How Do I Commission a Painting?

By February 15, 2016
Peggy Guggenheim and Jackson Pollock in front of the mural she commissioned from the artist for her New York apartment.
Peggy Guggenheim and Jackson Pollock in front of the mural she commissioned from the artist for her New York apartment.

How should I go about getting a private commission? I’m looking for an artist to paint a custom portrait. I’m not necessarily looking for anything formal or traditional. Do you have any suggestions on the best way to go about finding the right artist? Should I go through a gallery or contact artists directly? Also, how much should I budget for a project like this?
Desperately Seeking Portrait

Dear Desperately Seeking,
How wonderful to see this question funneled through the Burning Questions pipeline! Your query is a fairly common one in the art-o-sphere, so I’m happy for the chance to talk about this, this because I have a feeling that there are probably a few other readers who might have had have something like this on their mind. So thank you for writing in about it!
There are myriad reasons to commission a painting from an artist. Maybe you have a very specific vision for the work of art that you want in a particular room, and you’ve culled through all the local galleries and online resources and just can’t really find what you’re looking for—whether it’s a certain color combination or subject matter.

Donatello's 'David'
Donatello’s ‘David’ commissioned by the Medici family in the 1430s to be placed in the center of the courtyard of the old Medici Palace.

Or perhaps you want to commemorate a loved one or a special place or your beloved family home, and you want this painting to, in essence, become an heirloom that will be handed down from generation to generation. After all, almost every famous painted portrait that graces the walls of our museums and our historic homes or our noble offices has been commissioned by someone. So, rest assured, this kind of deal is something artists and art buyers have been striking for centuries, especially back in Florence in a little period we like to call the Italian Renaissance. Without artist commissions made by patrons like the Medici family, we wouldn’t have ever seen many of art history’s great achievements, like Ghiberti’s St. Matthew, or Donatello’s David, or Fra Angelico’s San Marco Alterpiece, or Michaelango’s facade of the church of San Lorenzo! And the list goes on. It’s not uncharted territory, is what I’m trying to say here.
So, jumping back to the 21st century, what you have to do first is identify the right artist for the job. My advice on this one: don’t expect an artist to go too far out of their comfort zone for your vision. What does that mean? Choose an artist whose style you love, and whose style fits what you’re looking for. Don’t go asking a landscape painter to create a pared-down abstract painting. Find someone who is working in the style you’re looking for.

Giotto, Arena Chapel, 1305
Giotto was commissioned by Enrico Scrovegni to create the murals in the Arena Chapel, which were completed c. 1305.

Secondly, consider their price range. You aren’t going to be able to commission a 6-foot painting for $500 from an artist who sells 3-foot paintings for $2,000. If anything, your commission might run a little pricier than the work they make for themselves, because this is something they wouldn’t normally paint. So look for artists working within your price range.
Don’t know where to look? Ask a few art dealers. Even if they don’t have an artist in their roster who fits your needs, dealers usually have their finger on the pulse of what local artists are producing. They can, if nothing else, point you in the right direction.
On that note, make sure you love the artist’s work before you hire them. The fact is, you won’t be able to control exactly how the end-product turns out—you can make suggestions, of course, and request certain parameters, but ultimately, the artist’s hand will be the star of the piece. So if you love their previous paintings, it’ll be more likely you’ll love what they create for you.
So, once you find your artist, get in contact and see if they are open to taking commissions. Surprise, surprise, sometimes artists are not. If they have an upcoming show they’re working towards, or have a waitlist for new pieces, they may not be able to do it. Also, some artists hate the idea of painting on assignment. So don’t assume that whoever you pick is going to say yes and be grateful for the opportunity. If they say no, they’re too busy, or no, they don’t do commissions, be gracious and thank them for their time. Don’t scoff or sigh or get all indignant. Just say thanks and move on.

Atlanta artist Lydia Walls Graves
Atlanta artist Lydia Walls Graves accepts commissions to paint portraits of people and dogs.

If you find a match, and the artist agrees to the painting, it’s important to hash out the specifics BEFORE the work gets underway. Bottom line: know what you want, and communicate that in CLEAR, UNAMBIGUOUS language. You’re idea of “bold, poetic, and earthy” may not be everyone’s idea of “bold, poetic, and earthy.” Try to be as concrete as possible if you have a specific image in mind.
This means you need to consider a few things about the painting. What dimensions do you want it to be? What color palette and subject are you looking for? Do you have any reference images or paintings to serve as inspiration? When do you need the piece to be finished?
Based on this criteria, the artist should give you a quote. Always settle the price before the work begins. Typically, you’ll pay half up front, and half on completion. Deadlines and clear communication are crucial in arrangements like these. Make a few and stick to them, that means both on payment and on delivery.
Lastly, try to schedule an in-progress visit or two to see how the painting is coming along. That way, you can discuss revisions if it’s heading in the wrong direction. However, don’t try to micromanage things. This is a collaboration, and you hired the artist because you respect and enjoy the work they do. Trust them to make the right aesthetic decisions for the piece.

Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She is the lead visual art writer at The Tennessean and an editor at Number, an independent arts journal of the South. She also works with David Lusk Gallery and Cumberland Art Conservation, and is cofounder of the gallery Threesquared. Her writing has also been featured in The Bitter Southerner, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, ArtNow, and others. For more:

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