The Third C – Commissions – To A Successful Art Business

by Jul 12, 2016Art Versus Money, Commissions, Inspiration, Make Money From Your Art, Start With Why, The Three Creating C's0 comments

The Third C – Commissions – To A Successful Art/Design/Craft Business

In a previous post I talked about being a goldsmith, I’m used to talking to clients about the 5 C’s to buying a diamond – cut, colour, clarity, carat and certification.

I then went on to explain that there’s 3 C’s I want to begin talking about that every artist/designer/maker should start thinking about in terms of their art practice. HOWEVER, I realised in writing these posts that actually there are SEVEN – Yes The Seven C’s to a successful Art/Design/Craft Business! Again each of these 7 areas is very different in terms of the revenue streams it can produce and I believe every artist needs a mixture of these to really excel at business. Equally every art practice will need different ratios of these areas to be successful both, financially and spiritually, and its up to you as individuals to work out your own ‘best mix’.

So let’s move on to the Third C… ‘Creating – Commissions’.

This is one the C’s that many artists/designers/makers have issues with – Commission Work. I use this term to describe work that a customer is paying you to make for them. Its a pre-order – ie they discuss a piece with you, generally it hasn’t been made yet and then you work to produce the piece that they require. Perhaps they like some of your pieces but they want it ‘tweaked’ to fit with their own styles. Perhaps they want it made in a different colour, material or size. Perhaps they like a concept you are working on but they want it made in a different way. Basically, they want to take an item of your work and personalise it. Maybe you like to paint portraits of certain types of dog, but they want you to paint THEIR dog. Maybe you do big installation work, but they want to know if you can make a mini piece to sit on their side board. Maybe you make large objects but they want to know can you box-frame it so they can put it on a wall. Maybe you make sculptural concept jewellery but they want to know if  you can make a ‘pretty piece’ to wear at a wedding.

Normally a commission client set ‘the brief’ and ‘the budget’ they are willing to spend. Commissions require working with a client on a one-to-one basis and it can take time.

I know that for many artists/designers/makers, working to commission can feel like you’ve ‘sold out’. Why would you make something that you didn’t feel was your own work, why can’t they just buy what you are already producing, why should I take the time to make a one-off just for one person? I felt like this when I started running my contemporary jewellery gallery years ago. I’d made a few pieces for friends and family but generally I made series of one-off jewellery pieces that reflected my own design styles and concepts. Whilst most of these pieces were all wearable they were not ‘traditional’ jewellery items, more like little mini wearable sculptures…BUT clients kept asking could I make this and that.

HOWEVER, whilst running my jewellery gallery I knew that I needed to pay the bills..and fast. I had rent, electricity and insurance etc all going out every month and I realised that the upside to doing a commission piece was that the customer was willing to pay. That means that a commission is a GUARANTEED SALE with money coming in. By taking an idea that I was already producing and re-designing it to fit the clients needs, I was being paid…in the meantime, those pieces which I had already made where still sitting on the shelf. So I wasn’t making any quick money out of the concept work but if I changed it slightly then I had a customer who was willing to pay!

BUT here’s the other thing, you might say that I sold out by accepting to do commission work in the first place, HOWEVER without my original challenging pieces I wouldnt have gotten the commissions in the first place. Those ‘show pieces’, ‘concept’ pieces or ‘exhibition pieces’ all showcased my creative talents and design styles. Clients saw this and fell in love with my designs, shapes, forms and making styles, BUT in order for them to be able to wear a piece or buy it they NEEDED to make it more personal to them.

So you need a balance of both these C’s – concept work will bring you commission work and commissions will bring you MONEY!!!

So I want you to think about how ‘Commission Work’ fits into your art practice. Can you identify it, have you done any commission work, how did you find it? Take a look at your pieces, is there a way you would be prepared to ‘tweak’ them to make them more personal for a client without compromising your artistic intent.

In fact one of the first commission ‘runs’ I did includes the set of cufflinks I made in this image. They were commissioned by Isaac Agnew (a car business) as a set of gifts for a golf competition they were hosting in which all the heads of BMW dealerships were attending. It was only the second time that the competition had been held in Ireland.  My brief was to design a set of cufflinks that were based around the BMW logo, but I couldn’t use the actual logo for copyright reasons, and they were to reflect ‘Ireland’ in some way. Now this job came to me via my father, who was a sales director for the company, but I was dealing with one of ‘the big bosses’ and I wanted to do a good job so I was prepared to put way more into the job than I was getting paid for – although I was in fact getting well paid for the commission. I worked my ass off and in gold auld sarah fashion, I produced almost an entire sketchbook full off ideas.

Now theres a whole story behind these pieces (which I won’t go into too much detail just now) but suffice as to say that I ended up producing these ‘spinner cufflinks’  I designed a spinning disk based on the shape of the BMW logo but with a celtic knot-work pattern. This disk spun round a post which finished at one end with a cone. The cone-shape end was based on the nose-cone of planes, as BMW actually started out making plane engines and their logo is referred to as ‘a spinner’ as it represents the shape of a spinning propellor. To complete the cufflinks I included a gold four-leaf-clover set with an emerald (to represent Ireland) that also spins around a post. Quite a lot of work – but a great job!!!

2005-05-18-016-crop 2005-05-18-034 2005-05-18-024-crop

What I want to point out is that the ‘spinning’ concept for these cufflinks is part based on this ring I made in my first year at Glasgow School of Art, some 23 years ago now! So my first ‘concept’ piece directly influenced a commission piece I designed nearly 11 years later!! I still own the ring as I could never sell it but ten sets of my cufflinks are out there being worn by ten BMW dealers!!


You can read about the poison ring here.

PS. Nowadays I make my living solely from making commission work. It forms more than 80% of my turnover. After more than 12 years doing this, I can call myself a specialist at making individually designed one-off pieces specifically for each client. Its not always an easy ride, like all things in running a business, but I have made some fabulous pieces with some crazy (and some traditional) ideas. I have built up a large repertoire of this work but I still make concept work too. All my pieces reflect my own design hand-writing styles and they sit easily beside each other.

Where does your commission story begin?….

#thesevencs #commissions #makemoney #changeyourmindset #mentortip

So I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below & if you liked this post then please share it with a friend and spread the love!


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