Are you an artist who produces work via commission? If you are, this article is for you. It’s about how you can increase your revenue by avoiding some of the pitfalls that are probably costing you commissions without you even realising it.
A bit about me, first. I’m Ethan Fox, primary developer at Tanuki-sama Studios, and I’m not an artist. However, I have commissioned quite a lot of artwork over the years, both on Nina Aquila: Legal Eagle and prior projects before forming the studio, and in that time, I’ve seen countless portfolios from artists across the globe who work via commission, and I’ll say right here, right now, plenty of you have ended up on the “no” pile despite being fantastic artists, purely because your portfolios were difficult to find, or navigate, or understand.
And that’s a shame! You’re a talented bunch, and it’s unfortunate that you miss out on commissions this way.
This article is explains some of the reasons why this might happen from a commissioner’s perspective, and how you can fix them. It’s entirely my opinion, however, hopefully you’ll see that all of these suggestions are grounded in reasonable explanations.
None of this stuff is difficult to change, some of it might be controversial, but I assure you, all of it comes from my experience at looking for commissioned art, and it will help you capture those commissions that might otherwise get away.
So without further ado…
1) Place your portfolio somewhere accessible & with no login
Put yourself in a commissioner’s shoes. You’ve been given a link to look at an artist’s portfolio. You open it, and either right away or before you can scroll, you are hit by a login screen. For the sake of argument, let’s assume you don’t have an account for that service… What do you do?
Do you go back to the artist and kindly ask them to provide you another link? Remember, you’ve got 40 other portfolios to look at.
Most likely you just close it, throw that person on the “no” pile, and move on. It’s sad but true; your time is limited and you can’t waste it on commissioners who don’t meet your needs.
Quick aside here – make sure you always provide a link to your portfolio! Sometimes I’ve had people respond and just say “I can do this commission”, and that’s it… Okay, great. You go on the “no” pile.
If you take anything away from this article, it should be this – do not put your portfolio in a place where a commissioner may need to log in to see it.
This means NO to Instagram.
This means NO to Facebook.
Not saying you can’t have an Instagram or whatever (social networking is important!) but do not make this the primary place you link a commissioner, unless that commissioner contacted you via that service (if they contact you via IG, it’s safe to assume they have IG).
You might be sitting there thinking “but everyone has a Tumblr” or “everyone has IG”… Firstly, no, not everyone has those. But secondly, coverage of services is not the same globally. Relatively few people in the western world have Pixiv or LINE accounts, and people in the Chinese-speaking sphere tend to use different services to outside those countries.
ArtStation, Behance & DeviantArt are fine, if you want to use them – though if you’re doing NSFW commissions, be aware that often people need to login to these services to prove age.
I also strongly recommend Carrd; this is very powerful one-page website creation service which is perfect for one-topic websites like portfolios & profiles (our NALE homepage was made using this).
2) Don’t “fall at the first hurdle”
The commissioner has clicked on your profile, and it didn’t require a login. Great!
The next step is the dreaded “first hurdle”.
This is the first seven seconds in which I have your profile open.
As a commissioner, I often close a portfolio within this short window if I see certain problems.
Don’t make any of the most basic web design mistakes. This should be obvious but it’s worth saying. Your page should have no auto-playing sound or music, have clear, easy-to-read fonts (no cursive or decorative fonts for body text) and no colour clashes. Honestly, “less is more” here; your work should speak for itself (unless you’re taking commissions as a web designer, then go nuts I guess).
Make sure you have no immediately visible work of a very poor quality. That picture of Naruto you scrawled on pencil on lined paper back in middle school? Get rid of it; this isn’t amateur hour. Stick to just your best material (see below, “Be Selective”).
If your portfolio has an excessive amount of pornography, that’s fine (most artists draw porn, that’s just how the art industry works these days) but you should warn the would-be commissioner beforehand (assuming they contacted you from a SFW space; if they got in touch via a Hentai Commissions subreddit then obviously that’s different). If I’m at a public place where I can’t reasonably browse a portfolio like that, I’m going to close your portfolio pretty quick and I might remember it later, but best not to gamble on that.
Try to have things like your terms/prices accessible and obvious; you don’t need to have these visible on your profile on the very front page, but seeing that they exist right away is a real plus.
If you do commissions in multiple fields (e.g. web design, graphic design, character illustration) try to have these split up somehow, such as into different sub-pages/gallery tags, because relatively few commissioners need a generalist; most of them come to your page with something in mind.
3) Consider “the experience” – be their hero
There’s a tendency to think that, when a commissioner clicks upon your link, you’re then locked in some kind of war to try and get them to choose you for a commission. I strongly suggest thinking about this a very different way.
As a commissioner, when I click on your link, once you get past those first 7 seconds, I’m on your side. I need your help and I want you to be my hero. When I open your profile, I’m looking for reasons to pick you… And hopefully not see reasons to immediately eliminate you from the running.
But at the same time, I’ve got 40 portfolios to look at and not enough time, so realistically, you’ve got maybe 30 seconds, or roughly how long it takes to ride an elevator, to grab my attention, and every second counts. This is called the elevator test and it’s a pretty well-recognised concept in creative media.
The best way to do this is to ensure you have absolute control of everything on the page.
I strongly recommend that the link to the page you provide to commissioners exists only for that purpose. Many artists do this already, where they might use their DeviantArt as their “anything goes” portfolio, and their ArtStation is their “professional” portfolio, and that’s a good way of dividing stuff up.
There’s one other problem with using services like DeviantArt though; while people are viewing your sample images, they’re being shown similar images by other artists, and there’s always a danger they might get distracted:
This is why it’s best to have your own portfolio site, because then you have absolute control over everything the commissioner sees.
