Do you take commissions?

Do you take commissions?

This question sends a chilled shiver through my heart. 


My first felt picture commission was about 4 years ago for a friend who wanted a view of a mountain in France for her husband’s 60th birthday. They have a house there and love the views. I really didn’t know what to do. It was very different from the pictures I had made to date and not somewhere I know or have ever been. After some soul searching I agreed to do it. I think I let the flattery get the better of me. 



The request was to do something similar to this but ‘a bit snowier’.   

Things really did not go at all as I’d hoped. Firstly, the time I’d set aside to do it was taken up when my parents, who were staying with me, both became ill. Fortunately everyone recovered but I had to do lots of hospital visiting and home caring so wasn’t able to do any work on the commission. 


Then I realised as I was working on it that I really didn’t understand the mountain from the photographs I had. Which bits were shadows and which bits ravines? Normally I felt local birds and seascapes that I know and love.  I struggled. To cut a long story short I delivered the picture but so close to the deadline I don’t even have a final photo of it. This was it nearing completion ……

I really didn’t enjoy the process & I wasn’t that happy with the result. Fortunately my friend liked it & her husband loved it but I vowed never, ever again to take a commission…….I had learned my lesson…. hadn’t  I?, 


A little while later another friend who was travelling sent me a photo she’d taken of a pair of African penguins and asked if I could make a felt picture as a birthday gift for her partner. “OK”, I thought, “birds and a beach, I should be ok with this.” 



Learning from my first experience, I allowed loads of time. I made samples and did lots of planning. I looked at a lot of penguin pictures online as the penguin on the right was at an odd angle and I felt it needed a clearer head. I made lots of prefelt. It took a long time but I enjoyed it and was pleased with the result: I thought it was true to the photograph.  I was there when the gift was presented. There were happy tears; probably some of them were mine. 



Then came an email. My friend’s husband, who’d been so happy with the French mountain he’d been given: it’s now her birthday one year on and he’d like to commission a companion picture for her of the local valley view in France. “Noooo” I thought. “I vowed never, ever to do another commission after that one”.  I tried diplomatically to explain that I wasn’t sure I could do it justice but agreed to look at the photos and let him know. 



More soul searching and much wringing of hands. I really didn’t want to refuse, but I really didn’t want to go through the same thing again. On balance, I decided I probably could and should do it, so I said yes.  




I was happy with the outcome and my friend, and her husband, loved it. So, maybe commissions were ok. 


Next, someone locally saw a picture of a little egret I’d made for my mother’s 80th birthday and wanted something ‘similar’. 



My Mum’s picture was based on a bird she and I had enjoyed watching together at a Yorkshire nature reserve. I didn’t want to copy it. The commission would be based on another little egret I’d seen just up the coast from where we live. I quizzed the woman in great detail about what she liked about my Mum’s picture and what she wanted her picture to include. I described what I was going to do. But it made me realise how difficult it is to understand what someone else sees in a picture and whether I can understand it enough to translate into something I can make. Previously I at least had reference photos but there was no photo for this one. 


I decided to give this client the option of not buying the picture if she didn’t like the finished image. It was, after all, a picture I would readily have done anyway. It was the best way I could think of of getting round the struggle of making what I can and want to do and meeting someone else’s expectations. 



The client seemed very happy with it and did buy it though I’ve really no idea if it’s what she had in mind. 








Another local woman saw at an exhibition a more abstract sea picture I’d made.  She’d like something similar but smaller. Surely I could do that? 



Well, you would have thought so but I guess I took my eye off the ball. I’d been thinking a lot about how small waves break and although I used similar materials, it really didn’t come out very similar at all: the original being semi-abstract, the second being more realistic.  I’d allowed my own interests to take over and really hadn’t met the brief. I decided to show her the second picture anyway, explaining it wasn’t that similar to the first one, but I’d be happy have another go if she wanted. 


She thought the new picture was ok but preferred the original and decided just to buy that one instead. A fortunate outcome and I’ve since sold the waves one but it all felt a bit precarious. For me, commissions are tricky. I’m flattered by the request but not necessarily comfortable in the execution! 


I’ve asked three painters if they take commissions.  One absolutely does not on the grounds that she wants to pursue her own creativity and doesn’t want to be influenced by others’ ideas. She does give the potential client an early view of her new work but that’s as far as she will go.  Fair enough.


The second  said, “I do, but I don’t really like it. It’s so difficult to understand what’s in someone else’s head.”  I’m with her on that.

