In this article I will explain why artists choose to do both original art and commissions. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, and here I will try to cover briefly why I like to try to devote equal amounts of time to both. I will only focus on being a freelance artist here. I will not include the advantages and disadvantages of working full time for a company as an artist.
Reasons for Doing Original Artwork
Original artwork, in this context, is defined as artwork that is not created for anyone except the artist. In the end, the art may be sold, but the original purpose for its creation was not to make money. Being a freelance artist, I have the freedom to create a lot of my own original art when I am not working on another project.
- Fun, Get to Do What I Want: This is probably the main reason. Artists get into art for a reason, and it is because they like to do art. If you love dragons, you should draw dragons! If you love flowers, draw flowers.
- Show off Skills: Sometimes, you learn a new technique and you just want to create a drawing to show it off. When you are drawing for other people, that is not the time to try new techniques. However, drawing for yourself allows you to explore new techniques enhance your skills, and it is nice to be able to show off those skills you have learned.
- Improve Skills: The nice thing about drawing what you love is you get the opportunity to hone your skills. If you really love drawing wolves, and you draw them a lot, each time you draw them you will improve. You learn more about their anatomy and how to draw their fur, and in time you can really become an expert at drawing wolves. You can also take your time and really develop a piece to its full potential, without the worry for deadlines.
- Sell Original: You always have the option to sell your original, if you desire. Or, you can partner with a museum or set up your own gallery to display your works.
- Sell prints and other merchandise with image: With original designs and artwork, you have full control over how it is used. Not only can you sell the original if you want, but you can scan or photograph it and choose to sell it as prints or merchandise, and continually profit from it.
- Potential to Sell License for Commercial Use: When you create your own design works, you also have the ability to license them out for commercial use, such as for use as label designs, for use in movies and TV, selling licenses for other retailers to use your images on their products, etc.
- Increase Portfolio: The more artwork you create, the larger your portfolio. Having a mixture of different things is best.
- Attracting and Maintaining Fans: This goes hand in hand with building a portfolio. If you create on a regular basis, then it is more likely you will attract and maintain fans of your work.
- Art Block: This is the worst. Sometimes it can be difficult to come up with your own ideas. Especially original ideas; you never want to feel like you are just copying someone else.
- Stagnation: The down side of only drawing what you want is the tendency to stagnate. While it is important to develop your own style and be known for a particular type of art, the worst thing you can do is pigeon-hole yourself as an artist. Some artists fall into this trap, where they only will draw a very particular thing and nothing else. It is always good to experiment with new techniques and styles as well as subjects. If you only draw dogs, try drawing a cat. If you only draw flowers, try a still life.
- Lost Revenue: While you are making your own art, you are not getting paid for it right away. Even if you plan to sell the original or use a high resolution scan to make prints, there is no immediate income.
- Pleasing Your Fanbase: Your fans can be your best asset and your worst enemy. For example, if you are very well known as an anime fan artist, and you want to do something else for a change, those people who originally loved your artwork may get bored with your new art and lose interest in following you. It can be hard to change your style or subjects when you have a large fan following that expects you to do a very specific style or subject. This occurs more with people that do a lot of fan-art, but it can happen to anyone.
Reasons for Taking Commissions
A commission is an artwork that is requested and paid for by a customer. Commissions typically take the form of portraits, but can be anything. Some artists, especially those who are well established, refuse to take commissions because of the hassle and potential for the person to “disappear” or refuse to pay when the artwork is complete. Certainly this is a risk, but I think for me the benefits currently outweigh the risk.
- Get to draw outside of comfort zone, but still do something you enjoy: If someone is commissioning you, they are doing so because they love your style and subjects. Someone would not commission someone who only paints flowers to do a colored pencil portrait of their dog. However, it can give you the opportunity to tackle subjects you had not had experience with before. If you do animal portraits, and have drawn many dogs, but few other animals, you have the opportunity through commission to do other animal portraits, such as cats, horses, even iguanas.
- Improvement of skills, increase portfolio: Drawing other subjects besides those with which you are familiar will definitely build your skills. For example, the Organicville labels I have been doing has been a great challenge to me, giving me the opportunity to draw animals I had not even considered drawing before.
- Attract customer base: Every piece I draw is its own advertisement of my skills. Maybe people may love my psychedelic wolf or my Chinese dragon, and they may want to purchase it as a print, but they do not see anything more than that. But if I start drawing a bunch of pet portraits, that has the potential to open up the floodgates of potential clients. If they want a portrait of their poodle, and all you have in your gallery is dragons and fish, they probably won’t ask you to draw their dog.
- More regular source of income: Doing regular commissions, say pet portraits, is a great way to earn money on a regular basis
- No option for prints: Since someone is paying you to create art for them, you cannot in good faith take their image and use it to make prints. Rarely will the commissioner allow this. If someone commissions you to create a pet portrait for them, it is under the assumption that this is a one-of-a-kind creation just for them. Taking this and creating prints out of it is unethical. It is something to keep in mind that, if you do commissions, once the original is sold, the income from that artwork is one and done.
- Stagnation: This was true for original art and it is true for commissions too. If you become well known for drawing dog portraits, for example, you will attract lots of customers who all want you to do their dog’s portrait. While this can be great for business, it is disastrous for creativity.
- Time Schedule and Pay: When you do commissions, you have to do them quickly. A lot of times, you have a schedule, the person needs it by a specific time. Even if they don’t give you a deadline, you cannot take too long on each portrait or else you will lose potential income. Taking more commissions will mean you can make more money, or else you will have to charge more for each commission. If you are just starting out, you may not be able to charge so much for each drawing, so it is a balance between time spent on each drawing and what you charge.
- Risk of Bad Customer Interactions: As mentioned above, many artists refuse to take commissions because of bad experiences. Customers who refuse to pay are not common, but can be enough to deter artists from taking commissions. It is very disappointing to complete a work only to have the client refuse to pay. Often, commissions are highly personalized portraits of family members and would be difficult to sell. This results in frustration and lost time and revenue for the artist.
As you can see, there are major advantages and disadvantages to doing your own original artwork vs commissions. However, I feel the best mixture is doing both. At least unless one or the other takes over as the primary source of income. I have the option to do both right now, since my commissions come sporadically. In the future, I still want to keep my commissions to a minimum to continue doing my own artwork.