How to get the best from your artist?

'Pasta Pasta' seamless pattern by Celandine

‘Pasta Pasta’ seamless pattern

The quality of cooperation between the artist and the client is often the key deciding factor for the quality of the final artwork. Many people who work with artists have horror stories of traumatic cooperation experiences, and every artist I know has a treasure trove of ‘demon client from hell’ tales to share, sometimes in amusing poster form.

Although we sometimes pit ourselves into a ‘Us vs. Them’ mindset, the truth is that the client can bring a surprising amount of value to the piece they commission. What’s important is for both sides to know how to handle each other in order to make gorgeous things together. I’ll try to offer some tips for both sides.


Client – Your work on the piece of art you want to commission begins before the artist ever puts pen to paper. You need to have a strong and clear idea of what you want from the artist, with as many details as possible. It’s best if you prepare a good explanation of how the piece should look, what message it should convey, and in what context it will be used. Ideally this will be accompanied by a visual mood board or at least a couple of random images you pulled from the web that can show the artist the direction in which you were thinking of going.

Artist – If a client doesn’t provide this information, ask for it. People who don’t have much experience working with artists sometimes have a hard time realizing how difficult it is for us to visualize the same thing they are visualizing based on the scant information they provide. Ask for visual examples, or make a mood board of your own and ask the client whether it’s close to what they have in mind. It can save you a world of grief later on.


Client – If you’re looking for an artist to do a specific project, it’s unlikely that you won’t check out their online portfolio. Possibly the portfolio is what made you decide on that artist in the first place. But be sure that the type of work the artist is showing in their portfolio is in line with the type of work you need done. It’s not enough that you simply love their style. The style and theme you want in your piece need to be a fit for that particular artist. The portfolio will also give you hints regarding the scope of that artist’s style – if all the pieces are done in one distinctive and similar hand, it’s no good asking that artist to do something radically different for your project. Keep in mind that some artists are more flexible than others.

Artist – Make sure the whole range of your artistic expression is reflected in your online portfolio. A well developed and up-to-date portfolio is an artist’s best friend.


Client – Please be upfront about the terms of the commission. If you have a list of requirements – deadlines, a fixed budget, needing full copyright of the finished piece – share those with us right away so we can give you a more informed response. Alternatively, ask the artist at the start about the amount of time they need to complete the job, how much they would charge for it, and whether they are comfortable with giving up all rights to the image. If you can’t get a clear agreement on these, you’re not a good match.

Artist – Don’t rush into a project before you know all of these details. It’ll be a waste of everyone’s time.


Client – It’s best to precisely agree the process dynamics at the start – for instance the artist will do some sketches for a fixed fee, then you will select the one that you feel fits your project best, you’ll discuss any needed adjustments, the artist will then work on the final version, and you’ll pay within two weeks of receiving the final artwork. Sign a contract which lays out this process. It’s the safest for everyone.

Artist – Have a draft contract with terms acceptable for you, to offer to those clients who don’t have a contract format of their own. Have a lawyer check it thoroughly to make sure it’s clear and sound, and that it protects all of your rights. If you’re signing a contract provided by the client, check and double check – and if at all possible have a lawyer look at that too. You can’t be too careful with legally binding documents.


Client – Once the initial sketches and concept drawings have been made, it’s your turn again to participate in the creative process, by giving clear and detailed feedback that will help the artist take your vision forward. At this stage you want to make sure you’ve mentioned any specific needs you might have, such as the format of the finished piece, the minimum resolution you need, the maximum number of colors, etc. Don’t hold back from requesting specific changes if the sketches aren’t in line with what you need. If you don’t speak up now, you are telling the artist that he is free to proceed with his presented idea. If you change your mind and ask for a bunch of serious changes once he’s completed the final version of the piece, he will hate you. And probably charge you.

Artist – Try to get a written confirmation at this stage that the client is happy with the concept you have presented and wants you to proceed with it as agreed. It will help your case later if major revisions are requested after you have made the final piece and the client expects them to fall within the initially agreed price of the work. If you can produce an e-mail that confirms they requested no changes at the concept sketch phase, you can stand your ground and ask for an hourly rate for any major changes you need to make, on top of the originally agreed price.


Client – If the artist presents you with concept sketches and even after discussions and modifications you feel none of them are working, it’s absolutely ok to walk away. You will naturally pay the artist for their time, thank them for their effort, and offer to get in touch if you come across a project that you feel would fit their style. You’re not obliged to work with an artist just because you asked them for concept sketches, just like you’re not obliged to buy a dress you tried on that proved to be an unflattering fit. Unlike the dress, though, you are obliged to pay the artist for the time invested.

