Commentary, Features

Calcutta Club: What Do I Look for When I Order A Commission?

Welcome to a new corner for my musings and observations. The Calcutta Club is the latest platform for me to speak my mind, only this time while enjoying my favorite vice: cigars. The name for the feature comes from the room where the writers of the 24 television series tossed ideas around and developed the script for the show. 

Cigar of the Day: None

I will admit, I’ve been in better moods. Some of you may already know, but my brother-in-law contracted COVID-19 last month. I have also have been dealing with health issues over the past month and currently am recovering from a bronchial infection. I am recuperating at home, but for various reasons I have to hold off on cigars for the time being. And while I am not someone who can or wants to smoke a cigar a day, the fact that I have to shelve my week ending smoke until at least September is its own special First World Problem. So, we start this feature centered around my pontificating while smoking a cigar with no cigar. This is an oversight that I cannot wait to correct, but for now please enjoy this review of the Padron Anniversary 1964 which I had been saving for the launch of this feature.

Now, let’s talk about art.

Patronage of the arts is as old as the Medicis and watching artists debate amongst themselves how much they should charge for their work is probably just as old. In most industries and enterprises, there are ways to gage what to expect for what type of work. However, Western art in the 21st Century is dealing with several major issues that keep artists from properly pricing their work. One of the biggest is ideological. Many artists these days simply don’t believe they have to think about their work outside of a personal hobby that may, from time to time, attract some financial reward. Others do not like the Capitalist aspects of treating their passion as a business: leading for many to undersell their work. This fueled the rise of crowdfunding, but barely a decade in these financial models have proven unreliable.

There are other mitigating factors of course. The growth of the Internet as a marketplace for various fields of art, the increase in art as a field of study independent of career or financial aspirations, and the growth in animation as a viable, yet elusive, enterprise have all led to the situation we have now. However, all of these factors just make the end results more dire and many talented artists struggle to adapt their work into a stream of revenue. I cannot muse on that question for every field of art, but I can speak for the art I’ve commissioned over the years. Hopefully by doing so, artists can learn what attracts someone to commission artwork and, from there, how to price their work.

I‘ll discuss pricing later, because I have commissioned artwork for over a decade and have spent enough money to know that, in most cases, the old J.P. Morgan quote is true, ‘If you have to ask, you cannot afford it.’ Usually, I’ll ask for pricing in only one instance: when I’m planning a larger project that has a budget. Other than that, chances are the price of a commission won’t affect my decision. This isn’t due to my income either. This was my approach to commissions regardless of my place on the salary scale. So then, if price isn’t an issue, what is?

The style of the artist and the time it normally takes them to complete a commission.

Whenever I commission an artist directly it is because their style can capture an idea I had in my head about a certain type of character. Seeing that idea materialize with a complimentary style is why I am willing to pay for. I’m an amateur writer. My writing mostly deals with thrillers and drama and I prefer writing darker characters and outright villains. And frankly, drawing grounded villains is hard. Everyone has their own interpretation of what sinister or madness looks like and that does not always meld with how I want the character to look. So, when I first started looking for artists to draw a pair of villainous brothers, I focused on how their Black and White style was. I wanted the whatever shadows the artists could fit into the picture to speak on the nature of the characters, more so than making them look like bad guys.

This is the piece that originally drew me to the artist Erin Hartlein; known at the time as MaGLIL. I’m sure the artists amongst us could find a few flaws is this is an old piece, but I personally still love the horror elements, the bemused expression and the heavier lines that help amplify the darker colors. When I saw this piece I knew that I had to commission MaGLIL. I knew she could capture the essence of the characters I had in mind. And, I was right.













These are still two of my favorite commissions and both have been the reference for just about every other commission I’ve gotten of these characters. The turnaround time for this particular style was a month and a half each: excellent for the amount of details in the work. I cannot tell you the exact price of either commission, what I CAN tell you is that I got it cheap considering the time it took and the quality of the work. And ultimately, that is the question every artist has to ask themselves before they open commissions: ‘What quality can I deliver in [X] amount of time?’

Time is the most important factor. The lesson I took the longest to learn as an frequent commissioner of art is that an artist’s style change with time. A commission is a snapshot of where that artist is at that moment in their craft and you won’t get that same snapshot if you commission them in a year, or even six months. Life happens and if you’re commissioning art, you should respect that. However, you have to also be conscious of that window. So, let’s turn it into practical advice. Let’s say you are an artist who wants to open commissions, you are aware of where you are in your craft and you want to do two commissions a month for the next four to five months. Forget the calculation on hours spent on the art or other life consideration because, again, if they’re commissioning you; the only thing they care about is the quality of art they can get in a certain period of time. So, a good starting price in this scenario is $150.

Now, before any of the professionals howl, I said ‘starting point’. If the slots fill up quickly, you should raise your rates. If they don’t fill up at all, lower them. That is simple supply and demand….let me know in the comments if we have to go over Supply and Demand: no judgment. The key is you want to establish quickly what is the most profitable way to market yourself. You will do that by having a flat rate and being able to negotiate close to it.

And if the price still makes you blink, think about it another way.

Let’s say you as an artist want to do five sketch commissions for five months at $30 each. That is $150 a month for five months: $750 total not barring fees, taxes, etc. Two full, detailed commissions a month for five months at $150 is $300 a month: $1,500 total (again with the same considerations). Now, let’s say six to eight months later, you’ve grown in your craft, demand for your art is good and you can do more commissions in a month, so to meet demand you increase your prices.

What’s the easier emotional lift? Raising prices from $30 to $100 or from $150 to $220?

Note that I raised both by $70. However, because of how the human mind works, if someone is already spending over $100 on something of a certain quality, it’s far easier to get them to spend more than to get someone used to spending less than $100. That’s my untrained psychological observation for the week and you are free to expound on it.

We should all want artists to grow in their craft and be able to profit from it. As consumers of art, this is good for us. But that can happen best when artists commission based on supply and demand. This means understanding the points here today:

  1. Many people who will commission you aren’t too hung up on the price. They made up their mind well before you opened your commissions.
  2. Your price should reflect your style and the time it takes to complete the work.
  3. Have a flat rate in mind before doing commissions and if you must negotiate, try keep it near the flat rate. Don’t jump from $150 to $60 unless the demand is not there.

Anyway, those are my thoughts as a cold-blooded Capitalist. In the words of a drunk Scotsman, go away now.







Written by JP3 - August 17, 2020