Working on Art Commissions: 5 Key Steps to Turn Inspiration into Success

Creating art for a commission can be a great way to supplement your income and, if all goes well, develop life-long relationships with art collectors. However, the process must be handled thoughtfully, for there are many potential pitfalls.

Chief among these mishaps are poor communications and unrealistic expectations by both the artist and the client. After all, this is basically a business transaction, not an opportunity for free-wheeling creativity.

To be successful, here are five critical rules to keep in mind when considering any request for commissioned work.

5 Essential Guidelines for a Successful Art Commission

Art Commission | Five Essential Guidelines for a Successful Art Commission | First Step | John Hulsey | Artist Daily
Photo courtesy of Getty Images

1. Connect with The Subject

It is important to have a strong affinity for the subject. I have found from experience that if my heart isn’t in the work, it probably won’t turn out well.

I have a fairly wide range of artistic interests, but if the subject doesn’t cause any sparks, I will turn it down.

2. Say No to Third-Party Photos

I don’t paint from photo references supplied by others. If I haven’t personally seen the subject, I cannot interpret it creatively.

3. Communication is Key

There must be good communication between the client and you. Explain in detail what you will do, in what order and by what date.

The client knows exactly what the project will cost and when money is due.

4. Create Photoshop Mockups

To make certain that we all agree on the subject, the type of imagery and medium of the final art, I usually create three mock-ups of the potential compositions in color, either in watercolor or in Photoshop. To build trust, I do this at no charge.

Photoshop is extremely useful for the mock-ups because one can repaint, redesign, recompose and even texturize an image so it is a reasonable facsimile of what the final painting will be.

I recommend asking the client to sign off on one of the images before taking the project any further. If the client can’t agree on one at that point, try creating one or two more—if he or she can be specific about his or her concerns and if the project is large enough.

5. Bump Up the Price

I don’t get involved in price negotiations. My sizes and prices are posted on my website.

When it comes to pricing, one could argue custom work should carry a higher price tag because it is an interruption of an artist’s normal flow of planned work. In fact, some artists charge more for this.

At the end of the day, the artist needs to be happy, too! Read on to learn how I put together my successful commissioned piece, titled Meadow Light.

From Concept to Commission, Step-by-Step

For this custom artwork, my California-based client, a former native resident of Kansas, wanted something to remind her of the woods and meadows she grew up in and had loved as a child.

Art Commission | Five Essential Guidelines for a Successful Art Commission | First Step | John Hulsey | Artist Daily
Sketchbook with the watercolor sketches by John Hulsey

I created three small watercolors for this 30- x 40-inch oil commission based on the early morning light streaming through tall trees surrounding my meadow. If I do my preparation work diligently, I always present three solid options for the client to choose from.

Working in threes gives clients enough choices that they will usually pick one without feeling like they need to see more. Likewise, giving clients several good options is also a great strategy for developing future work.

Art Commission | Five Essential Guidelines for a Successful Art Commission | First Step | John Hulsey | Artist Daily
Initial watercolor study selected by the client

In the case of Meadow Light, my client was so happy with the final painting (which used the second of the three original options), she eventually ordered the other two as well! This has happened multiple times over the years.

Materials

I never cut corners with materials when working on an art commission—no matter my personal bend toward frugality in my personal studio work. When it comes time to produce an art piece for a customer, he or she has the right to expect the best.

I buy the top grade of heavy stretcher bars. If the picture is over 48 inches in any dimension, I go with the Best Pro-Bar aluminum/wood composite bars. They will never warp or bend. Over the stretchers, I use top-grade heavy weight Belgian oil-primed linen. (Check out this article from our blog on how to stretch a primed canvas)

Tonal Block-In

Once I am satisfied that I have a properly squared and stretched painting support, I draw on the composition using a transparent oxide brown thinned with a bit of mineral spirits and painting medium.

Art Commission | Five Essential Guidelines for a Successful Art Commission | First Step | John Hulsey | Artist Daily
Tonal block-in, part 1

With this subject, I decided to paint a tonal block-in. This is an Old Master’s technique, whereby the entire painting is executed in one or two colors, with all values correct and textures suggested accurately.

I used this technique because of the extreme light effects I was trying to represent. Since oil painting is a subtractive process—unlike real light, which is additive—the brightest light I can simulate is right out of the tube of titanium white.

