So you want to be a commission painter

I've noticed quite a few posts on social media lately from people who are considering getting into commission painting. Actually, even in other groups I am part of outside of this hobby, I'm seeing a surge of people considering freelancing as a side hustle or even branching out and making it their day job. Maybe it's the current state of the economy or the maturing of this hobby, but many people are considering monetizing this "thing".

A lot of the posts indicate that they have no idea what to charge.

I am obviously not a commission painter; in fact, I'm barely even a competent painter, but I do know a bit about side work and freelancing as a copywriter, a graphic designer, a user experience consultant, and as a composer/sound designer. I would like to offer some thoughts that may be helpful to those people trying to evaluate the feasibility of painting on a commission basis. Interspersed will be work from some of my favorite painters for hire. By the way, if you are not up to their level (and professionalism/customer service), you are not going to get top dollar for sure.
First of all, if you really have no idea, not even a rough inkling, of what you are going to charge, you have put the cart before the horse, and you need to pause while you consider it. Figuring out what it would take to be profitable is not difficult, but if you miss a few variables, you will be very unhappy and possibly panicky as you realize you're in over your head. So here are a few questions that you need to ask yourself, and the answers should factor into your feasibility equation:

Roman Lappat

1. What is your financial goal?
Are you just trying to make your hobby self-sustaining? Do you just want to cover your monthly expenses? Do you want to make it your career? Knowing clearly what you want to get out of it will dictate many factors associated with working independently on commission. As an example, I don't love working on other people's music...there's just a lot of pressure. So I only take enough music work to pay for the gear I purchase (plus taxes). If I wanted music composition and production to replace my day job, my tolerance for other people's music would have to expand and my ability to turn down work would essentially disappear.

Brandon Palmer

2. What kind of liability cushion do you have?
Whether you do this part time or it's your career, freelance commission work has a certain amount of "danger" to it that a salaried position does not. Let's say someone commissions you to paint 5000 pts of Imperial Fists, which, for GMM or Dave Taylor, is not unheard of. So you take the 6 weeks to 3 months (and that is an ambitious estimate) to finish the models, which means that you did not really do any other commission work, and you mail them off only to find that they arrived destroyed. Or on the way to the post office, you get in a car accident. Or there was a home invasion. How are you going to make it right with your customer? Is the postal service insurance going to cover all the hours your took to paint AND the cost of the models AND the time you took getting through the red tape AND the cost of painting them again? How much is in your emergency fund? Do you HAVE an emergency fund? Do you have liability insurance? Have you factored the premium into your costs? Do you plan to be a sole proprietor?
Dave Taylor

3. Have you considered the sunk costs?
Have you amortized or prorated the cost of materials into your hourly rate? Are you going to weigh the deduction you can take for your home office? What about the hours you are going to work answering emails, shipping, networking, etc? Is all of that in your hourly rate as well?
4. What about opportunity cost? This is probably the most important thing, and it's really what kills most of my entrepreneurial aspirations. What am I NOT doing while I am commission painting, and am I losing money as a result? And opportunity cost is not just defined monetarily. You have to ask yourself questions like: I'm going to need to paint 4 hours per night after work to get this commission done. Is the $xxxx.xx I'm going to make at the end worth the 2 ballet recitals, 4 date nights, and 30 family dinners I am going to miss? I am contracted as a user experience director at a large insurance company at the moment. There is no possible way I could support my family at the level to which they've grown accustomed and save money for retirement purely by doing side jobs and commissions. So you need to consider the sacrifices you will have to make both financially and emotionally.
Tommie Soule

5. Am I ready to take it seriously?
You may be able to start by word of mouth and a Wix website you did on your own, but that is not how a business is run. If you want to go beyond the Etsy-level of professionalism to get real and steady work, you need to take marketing seriously, and you need to bake it into your rate. A beautiful portfolio, a responsive social media presence, professional packaging...these are all time wasters but also really vital to success.

So once you factor in all these variables and also assess how much time it takes you to actually paint, you should have a good idea of how much you will need to charge to BREAK EVEN. And this will be a very honest number, but it will also seem astronomically high. Obviously, you need to stay competitive to get any work, but as many people find, it's too much to ask of oneself. Even if you decide to do it because money isn't the factor that drives you, it will be important to be aware of just how much you are profiting or losing. Otherwise, you are living in a fantasyland. Think about what happened to Blue Table.
I think getting paid to paint miniatures is a noble profession, but know what you are getting into. Many people who play 40k and paint really well do not have the social skills to successfully run a customer-driven service enterprise. Be self-aware and brutally honest. It's the least you can do for yourself and your potential customers. 

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