I know how it feels to be working away in your spare time, trying your best to make better art, with the goal of one day making money from selling your artwork.
I did it for YEARS, grinding away at the art fundamentals, trying to make every painting better than the last one, hoping that eventually I would feel satisfied that I was finally good enough to start taking commissions.
But that feeling never came, and I never got to a point that I felt ready. Even though I could tell my work was good, it still didn't feel good enough - so of course I didn't take any commissions, and I didnt make any money.
It wasn't until my job situation changed, and I was forced to get commissions to pay the bills - only then did I actually get work and make money.
The truth is this:
The only way to find out if you're ready to take commissions is to get your art out there and put effort into marketing it. If you manage to get some commissions, you are ready - if you don’t manage to, then some part of your commissions process needs improvement. For all this to happen, you must advertise your work BEFORE you know if you're ready!
This doesn't just come down to the quality of your artwork, as I’ll explain - there are many elements that must be in place to get commissions.
Before we look at whether your actual art is good enough, we have to look at the most important factor
1. Are you prepared to market yourself?
They say marketing is king, and in the world of commissions, it’s no different.
If you aren't marketing, it doesn't matter if your art is literally the greatest on the planet - you wont get commissions.
There are very rare individuals who have gotten lucky and always had commissions without having to market themselves much.
Most of us don't have the luxury of waiting for luck to come our way.
The basics of commissions marketing are not too difficult:
1. Make some example artwork
2. Share it in places that clients might look to commission art like yours
3. Give interested people a way to get in contact with you
If you don't market properly, tackling the next points won't impact your success - that's how important marketing is.
If you are already seeking commissions but aren't getting any, be honest with yourself - are you doing all you can to get your artwork in front of the right people?
If you feel that you are prepared to do what it takes to market your art, then next we need to take a look at your target audience.
2. Do you know your target audience?
The people who will decide if your art is good enough is your target audience. If you don't know who your audience is, that's the first problem you should be trying to solve!
Different audiences are going to be seeking different kinds of art, and different kinds of commissions.
Some audiences will accept lower skill levels, some will only accept high quality art.
Some audiences are going to favour brighter, more positive art work, and others will want darker, potentially even grim art - some audiences want realistic paintings, others will be after cartoony line drawings.
Some audiences will want some art of their World of Warcraft character, to print out and hang on their wall.
Some audiences will want to commission art to then sell on as comic strips, book covers, t-shirts etc.
And these audiences are all going to be different sizes, and hang out in different places on the internet - and have differing amounts of other artists already trying to get their attention.
It's going to take some work to figure out who your art would suit, where they spend their time online, and how to compete with the other artists.
When you're starting out you will have to put a lot of time into constantly seeking new audiences, and improving your competitiveness.
It's a continuous and necessary part of getting commissions - but over time you wont need to do it as much.
Check out this article on the best places to get art commissions, to help figure out where to share your work to get commissions.
Once you've established who it is you're going to be marketing your art work towards and what it is they want, NOW we can look at the quality of your artwork.
3. Can you make art to the standard your audience expects?
This is the question you have to answer:
Does your artwork match or exceed the lowest bar of quality expected by your target audience?
Take a look through the art that your target clients are already buying, and try to objectively compare your art with it.
Don't just compare your work with the best art - compare it with the whole spectrum of artists who are getting commissions from your target audience.
You don't have to be as good as the best artists, you only have to be as good as the worst.
Of course, try to make the best art you can, put care into the quality and the value you provide to your clients. Take pride in producing good art.
But it's very likely that you are used to comparing your art with the best artists, and not with artists who are producing lower-quality art but still getting commissions.
There are artists out there who are getting commissions despite their art being at a beginner skill level, just like there are artists who produce incredible art, but don't make any money at all.
And this is because, like I said in my first point, marketing is king.
If you see an artist getting more commissions than you, with what you think is worse art than yours, try not to get envious of their success or dwell on how unfair it is.
Instead, realise it's an opportunity - if they are able to get commissions with worse work, they have proven to you that your art is good enough to get commissions!
If you can hit the lowest bar of quality, the next step is to prove it to your audience.
4. Is your portfolio good enough?
A potential client needs to know that you are capable of producing the work that they are paying for.
Clients have to put their own money on the line. If you can't demonstrate that you can reliably produce good artwork, then you will look like too much of a risk to a client - they will instead hire an artist that can prove they will make a good piece of art.
Your portfolio exists to convince a potential client that you can execute whatever it is they are after.
You're going to need a portfolio of at least 5 art samples for whatever audience you are targeting, all to a similar standard.
If you're targeting Dungeons & Dragons character commissions, you are going to need to make at least 5 sample characters of a similar standard.
If that's book covers, you'll need at least 5 examples of them.
Remember, this is to prove you're able to reliably produce good art - if you have less than 5 samples of something, your client is less likely to be reassured that you can produce a good result every time.
When creating your portfolio, 5 samples should be considered the minimum - a portfolio closer to 10 samples would be better if possible, but always prioritise quality over quantity.
It's better to have a portfolio of your 5 best pieces of art, than a portfolio of 10 but half of the art is lower quality.