4) Provide examples with your price sheet
Speaks for itself. A lot of commissioners have a price sheet which looks like this:
- Sketch $x
- Flat colours $x
- Shading $x
- Anime cel style $x
- Complex backrounds +$x
This type of breakdown is really useful, but it’s much more useful if each tier has an example of what that means.
Remember, your commissioner might not be an artist, or know very much about art – but everyone can see a picture and point to it, saying “I want this”.
5) Make sure everything’s easy to find
Make sure that it’s very easy for the commissioner to find…
- Your prices (see above)
- Your work terms
- Your contact info
- Your queue (not absolutely necessary but it’s good to see; I recommend Trello for this)
- Your delivery ETA for each style (are we talking days, weeks, months…)
You don’t want to miss out on a commission just because these were hard to find.
Please provide prices and work terms, at least – don’t make people email for these if you seriously want commissions.
Also, if you do/do not work on commercial commissions, definitely state this up-front. You can save yourself and commissioners a lot of time.
Finally, try to have something about yourself on the page. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but enough to give a touch of personality. Just saying who you are, your nationality/timezone (also useful info). We’re literally talking the equivalent of a Twitter bio, but it’s enough to make you memorable, which is important when a commissioner is looking through 40 portfolios back-to-back.
6) Set your prices
As a commissioner, I won’t spill a great deal of ink here talking about guidance for prices, as that’s a clear conflict of interest. As an artist, you have absolute freedom to charge what you want, and commissioners have the right to refuse an artist on the grounds of price. This is just how things work.
The one thing I will say is that commissioners often evaluate work differently to artists. We look at your work from the perspective of what it means to us, and that affects our perception. If we’re making a videogame, or assets for a streamer or YouTube channel, we’re forced to consider our budget, and our budget is based upon our estimates of lifetime sales or a similar metric.
That means if a developer is making a videogame with lifetime sales expectations of $500, they just can’t hire someone who charges $300 per-image for their CGs, no matter how good their art might be. It’s not necessarily that the artist is charging too much; it’s just that the numbers don’t work for that particular commissioner.
Speaking as a commissioner here, I often walk away from a portfolio while not feeling angry at the artist’s prices, rather, I feel sad that I can’t afford their awesome work.
Does this mean you should lower your prices? No, of course not. You should always charge a combination of what your research suggests your work is worth and what you’re willing to accept/what you need as a creator.
But if you find you’re getting passed up a lot due to cost, it might be worth asking creators why. For example, let’s say in one month you get 10 requests from people who are all looking for VTuber avatar designs, and all of them say they can’t afford your prices – you may want to find out why so many of these people are reaching out to you. It might suggest that where-ever you’re advertising your work, it’s just not the right type of customer for you, and you need to cast a different net.
7) Be selective with your work – “you’re as good as your worst”
What goes onto your portfolio and what stays off?
Well, only you can make that decision. Obviously, you should put up what shows your work (1) honestly and (2) in a good light.
As a commissioner, when browsing your portfolio, I fixate on the bad images. I can’t help it! But I’m not being mean; there’s a very important reason for this.
If I commission you, realistically, I expect your work to be somewhere between your best and worst images in terms of quality.
The work you turn in might be equal to your best… But it might not be much better than your worst.
So when I commission you, I have to be prepared to accept that if you turn in something similar to your worst image, that I would be happy with this.
At the same time, you should pick work which is representative of your skills, and be reasonably honest with this, because if you turn in bad work (like if your commissions can be clearly far worse than your examples), then obviously people are going to be unhappy with that. You don’t want to disappoint your commissioners.
My main suggestion here is this: be brutal. Ten awesome images are much more useful to see than 20 where 4 of those aren’t so good.
8) Testimonials are useful
Something I’ve noticed when looking at portfolios is that very few people seem to list testimonials; this is strange, considering that in some industries, this is really common.
A testimonial might just be as short as…
“Hired this person to produce my channel bumpers. They’re fantastic! Great to work with. Will work with this person again.” Goku_Xx_82, YouTube, 2020
But if you have 3-4 of them, and you can search to find these people, it does a huge amount to make you seem more legitimate. Your work shows what you can make, but testimonials tell people what you’re like to work with. Do you compose yourself professionally? Do you deliver on-time?
9) A humble request
The last thing I want to mention as a commissioner is this:
Please, please, please – only apply for commissions that you can demonstrate you can do.
I’ve lost track of the number of commissions I’ve either posted up on Reddit (or seen posted by other people) where the commissioner says something like…
Must be someone who can do character pieces in traditional media
… and they get 100 responses, where only maybe half them do character pieces OR traditional media.
Look, I get it. You want to cast a wide net. You miss all the shots you don’t take. I understand.
But I can’t speak/read Norwegian, so I wouldn’t apply for a commission to translate Norwegian into English.
I can’t play the violin, so I wouldn’t apply for a commission to write a violin concerto.
If you’re a generalist, maybe you could turn your hand to most things, but as a commissioner, nothing gets me to throw an artist on the “no” pile faster than “this person clearly didn’t read the brief”.
Don’t waste your time, and don’t waste other people’s. It’s simple courtesy.
Thanks for reading. If you’ve got this far, I hope this information proves helpful. If you care enough to read this ramble about portfolios & commissions, I’m sure you’re the sort of person who goes the extra mile for your work, and I hope that some of the stuff here will be useful for you.
Ethan Fox is the owner of Tanuki-sama Studios, creators of Nina Aquila: Legal Eagle, Season One over on Steam.
You can follow him at @By_Ethan_Fox on Twitter, or follow @NinaAquilaGame for game updates.