For some time now, I have admired the work of Daggi Wallace. I featured one of her paintings in my October pastel choices. I knew Daggi did a lot of commissions and thought info on doing commissioned work would be a great topic for a blog. Happily, when I asked Daggi to write a guest blog, she agreed. And as you’ll find, she has a lot of valuable information for you!
Here’s another example of her stunning work:
Daggi Wallace bio
First, a bit about Daggi. You can click here to read an in-depth bio but let me share a few highlights. First off, Daggi has her own blog full of fascinating and useful info and I encourage you to have a look at it.
Born and raised in Berlin, Germany, and now living near Los Angeles, Daggi specializes in contemporary realism. She’s a Master Circle Member of the International Association of Pastel Societies (IAPS) and a Master Pastelist of the Pastel Society of America (PSA). Daggi has won numerous awards in regional and national juried exhibitions and her work is in many American and European collections.
In 2010 Daggi started Moni’s Kids, a non-profit project, painting portraits of children in need and using the proceeds to deliver aid to the children portrayed.
In 2012 she was selected as Artist-in-Residence at the Studio Channel Islands Art Center in Camarillo, CA, where she maintains her studio and has served on its Board of Directors. Her studio is open to the public every First Saturday of the month or by appointment. Naturally, Daggi accepts commissions 🙂
Take it away Daggi!!
When Gail asked me to write a guest post about commission work I was thrilled but also realized just how much there is to say on the topic after many years as a portrait artist! So, let me start right in with the Pros and Cons of accepting commissions in the first place so you can decide whether they are right for you or not.
A guaranteed sale before you even start! Well, almost guaranteed. If the client is familiar with and likes your usual style and work there should be no problem getting their approval when it’s finished. I have never not gotten paid for a commissioned work. But DO protect yourself with a solid contract (more on that later).
No out of pocket expenses for framing! As a pastelist my non-commissioned work has to be framed to be exhibited and the cost of framing can be huge. With commissions, the client covers the cost of framing.
New collectors. Now that you have established a relationship with a portrait commission client, they may just become a new collector of your landscapes or still lifes. Many clients turn into repeat customers not only for portraits but other non-commission work as well.
Emotional Rewards: There’s no job satisfaction like seeing a client burst into tears of joy at the portrait of a loved one! Especially when it comes to posthumous portraits, it’s very rewarding that our work can bring comfort to people.
Unexpected opportunities: You never know what a portrait commission will lead to. In 2007 I was commissioned by a friend to paint a portrait of Grammy winning Blues legend Buddy Guy. She was a close friend of his and wanted to gift him with the painting for his 71st birthday. You can read more about the resulting painting, Legends, here. I presented Buddy with the portrait backstage at one of his concerts, took lots more photos of him and his band during the show and at subsequent performances at his Chicago club. The result was a series of blues musicians and a two-person exhibit (the other artist painted jazz musicians) which garnered very positive press coverage. One of the paintings, Passing the Torch, won several awards and now also hangs at Buddy’s renowned club in Chicago.
Difficult clients. In over twenty years I have only had a couple of difficult clients and they were male! While we tend to think of women as vain, it’s often men who see themselves as younger or more handsome than they are. I amended my standard contract after I had to repeatedly rework the face of a client’s husband even after the piece had received final approval from the wife (my client) and had been framed! This went on for a couple of YEARS until I finally had to refuse because the paper could not take any more reworking without permanent damage! The wife knew I had captured his likeness in the beginning but the man simply did not believe he looked like that! As you can see in my contract further down in this post, I now limit the amount of reworking I will do.
Lack of creative freedom. Often while working on commissions artists can feel more like laborers for hire than creative artists but you should try to add as much of your own style and creativity to the project as you can. (This also gets a mention in the contract below.) Don’t accept a commission unless you think you can get excited about it because it will show in the final work no matter how much you may need the money!
Bad reference photos/unavailability of the subject. I’m not a great technical photographer but can usually overcome any shortcomings because of years of experience of life drawing and observation. Some portrait artists hire a professional photographer to shoot the photo references, but this would be an out-of-pocket expense. If you go this route, be sure to be there during the shoot to direct the photographer so it still ends up being your own ideas, poses and compositions and you can interact with the subject. Posthumous portraits are especially difficult because you’ll have to work from the photos provided by the client. Make sure you feel confident that you can create a good portrait from the images before you accept the commission. You may be tempted by the money but it’s not worth the stress if you struggle too much working from a tiny snapshot. You won’t be happy with the results and neither will your client! More on the topic of photos later.
Lack of time to spend on your personal work. If you are successful and have a standing list of orders you may become frustrated about not having enough time to work towards an exhibition for example. While this is a good problem to have, be sure to schedule time off from commissions in order to pursue your other artistic goals. Some artists only accept commission work part of the year. You will return to the commissioned work with new vigor and enthusiasm if you create balance during your studio time with other work.
