Commissions are a great way to add to your sales/profit at a convention, and also gives you an opportunity to be productive at your table during any lulls/quiet times in traffic. In this “toasted” post (AAtoast! feature!), we focus on taking commissions on-site at an event: why you might or might not want to do this, what steps are involved, what you should consider and be aware of, ideas to help you figure out your own process, and links to other resources we’ve encountered. Of course, there’s info relevant to doing commissions in general as well!
Doing commissions: Why not?
You may decide commissions are NOT for you if you …
- are doing a convention for the first time, or are doing a shorter convention (e.g., one day event, or event that is only a few hours) and don’t want to be overwhelmed.
- don’t like people watching you draw.
- don’t enjoy making things under pressure/on command/taking other people’s requests.
- want to save more time for interacting with friends/customers and/or attending other convention events.
- have an art or craft that has a lot of components that don’t make it easy or appropriate for you to do on-the-spot commissions (e.g., traditional media that requires specific materials/tools/environment that is hard to transport or set up)
These are just a few potential reasons. There are lots of artists, including many of exceptional skill levels, who don’t do commissions at conventions for various reasons. A large part of it is personal preference. There’s nothing wrong with that!
Also note that just even if you don’t want to do commissions at the event, you may consider taking commission requests for working on later/after the event is over. In that case, some of the later sections about managing your commission info and the overall transaction process may be even more important!
Doing commissions: Why yes?
Commissions can be a good idea for you if you …
- have good focus/organization/time management skills.
- enjoy the challenge of drawing on the spot.
- want to do something productive while being at your table.
- want the opportunity to make more money at your table.
Commissions can also lead to more work and sales. Aside from keeping you busy, it can attract people interested in watching an artist work. Even if you’re not doing commissions, making something while you are at your table (drawing, sewing, etc.) has the same effect - and don’t be surprised if people sometimes ask if they can buy what you’re working on!
That said, be careful not to neglect your table. It’s possible to be so engrossed in a commission that a potential customer may be too shy to interrupt you. And (rarely, we hope), someone might swipe something from your table. Be sure to take a break and look up every so often!
OK, I want to do commissions. Now what?
Let’s break this process down into a few steps, then discuss considerations, options and ideas in greater detail.
- Inform people that you take commissions.
- Price your service.
- Take the request.
- Do the work.
- Give the finished commission to your commissioner and complete the transaction.
1. Informing customers that you take commissions
Obviously, having a sign helps. Sometimes, if someone really likes your art, they may ask even if you don’t have a sign. Most of the time, however, the sign helps to prompt people and make them feel that it’s okay to ask.
Signage messaging can vary, ranging from “Yes I do commissions!” to a very detailed price list. You may also want to list what you draw (or don’t/won’t draw) - e.g., robots or animals, yaoi/yuri/hentai, people facing the right, etc.
Make the sign prominent; place it near your displayed art.
- Place/Display completed commissions near the commission sign. This is a fantastic way to show people actual “live” samples and also indicate to your commissioner (if they happen to pass by the table again) that their request is done! Of course, this depends on how much space you have available at the table. Also, make sure somebody doesn’t take the commission. Another potential “problem”: someone may want to buy a work commissioned by another person. (But then maybe you could convince them to order their own!)
- Include a “specialty” suggestion or prompt. Example: “I’ll draw you as an anime character/magical girl/etc.!” It can seem a bit gimmicky, but sometimes people need something specific to spark their imagination. This can initiate more interest and requests, especially if the prompt is related to a fandom people are interested in.
2. Pricing your service
This is definitely an art, not a science. Artists price based on various factors, including:
- What medium will the piece be in? (e.g. pencil vs pen vs watercolour) Many artists price this based on a mix of how comfortable they are in a medium (e.g., pencil is easier than pen), how much material that medium uses up (e.g., watercolour uses more materials - specialty paper and paint - than pencil), and colours / visual impact (e.g., a full-colour piece will be priced higher). Don’t forget your materials costs!
- How big will the finished piece be?
- How complex will the finished piece be? (e.g., number of characters, portrait versus full body, background etc.)
- How long will it take you to make?
All of these factors are really working together to answer two questions: How much time and money does it take you to make something? and How much profit do you want to make?
One way of thinking about pricing is to use this formula:
(cost of materials x markup for materials) + (hours of labour x hourly rate)
Some artists use a tiered or “add-on” pricing system where they start with a base price and then provide “add-on” options, e.g.:
- one character, no background = $X
- every additional character = + $X
This can be appealing because it is formulaic and easy to calculate. The drawback is that it doesn’t take into consideration context (e.g., two characters wearing normal clothing versus a single character in intricate, detailed armor).
Perhaps most importantly, price your commissions in a way that values your time and your skill. You are creating a one-of-a-kind handmade piece by request that your commissioner will not get elsewhere.
3. Take the request
It’s VERY IMPORTANT that you have a clear understanding/agreement on what the art should be, what the price is, and when/how the piece will picked up. There are experienced, prepared commissioners who know what they are looking for and bring detailed references with them. There are also commissioners who are just looking for a commission and may not even be paying attention to your art. It may be worth explaining to a commissioner how your commissioning process works, especially if they seem inexperienced or unfamiliar.
If you’re not familiar with the subject matter, ask for references. It may be possible to find references right at the convention since you’re surrounded by fans and merchandise. Alternatively, for original character commissions, have people write a description.
