Why Should We Have a Written Art Commission Contract?

 A Custom Art Commission Contract ultimately ensures that the contract protects both the Client and the Artist.


For hundreds of years commission agreements have been made orally, and still are (like most arrangements made in the art world); and that is why, for centuries, serious problems have arisen. A classic case of an oral agreement gone wrong, Michaelangelo’s argument with the Pope. The whole trouble was caused by the absence of a written agreement between them, which would have clearly specified their respective rights and duties.

work in progress painting on an easel empty city street in autumn lanterns and reflections on the ground after the rain
Work in progress, approved by the client before the final detail stage.

We can avoid this pain

There are hundreds of recent cases from the art world, where artists and performers were just a bit too shy to make the most of their logo designs, guitar riffs, or novel ideas. Here’s an article about 6 unlucky artists, who never got money for their famous works of art.  And then there are more cases where artists were too careless and dearly paid for this.

First, a French city commissioned American sculptor to create a piece for a new municipal building. The artist worked for a year, created numerous designs and models, made several transatlantic trips. And more than that, he engaged a French foundry to cast the piece, but in the end, the authorities told the sculptor that they no longer required the work. Then, an English city commissioned three English artists to paint an artwork on a bus. After completion, the city did not pay them for their the work, and later they found that the city mutilated their artwork. Finally, a museum commissioned an English sculptor to make a portrait. The carriers later destroyed the portrait in transit. And consequently, the artist had to make and deliver another cast at his own expense.


Here is a short and painful case of what can go wrong when you commission an artwork without signing a written custom art commission contract. The artist told the client not to worry about the initial sketch, and that it was not a part of his process. And so the artist asked the client to trust him to do a satisfactory job, saying that up until that moment no one had ever rejected his work. The portrait had some significant areas where corrections needed to be done. The artist agreed to do a revised sketch from a completely different photograph of the client’s brother. The client commissioned this portrait for his brother’s birthday. This is one of those cases when a great experience of giving a commissioned art as a gift turned into an unnecessary headache.

family walking down a street lit by yellow lanterns after the rain, fragment of a painting
Fragment of the painting.

What to look for in a contract?

A good contract is designed to set in stone not only dimensions, price and all expenses, and specifications, but also the client’s approval of each step starting with sketches, and following with every next step of work in progress, payments, copyright, right to refuse, and timeline from start to delivery. The contract gives you peace of mind and clarity of the process.

Oral vs. written contract

In all the above mentioned cases there was, at best, an exchange of letters/messages and, at worst, nothing in writing to show what the arrangements were. This means that in each case if it went the legal path, a court would have had to judge what the arrangement probably was by hearing the artist’s and commissioner’s evidence as to what they remembered they had agreed. We can avoid this expensive and needless exercise if we have a written and signed custom art commission contract.


A written commission contract has obvious advantages for both parties: it can provide them, at the outset, with answers to foreseeable disputes. And most importantly, their respective rights and obligations will be clear. And more than that, they will have a written proof of the agreement on which both can rely. It is, of course, for artists and clients themselves to decide what details their written contract should include. There are a number of art commission contracts one can find online. While working as an artist who takes commissions, I drafted a standard Custom Art Commission Contract, so you can borrow it and customize it for your art commissions, or contact me if you want to commission an art piece from me.