Meeting deadlines. Some artists work better under pressure, others not so much. Know yourself well and set realistic deadlines for your clients. While I can at times accommodate short notice requests for special occasions, I have also learned to say ‘No’ to unrealistic expectations.
Types of commissions
If you decide you would like to start accepting commissioned work, think beyond the traditional portrait! You can specialize in animal/pet portraits, home/house portraits, landscapes (favorite vacation spots for example), still lifes (make a special flower arrangement last forever or paint a display of heirlooms), abstract and decorative works, maternity portraits, or corporate, professional and retirement portraits.
To avoid one of the Cons mentioned above (boredom, lack of creativity) decide which type of commission you can get excited about and make that your specialty.
Below are some examples of the variety of portrait commissions possible:
Make it your own!
It’s important to find your own style of portrait painting for a client, not only to set yourself apart from the many other portrait artists out there, but also to be authentic and true to your own aesthetic. Again, if you are not excited about using your own creativity and style, it will show in the results. I have very little interest in painting formal portraits of professional leaders, for instance, or children in their Sunday best sitting perfectly still. While I won’t turn down such a commission, of course, I also want to find a way to a make portrait less stuffy in order to appeal to a broader audience.
My Up Close & Personal series of portraits has been very popular with modern families because of its contemporary look and budget friendly prices. (I include framing costs for these to make it as easy as possible to purchase and hang the finished piece.)
I have also added text to portraits which was something I was exploring in my personal work and was fortunate enough to find clients who were open to trying something unconventional.
Where to find your clients
Think outside of the box! While there are agencies such as A Stroke of Genius to connect potential clients with artists, I have never used one. Most of my clients have come through word of mouth, building up a network slowly, starting with family and friends, then my day job years ago through colleagues, then friends and family of theirs. (Build up a body of work by offering to paint a few portraits of family members and friends for free or very reduced prices if you have to.) Now with social media, it’s so much easier to get your work seen and passed on so take advantage of it! Be sure to have an updated website which acts as your portfolio. Make it as easy as possible for potential clients to know what to expect beforehand such as your price range and procedures. I have a separate page on my website for this. It saves time answering questions (I can just email the link) and there are no surprises.
Depending on the type of commission you decide to pursue, find your potential clients where they congregate and offer a small commission to the venue if necessary (20% would be appropriate).
Here are some ideas:
Pet portraits: Advertise in animal shelters, grooming salons
Children’s portraits: Place your brochures, business cards, and work examples in pediatricians offices, high-end baby boutiques, school PTA newsletters
Maternity portraits: OB/Gyn and ultrasound offices, maternity shops
House Portraits: real estate agencies, title companies, historical home tour organizers
Abstracts: small home furnishing stores, interior designers
Landscapes: golf courses, vacation rentals
Charitable organizations: while artists are often bombarded with requests for donations of art to a variety of charities and fundraisers, I have found that donating gift certificates instead of finished paintings can lead to commissions. For example, I have offered one free Up Close & Personal Portrait (client pays extra for framing) or the equivalent value discounted off a higher priced portrait. I have then had clients who chose the free portrait ,order an additional one later. On the discounted higher priced ones I still came out ahead anyway, of course.
So, now that you have decided to take on commissions and have found a few clients, be sure to type up a standard contract! You can always make concessions under some circumstances (for instance I don’t always request that second 1/3 payment halfway through but will just accept the balance on approval, especially if it’s a repeat client) but a signed contract lets your clients know you are a professional and conduct your business accordingly. Most clients’ confidence in you will increase and if they balk at signing then maybe you should rethink whether they’re the right clients for you!
I call it a “Commission Agreement” instead of a contract (seems a little friendlier). Here’s what you should include:
Between whom is this agreement? (artist’s and client’s name and addresses)
Agreement of Artistic Style
This assures that the client understands it will be in your typical style, unless otherwise agreed upon.
The Commission Process
Do you require live sittings? If so, how many? what length each time? At the client’s home or your studio?
Will you work from photos? If so, who will provide them, you or the client? If you take your own, is there an extra charge for the photo shoot? Where will it take place? How much time is required?
What will you discuss during your first meeting? For example: image size, pose, general color scheme, and any special features to be included in the painting. I recommend requesting a deposit at this time, usually a non-refundable deposit of 1/3 of the total price (this covers the time you already spent traveling to and meeting with the client, discussing the project, taking the photos or making sketches).
Explain your next step, such as creating sketches of the overall composition, design and colors that you will send to the client via an email for approval before beginning work on the actual portrait (this will save you later!). I add this footnote: “It is understood by the client that any given commissioned work is a lasting representation of Daggi’s work, and therefore, Daggi must be granted the freedom to create a balanced, artistic design.” (After all, the painting will have your name on it and will be seen by many other potential clients (hopefully) and must therefore meet your own high standards.)
