How To Commission Art (the Long Version)

Nine times out of ten, when somebody who has never (or rarely) commissioned art before reaches out to me about making a piece for them, one of the first questions they ask is, “Umm, so … how do we proceed?”

I then explain how, and we proceed.

Seven times out of ten, when somebody who has often commissioned art before reaches out to me about making a piece for them, they’re unprepared and don’t know how to ask the right questions.

I then clear things up, and we proceed.

So I’ve decided to write this article about commissioning art in the hope that I’ll be able to use it as an exhaustive (exhausting) guide for prospective clients (that’s what someone who commissions art is called). Whether or not you, dear reader, are a client or artist, this might still be interesting if you like art. For the rest of the text, when I say “you,” I’m referring to a hypothetical client.

Furthermore, this whole article assumes we’re talking about commissioning a piece of art to acquire a license to use that art, since I avoid working for hire. I go further into what it precisely means to commission art at the end. But for now, let’s just dive into the mechanics of commissioning art.

Here’s a picture to keep you reading.

An initial sketch. You might end up seeing things like this during the commissioning process.

First: What Do You Want?

Before you can commission an artist you must know, at least roughly, what you want. Not least because the description of the work helps the artist figure out whether they can create it and how much it will cost to make.

I cannot overstate this. Find an aesthetic you enjoy, that speaks to you. When you find an artist, review their work and portfolio. Then talk to them.

Things You Should Absolutely Talk About With Your Artist

  1. What is the idea behind the artwork? It can be abstract (“love” or “space”), concrete (“tree” or “knife”), action (“fight” or “flight”), or something weirder (“space-lovin’ trees having a knife fight while in flight”).
  2. What should the artwork communicate? If you’re getting illustrations for a book or for a music album, you should be able to summarize what the existing work is about. Think of this as your elevator pitch to the artist—ideally you’ll get them excited to work with you.
  3. What kind of style do you want? The artist almost certainly has their own style(s) and preferences. Look through their portfolios or social media accounts and pick out a few of their pieces to use as a starting point for your discussions.
  4. Do you have reference materials? Photos of landscapes, examples of works by other artists in other media, songs, anything else that helps convey your idea may help.
  5. How and where will you use the art? If you want art to display on your wall or to print in your magazine or to turn into a decal will require different skills and approaches.
    1. The size you require (preferably in metric units or pixels for screen use).
    2. How will it be reproduced (black and white or color, paper or screen, etc.).
    3. How will it fit into its surroundings? If it’s spot art (art to fill a blank part of a layout) or a header, decorative or a centrepiece, these things matter.
  6. When do you need it? This one might seem really obvious, but lots of people forget it. If you want something very complex it might well be impossible to deliver quickly.
  7. What is your budget? This doesn’t have to be a final amount, but at least a ballpark will really help. If you’ve sold the artist on a cool idea, they might well be willing to lower their prices a bit. Same if, while the price per piece is a bit low, the scope is large, this might help. On the other hand, if you’re open to negotiating up or down a fair bit, write this down explicitly, for example, “we talked about a rough budget of $1,000 for 5 color pieces, but we really have no idea what your rates are, so we’re totally open to negotiating something that fits, since we really want to work with you.”

These seven questions will provide you with a basis for talking with your artist. Be polite and respectful, and realize that they might well turn you down if they are too busy or your budget is too small. As a rule, if you communicate politely, you can expect polite explanations, and recommendations of other artists. Here’s an example of good initial communication:

“Hi Luka!

I really loved your work in the Ultraviolet Grasslands. The mixed styles, the inks and the vivid colors, really resonated with me.

I’m recording a song about the end of an ant civilization from the perspective of an eyewitness ant-priest when some humans pour molten aluminum into their nest. I’d like to commission some of your art to use as album art and as a cover image on YouTube other social media.

I’ve only got a tiny budget, maybe $100, but I’d be really keen on something colorful, with thin lines, like this piece on your instagram:”

—Imaginary Human

The imaginary client is really clear about their ideas and the style they’re looking for. Sure, they’ve left out some details, but based on budget (tiny) and that they’re still recording, I get the impression that this project won’t complete quickly. If I had time available, I might well be able to cook up some way to work with them, recombining fees, royalties, and license.

Just remember, when you work with an artist, you’re paying for their unique creativity, perspective, and approach to a subject matter—not for the exact depiction of an image you have in your head. If you approach commissioning art as a way to turn your precise vision into reality, you will be deeply disappointed (and the artist will likely hate you).

Bit more art, to keep you interested.

Usually, the inking follows the sketching … but I also work directly in ink when I’m feeling unpredictable.

Second: The Scope of Use

This is a detailed description of how you will use the art. Nailing down the scope usually happens during the second email, if you and the artist figure out that you can work together after all. It’s basically defining what kind of license to use the art you’re buying.

What Is The Scope?

