How do I know when I’m ready to start taking on paid commissions?

I often see artists ask the question “How do I know when I’m ready to offer or accept paid commissions?” Whether you’re starting out, or just beginning an art career online, it can be both exciting and slightly terrifying having someone ask you if you take commissions. I remember the first time someone sent me an email asking, and a part from the ‘oh cool, someone really likes my art’, but there was also the ‘why me’ and ‘am I good enough’ questions running around my head as well.

Looking back on my work, I know I’ve made mistakes. Sometimes I’ve said the wrong thing, chosen a particular path with a piece that just didn’t work out, undercharged, worked crazy hours for peanuts, produced pieces that just weren’t exactly what I would have liked to have done. But hey, everyone has to start somewhere, and every commission teaches you something different.

So, back to the question, How do I know I’m ready to start taking on paid commissions?

  1. When someone asks you

    Ok, this sounds pretty obvious, but if someone thinks your art is good enough to approach you about creating a painting or drawing, then you may have the skills to take on a commission*. Art is subjective. You may think your art sucks, but other people may be drawn to it despite all the flaws you see in your own work. There are many artists out there who I look at and don’t understand what the fuss is all about. I’m sure other people feel the same way about my art! Look for emails addressed directly to you, and don’t sound like a ‘dear sir/madam’ kind of email.

    *That being said, someone asking you to draw stuff for free is not a good indication. It’s your choice to do stuff for free, but there are many people out there that seem to think that because art is a ‘luxury’ for them (i.e. not a mortgage, gas bill, groceries), then you should value it in the same way. Personally, I think anyone who expects free art should be ignored. My time is precious, and I wouldn’t expect any valued trades person or artist to do anything for free.

    The Lath'roug by Nicole Cadet

    Commissioned acrylic painting

  2. When you feel you are ready

    This is a hard one to “know”. I can’t remember whether I got emails, or I compared my art to other artists offering commissions and thought, ‘You know what, if they can do it, so can I’. You can start offering commissions at any time you want, it’s all about self-confidence and self-belief. But don’t be discouraged if you don’t get commissions for months, maybe years. It might be that your skills still need polishing, it may be that your work is too similar to another established artist, it may be that no one’s heard of you yet and they want to make sure you’ll be around to finish the work. It may just be the economy. But if you feel ready, are willing to work to someone else’s specifications, be professional in your dealings with the client, and keep working on a painting using colours you’d never normally use or painting things that are outside your comfort zone, then go for it!

  3. When you are able to take a critique on board, or be super critical of your own work – is your skin, and ego, tough enough?

    I added this one because I personally think that if you think someone is picking on you because someone doesn’t think your art is magnificent, or points out anatomy issues, then you probably don’t have the right mindset to work with a client. That doesn’t mean you can’t get upset on occasion – there are some trolls out there on the internet, but you have to remember your client is expecting your best work. You have to be able to listen to a client’s feedback, and if they aren’t happy (within reason), then commission work will just feel like work, and cause you stress. Yes, bad feedback, critical comments, and a client saying ‘you know what, there’s something about the arm that’s bothering me’ can be disheartening, but it’s all a part of the process of working with, and for, someone else.
    Silver Mage by Nicole Cadet

    Silver Mage Commission

  4. When you are willing to be professional

    Paperwork is boring. Follow up emails can take time. For every 10 enquiries, maybe one will actually turn into a paid commission. Be prepared to work with a contract. Be prepared to learn about copyright, image usage rights, stock photo terms of use and legal mumbo jumbo. I always work with a contract – it sounds scary, but it sets out expectations that both you as the artist, and your client have so that there are no misunderstandings. There are plenty examples around, I think I got my basic contract from a fellow artist and modified it for my purposes.

    Also, if you agree on a deadline, be early. It doesn’t matter if it’s a painting for someone’s birthday or a painting for a game release. You don’t want to disappoint your client. Imagine how you’d feel if the book you ordered for your partner or child’s birthday didn’t arrive by their birthday – you certainly won’t be shopping there again!

    I must admit, the communication thing gets me at times. I try to keep updates fairly regular, but sometimes this can slip. Clients will be forgiving to a point, but you always have to put yourself in their shoes – if you don’t talk to them for weeks on end, they may think you’ve done a runner!

  5. When you have time & patience

Commissions take time. If you’re like me, and have a day job that is not painting, then expect to spend weekends or evenings working on a commission. Some commissions will have you researching the strangest things. I’ve learnt about Asian weapons, read Dungeons & Dragons manuals to understand what type of character I’m painting, researched lizards and crocodiles when painting dragons, trawled online game forums to see what kind of climate a particular ‘world’ has. Commissions are not just about knocking out a painting in 5 minutes. You’re the custodian of someone’s character/ book/ idea. Treat it with respect.

Also, I hate seeing artists that accept money from a client, and six months later have done nothing. If you don’t have time to start work then and there, don’t take the money. Be realistic about how many commissions you can do at a time, how long you take to paint, and what you are capable of achieving.

Arnal by Nicole Cadet

So, final thoughts…

Are private commissions for everyone?

Personally, I don’t think so. Some artists lack the self-discipline required to work to someone else’s specifications (there is no room for ego – the artist is not always right when you are painting for someone else!), others just don’t have the right temperament, and some want to keep painting their own things. Many artists prefer different routes to earn money – there are plenty of options. Even those that take on commissions and have done so for a number of years often get discouraged. They have a bad client, they find it feels too much like work or they find themselves painting the same things over and over because that’s what the clients want.

The great news is, you can stop whenever you want (just make sure you finish any outstanding pieces). Just because you are an artist, you are not obligated to do commissions. It’s a choice :)

Do I have to take every commission that comes my way?

No! Artists are individuals with different styles, and different preferences. If you take on something like a ‘pet portrait’ and you hate painting animals, it’s going to feel like work. And when things feel like work, you procrastinate.


Hopefully other artists may find my thoughts useful, though I’m happy for people to disagree, or have different thoughts about when an artist is ready to take on commissions.