08 Jul Collector’s Notebook: Commissioning Fine Works of Art
With the ability to choose from thousands of paintings to purchase from highly respected galleries, museum shows, and art auctions, what factors influence a patron’s decision to commission a specific artwork? And conversely, why do some artists accept commissions while others do not?
Galleries often play an important role in arranging commissions, because they’re familiar with the style of work produced by the artists they represent. Elizabeth Harris, co-owner and director of Insight Gallery in Fredericksburg, Texas, says the gallery represents about 60 artists and about half of them accept commissions. “Some artists are very passionate about certain subjects, and they prefer to paint only the subject matter that inspires them,” she explains. “Others, however, do not mind working with personal requests, and find a great deal of satisfaction in being able to produce a painting that brings joy to their client.”
Harris says the greatest number of requests they receive for commissions are related to creating personal portraits and other figurative works. “The next most popular request is for landscapes or something else the client really loves,” Harris says. “I recently worked with a lady who had a really great image of a barn on her property, and the commissioned piece turned out just beautifully. In other instances, a client may have seen an image by a specific artist, and they want a painting that has the same feel to it, but maybe has a different color theme that works better with their décor.”
Utah-based wildlife artist Luke Frazier enjoys painting commissions for their individuality. “Several of my clients live in Texas. Because many are bird hunters, they want the paintings I do for them to include their specific dogs. For this reason, I travel to their ranches, often spending several days there, so that I can get all the information I need first hand. Most avid bird hunters think of their dogs as part of the family, so I have to work to nail not only their conformation, but also their individual spirits,” he says.
Frazier begins the process by creating studies, primarily focused on the animal’s head. He then configures the hunting scenario, as accurately depicting their ranch is equally as important. “The flora, fauna, and most of all, the terrain have to match the subject matter,” he says. “I enjoy people, so I find that accepting a commission can prove to be fun. One perk of spending time at their homes is that the client relationship often turns into a friendship.”
Frazier’s commissions come from galleries and also directly from collectors. He shares that another motivation for a commissioned piece is that a client sometimes wants an image of a particular wild animal or needs the painting to be a specific size. “I listen to requests and take a lot of what they tell me into consideration,” he says. “However, they chose me as a painter because they like the type of work I do, so I need to be free as an artist to use my own style and judgment. Generally, I also try to paint a scene that I could also later sell if, for some reason, the client does not take it.”
Based on this information, it’s important for the client to remember that although they have paid to have a work created, the artist still retains all of the rights to their work, including the right to reproduce and exhibit the image. Frazier notes, “Generally, reproduction rights are no problem because, nine times out of 10, the patron would like to have reprints for their own use. However, all this should be stipulated in writing at the time of the original agreement.”
Arrangements between artists and patrons generally include for a down payment for the commission, with additional payments spread out over time or the balance paid upon receipt. This allows the artist to budget and plan accordingly.
For some artists, commissions may represent a large portion of their income. Although his work is represented by galleries in California, South Carolina, and Texas, when it comes to selling his work, Russian-born artist Aleksander Titovets also takes advantage of being well known in his chosen hometown of El Paso, Texas. “Local people know me personally and are very familiar with my work. They also have the advantage of being able to make arrangements by coming directly to my studio. In turn, once I have accepted a commission, I am able to go to their home and see where the painting will hang. This enables me to see the light source in the room and also what colors will work best,” he says.
Commissions may also come from sources such as the National Park Service or museums. Titovets was especially pleased when, in 2008, he was chosen by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery to paint the portrait of former First Lady Laura Bush. “It was quite an honor, because hers was the first portrait to be commissioned for the Smithsonian’s new Gallery of First Ladies,” the artist says.
On the surface, one would assume that receiving such a commission would be very positive in terms of enhancing an artist’s reputation. However, Titovets confides, the results were mixed. “Historically, this was good for my career, but practically not so much, because approval of the work was often related to political loyalties rather than an unbiased judgment of the quality of the painting.”
The choice of how to arrange for a commission, using a gallery or working directly with the artist, is generally based on which arrangement best satisfies the needs of the client. Although they can use the internet to contact artists personally, some clients feel more comfortable arranging a commission through a gallery. Harris explains the advantages of this option: “Working with a gallery means that they have an intermediary who can, perhaps, assist in negotiating the price or help clarify exactly what they have in mind.”
Conversely, she notes that artists also like having a gallerist who can encourage the client to allow them a little more space to follow their creative style. Additionally, if the client commissions a non-specific composition — one based more on the use of color and an image they like — the artist may choose to give the client the right of first refusal when it comes to buying the work. This way, the client is not locked into the purchase, and the artist still has the option of selling the work through the gallery.
Whichever route you may choose, commissioning a painting or sculpture offers an exciting opportunity to own artwork that includes your vision and that of your favorite artist
Tips for Commissioning Fine Art
A commission allows one to collect a favorite artist’s work with a personalized touch. For both parties, a clear, concise written agreement is strongly advised. Here are a few other things to consider:
• Become very familiar with the style of the artist before commissioning a painting. This is especially important with portraiture, as some artists create realistic images, while others opt for more stylized renditions. Determine whether you want the artist to work from photographs or if you need to arrange for in-person sittings or time spent at a specific site.
• Make certain that you have a clear image in your mind of the finished work (the subject matter, composition, medium, and size), but remember to allow the artist freedom in their expression.
• It may be desirable to have the artist visit your home, as seeing where the painting will hang provides information related to light sources, colors, and how to approach the subject.
• Even though a client pays for a painting, artists retain the reproduction and exhibition rights to the artwork unless otherwise agreed to in writing. If you want reproductions made of the piece, you need to clarify this and also determine the number, the process to be used, and the cost. Also, consider if you’re willing to give the artist the right to exhibit the work in the future.
• Written agreements should identify the subject matter, size, price, date for completion, and who will pay any related taxes, travel, and shipping costs.
• When discussing price, it’s helpful to provide a price list based on the sales of existing works. If the price for the requested piece differs, be ready to explain why. Standard terms include a 50 percent down payment with the balance paid upon completion and acceptance. Or determine if incremental payments are preferred.
• Discuss how long it will take to complete the painting. It’s advisable to arrange for several meetings with the client to review progress, ensuring fewer surprises.
• Especially for portrait commissions, it’s important to determine the pose and if the artwork requires an in-person sitting. If working from a photo is fine, define the number of photographs needed to complete the artwork and also sketch the preferred pose.
• Deliver the completed painting once it’s paid for in full. If the client is unsatisfied with the final product, there are two options: If the artist goes off-spec or fails to complete the project within the specified time frame, then the entire deposit should be refunded. However, if there’s positive approval along the way, the artist is entitled to retain the initial down payment and the painting with the right to sell the work elsewhere.