Artist – Always charge  a reasonable fee for concept sketches. Ideally this fee should be separate from the fee for the final piece and payable immediately upon delivery. It can feel silly or petty to charge someone for something you threw together in a few minutes (if you’re one of those lucky souls who sketch fast), but artists need to break out of the dangerous habit of undervaluing their work.

Also, if the client keeps asking for more and more concepts and can’t seem to settle on one, at some point it’s ok for you to suggest that if your ideas aren’t working for them, perhaps you’re just not the best person to execute this particular project. If you can, recommend another artist who you feel could prove a better fit. Sometimes it just wasn’t meant to be.


Client – If you want to work with an artist but their prices are outside of your budget, there are a few things you could consider. One option is having them make something for you that is smaller or simpler than the project you initially envisioned. Another is respectfully asking if they’d consider doing this one thing for a slightly lower fee, but offering some valuable collateral in exchange for that – such as a referral to a client who could bring them more lucrative deals, future jobs that will have larger budgets, or something else you feel could be valuable for them. Beware when offering ‘visibility’, as most artists are allergic to that word.

Finally keep in mind that even if you talk the artist into doing some work for you far below their regular asking price, their level of invested effort will correspond. Art is an emotional endeavor and it’s hard for us to get excited about a project if we feel our contribution is not being valued.

Artist – We’ve all had him – that guy who can’t exactly pay you with actual money, but he promises you’ll get great visibility from the job you do for him for free. We all hate that guy’s guts. The reason we hate him is because usually people’s idea of ‘visibility’ is vague and useless, and we’d never consider asking to get our teeth fixed for free by telling the dentist we ‘promise to tell everyone how swell they are’. There are, however, forms of visibility that can be exciting enough for an artist to talk them into doing work at a reduced price (but not for free – don’t ever work for free). The key to deciding whether the visibility offered is worthwhile or not lies in the question – how many members of my potential target audience will I reach? Having your work featured in a teen magazine might get your work seen by thousands of people, but how many of those people are likely to ever need to hire an artist? Even if the work will be seen by your potential target audience, will they know it’s you? Will your name and website be visible on the piece? Will they be in a font size legible to the naked eye? I’m not saying ‘never work for visibility’. I’m saying ‘make sure it’s worth your while’.


Client – Not everyone who works with artists knows everything about the artistic process, so you may not always be able to recognize whether you are being unreasonable. But if you’re unsure, try to translate what you’re asking into terms you’re more familiar with – Would I ask a baker to make me five elaborate cakes within 24 hours? Would I ask my hairdresser to keep changing my style until I ‘see something that I like’? Would I ask my lawyer to represent me for free if I promise I’ll tell everyone what an awesome lawyer he is? Then just consider – ‘If someone asked me to do this, would I think they were being an asshat?’ Don’t be an asshat. Respect your artist.

Artist – Be patient with clients when explaining the work process. Not everyone is familiar with how artists work, particularly because each artist works in a slightly different way. Not everyone is aware of the restrictions in the printing process, or the boundaries of photo manipulation. Sometimes what we do seems a bit like magic, so it’s not surprising that sometimes people seem to expect that we can do magic. It is primarily our responsibility to teach our clients how to best work with artists. The better we teach them, the better our future cooperation becomes.


Client – Don’t approach an artist if you aren’t genuinely excited about working with them. Don’t say things like ‘My cousin could do this for me for 50$’ in an attempt to haggle and get a cheaper deal. If your cousin is really talented enough to do a good job for you and is willing to charge next to nothing, by all means give him the job. Not everyone needs a professional artist. Maybe you can draw that logo yourself. This is primarily about your assessment of your needs. But if you decide to hire a professional, treat them like a professional. And don’t work with them if you feel they are not behaving in line with professional standards.

Artist – If you give someone a price quote and never hear from them again, they did you a favor. If someone mentions how their seven year old daughter has come up with some great solutions for their ad and they want you to ‘just polish them up a little’, politely suggest that you are not the best person for that job. In the long run, your artistic career will be defined by the clients you work with as much as by the art you produce. You want to be proud of both, always.

Some of these are on the obvious side, but all are worth remembering next time you need someone to make something beautiful for you. You’re not just hiring us to make something amazing – you’re making it with us. We’re on the same team.


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