Estimating time required for commissions

This isn’t about deadlines, nor is it about hourly rates. It’s about providing estimates (timeframes) to clients for how long you think you’ll take to complete their commissioned painting. In particular, it’s about taking on private commissions when you have a day job, and some of the things you need to factor in when working out how long you’ll need (and possibly how this might affect cost).

Do you have the time? No, do you really have the time?

Chae'nee by Nicole CadetAt the moment I’m working part time, but I did fit in commissions around full time work for several years (and had a social life and other hobbies). This isn’t about being a hero or comparing yourself to other artists. You have to look at your life, your personal situation.

  • Do you have family commitments?
  • Do you have children?
  • Do you have so many hobbies or social activities that you’re home only for sleep?
  • Do you spend a lot of time in transit?
  • Do you need a lot of ‘down time’?
  • Are you studying?
  • Do you work a lot of overtime, or do you have casual shifts where you’re expected to work on a minute’s notice?

Even if you answered no to all of the above, you still have to make time for yourself. Working every spare minute of the day only works for so long, and then you burn out (trust me, I’ve been there and it’s a big nasty hole to dig your way out of). It will begin to feel like ‘work’, and worse, work that you resent.

You need to factor in time away from commissions – whether it is doing personal paintings, playing computer games, getting out and doing another hobby, or just spending time with friends. Have a life outside of work.

After you’ve factored in commitments, sleep, real life and time for yourself, that’s the amount of time ‘possible’ to spend on your art business. Notice I said ‘POSSIBLE’ not what you should spend on commissions.

How I work out my time ‘possible’

I work 4 days a week at the moment. I treat my 5th days as a potential painting day (it’s actually a rest day and I generally have doctors’ appointments, so it’s rare to actually achieve much on this day). I’m not a big social animal or sport fanatic, so the weekend provides two potential working days. The reality is, at least half a day on the weekend is lost to chores, and another half a day to my own personal stuff. I also know that generally one weekend a month the whole weekend is wiped out by family commitments.  I could consider nights during the week as well, but after being at the office for 8 hours I so do not want to jump into more ‘work’. Sometimes I do work during the week, but I might only get a few hours an evening if I’m lucky.

So I work on the basis that I’ve probably got 1-2 days possible (maybe 10-15 hours a week I can work on art commissions). I actually have a lot of ‘free’ time where I’m not at the day job, but just because the time’s available, it doesn’t mean I’m going to work myself into the grave. Those extra hours are kind of bonus work time. I don’t rely on them to get the work done.

So when I estimate 4-6 weeks for a commission, what I am effectively working is about 1-2 weeks at standard hours if was painting full time.

Do you know how you paint? (I.e. are you really, really slow, or can you crank them out quickly?)

Each artist works at a different speed, you’ll even find that your throughput will vary depending on the seasons, whether you’re under the weather,  or if  you’ve got competing priorities going on in your life.

Some artists can crank out a painting in a couple of days, other artists are given a commission and they request a year to complete the painting. There’s no wrong or right way to do it. But you should have some idea of how long you normally take to do a painting similar to what the client is asking for… even I it’s something vague like 6-9 weeks.

I personally think you should be able to provide a rough estimate (if there’s no deadline involved). You wouldn’t take your car to a mechanic and not expect some kind of estimate of when you can get your car back! True, creative work is a little bit different, but you get the point. No one wants to hand over money without some expectation of receiving their product. If you don’t know, break it up into milestones. You may not know how long the whole painting will take, but how long should you spend on research, how long for sketching, how long for actual painting?

Expect things to go wrong… pad the estimate

I try to build in a week or two of ‘fat’. What I mean by this is I never expect a painting to go to plan. A watercolour painting I can do in one or two sittings… that’s if the sketch is sorted and nothing goes wrong (a sitting is roughly a day for me). A digital portrait might take me a couple of hours if I’m in a good ‘painting zone’*.

Inevitably, when I plan to spend specific time on a painting, something comes up… an unexpected visitor, an invitation to something (and yes, you are allowed to have a life outside of ‘work’), a bad case of the flu, etc. These unexpected things are fine when you’re working one job, but as a part time artist, you’re effectively working two jobs, so you need to balance it.

*A ‘painting zone’ is one of these quirky things where it seems the stars align, I have no interruptions and everything just flows. Maybe other artists have these all the time. I don’t. I have similar moments with coding. Sometimes it all just clicks together and becomes easy, other times it’s like swimming against the tide.

Even after nearly 10 years of commissions, some commissions just don’t go to plan. Keep the client informed.

Open hearted by Nicole CadetThe more commissions you do, the better idea you have about how long it should take you, but sometimes things just don’t work out. For example, I’ve got a current private commission that I said should take 6-8 weeks.

Well, that time-frame slipped somewhat.

The sketch phase was problematic (it just did not come together nicely), I had unexpected family things pop up wiping out a long weekend I’d planned to work, I wasn’t happy with the sketch and after talking with the client about it ended up redrafting the sketch which involved re-researching some of the reference material. Add to that the client has been travelling overseas and in and out of communication the past few weeks.

These things I couldn’t have guessed at when I provided the estimate. These kinds of things sometimes happen (I’m also very lucky that the client is a friend so she knows I fully expect her to hunt me down if I don’t deliver an awesome painting ;) )

You have to roll with the punches. Just try to keep the client informed. Let them know in advance if you know things are going to be a bit crazy and things will be delayed. Don’t give them a blow by blow description, just a quick ‘yup, I’m still here, I’m still working’.

Estimating is hard!

Sometimes you’ll get a request and think ‘OMG, I have no idea how long that will take’. With those ones consider if you’ll need lots of time because it’s something you’re unfamiliar with, but are willing to work hard to get it done (tell the client this), or if it’s so far from what you normally paint they probably should be asking a different artist.

Estimates are just that – a rough timeframe … a kind of mutual expectation. Missing a deadline is career breaking, missing a self-imposed estimate can push out other work or stress you out, but if you keep the client up to date, missing an estimate normally won’t destroy your reputation.

Make sure that if things go wrong and you slip a week or two the client’s not relying on your work for something with a definite date (like a birthday present or an announced publishing date). Ask them up front. Tell them that the estimated timeframe is just that, an estimate.

As always, this is my personal opinion and how I work. Feel free to agree or disagree :)

Check out my previous article about knowing when you’re ready to take on commissions