  1. First, you have to define if the scope is private use or commercial use. If you’re commissioning art to hang in your foyer, things are simpler than if you’re commissioning it to go on t-shirts.
  2. The scope then defines what kind of license you’re buying. I usually give limited, non-exclusive licenses for using my work. This means you’re limited regarding:
    1. For how long you can use the art (a year? ten?).
    2. In what media (digital, print, cups, t-sirts).
    3. The size (if I supply art sized for a 300x300mm 300dpi print, you can’t use it on a billboard).
    4. The format (you can’t modify a portrait with text and logos, perhaps, or use a header image to design a product wrapper).
    5. Location of use (the countries and markets where you intend to sell the product).
  3. Usually, this means explicitly listing the products where the art can be reproduced. Countries where they can be sold, and for how long they can be sold. If you explicitly list mugs, cups, and plates—but not bowls and wine glasses—then you can’t reproduce the art on bowls and wine glasses. The more specific you get, the better (generally) for the artist.
  4. Termination date and renewal options are also something to discuss. Being clear on this kind of stuff protects everyone, client and artist.

The scope is so involved because it is intimately tied to the fee: the money you pay the artist to commission and use their art. But first, another bit of art.

Colors maketh depth.

Three: The Fee

Almost every potential client trying to commission art first asks something like, “How much would it cost to illustrate Sisyphus P. Helmet, my heroic character? I want a color picture, 30 inches by 20.”

And almost every time I have to answer, “Well, it depends.”

Before answering, let’s look at the basic economics of commissioning art. When you commission art, you are paying money for an artist to spend some hours of their limited lifespan applying skills and talents they have honed over years and years of practice to bring your idea to life. This is a very … artisanal thing. The number of hours in an artist’s day is as strictly limited as the number of hours in any day, and the number of days in an artist’s life as limited as the number of day’s in any life. However, hiring an artist is often very different from hiring a nail maker or window cleaner, since artists, being somewhat unique, are harder to substitute one for another.

So, what determines the license fee?

  1. How famous the artist is. This is basically a metric of how in demand the artist is. If a lot of people want the artist’s time, the value of their time goes up. The more famous an artist is, the more expensive they will be (unless you have a really excellent elevator pitch). This is the most basic “metric” defining an artist’s cost per hour.
  2. How much time the artist has available. If they’re very busy, and they cannot easily do more work, but still need money, they may well raise their fee. Alternatively, if they are busy and don’t need money, you might be in for a wait.
  3. How much time the artwork will require. Pretty directly, the more time the work will require, the more it will cost. This is why full-color art is almost always more expensive than black and white art.
  4. The scope of use. The bigger the scope you intend to use the art for, the more it is worth to you. This is usually why clients end up paying royalties to artists. Paying 5–10% of sales for art can be a much cheaper initial option than paying up-front for global rights to use and sell a likeness in perpetuity. Since neither clients nor artists can know which individual piece of art or project will make it big, this is a good way for both parties to spread their bets. These are sometimes called “rights-managed” licenses.
  5. This also applies to signing illustrators for books—if you want a lot of art in your book and you get an artist excited about working with you, it can make a lot of sense to split the royalties (or profits, if you’re self-publishing) on the book, instead of simply paying for all the art out of pocket.
  6. If you push for royalty-free art, you will usually pay an additional premium on the fee, since you’re cutting off the artist’s future income. Especially artists just starting out are often willing to do this, simply in order to survive. It’s a bit of a gamble, since it means they’re giving up revenue down the line to earn a living here and now.
  7. And, less tangibly, previous experience working with you. If you require a lot of revisions or a lot of time spent communicating on concepts, any smart artist will start adding an “administration surcharge” to your commissions.

There are some simple tricks to keeping your costs lower when commissioning an artist.

  1. Be very clear about what you actually need up front. The less time spent running in circles, the happier everyone will be.
  2. If you’re happy with an artist’s prior work, suggest hiring the artist for multiple projects with a single contract. If you need 10 pieces, you’ll almost certainly get a better price if you commission all 10 of them at once.
  3. Royalties and shares. Offer them. Seriously. If you’re self-publishing, this can really make a difference.
  4. Don’t revise too much. The more revisions you require, the more work you make for the artist, the more annoyed everyone gets, and the more expensive the project becomes—the artist probably has a line in their contract about a maximum of 1 or 2 revisions. This is almost certainly because they learned by getting burned. A good idea is to try working with an artist on a smaller project first. If that works fine, then scale up slowly to bigger projects. As you develop a working relationship, the number of revisions will decrease and the artist will have an easier time interpreting your ideas.
  5. Don’t get a reputation as a bad client. This is the age of the internet, and if you’ve treated artists badly in the past, that experience is now just a search away.
And now, some texture.

Conclusions: This is not the end

I hope you’ve found this article interesting. It’s become much, much longer than I’d initially planned … but I guess commissioning art is more involved than it seems at first glance. I’ll streamline, update, and adapt this post over time. No promises that it’ll stay the same or that every edit will stay nicely labelled.

I’m also not a lawyer, and copyright law varies from country to country, jurisdiction to jurisdiction. None of the stuff here is legal advice.