Will you send a digital image when the painting is at a point of almost completion or invite them to stop by the studio? This is the time when the client can give feedback in regards to the likeness. (The earlier agreement of the photo and pose, however, must remain intact at this point. This is why you sent an initial sketch. Too much work has gone into the piece by now to make any major changes.) At this point, I require the second 1/3 total of the total price.
If the client is local I ALWAYS insist on a studio visit for final approval (in some cases I take the piece to them if necessary). Do NOT rely on their approval through email only if they can see the piece in person! I have had clients unhappy about colors because their computer screens were not calibrated the same as mine. Once they see the painting live, there is usually no issue. The balance of the total price PLUS sales tax (if local, or plus shipping costs) should now be paid in full. Provide a receipt to the client. Put all of this in writing so there are no surprises, including preferred shipping method and who will pay for it.
Decide beforehand how many changes, if any, you will agree to make after FINAL APPROVAL, if there will be any additional charges and what is the time limit on such requests. I learned this the hard way (see story above).
State what will happen if you cannot satisfy the client. (I state that if I’m not able to create a work to the client’s satisfaction, either one of us may cancel the agreement but that the initial deposit of 1/3 of total price will not be refunded.)
Include details at the end, such as subject matter, image size, total price, approximate date of delivery of completed work and general color scheme.
Both client and artist sign and date the contract
Add your contact information: Your name, studio or mailing address, phone number, email address, website.
Make two copies – give one to client, keep one yourself.
Tips on photographing your subject for portraits
I love painting spontaneous moments and emotions that are too hard to hold in live sittings so I usually work from photos but one of the most difficult parts of being a portrait artist for me is the photo shoot itself.
I prefer taking my own photos so I can meet the subject, see their movements, mannerisms, coloring, etc. but I still get nervous before a shoot. I don’t use both sides of the brain well at the same time, so speaking and connecting to the subject in order to put them at ease and bring out natural smiles and gestures while making creative decisions behind the camera is very difficult for me.
An artist friend recently suggested that I try using a tripod and remote shutter so I don’t have to have my face buried behind the camera and which will make the models less self-conscious. While this may be a good idea, I actually like seeing the person in the square of the viewfinder and worry about not being able to judge whether everything fits into the frame when the person moves.
I spend many hours later on my computer going through all of the images, cropping, rotating, editing until I get a variety of images that best capture the sitter’s personality.
I then email about 5-10 images to the client without telling them my personal favorite because I don’t want to overly influence their decision. However, later I will offer my top choice if asked and more often than not it matches theirs.
Camera: use the highest resolution setting you can on your camera in order to be able to see all of the details later.
Lighting: Natural light is best, whether outdoors or by a window. Strong directional light with distinct shadows can create dynamic interesting portraits but may not be what the client likes (especially older women who may prefer the more youthful look of even lighting). Avoid flash lighting!
Look for and avoid things such as shadows covering the eyes too much, double chins (due to shooting from a low angle), heavy bags under the eyes (angle and lighting issue), weird shadows from trees across the face, etc.
Poses: Write down some poses beforehand especially if you are photographing multiple subjects together. Let your subjects move naturally and observe. I take lots of pictures while just chatting with them and it’s often the shots that happened BETWEEN the poses that will make the final cut. Pay attention to severe foreshortening and placements of limbs (hands especially can look very awkward if you don’t pay attention to their pose).
The wonderful thing about digital photography is you can check it right away and adjust the pose as needed. I usually show my clients some of the images on the viewfinder so they can add their own ideas to how to adjust the poses and facial expressions.
I also recommend learning as much as you can about how to pose people to their best advantage (google it and you’ll find tons of resources!).
If I have to rely on the client providing me with the reference photos, I send them a pdf of tips on what to look for among the images or how to take some photos themselves. If they insist on using professionally shot photos, I make sure I have the permission in writing from the photographer to use their images and I request unedited images. Pictures that have been photoshopped make awful looking paintings! I WANT to see all the imperfections and nuances of a face and decide for myself what to leave out.
I hope this post is helpful in getting you started on the path of a commissioned artist. I’m sure I missed a few things to pass along so if you have any questions or helpful feedback yourself, please leave them in the comments below. Commissions can be very rewarding but have many challenges as well. Give it a try and let me know how you do!
Whew! What a lot of information on getting started doing commissions!! Thanks so much Daggi 🙂
Has this post inspired you to take on commissioned work? What was the most important thing you learnt? Do you have any questions? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
Until next time,
PS. And because I wanted to end with an image, here’s a sneak peek at one of Daggi’s Berlin Series pieces: