The Joy (and Abject Terror) of Art Commissions

Written by Jen Sterling

As with most things in life, there are two sides to every story.

I absolutely LOVE when someone contacts me to do a commission. It can be residential or corporate, it doesn’t matter to me. I love the challenge of drawing out the buyer’s wants/hopes/desires for the piece and then figuring out how to make them happen. It can be quite magical. I have had a fully-formed image swagger into my head of the finished piece while I am sitting in our initial meeting! Other times, I have to eek it out of the canvas as I go, bribing and cajoling all along the way.

I love it all.


…I have to show it to the buyer for the first time.

I panic. My heart rate increases, my anxiety rears its ugly head, and the internal critic starts telling me how the client is going to be so disappointed; how I missed it by a mile. What was I thinking using that color? Or that brush? I am sure it will be too wild or too colorful for the client. No doubt, there will be regrets about ever having asked me to paint for them.

I take the best possible photo I can. Often doing at least a dozen before I feel it shows the piece to its best advantage. Then I email or text it off to the client.

And I wait.

And wait.

I chew my finger nails. I plan out how to handle the rejection. I wonder why I ever decided to become an artist.

And I wait some more.

Ten minutes later comes the typical reply “We love it!! How did you ever capture us so exactly?”

I breathe again. 

Commissions can certainly be a roller coaster of emotion, but they are much more manageable and successful, I’ve found, by deploying a few techniques. Here are my top 3 tips for navigating the process:

1. Ask Some Specific Questions in the Initial Meeting

I use a combination of the following:

  • What do you want to feel when you look at this piece?
  • What keywords represent those feelings or ideas?
  • Are there specific colors or color combinations that represent you, your brand (if commercial), or your space?
  • Any colors I should absolutely avoid?
  • Is there a particular song that evokes this feeling for you? Or one that means something to you and your partner?
  • What else is currently in the space where this will hang?
  • In the case of an anniversary commission, I will ask for stories or memories of their life together.

2. During the Feedback Phase, Discuss a Few Finishing Details

After the client has seen the piece and given initial feedback, we discuss minor tweaks if necessary and delivery options. We also explore different framing options that they may wish to use. Sometimes they have me add the frame for them, other times the buyer may handle framing on their own once I deliver the piece. When my buyers ask me to frame the paintings for them, I most often rely on simple and sleek canvas floater frames. I find they crisp up my work without competing with the art itself. I most often rely on Frame Destination’s F141 (shown) or F530.

3. Enhance Your Client’s Experience with a Professional Presentation

If local I arrange a time to hand deliver the piece. I can not live without GalleryPouch bags. Not only do I use them for the storage of my works in my studio, but I also use them when transporting commissions and purchases to local clients. These are the best way to transport art I’ve found. They are also reusable and sealable, so clients love having them in case they have to store or move any artwork in the future. It’s an extra added benefit I provide to make the experience even more special and to protect the art’s longevity. If the client is not local, I prepare the piece in specialty packaging and drag it to the shippers to insure and send it. 

It’s a very nerve racking thing to send your “child” off with strangers. (Much like when I used to send my daughter off on a plane as an unaccompanied minor to visit her grandparents.) You beg the shipping gods not to let anyone step on the package, or stack a ton of heavy boxes on it, or crash the truck it’s in. You obsessively check the tracking information to make sure it arrives at its destination. Then you sit on your hand so that you don’t text or call the buyer too soon. Let them receive it, open it, feel it out… then reach out to make sure they are still as pleased with it now that they have seen it in person.

They love it more. WHEW!

And then the internal glow starts. The happiness and pride grow and I feel like I am floating around my studio. I feel amazing and so grateful that they love it. I wipe the sweat from my brow and wonder what I was all in a twist about.

Until the next commission.

About the Author

Learn more about the author and see more of her work in our Artie’s Eight Artist Spotlight featuring Jen Sterling

Last Updated June 20, 2022