Art Commission Red Flags

I don’t have an exact count, but I’ve paid artists for roughly 150 commissioned comics and illustrations during the past five years. This isn’t because I make lots of money (nope) or somehow had lots of money to begin with (also nope), but rather because I’m passionate about art and comics and creative collaboration. I understand that “passionate” is a word a student might use in an application essay, but I have a hobby that I really enjoy, and I don’t do it for the sake of “advancing my career.” I do what I do primarily for selfish reasons – because it’s fun – but I also genuinely want to support the online communities whose work I enjoy.

So, to summarize: I’m not wealthy, but I love art and want to support artists.

I feel as though I have to say this as a preface because I’m afraid people will read this post (or not read it) and jump to the worst possible conclusion about who I am and what my motives are for writing this. Still, I think it’s worthwhile to share my experiences with commissioning artists, because these experiences have gotten much better as I’ve learned from my mistakes.

I’m going to say that about 19 out of 20 commissions go well, by which I mean there’s good communication with the artist and the final product is delivered as expected. There are key commonalities between the projects that don’t go well, by which I mean (both or either) communication fails or no art is ever created. Here are the five major red flags:

– The artist says they’re open for commissions, but they have no examples or prices listed. Even someone taking commissions for the first time should have, at the very least, a formal commissions post (or comparable online form).

– The artist approaches you to commission them, or a mutual acquaintance asks you to commission them on their behalf. “Doing a favor” for an online stranger rarely ends well, especially if there’s money involved.

– The artist is misrepresenting their age and is actually under 18. It’s important to support young artists, but it’s illegal (and more than a bit creepy) to pay them if they can’t legally use PayPal or Venmo. Some young artists have technically polished and creatively sophisticated styles, so how can you tell? Well…

– The artist’s main social media feed gives you a bad feeling. Many creative people are socially and politically engaged, and this isn’t about white-coded “professionalism” or “tone policing.” Rather, if someone’s entire social media feed is intensely negative and filled with strong language, they might not be in the proper headspace to work on a creative project with a stranger. Also, it’s important to trust your gut instinct when it comes to certain dog whistles. (One of the most bizarre failed commission experiences I’ve had culminated in the artist sending me a long chain of angry DMs filled with homophobic and ethnic slurs, that was wild.)

– The artist insists that you sign a commercial contract for a private commission. You should not be entering into a commercial contract unless you’re commissioning an image for commercial purposes. In the case of fandom commissions, a contract like this is blatantly illegal, and the party who bears the legal guilt is the one who offers money for the theft of someone else’s intellectual property – you, in other words.

Regarding that last red flag, it’s my understanding that many professional “fine artists” require contracts for private commissions, generally due to the amount of money and labor involved. And if you have the means to pay a professional painter $5000 to create an oil portrait of your D&D character, then you should absolutely live your best life. Still, the contract you’re signing won’t be commercial, with the main difference between “private” and “commercial” contracts being a matter of usage rights. Generally the sort of people who advertise for commissions on social media aren’t going to be expecting this, but I’ve had few surprises. What the request for a contract means is that you’re probably not the sort of client the artist is looking for, and it’s best to respect that.

If a commission fails, for whatever reason, I think it’s important for both parties to walk away with no hard feelings. For me, this means not badgering the artist, not badmouthing them within the community, and not asking for the commission fee to be returned. In the end, commissioning art is supposed to be fun, and the ultimate goal is to support artists, especially early-career artists who are willing to create custom illustrations that even someone like me can afford.

Still, as I said, I’m not wealthy. I love art, and I love working with artists, but I’m only able to do so through very careful budgeting and corner-cutting in other aspects of my life. I assume that most people who commission art projects can sympathize, and it doesn’t benefit anyone to throw money into a hole. You can support an artist by contributing to their Ko-fi or Patreon, or simply by sharing their work. Failed commissions are tough on both you and the artist, however, so it’s best to avoid trouble before it begins.

It’s always a good idea to be careful with giving money to online strangers, even if they’re very talented online strangers. Still, I want to emphasize that the vast majority of my experiences commissioning art and comics have been overwhelmingly positive. If you’re interested in commissioning art, please allow me to encourage you to go for it!