The third does take commissions but he charges more for the work, to reflect the fact that he’s working to their brief. He takes a deposit and, when pressed, said if someone decided they didn’t like the outcome he’d keep the deposit but not insist they buy the picture. Fortunately that has never happened. 


For me commissions raise a lot of issues. Does the client have to buy what they’ve commissioned? Would I want anyone to buy a picture they’re not happy with? How do I know what they are imagining? Do I enjoy making them? Does it matter? 


So, do I take commissions? Um, sort of. I’m still not sure. I’ve realised that when I watch my local sea birds and look at the sea, water and beaches there’s a lot going on. I look at where the birds are, how they stand and move, what they’re doing.  I try to capture the colour, light and movement of sea water and waves.  As I create the felt I have images, sounds, smells and feelings about the scene that I hope in some way influence the picture. I do work from photographs but I rarely copy them. So, if someone wants a particular view, location or bird that I know and can experience then probably, yes. Otherwise, I’d like to think I’d say no.  But then I don’t have a very good track record of saying no, do I?! 


What do you think? Would or do you take commissions? If so, how do or would you manage them?

24 thoughts on “Do you take commissions?

  1. I’m with you on finding commissions tricky! So often people see something differently in their head to how they describe it! If a customer has shown an interest in something relatively simple, I suggest they come along and see if they can make it – that has the benefit of making them realise how difficult it is to make an idea/vision ‘real’!

    1. That’s a great idea, Nancy. I will keep it in my back pocket in case I can ever use it. I’m glad I’m not alone in struggling with this stuff.

  2. This has really made me think. I have carried out 3 commissions and, as there is a lot to say, I will post something on the Forum. I know that I now have different feelings to those (in for a penny in for a pound – preferably lots) that I had when I tackled my first one. I think that the answer is – it depends!

    1. Thanks, Ann, I look forward to reading your further thoughts on the forum. I think ‘it depends’ probably sums it up very well!

  3. Well that was very timely Lindsay, I was just talking to a felting friend about exactly that tonight. We both said pretty much what you did! Commissions are a fine balancing act in all sorts of ways.

    1. Thanks, Jane. It’s good to know I’m not the only one who finds this stuff difficult. I don’t think I’ve looked at that first mountain picture since I made it and it still makes me feel anxious! It’s actually not as bad as I’d remembered but I definitely don’t want to go there again.

  4. Think commissions shown are wonderful and more than fit the requirements!!! Love the objective view of the pros and cons ….especially the how to be certain of “What they see”. you should have no worries however. I’ve heard the same said about commissioned garments – what to do if the client is not happy

    1. Many thanks for your kind comments, Breda. Yes, I imagine that anything handmade comes with the same issues, unless it’s something you can easily alter or redo if it’s not exactly what the customer wants.

  5. A life time ago I did commission work. A client wanted me to weave and sew curtains for a four story home. These were to be floor to ceiling drapes, not lined, but they needed to hang properly. It was a huge learning experience for which there are no regrets. But as everyone else has said, commission work is a balancing act. I also worked for a weaving shop where we repurposed fur coats into winter coats. I did the weaving. Customers came, loved the demo product but when the time came, they refused to accept their finished coats. We had a no refund deposit policy of 25% that eased the pain.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience. I suppose if you do it frequently, as with the furs, you have to toughen up. The curtains though sound like a massive undertaking.

  6. Leonor here (I’m unable to comment with my own account at the moment, no idea why).

    I’ve done a lot of commission work in the past, and once I delivered the finished item I was super happy. The making process, however, was always nerve racking – I have anxiety, and knowing I’m awaiting someone else’s approval on something takes a toll on my health!

    I think all makers feel the pressure when crafting to fulfil someone else’s vision. What if they don’t like it? What if our work (and therefore our sense of worth as artists) gets rejected? I got around that by taking full payment upfront, but letting the customer know I’d refund them if they weren’t happy. I never had to refund anyone, but I felt the dread every time 🙂

    1. Thanks, Leonor. It’s good to hear your experiences. Was the dread worth it, given the positive outcome, or is it better just to make your own stuff that people can take or leave?

  7. Thanks for a thought provoking post, Lindsay. I took a few commissions when I first started out but was never really comfortable doing them. It worked out OK but as you say, the anxiety wasn’t worth it for me. Now I tell people no. But as a former gallery owner, I always told my artists that they should have a written agreement with the client and get at least 50% paid up front before they start.