My first jobs were obtained with a portfolio of 6 paintings, hosted on Artstation, which is the platform I'd recommend for your first portfolio.
5. Are you prepared to communicate with clients?
Taking commissions requires a lot of communication with clients.
For me personally, this means getting lots of emails from people asking how much I charge for a character portrait, how long it'll take to finish, etc.
Some of those inquiries will lead to further conversations about the specific art they want and a more detailed price quote and deadline.
Once a commission is started, there's a fair amount of back and forth between me and the client while I work on their art, checking that it is going in the right direction.
During busy periods, I might be emailing with dozens of people at the same time.
Most inquiries will not lead to work - usually they are inquiring with multiple artists at the same time, and just decided to go with a different artist, or perhaps your prices are over their budget.
90% of clients and inquiries will be totally fine and go smoothly.
But 10% of commissions will not go smoothly - something will have to be changed mid-painting, some clients will be indecisive, some will be fussy.
Some clients will be very long-winded and give you way more description than you need, and some won't give you enough information to work from.
Clients are people, and people come in all kinds of shapes and sizes.
You'll get better at communication as you go, but you should know upfront that it's a large part of taking commissions, and the most of the high-paying clients will be English speaking.
6. Are you prepared to hit deadlines?
Not all clients are going to have deadlines, but some will - so you have to know if you are able to keep up with a schedule.
Hopefully, through producing the samples in your portfolio, you know roughly how long it takes for you to make a piece of artwork.
If you aren't sure, it's well worth making another sample piece of art and timing yourself.
Track both the hours you put into a sample piece, and also how many days, weeks or months it takes for you to go from starting to finishing a piece of artwork.
This way, you will be able to give your clients decent estimates for how long it'll take you to finish the art work.
Not only that, but you'll be able to plan your days better to make sure you hit your deadlines, and make sure you dont take on too many commissions at once.
One or two missed deadlines from time to time is acceptable - we're all human, and sometimes things come up that we hadn't anticipated.
But getting the reputation of being someone who misses deadlines regularly can hold you back - even if you make good art, some clients will refuse to work with you, simply because they have strict deadlines.
7. Do you have the ability to produce commissions reliably?
If you're going to take on commissions, you should be sure you'll have the time and desire to actually work on them!
Art takes a lot of effort and time to create, and art made on commission even more so - and it'll be on your shoulders to get the art done.
You may want or even need extra income, but to start taking commissions you must have regular time to work on them, and the discipline to sit down and do them.
You may have other responsibilities and obligations in your life, and only be able to work on commissions for a few hours a week, or even a few hours a month - this is fine, as long as you don't overload yourself with more commissions than you can handle.
If you want to do art commissions full-time, prepare yourself to work harder in the next few years than you ever have in your life.
Over time, it will get easier, but at the beginning it takes a lot of persistent effort to get enough commissions to survive off.
Which brings me to my next point.
8. Will you be able to support yourself during low periods?
If you want commissions to be a sustainable long-term income source, you need to have many elements in place - building your target audience, creating a good portfolio, marketing, emailing with clients, and then actually doing the commissions.
It takes a lot of sustained effort to get everything in place and working well.
I implore you not to just quit your job and go 100% in on trying to survive off art commissions - the first months of seeking commissions are hard, and after that you run the risk of work running dry for months at a time.
Make sure you can support yourself properly during low work periods, as you don't know how long it'll take to make freelancing sustainable and profitable.
Many artists start taking commissions while they are living with their parents, or take commissions in their spare time while working a day job. Some are supported during low work periods by their partner.
I personally moved to a cheaper country for a while, so that the amount I needed to earn to pay my bills was much lower.
9. Don't just rely on the opinions of the people you know
Getting commissions from your friends and family is awesome - it's fantastic when people you know are trying to support you.
But getting a commission from a family member is very different to getting a commission from a stranger on the internet - and your family may feel you are 100% ready to sell commissions, but your target audience on the internet disagrees.
Similarly, having a group of artist friends is great too - you can keep each other excited and interested in art.
But even if they are great friends of yours, don't let their opinions of whether you are ready affect your decision, good or bad.
As I said at the beginning of the article, your target audience are the only ones who can decide if you are ready to sell art commissions.
Friends and family are going to be biased and probably uninformed - most will have absolutely no experience selling art commissions, and even if they do have experience selling their own art, they probably have a different target audience to you.
I hope I've made this very clear by now!
The most reliable way to figure out if you are ready to take art commissions, is to just ignore the advice of the people you know, and ignore your own personal opinion.
Try to make some sales, and see how your target audience reacts.
Opening commissions is scary. Maybe you're scared your art isn't high enough quality yet, or you'll get no inquiries when you advertise.
Maybe you're worried that when people see the art you are offering, they will look down on it and tell you to stop advertising.
It's extremely hard to be unbiased and objective when it comes to judging your own art, so I understand why you are looking for a way to figure out if you are good enough to sell your work.
But, I will say this - reading articles won't help you figure it out.
What I suggest you do is figure out your audience, put together a portfolio and continue making art, building your audience and advertising, until someone asks you if you do commissions.
One single inquiry is enough of a sign that you are on the right track.
Making it work will take persistence, discipline and hard work - but with all 3, you can make art commissions part of your life.