Ultimate guide on how to sell & get art commissions

May 25, 2022

Commissioning artwork is becoming increasingly popular as personalization & customization continues to be a fan favorite amongst the thoughtful-consumer crowd. As demonstrated by Etsy's outstanding growth in recent years, there is tremendous demand for unique and hand-crafted products by real artists, creators, and people.

However, as an artist, meeting this point of demand can be challenging. How can you get commissions? How can you find those people that want to commission custom art?

"Cold calling" (direct sales) is tremendously time consuming. Hashtags on social media is great for getting likes & followers, but how many clients does that get you? Getting "exposure" can only go so far. At the end of the day, artists need paying clients without going to the moon & back to find them. The good news is that there are plenty of willing & able buyers, but accessing them at the right place and the right time can be challenging.

We have delivered tons of commissions to our community of independent artists, so we are sharing our expert insights & secrets to help you find and "close the deal" with customers that commission artists for custom artwork. Although portrait paintings are the most popular, we will also share how non-portrait artists - such as abstract artists, still life artists, and landscape artists - can get paid art commissions.

Before we jump into it, here are 3 important tips:

  • Our data shows that 50% of the customer's buying decision comes from looking at the artist's images & portfolio. The other 50% comes from the actual artist. This means that you should not rely on your artwork alone - no matter how amazing - to seal the deal. When commissioning artwork, the customer wants to know about the master behind the masterpiece - the artist. As a result, showcasing yourself in a persuasive and meaningful manner is important. In other words, merchandise yourself into the marketplace. If your online presence needs a boost, we offer artists a free portfolio to showcase themselves. We also have helpful resources & guides on how to market yourself effectively as an artist online and get customers from all over the world (such as free design services for marketing materials and complimentary ad services).
  • Representation helps because it acts like a 3rd party endorsement. A few artists have told us that mentioning they belong to MadeMay makes a big impact because it boosts the artist's credentials. With any buying decision, especially online, customers want to feel a sense of guarantee and assurance that the process will be a good one - and having representation can help do that because they have someone they can go in case something goes wrong. For instance, would you prefer to hire an independent plumber if they knocked on your door, or an independent plumber that's listed on HomeAdvisor? You'd go with the latter because, although unlikely, you feel safe knowing there's someone you can go to if something goes wrong.
  • Commissioning artwork is a fun process and not like buying something off-the-rack on Amazon or Walmart. Often times, there is a deep, sentimental value behind a commission, such as a portrait painting of a loss loved one. As a result, your interaction with the customer goes a long way and will likely result in them spreading the word about their experience with you. When you get commissioned, tell the client how excited you are that they chose you to create their soon-to-be masterpiece. Provide quick updates (i.e. "Hey, just letting you know I'm halfway finished, see the attachment!"). Before shipping, ask if there is any last touches they would like to request. After a few weeks, send a friendly note asking what the reaction(s) have been like. In short, people that commission artwork are thoughtful people, so show them you care by being kind & personable.

How to get abstract painting commissions

When someone moves into a new home, buying artwork is one of the last things on the to-do list. The first additions to the living room will be the couches, the rug, and lighting fixtures. Artwork and other accents, such as vases, are typically added as last, finishing touches. This is important to know because when people design a room, they want to create an ambience of harmony, so they will typically start looking for artwork that matches the aesthetic of whatever they have designed so far. For instance, getting artwork that matches the minimal blue & grey scheme of their living room.

This presents a great opportunity for abstract artists to offer & provide something unique.

Instead of shopping for off-the-rack artwork, someone can hire an abstract artist to create an abstract painting that is specifically made to match the aesthetic of the customer's living space. Simply ask them to take a picture or two of that room, ask them if they have any specific requests, and you can create an abstract made purposefully for that room.

Commissioned abstract art

Not only will it save the customer tons of time looking for the "right" art piece to hang, but it adds a tremendously nice touch to the vibe. People love things with a meaning behind it. Plus, they will brag about to their friends about it - "This art was actually created for this room!" - and promotes word-of-mouth advertisement for you.