Some commissioners will ask for a turnaround time (e.g., when the piece will be ready for pickup). Depending on how confident you are with your time estimates, it may be best to overestimate how much time you need in case something unexpected happens.
Even if the commissioner doesn’t ask outright, it can be important to know when they expect the piece to be done. If the con is going to be over in 15 minutes and you’ve been asked to paint an epic masterpiece, you may either want to decline the commission or arrange some alternative (post-convention) method to pick up for the sake of your own sanity and the quality of your work. Also, if the commissioner arranges for someone else to pick up on their behalf, make sure you know in advance and arrange a way to identify the right person gets it!
Aim to have some way of getting in touch with the commissioner if they get busy and forget to come back. Make it easy for them to find you at the con. Ideally exchange contact info so that you can connect after the convention if necessary.
Payment method is up to you, but we highly recommend that you take only cash or credit card (if you have a reader), and that you have at least some deposit from the commissioner. 50% upfront and the balance when the commission is picked up is a common one. MAKE SURE YOU NOTE WHAT HAS BEEN PAID AND WHAT IS OUTSTANDING. Also, NEVER TAKE CHEQUES (too easy for fraud, especially in a convention environment).
Remember, one of the things you’re selling is your time - and that’s something you can never get back.
Don’t be afraid to turn down a commission if you …
- are not comfortable with the subject matter. If you do commissions for a while, you are bound to get a bizarre request sooner or later.
- are getting swamped or are running out of time. Your health is important - and your reputation. Don’t commit to something if you can’t do it.
- have doubts about entering a business relationship with the commissioner (because that’s what you’re doing!). You may have doubts about being compensated fairly for your work or a sense that the transaction may have a lot of hassles. Warning signs can include: they don’t seem reliable; they don’t seem to know what they want; they don’t seem to care about your actual art (e.g., they ask you to draw something completely different from what you show in your work); they are constantly asking for discounts; etc.
- Ask the commissioner if there is a sample piece of yours that they like, e.g., a particular style you should use in the commission. This can be a good way to manage expectations. Also if you have more than one artist at a table, it can be a way of making sure they are asking the right artist for a commission.
- If you’re starting out or want a more manageable volume of work, consider having a “slot” system. Take only up to X number of commission requests at any one time (e.g., up to 8). Pros: helps you stay organized/avoid being overwhelmed, and seeing the list of slots may move people to act and make a request if they feel like the slots are going to fill up soon. Cons: you’ll need to post this info somewhere and remember to keep it updated. It may also limit the number of commission requests you get or discourage people if they see the slots are filled at any one time.
- Consider having forms made in advance for the commissioner to fill out and write their contact info and commission description down. This can make things more efficient especially if you’re juggling sales at the same time. Make sure you can read the writing! The pricing form earlier by jadiejadie is a good example.
- If you have a good data plan or can connect to a wireless hotspot or free Internet service, use it to find references. Even if you can’t get a reference at the convention, if you have Internet in your hotel or at home and can take the commissions back with you to work on at the end of each day, you could look them up at that time.
- Use a camera to take photos of cosplayers, people, and other things you need as a reference for your photos.
- Make and print your own receipts for writing on, or use a receipt book. They can be purchased in most dollar stores and office supply stores, and provide you with a carbon copy of the transaction. Write your table number on the receipt!
- As a receipt alternative, give the commissioner a business card with your table number on it and the amount paid/due upon pickup. (Make sure you have a way of recording it yourself as well.)
- Again, the AAbiscuit app is another way of recording and sending commission details.
- Consider getting a credit card reader for processing payments (bearing in mind depending on an event, your connection may be spotty). Some more information here.
4. Do the work
Earn your munnies!
5. Give the finished commission to your commissioner and complete the transaction
- If the commissioner happens to come by while you’re still working on it, it can be good to do a quick progress check to make sure they’re happy with how it’s coming along.
- Take a photo of your commission as you are working on it, and when you’re done so that you have a record of it. It’s a nice way to share your work after the convention. Some commissioners may be able to scan and send you a copy, but don’t count on it.
Yay! It’s done! Collect your munnies and pat yourself on the back for your hard work!
- Package your commission nicely. At the very least, consider putting it in a protective sleeve/sheet protector or envelope to help your commissioner keep it safe. Clear packaging can also help to show your work off when the commissioner walks around the convention.
- Sign/date your work and label it in some way (e.g., on the back). Include your business card or write your website/contact info so that people can find you again if they’re interested. This encourages repeat business!
But wait … what if the commissioner isn’t happy with the final product?
- What don’t they like about it? Is it easily fixed? (e.g., wrong eye colour, a small detail was missed on a character’s outfit, etc.)
- If it’s not easily fixed, consider a discount on the price.
- If they are extremely unhappy, consider a full refund. In this situation, you do not need to give them the final artwork as they haven’t paid for it. If they wish to obtain the artwork, you should be compensated.
An unhappy customer can be a challenging thing to deal with. It’s important to be respectful and positive. That said, the customer is NOT always right and there are unreasonable people out there, so don’t let yourself be taken advantage of.
These posts are about commissions in general and not specifically about commissions at cons, but they talk about the subject from both artist and client perspectives. There are lots of excellent observations and takeaways for commissions etiquette and rights:
Do you have any experiences or tips to share on doing commissions? Please let us know!