Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Illustration Commissions

As illustrators, each one of us, over a period of time, is confronted with offers to produce an assortment of different types of work. And along with the work, these offers come with a wide variation of conditions and circumstances. When a new commission comes along we are usually “in the moment” so to speak, focused on the specific task at hand required by the job offer. We rarely take time to step back and consider the commission with regard to any career goals we may have established. Surprisingly, most illustrators I have talked to haven’t even considered any practical career goals, or a future direction for their illustration business. In fact, many illustrators don’t consider being an illustrator to being in business. This is perhaps due to the art school mentality that an artistic, creative pursuit should not be commercialized. Or it may be the fact that illustrator’s generally work alone, i.e., not in “company” with other illustrators.

Why Illustrators Accept Commissions

The first, foremost, and most obvious reason is to make a living. However, making a living represents the lowest level of reasoning when it comes to taking on a job, and that applies whether it is accepting an illustration commission, or accepting a job in some other field such as car wash attendant. I think all of us would agree that there must be a higher form of reasoning when it comes to accepting work, even if acceptance of a commission occurs in more of an intuitive manner rather than for a specialized motive or part of an overall plan. We accept commissions because they feel right at the time. We have a feeling that might come from a familiarity and a comfort level with the job.

Why Illustrators Should Seek Commissions

Accepting a commission because there is familiarity or comfort level with either the type of work, the client, timeframe, etc. is certainly a valid reason to do so. After all, if we don’t have any kind of intuition about what it is we do, then we are probably doing the wrong thing, and intuition is one of the necessary aspects to accepting the right kinds of commissions.

Intuition plays an important part in how we live our lives. Everyday there are things that we choose to do and things we choose not to do. There are things we want to do and things we do not want to do. Illustration commissions can be considered in the same manner. For a day-to-day approach to business, choices made solely on intuition will be sufficient, but for a goal-oriented approach, some form of forethought or future planning is needed. To organize this, many illustrators create a set of goals and a strategic plan to reach them. Having taken some time to think about the future and outline those thoughts an illustrator is now prepared to make better choices about commissions.


Below is a shopping list of considerations divided into three main categories. Depending on the direction of a business strategy, some may apply and some may not. Some may seem to be positive while others appear to be negative. A single item may trump the decision to accept a commission, even though several other considerations may be in favor of it.

The following main categories represent the three, what have now become universal reasons, to accept a commission: 1) For money (value); 2) For creativity (purpose); 3) For recognition (acknowledgement).

© 2013 Don Arday.
Value refers not only monetary compensation, but to all the financial benefits that can result from a commission.

Does it pay well?
Will it pay quickly?
Will it be time or material efficient?
Is it a repeating gig?
Will it involve derivative alterations?
Does it have resale potential?
Does it include media licensing?
Do you retain the original?
Will you retain copyright ownership?
Does it require an elaborate contractual agreement?
Does it require a non-compete clause?
Is it “work made for hire”?

© 2013 Don Arday.
Purpose delineates the desirability of a commission from an internal standpoint, the personal artistic and creative benefits it offers.

Do you look forward to doing it?
Will you enjoy doing it?
Is it a good fit for you?
Is it a creative or technical challenge?
Will it be your concept?
Will you be able to creatively contribute to someone else’s concept?
Will you have freedom with the visual content?
Will it expand your repertoire of subjects?
Is it something new for you?
Is it for a worthy cause?

© Don Arday.
Acknowledgement refers to the external benefits the commission has the potential to produce, such as increased--exposure to work, marketability, and reputation.

Is it for a new client?
Is the client prestigious?
Will you receive a byline credit?
Can the client be used to attract other clients?
Will you, or the illustration, be promoted by the client?
Will it result in wide-range exposure?
Will it extend your marketability?
Is it international?
Will it be in use for an extended period of time?
Can you use it for self-promotion?
Will it be worthy of juried shows and competitions?

Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

So, as you can see, there are many individual reasons to accept an illustration commission, and if you have a strategic plan, you will be able to place more emphasis on some than on others. Compensation, although a necessary evil, may not be the most satisfying reason to accept a job. You might believe the creative opportunity, or the acknowledgement for the assignment, to be far more rewarding.

I’ve always considered any commission that qualified for a benefit in all three major categories to be an assignment, not only worth accepting, but also worth seeking...but two out of three ain’t bad. And whenever I accepted work that offered two areas of rewards, it nearly always worked out well.


Work that only had an advantage in one area always resulted in some form of sacrifice. If money was the reward, then timeframe and acknowledgement were forfeited, and stress ensued. If it was creativity alone, as is the case with many so called “freebies”, then earnings were lost and recognition failed. If a commission was accepted for the recognition only, compensation, timeframe, and creative freedom were lost. And, recognition can take a while, and be a promise unfulfilled. 

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