What it is, is some loose and anecdotal advice on how to communicate with artists as a client, and how to build mutually beneficial relationships.

Hopefully, it’ll help someone.

Possibly even me.


Now, to promote myself: I’m currently working on my own roleplaying game: the Ultraviolet Grasslands. More gaming goodies at WizardThiefFighter.

Appendix No: Don’t Do This

  1. Do not show them sketches or drawings by another artist and ask them to replicate that.
  2. Do not even ask them to precisely duplicate the style of another artist.
  3. You know what, in fact, just do not ask them to work in a style you do not know they use. Do your homework beforehand. They almost certainly have a portfolio.
  4. Do not try to nickle-and-dime them down to a lower rate.
  5. Do not suggest that they will be getting exposure by working for you—this is a massive red flag.
  6. Do not try to be a hands-on “art dictator.” If you’re paying an artist, it means you trust them to work in their own way. Don’t turn them into a pixel-pusher.
  7. Do not take the artist’s sketches and then go to another artist to save money.
  8. Do not remove the artist’s name or signature from their art. They’re still the artist.

Appendix C: What does it mean to commission art?

Ok, this part lays down some high flyin’ terminology and such. If you just want the nitty gritty step-by-step, skip to the next section.

At a really basic level it means that you pay an artist to make a piece of art. Let’s not get into the definition of what precisely art is, since we won’t answer that here. For our purposes, defining it as something both you and your artist agree is art, and was actually created by your artist should suffice.

So, the artist goes ahead and makes the piece of art you commissioned and they own the copyright. Wait, what?

Yeah, before we get into anything else, we’ve got to talk about artists’ copyright, a kind of intellectual property rights. This is a magical concept in existence, more or less, since 1709. It’s an intersubjective reality of the world we live in. Woo. Big words. What that means is that most people in our modern world agree that a thing, an “original creative work,” belongs to the person who created it. In this context, it means that the piece of art in all its iterations, from the first sketch to the finished hyperrealist oil painting or tetradimensional installation, belongs to the artist utterly and completely … for some years; usually 50, but depends on the country and exact form of art.

Of course, the word “belongs” is also loaded, as is the very concept of property. It’s another messy word that describes relationships that only exist in shared human imaginations and have no tangible physicality in the real world. If, for example, a group of fantasy colonists were to declare the native peoples of a newly discovered territory to be without culture and civilization, indeed quite subhuman, they might well decide that those native peoples could not “own” property, whether art or land, and simply expropriate their art and land to put it to “better” use. This is also referred to as theft.

Sidetrack, sidetrack. Sorry.

Ok, so once the artist makes the art you asked for, a few different scenarios may play out.

  1. If you just paid them to make it. That’s it. They’ve completed their part, and your relationship is at an end. You have paid the art to enable them to create a thing, a piece of art, and they can now do what they want with it.
  2. If you actually hired the artist to work for you, you might own the actual copyright. This is kind of shitty for the artist, so be aware of that. Still, if you own the copyright, you can do anything you want with the piece.
  3. If you paid the artist to use the art they’ve created, you get into the interesting part of this article, because at that point, when the art is completed, you acquire a license to use that art. This means that you can do some things with the work—depending on the exact agreement with the artist. When you use the artwork to make money, you might also be obliged to pay royalties to the artist, depending on your agreement. This is one of the better situations for an artist to be in, since if they make royalties and retain rights to their artwork, they can use that to provide a livelihood for themselves independent of individual commissions. This is also the situation this whole article dealth with.

6 replies on “How To Commission Art (the Long Version)”

I appreciate you writing this article, it’s something that I think we’ve needed for a while. I’ve commissioned a few pieces of art in the past from artists and I’ve been happy with those commissions (obviously, if anyone has seen the background of my blog haha), but I know I can be ‘particular’, so it’s good to have a reality-check in the back pocket.

I’m waiting for my finances to straighten out which is taking a bit longer than I would have liked, but am hoping to get back into commissioning some art sooner than later, so I will be keeping these pieces of advice in mind!

Thank you Max! I tried to keep it short, but then … the rabbit hole kept getting longer with things to add, and even as it is, I had to leave out a bunch of what I wanted to write. I guess one solution is that I write it _all_ out, and then tackle shortening it from there. O_O

If an artist has 2 styles (such as Scrap Princess’s thin, sketchy drawings compared to the denser, more filled-in drawings), is it rude to ask for your pieces to be in a particular one of those styles?

Hi Luther – sorry for the late response. Just getting back into a rhythm slowly. No, I don’t think that’s rude at all. If you have a preferred style you’d like for your piece, you can certainly suggest it. Just expect the artist to have an opinion, too.

I draw things in a few different styles, too, from some very detailed pen pieces to looser, faster ink drawings. I might have different reasons for preferring one style over another – I might be short on time and prefer a quicker approach, or I might simply have a different preference.

But asking, I think, is never a bad thing in this case.

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