But how can you find these types of customers? We do not recommend chasing the end-buyer (the home owner or renter). Instead, go after interior designers since they do this kind of work all the time. People with a high disposable income typically use interior designers, meaning they can likely afford commissioned abstract art pieces. Plus, the concept of personalized abstract will make the interior designer look good in front of their clients, so interior designers have a good reason to work with you.

Another great idea is reaching out to AirBnB hosts or hotels who will benefit from a guest-experience standpoint by pleasing their guests with unique & original abstract art.

Ideally, you want to find interior designers in your area for the localization aspect and you should focus on nurturing that relationship. Since they have recurring customers, this means you will have recurring customers too.

How to get still-life & landscape painting commissions

Many artists mistakenly believe there is not much application for commissioned still-life & landscape paintings. This could not be further from the truth. While there may not be high demand within individual consumers for still-life artwork, there is great demand from enterprise customers.

What do we mean by enterprise customers? Businesses.

A commissioned painting of a restaurant's most popular food item

A restaurant is a great example of a place you can target for commissioned artwork. It does not need to be a large chain restaurant, even your local coffee shop is a great place to get commissioned for an original art piece. If you are looking for additional exposure, you also get tons of visibility from the hundreds and even thousands of people that walk into that restaurant each day.

Before you start sending out emails and making calls, here is an important note on sales & marketing - people love to buy, but nobody likes to be sold. When you approach these businesses, it is important to help them recognize that commissioning art from you will not be an expense (nobody wants expenses), but a return on investment. This changes the game and greatly increases your odds of getting the commission.

How can a custom painting be a return on investment?

Let's use the restaurant example. When someone walks into a restaurant and they see a painting that is clearly custom-made, such the McDonald's painting above, it increases customer satisfaction levels. The interior of a restaurant can really stand out with personalized artwork and attract eyeballs.

Commissioned art

Better yet, if you are able to create something that has the potential to go viral, you can convey this to the restaurant manager or owner. For example, a funny painting that somehow relates to the restaurant will want to make someone take a picture and share it with their friends. Every business is looking for something that can help them go viral - a custom-made painting has the ability to do this and you should help them think of ways to make it happen.

No matter what you do, the key is to convey that commissioning artwork is not a luxury expense, but something they need because it will help grow their business.

How to get portrait painting commissions

Portrait paintings are super popular. Commissioning a portrait is something that has been around for centuries. In fact, most historic and famous paintings were as a result of a commission, such as the Duke of Milan commissioning Leonardo da Vinci in 1495 to paint the Last Supper at the Santa Maria delle Grazie.

The market for portrait paintings is massive. However, there is a lot of noise in the art market with portrait paintings and it has become overwhelming for artists to get a continuous stream of portrait painting commissions.

As a result, artists should use their limited time to drill deep and focus their attention on a specific target customer type. There are plenty of examples, but let's first consider what the primary driver is for commissioning portrait paintings. The answer: to celebrate, recognize, or honor a person, moment, or event.

Here are a few common examples of life's significant moments that we experience as humans:

  • birth of a new baby (the special event of bringing new life in the world)
  • finishing school (recognizing hard work & entering a new chapter in life)
  • love & wedding portraits (the special ceremony of two people coming together)
  • loss of a loved one (commemorating & honoring someone's legacy)
  • significant career achievement (celebrating someone's achievement, such as a game-winning basketball shot)

You can probably think of more examples, but the goal is to locate special moments and target likely customers that undergo or experience those moments. Similarly to the interior design example for abstract artists above, targeting end-clients is probably not the best use of your time since locating them is difficult & time consuming. Thus, we recommend targeting an intermediary or setting up a partnership that enables recurring clients.

Let's go over a specific example and how you can get an art commission for portrait paintings.

There are plenty of photographers who hide in bushes for hours on end to capture the perfect moment of a couple's kneeling proposal. Strike a deal with these photographers so you can provide a custom painting of their shot, in exchange for a 5% of the commission value as a finder's fee. The couple will love it, the photographer will love it, and you will love it. These photographers are probably also involved into wedding gigs, so be sure to offer your commission availability for any scenario.

