We love art commissions at The Design Trust! They can be a really great & reliable income stream and often really pushes you creatively too!

We wanted to share some real life stories about how artists work on commissions, so we asked our lovely Business Club member Jo Scott who is an award-winning dog artist, illustrator and designer. She works to commission, designs for Thortful, Moonpig and Cardly, and has her own line of greeting cards and gifts on sale to both independent trade shops and the general public from her online shop.

illustrator & artist Jo Scott at work

When did you start DOING art commissions?

“I started doing commissions by accident in 2013. I was planning my greeting card business launch and I was working in my old job in a software company. We needed a present for my mother-in-law’s birthday and with money a bit tight at the time I had an idea I could maybe paint her dog and find a nice frame. I surprised myself with the painting, I loved it, it gave me all the good vibe tingles and it did for others too, everyone loved it.

For the rest of that year, all friends and family got a dog portrait for their birthday or Christmas present!

It was when friends of friends, friends of family members and work colleagues started asking if I could paint their dog/cat that got me thinking that I could add commissions to my business. Throughout 2014 I had a steady flow of business for art commission work.

It wasn’t what I thought I’d be doing but commissioning has been a great addition to my business. It’s what people wanted from me and I think it’s something I’ll always offer“.

how Do you market & manage your art commissions?

I have a specific website page, dedicated to my art commissions. I try to answer all the frequently asked questions, have referrals from customers and lots of examples of my work on this page, along with clear pricing for my standard options and clear instructions of what to do if they want more than my standard offering.

I put my pricing info part way down the page so you have to scroll past some of my favourite reviews first.

I mention regularly to my email newsletter and social media following, showing examples of my recent art commissions I’ve worked on, whether or not I have free spaces and I share my work old and new and any customer photos, reviews etc.

Later this year I’m planning on adding some video to explain my FAQ’s in person and I think a personal interview of how I work on art commissions will be a great way for people to get to know me better.

I do one main event a year, CRUFTS, which is brilliant for commissions. I always run a competition to win a dog portrait. Anyone who enters and doesn’t win gets an email afterwards with a small discount if they’d like to pay for a commission instead.

The most useful thing I’ve put in place recently is a time frame for my commissions. Because we changed our lifestyle and we now travel a lot of the time, I’ve learned it’s difficult to paint art commissions whilst travelling, never mind shipping them post-Brexit when we’re abroad! I made a decision this year to only do commissions when I am in the UK. I should be here 3-4 months minimum every year and I have access to a studio space. I created a waiting list people could sign up for, anyone who enquires during the months I’m closed, is directed to my waiting list and all my marketing pushes people to my waiting list.

This year I immediately had 30 sign-ups, which is my average for the entire year anyway! It’s also a great way for me to work. It might not work for everyone, but 8-12 weeks of concentrated commission work really focuses me and I love the rhythm of it, then I can take a long break, forget about them to a certain extent and have a waiting list fill up for the next batch.

This has provided a bit of excitement and scarcity around my work and sales appear to be up as a result 😊.

How do you protect yourself & your commissioning client?

The first thing I do when I ‘book’ in a commission is email my client (I have a template for this) with a summary of what we’ve agreed I’ll do and the price they will pay and then how the process will work. That serves me well and is something I can refer back to if there are any queries later (I’ve never had any), the contents of this email, date, price, any notes are also in my spreadsheet for my reference.

I have a single point of reference for all my commissions, I am forever checking this spreadsheet, it is so useful to have. I also keep a running total of the price quoted so it’s nice to see what potential revenue is coming in.

It’s interesting that I rarely speak to any of my clients in person, I offer everyone a phone call but have only had one in the last year, all my communication is done via email, FB messenger, WhatsApp or Instagram DMs. I also pop in a column in my spreadsheet for which method of comms we’re using. Again this is seriously useful and time saving to refer back to weeks later when you’re wondering was our conversation on email, DM’s, WA or messenger?!

I make sure I read customer’s emails at least twice. There’s often a lot of hidden information in there and they may emphasise something that’s important to them. One recently made a point of telling me that their dog’s beard was shorter than it appeared in the photo and the dogs head was small and square. I was able to include this in the painting whereas if I’d just copied the photograph this may have been missed. The dog was sadly no longer with us so details like this take on an extra relevance and I like to get things right first time.

Working in watercolour I often make mistakes that are not easy to repair and I have to start the painting again from scratch. Over the years this happens less often, but I always factor it in, so if the client doesn’t like the end product, I will paint it again (once). I made a decision early on that I never wanted a painting to go out that I wasn’t, or more importantly my customer wasn’t 100% happy with.

My work is fairly quick, it doesn’t take me days or weeks to finish so I can accommodate this is my timescales.

If the painting gives me that happy tingly feeling I feel quite confident my customer will love it too. Occasionally I’m asked for the odd tweak or change, it’s never a problem, I actively encourage feedback and tell clients not to be shy if there’s anything that’s niggling them to tell me, I won’t be offended and will be happy to change it.

If they cried, laughed or did a happy dance then I know I’ve nailed it, my commission work is intensely personal to my clients and really quite emotional at times.

Any commissioning mistakes you could share with us?

I can only think of three times when it’s gone wrong

The first was a rookie mistake and in my first year. I shipped the painting before the client paid me. She really wanted it in time for a birthday and in theory the money should have arrived the day after I’d posted it… it didn’t and she disappeared. I have shipped before payment since but only to close friends and family and regular customers and I think then only once or twice. Definitely take payment before shipping!

