If you’ve been drawing for a while, you might want to start selling commissions. But how do you get started? How do you make it work if you’re not ready to quit your day job, and what are some good tips for those starting out?
Pick a time and make it ‘Commission time’
At first, it can seem counter-intuitive to schedule creative work. Shouldn’t you wait until inspiration hits you? Many artists get started by sketching while bored in class– at a time when they’re scheduled to do something else!
However, when transitioning from a hobby to a profession, time management is key. Just like any other job, consistent hours are what allow you to complete work and deliver it. Pick an evening or two each week you can dedicate to nothing other than your craft, and stick to it.
A study from the journal of Thinking Skills and Creativity found a strong association between individuals that had planned schedules and their creative capacities. It turns out providing time for creativity helps generate it!
Begin with a ‘Starter Workload’ of One Commission and Make Your Way Up
When you’re beginning to take commissions, it can be tempting to say ‘yes’ to whoever is interested in buying from you. However, without an idea of how much time a commission actually takes, you can’t be certain when you’ll be able to deliver it.
Once you’ve scheduled art time, start on your first commission and start a stopwatch– most phones have this in their clock app! Turn the phone upside-down, since this isn’t a race, and you don’t want to get distracted by messages anyway. Then… draw!
When you’ve gotten the piece where you want it, stop the watch and make note of how much time it took. You may have to stop and start it a few times if you don’t get it completed in one day.
Once you’ve completed a few commissions and timed them, you’ll know how many pieces you can complete in a given amount of time.
Once you can get a basic sketch done in an hour, offer one-hour sketch commissions. Take an egg timer or your phone app, and hit the start button. Sketch on your task, starting with the major lines and making more details as time progresses. Wherever you are by the end, deliver it.
Don’t worry if it isn’t your best work. The goal is to be able to create consistent work, and deliver it on time. As you continue to do this, you’ll get better as a side effect, and faster, too!
Don’t Neglect Time for Yourself
Cool. You’ve got your art time scheduled, and you still have money from your day job. You still have some time left over, so maybe you can add that into your art time as well!
Not so fast– you might want to expand your art time, but you need to consider what you’re giving up. You cannot add more time for one activity without removing it from another one.
Some of the activities you might drop can be essential to your work as an artist, even if they seem unrelated at first blush. Spending time with friends, reading, playing video games, watching a show, going for walks, working out– these are all things which might seem ‘less important’ than art time, but if you don’t do them, you’ll wear yourself out.
You’re not a machine, and treating yourself like one is a recipe for disaster. Making art take up all of your spare time will change it from an activity you enjoy and make money from into an activity you resent and which leaves you feeling empty. Finding the right balance of art time verses play time is all the more critical when you still have a day job, but it can be done.
Keep Promises to your Customers
The difference between an amateur and a professional is whether you get paid. The difference between getting paid once and getting paid repeatedly is dependability.
In order to keep your promises on art, you need to make sure not to overextend yourself. We covered some of this in the first two sections– making sure you have a consistent time to do art and knowing how long it takes you makes it easier to plan out your workload and deliver on time.
Big projects, ones that offer big money and expand your audience, come after reputation. When someone with a large wallet needs something done now, they won’t hand it to someone who is known for turning in work late or at low quality.
If you find yourself delivering work late, it means you are taking on too much work, or you aren’t spending enough time on art. If increasing your time on art will cause you to neglect time for yourself, then it’s time to start saying ‘no’ to new commissions.
Saying ‘No’ to a commission when your workload is full is not a sign of weakness or inability. It’s a sign of your commitment of service to those who are in your queue. A commission makes you money once– a reputation creates more opportunities.
Need some help keeping your workload under control? Artconomy’s AWOO system closes out your commissions automatically when you’re full up!
If you have an emergency and fall behind, the most important thing to do is communicate with your commissioners preemptively. It can be scary going to a customer and telling them you won’t be getting their piece done in time, but how you handle delays is as key to your reputation as delivering on time. A customer who is left in the dark may grumble behind your back, which can cause you more problems later.
Even if you’re not behind, you should be communicating with your commissioners consistently so that they know where their piece stands.
Find Your ‘Edge’
There are many artists out there who would like to draw commissions. Why should someone choose you over someone else?
This is a question you must find an answer to, as it’s core to finding your audience and getting consistent work. Delivering a piece of art is the basic requirement for being a professional artist, but it’s not enough on its own– it’s everything that surrounds it which makes sales. Here are some things you can do to stand out:
- Publish portfolios of subject matter you like to draw. Cultivate a reputation for doing work in your preferred genre.
- Find ways to engage your customers and make commissioning fun for them. Streaming is a great example– being able to see the work as it’s being made is exciting!
- Fill in the gaps in a commission’s requirements. Use what you know about the commissioner and subject matter to look up references relevant to the piece. Adding in a city skyline or getting the mechanics right on a character’s weapon shows an attention to detail that makes people come back for more!
- Be a great communicator. Ask questions, show previews, and let customers know when you’ll be working on your piece and when you expect to deliver it.
Price Your Work
One of the most difficult questions an artist has to answer for themselves out of the gate is ‘how do I price my offerings’? Too high and people will go elsewhere. Too low and you won’t be able to make money.
Take a look at what other artists are offering. Locate ones with work quality similar to your own and see what they charge for it. If you have a hard time being objective about your own work, ask a third party– either a friend you know will tell you the truth or an acquaintance who won’t be afraid to hurt your feelings, to help you look over other artists and judge whether their quality is similar to yours.
Once you’ve located artists of similar quality, look over their portfolios and any information you can find about their reputation with customers. If they’re charging low but never seem to make anything, it might indicate they aren’t organized. If they’re charging high but are churning out commissions at an incredible rate, you can expect their speed is factored into that price.
When you have gathered a small following, you can have your audience do the work of setting your price for you. Create a few ‘Your Character Here’ commissions, or a similar kind of template, and then auction off the pieces. The highest bids are the upper end of what you can charge. Set your prices slightly under them for more consistency.
Make sure the commission you auction off will require a similar amount of work to what you intend to sell normally or else this won’t work well.
If you’re following the advice of the previous sections, you should already be gathering data on how many hours your commissions are taking you. Check the prices you’re charging verses the number of hours you’re working to get your hourly rate. If you’re making less money per hour than you’d like, you may need to increase your prices or you may need to cut down on the time spent on each commission.
To get an even more accurate hourly rate, factor in how much time you spend on organizing and handling the business side of commissions, and see if you can use a tool like Artconomy to reduce the amount of time spent on overhead.
Artists aren’t known for their organizational skills, but professional ones learn how to organize themselves, or find the best tools to do it for them.
Keeping track of payments, contact information, work progress, commission details, and how many pieces you’ve committed to means having a system to organize it all. You can create one of these yourself, such as a text document with the details, or a binder with the information, or you can let Artconomy do it for you.
As much as possible, we recommend using technology to organize yourself. The more effort you have to put into maintaining your organizational system, the less time you’ll get to spend on art. You can’t avoid the business elements of art if you want to become a professional, but you can minimize their impact on your life so you can focus on creativity.