Art Commission | Five Essential Guidelines for a Successful Art Commission | First Step | John Hulsey | Artist Daily
Tonal block-in, part 2

All other values must be subordinate to that reality. Once I got this effect right in the tonal block-in, I only needed to match the values already established with the color over-painting and glazing, which follows.

Color Mixing

Art Commission | Five Essential Guidelines for a Successful Art Commission | First Step | John Hulsey | Artist Daily
Palette 1 with green color string

I prefer to mix my color in strings, from light to dark, often from warm to cool. This ensures color harmony and gives me the greatest variety of temperatures, shades and values to choose from as I go along in the process.

Most importantly, once these colors have been carefully mixed, I don’t have to stop to mix fresh paint, and I am not tempted to add a new, disharmonious color to the mix.

Art Commission | Five Essential Guidelines for a Successful Art Commission | First Step | John Hulsey | Artist Daily
Palette 2 with green color string

The photos above show the two mixes I created to cover all the greens needed for this commissioned painting. In the first mix, I used cadmium lemon mixed out with sap green.

In the second mix, I used cadmium yellow mixed out with ultramarine blue. This gave me a broad range of warmish cools and coolish warms to work from.

Applying Color

Art Commission | Five Essential Guidelines for a Successful Art Commission | First Step | John Hulsey | Artist Daily
Applying color, part 1

Using large, flat hog bristle brushes, I laid in color in big masses being careful to match the values of my block-in correctly right from the start. When doing this, the work goes quickly and I can even begin to suggest edges as I move along the composition.

I am a fan of pentimento. As you can see in the picture above, I leave as much of the underpainting showing through as I can. The little patches of warm, red-brown tones work to vibrate in complement with the vivid greens.

Working background to foreground, cool to warm, makes sense to up build spatial depth and tone.

Art Commission | Five Essential Guidelines for a Successful Art Commission | First Step | John Hulsey | Artist Daily
Applying color, part 2

At this stage, I was not concerned with details, but rather color masses and mood. Using 1-inch and 3/4-inch hog bristle flats and filberts, I suggested the streaming light beams in the background to see how to handle these features.

After hinting at the streams of light, I realized these effects should be worked into wet paint. My approach was to use the hog bristles as long as possible, only switching to sables for the final touches and edge softening.

Art Commission | Five Essential Guidelines for a Successful Art Commission | First Step | John Hulsey | Artist Daily
Applying color, part 3

In my opinion, it’s good practice to hone an art piece from the center of focus, outward. This is the way we naturally see.

If the focal point is well-resolved, then the periphery of the painting can be much less detailed, even having a soft focus effect, and still work beautifully.

Adding Final Touches

Art Commission | Five Essential Guidelines for a Successful Art Commission | First Step | John Hulsey | Artist Daily
Meadow Walk IV by John Hulsey, finished commissioned piece, 30 x40, oil on canvas, sized

For the final stage, edge refinements were carried out, any value adjustments were made and details were added, deleted or refined. At this point in the process, I was working the most opaquely, applying impasto passages for the lightest highlights.

As mentioned, I prefer to work wet into wet to create textures. If an area has already dried, I will repaint it to achieve the effect I need. This may sound like a lot of extra work—and not much fun—but it is far less effort to paint this way than to try to work over stubborn, drying paint.

At this point, we want our paint surfaces to meld as one and work together. We want our brushwork to look fresh and fluid, as though the painting was entirely created in an hour—alla prima.

The Hand Off

Working on a timeline may require the painting to be both dry and varnished before delivery can be made and final payment can be received—which is something to consider before beginning.

To that end, I’ll use a quick-drying medium to speed the process. I prefer Gamblin’s line of mediums and Neo Megilp is my everyday medium to use because it allows plenty of working time but still dries the paint film relatively quickly.

If I need to work quicker, I’ll switch to Gamblin’s Galkyd medium for overnight drying. Galkyd is a less viscous product, so it must be used differently than the Neo Megilp gel.

Experiment with each first to understand the different properties. Of course, if the paint layers are thick, much more time will be needed for drying before any varnish can be applied.

Unless I have the luxury of a lot of time, I generally will apply a thin layer of retouch varnish to a freshly dry-to-the-touch painting to restore the gloss and luminosity before I ship it. For which, I will advise the client of this and recommend that he or she has a local professional apply a final varnish in six months or so.

When it comes to working with a really good long-standing client, you might want to invest in a trip out to his or her location and apply the varnish yourself. This is a great way to cement a relationship and generally results in more commissions or outright painting sales.

Always look for ways to keep the door to future commissions open!

–John and Ann

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John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.

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