Secondly … I work from photographs. I painted a dog from a photograph, the client loved the painting but said the dog was the wrong colour… turned out that the photo they’d asked me to use had a filter applied and so the dog appeared black instead of brown. I put this down to a lesson learned. The client was actually very apologetic, and once they realized what had happened they offered to pay and take the original painting, but I said no. I repainted it as brown, the customer was delighted and recommended me to lots of people, a few who then ordered themselves and I was able to sell the original ‘black’ dog in one of my original sales online at a later date.

And, I’ve found that clients who approach me from Instagram via DMs are different to my other clients who have come from Facebook or via email and my website. One time I agreed a price with a client and painted their dog. It was one I especially loved and felt I had ‘nailed’. It sparked so much joy in myself, I almost cried, never mind the customer! They came back with the comment that they just didn’t think it looked like their dog. This customer I walked away from immediately, I felt they were spoiling for a bit of an online spat, something had changed and their tone was defensive and a little ominous. I was very polite and said goodbye.

Again, the original sold nearly immediately in my online shop so no loss to me.

I think with Instagram a lot of people see my work and often ask for freebies. I get a lot of ‘can you draw my dog’ requests. My best and easiest clients are always the ones that have come via my website and had a good read of my information page. I’m trying to increase awareness of my prices and how I work on Instagram (progress videos on reels anyone?) I think this will help.

I am an empathetic person, I can read people well even via email, at the first ‘hint’ of any issues I like to tackle it head on with communication and double checking with my clients.

I don’t have any formal agreements or forms for them to complete or sign. I have a plan B for all of my commission work (I can usually sell the original or I can use the image in a card design or an illustration project), so should things go south on any particular project, I can safely walk away.”

Jo Scott atwork1

How do you price your art commissions?

This really is very difficult!

If I were starting commissions now with 10 years of greeting card design behind me, I’d be much happier starting out at the prices I charge now.

However, when I started, I was starting everything from scratch and I needed to grow into it, for me it’s connected to how I feel and I think I hit on my comfortable amount in 2020.

I track all my orders in a simple spreadsheet, one worksheet for each year, I started doing this from 2016 so I have figures dating back to then.

I think I started charging friends of friends £50 back in 2014. This was before I found The Design Trust and got professional advice, or really looked at my pricing properly so I was looking online at other artists like me. There were amazing artists on Etsy selling their work for £30 (even I raised my eyebrows at that at the time!) and amazing artists selling their work via their own websites for £700+ and when you first start out it’s difficult, you feel you can’t go in and charge £500+ without some proof or external validation that you’re good enough to do so.

I did keep my prices low to start with. I focused on getting good referrals from previous customers and photographs of my work with my customers and their dogs in their own homes and made a dedicated commission page on my website. I entered loads of art competitions and won a couple of awards, which again helped me ‘feel’ like I could raise my prices.

In 2017 I upped my prices and again in 2018 ,2019, 2020 and I plan to raise them again in April 2023 when I open for my next batch of commission work. Now I charge 2 standard prices; £225 for a single dog and £395 for a large single dog or 2 dogs in a single painting, these are set prices and there’s clarity about what’s included and what’s not (I.e. 3 dogs)

The majority of my work now comes from people who want something with 3 dogs, 4 dogs or I’ve had one for 8 dogs – you can see where this is going – they like my work and if they’re going to spend some money then they want ALL their dogs. I have one customer with a payment plan, I’m painting all 5 of their dogs past and present over 2 years. When I quote £700 for 4 dogs or over £1,000 for 7, customers have said they’d roughly worked out what it ‘might’ be from my standard pricing.

I’d also say don’t be afraid of what your existing customers might think if you raise your prices (I think that’s called people pleasing and is a different conversation, but it was something I worried about in the early days). I’ve recently had a return customer who first commissioned me 7 years ago, the price difference was huge, but they willingly paid the new price (OK I did give them a small discount), but they loved my work, wanted a painting of their new dog to go with the one of their older dog and they were overjoyed with the result and happy to pay the extra.

The best question I’ve asked myself is what would I be happy to pay for one of my own commissions if I wanted it to give it as a present to myself or a loved one? I’m also quite a good match to my ideal customer so if I ‘feel’ OK with it then I think my ideal customer will too.

If you are someone who is caught up in their feelings around pricing, then another good way to judge if your pricing is right for you is if you start feeling resentful when people are buying from you then your prices are too low. I haven’t come across my feeling for when my prices are too high, but if I feel it in the future I’ll come back and share it 😊”

Thank you so much Jo for all your Real Life advice! If you got anything out of this interview then share with us below in the comments.

Want to learn how to price, manage & promote your own creative commissions? Check out our Creative Commissions online course here.

2 Responses to “Real life: illustrator & artist jo scott shares how she promotes, manages & prices her art commissions”

  1. Sharon Dickinson Archives Crafts

    Did I write this? I am absolutely there with Jo…. minus the travelling! She is spot on in her blog here. Sensing when a client may be up for a spat………..back away gracefully, yes there is always one who you are unable to please, do not enter in to an argument it will make you feel worse. Refund replace, refuse the commission, whatever it takes. Keep emotion out of it, you can be doing something else!
    I also feel that l am a model of my ideal customer, l know what l like and l know what l am prepared to spend, which really helps with my pricing. Some may charge too little others too much remember that there is room for you and your work.
    One thing that l do differently is to make an initial doodle for the client with everything that they want included(which in my case can be a lot)and when they decide to go ahead then l charge a non refundable deposit towards the actual size artwork which is deducted from the final work which is in my case translated in to Pewter.

    • Thank you Sharon, its not until after something like this is published do you all of a sudden feel quite exposed ! 😂
      Very pleased it resonated with you and yes I agree deposits are also good, once a client has financially committed, they’re less likely to change their mind!

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