a full credit towards a bracelet that I have had in my inventory since her first visit to my studio in January, and which she had tried on several times.  I in no way, shape, or form received any compensation for the labor I put into her commissioned piece or the materials I had to purchase to create her “one-of-a-kind, custom” look. I did end up graciously giving her a full credit towards the new bracelet, but was quick to write on her reciept, “ALL SALES FINAL. NO REFUNDS OR EXCHANGES.”

And this isn’t the first time a commission has gone badly. When I first started making jewelry, a customer commissioned a pendant with an image of a crucifix. When it was completed, she didn’t like the crucifix image and ended up not purchasing the piece. Again, I was not compensated for my labor or materials.

I am not the first artist to find myself in this position. In December 2009, Alyson Stanfield posted this “Deep Thought Thursday” scenario to her readers on her ArtBiz Blog:  “You were thrilled to get that commission, but the excitement soon wore off. You can’t make your client happy! You do and re-do and start all over again. How do you handle an unsatisfied client in a professional manner while standing your ground?”

Twenty-three comments later, the general consensus was that the only way to satisfy “an unreasonable client” while standing your ground is to have a commission agreement. Some comments included specific terms of a commission agreement. Blogger Maria Brophy wrote, “When taking on a commission, we make clear, in writing, the following: 50% down at start; up to 3 sketches will be provided; additional changes are charged per sketch (usually $50 – $100 each, depending on the complexity of the piece); once the sketch is approved, the painting is completed; balance due upon completion.”

Artist Giesela Hoelscher wrote, “This is no doubt the hardest thing about doing custom work. You want to make the client happy but you also want to be fairly compensated. I have a policy with my custom work that small changes are done for free but that anything more than that is billed by the hour. This makes the client really look at the piece and consider what they truly would want changed versus nit picking and putting you through the ringer with multiple rounds of changes.”

While many of the comments on the ArtBiz Blog were specific to fine art commissions, one of the best  commission agreements I found online was from Jeweler Tracey Jenkins of Green Spot Studio. Tracey has just a few simple steps to help her clients “create the perfect heirloom”.  She writes, “communicate your ideas, decide on materials, set a price, sign a contract, and arrange payment.” Tracey’s contracts are written to protect her clients and her studio, and include an Initial Design Contract, Commission of Jewelry Contract, and Client-Provided  Jewelry and Materials Agreement, which is a supplemental contract  to be signed “if the client provides materials to be used in the fabrication process.” Tracey’s approach to commission work is both positive and professional, and one I hope to emulate in the future.

So the next time someone tells me, “I like your work, but…” (and now I know that the “but” is code for “…but I can design it better myself”), I say, “I would be happy to work with you, but…”



  1. Gloria Stengel said,

    That last line says it all, babe! You know I LOVE your work, no ifs ands or buts! I was there for the beginning and think you get better every year! Love ya!


  2. recepti said,

    As a Newbie, I am always searching online for articles that can help me. Thank you


  3. nan said,

    thanks for sharing this thought provoking info, after accepting a number of commissons over the years, i’ve realized creating my own vision is most important i’m pretty sure my profit margins suffer with custom work


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