    Another way of understanding someone’s expectations and perceptions of what they want was suggested by another artist (I can’t remember who now). What she did was have a list of word opposites such as dark-light, neutral-vibrant, hot-cold, transparent-opaque, straight-curved, complex-simple, smudged-precise. loose-tight, textured-smooth etc. These words could be chosen depending on what the commission was to be. Then the client chooses one from each set of opposites. This gives you a feel for what the overall affect of the piece should be.

    In my stitch class, I have been taught that you should create paper mockups, sketches, color studies, stitch samples to show the client before even beginning a commission. It takes tons of time though and then you need to factor in that time into your overall costs. The piece that I created in class took me over 230 hours. Adding in your designing time etc. really increases the costs. So, if you do take commissions, I would suggest doubling or tripling your usual price on the same size of piece.

    It’s definitely a personal preference. I prefer to create from my own ideas but commissions can be lucrative if handled appropriately.

  8. Great response, Ruth. The word opposites sounds like a really helpful idea, especially if you’re super-skilled with the ability to adapt your style so comprehensively. I’m sure you’re right about best practice, mock ups etc but I would price myself out of a commission if I doubled or tripled my price so maybe saying no is more honest and less time-consuming. I think I’m coming down on the side of, ‘if it’s something I would have done anyway and can show / sell with my other work if it’s not what the client wants then why not? Otherwise, no.”

  9. Commissions are tricky. It depends is the answer I get too. I haven’t had any art work commissions but I have done several hats and a few scarves and a dog fur pillow that was very unsatisfactory from my side. They were happy. My knee jerk answer when approached is no, but I usually say not usually, what are you thinking? The hats are easier than scarves, I find and usually suggest people take a scarf class instead. You are right, it’s a matter of trying to see what they are thinking. When I teach, I have people go to a site and pick colours. Some will tell me to pick, just get me blue. Not on your life will I take that on. My idea of a nice blue might be the one you hate.

    1. Thanks, Ann. It’s interesting that hats are easier commission pieces than scarves – I would have thought the other way round but I’ve never made a hat and rarely make scarves so that probably explains it. Interesting too what you say about choosing colours for other people. Not something I’ve really thought about before.

  10. Commissions? Very often the outcome will be good (you have done extremely well!) but is it worth all the stress? I’ve decided that it isn’t.
    I would rather just do what I want and enjoy the process.

    1. Thanks for your comment Lyn. I can see that’s a sensible position. It is certainly more stressful to try to make something to another persons’s specification than following your own ideas.

  11. Glad to see that I am not alone in stressing out over work Lindsay. All my work in my ‘other life’ is based off commissions. I will invariably do mock-ups for the client but it time consuming and adds to the overall cost (not always appreciated by the client 🙁 ).

    I have had no issues with felted hats that were commissioned as normally clients have seen my previous work and just want ‘that one in (said) colour please’. I had one lady commission a scarf at a fair. Luckily I looked for a deposit as she wanted the work done urgently but then disappeared into the ether so this was a lesson well learned.

    I suspect the link between visualization and verbal ability at times can be tenuous – no doubt this has been studied. ‘What he/she sees’ is not necessarily ‘what he/she gets’ at the end of the day. As artists we possibly recognise this subliminally – hence the stress levels. I wonder if ‘working to order’ actually stifles a full release of creativity…

    Beautiful pieces – no wonder all the clients were very happy. 🙂

    1. Thank you for your kind comments, Helen. Lots of interesting points too. I think you’re right about creativity. If I’m copying a photo for someone I feel I have to make the picture as much like the photo as possible. Whereas if I’m working from memory, imagination and/ or photos just for reference I can tweak composition, colours and so on as the mood takes me.

  12. They might have caused some angst but you achieved great results with each of your commissions Lindsay.
    Mine are normally requests for an existing design but in an alternative colour or size which is easy enough. I was recently asked to create a wallhanging but with very little direction from the client. After giving it some thought I’ve decided the best thing to do is to make two and give them the option to choose one, or none. If neither fit the bill I’ve still got two pieces of work for the gallery!

  13. I was so thrilled when I received my first commission – it was extremely gratifying to know that that someone liked my work!!!
    But then the angst and self-doubt crept in. Was it good enough? Was it the colour/size/shape they wanted? What if they hated it? What if…what if….what if????
    After going through this process are few times I have decided that the stress is too great. Even when you think you have allowed sufficient time – it always seems to run away with you and I find I am pushing to meet a deadline, at which point creativity seems to dry up!!
    I love my crafting endeavours as a way to relax and use the other side of my brain. Accepting a commission destroys the fun! No more!

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