Commissioned portrait painting of a proposal

In addition to partnerships, another option is direct marketing. For instance, targeting hashtags on social media, such as #RIP, and asking the uploader if they would like a portrait painting to honor or commemorate their loss loved one. Remember, providing a portrait painting for something sentimental will help provide a sense of closure & completeness for the client, so be genuine, don't be spammy, and make each message personable. While you are getting paid, you are also there to provide something truly uniquely special & meaningful.

Commissioned portrait painting

No matter your target, it is critical you have examples to show the potential customer. For instance, if you are going for new baby portraits, be sure your portfolio contains examples of other commissions you have done for baby portraits. If you do not have previous commissions within a particular category, do 2-3 free commissions so you have 2-3 examples to display.

Another great strategy is having an anchor client that brings in lots of traffic and clients. For instance, we provided an Instagram influencer a complimentary portrait painting for her to display to her 150,000+ followers on Instagram. This resulted in a spike in traffic for all of our artists. When doing this, be sure to provide the expectations upfront so you get recognition for your work.

Here are a few other target areas we have found to be effective:

  • Placing brochures or business cards inside local coffee shops, hair salons, restaurants, and shops to advertise your services. Many of these places let you do it for free, so the only cost is printing out the materials. If you are looking for free design on brochures, fliers, postcards, and business cards, be sure to visit our complimentary marketing materials page.
  • Establishing a partnership with several funeral homes in your area, offering to provide portrait painting to the family of the deceased.
  • Business clients, such as "Employee of the Year" portrait paintings to recognize a company's superstar employees.

Commissioned painting of chefs

How to get pet portrait painting commissions

People spend a lot on their pets and pet portrait paintings are just as popular nowadays as people portraits. In America alone, the average dog owner spends $1,200 per year on their fluffy friend. Collectively, people spend $100 billion on their pets each year. Many businesses have picked up on this trend and you have probably seen advertisements to get your dog painted in something like a renaissance style. (Of course, these companies just use a filter & digital rendering to produce the painting, and the "painting" is not actually hand-created).

With the pet portrait industry growing, how can you get in on the action? Our recommendation for getting pet portrait commissions is similar to the points mentioned in the section above (such as partnerships and direct marketing), but with a different audience and approach.

Specifically, here are some strategies we have seen to work effectively:

  • Pet Facebook groups, such as a golden retriever Facebook group. Do not solicit or spam. Instead, you will discover many people actively ask where they can get a portrait painting of their pet - once this comes up, you can jump in and mention you are an artist that specializes in pet portraits and would be delighted to paint their pet. There are tons of these Facebook groups, and we recommend joining several.
  • Posting your previous pet commissions on certain subreddits on Reddit will boost your visibility and lead to direct commissions. Reddit is a social media platform that is broken down into "subreddits", or different categories for different interests. For instance, there is a subreddit for gardening, a subreddit for politics, and a subreddit for country music. There are numerous dog breed subreddits, such as /corgi, /dachshund, and /wigglebutts. Of course, you want to post your painting in the appropriate subreddit so you do not come in cold. 80% of commissions are a result of a customer seeing an artist complete a commission for another customer, so you definitely want to capitalize on your previous commissions and post them around different areas to gain traction and momentum.
  • Pet shops, such as a pet grooming, in your area have lots of foot traffic and give you an ideal place to get commissions. For instance, you can print out 100 flyer brochure to place inside a pet grooming shop to offer your awesome art talent. If people have the money to spend $100 on a wash for their dog, they might also have the money to commission you for a pet portrait painting. The shop may ask for a piece of the pie, so you can offer them a percentage cut from each order for acting as a referral.
  • Similar to pet shops, vets & pet cemeteries are also a good area to target. Strike up a partnership with the funeral director or offer a complimentary pet painting to be hung at a vets waiting area. Of course, you want imbed a script or information on the frame that gives information on where people can get their own portrait painting.

Commissioned pet portrait painting of a dog

Getting commissions passively

The methods mentioned in this article are proactive ways to get art commissions. However, another method is getting art commissions passively. That is, clients coming to you organically. Read 8 places for artists to get art commissions for more information.

Something else?

Interested in joining MadeMay as an artist to get commissions? Get started here.