Maria Brophy


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    ‘Strategies for a Successful Art Business!’
business of art / Pricing / Written Agreements

How to Never get Ripped Off AGAIN – For Freelancers

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Aaron Bickford Photo of Drew and Maria Brophy in office

Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.”  Woody Allen

Being “ripped off”.  I really don’t like the negative sound of those words. But I’m compelled to write about it because it’s a topic that comes up again and again.

Yesterday an artist was in my office and she said that she’s been stiffed on payment too many times to mention.  It’s worn her down and she feels unappreciated.

Getting stiffed on payment is sadly one of the most common and frustrating things that can happen to freelancers.  It happens to artists, photographers, filmmakers,  web designers and just about every small business owner at  one time or another.

But it doesn’t have to ever happen to you (again).  It’s very simple to avoid.  You just have to do two things:

1.)     Require a deposit up front

2.)    Require the full balance at completion

The INSTANT you institute these two policies for your small business, you will NEVER have to make a collection call EVER again.

If it’s this simple, why do so many people continue to get “stiffed” on payment?

Because they don’t ask for the deposit up front and they hand over the goods before being paid.  It’s too bad that art school doesn’t teach you the importance of running your art venture like a business.

Here are some of the most common excuses I hear from people who keep getting ripped off:

  • “I don’t have a business mind”
  • “I’m new at this”
  • “I need an agent to do this for me.”
  • “I needed the work really bad – I was desperate.”

Handling your business wisely is a decision you make, not a gene that you’re born with!


You just have to institute your own payment policies.

I learned this the hard way when, many moons ago, Drew was “hired” by the large clothing company American Eagle.  They asked him to create a detailed artistic map of one of the Hawaiian Islands.  The art was going to be used for t-shirts and other accessories.

They were on a tight deadline and needed it yesterday.  There was no time to get a deposit.  Drew put in many hours drawing this up, and the art director at American Eagle kept making changes.

Their final change is what led to the non-payment:  They decided not to use a map after all.  We sent them a bill for the work done, and they never paid us.  Dealing with a company that large is nearly impossible to get payment from AFTER THE FACT.  That’s why we should have gotten money up front.

We were, by some standards, ripped off, taken advantage of and screwed over.

But I’m a firm believer that no-one can take advantage of you without your consent.

It was our own fault for not getting money up front before Drew put in many hours of work.

That was the LAST TIME we ever got stiffed on a commissioned job.  We learned from our mistake, and since then have required 50% up front and the balance when finished (before we hand the art over).


Two important things happen when you say to your client:  “I’ll need 50% up front to start the work and the balance is due when the work is completed.”

1         You are viewed as professional:  Your client now sees you as a person who has payment policies in place.  They respect you, and they are clear on what you expect and how it’s going to go.

2         A commitment is formed: Your client is fully committed when they pay a deposit.

When someone pays a deposit towards something, they are making a commitment to the project.

It’s a psychological thing.  Without a deposit, there is no real commitment from your client.  It’s like buying plane tickets.  My trip to New Zealand last year was just talk until I plunked down the $1,800 for plane tickets.  Once that money was paid, it was a reality.  We were fully committed.


Many artists require 50% up front.  The average, according to the Graphic Artists Guide to Ethical Pricing, is 30%.  I prefer the 50% and so does my bank account.


In every conversation I have with a new client, I mention, up front (even with friends and acquaintances and my mother’s uncle’s niece) that we need a deposit to get started.  (Hate to say it, but sometimes it’s the people closest to you that will stiff you).

You may feel strange asking for this.  Get over it, do it, and you’ll get used to it and eventually it won’t feel strange anymore.  Learning how to walk was strange also.  But you got used to it.

When giving a price quote, include your deposit requirement in writing by e-mail or proposal.  Here’s how ours looks in a price quote (I grabbed this from an actual proposal for a wakeboard design we did earlier this year):

PRICING:  Fee is $3,800.00.  A 50% deposit is required to start the work, and full balance upon completion.  OPTIONAL:  Original artwork may be purchased within 30 days of completion at a greatly discounted price of $3,500.  (Payments shall be made to Son of the Sea, Inc. PO Box 836, San Clemente, CA 92674.)

And here’s what we put in e-mails sent to clients with big projects, like murals:

We must have your signed proposal and deposit for the mural painting NO LATER THAN 2 weeks prior to the start date.  This allows us to get the materials we need at the pricing we configured for your quote.

Over time, your returning customers will know what you expect and they will be prepared to write you a check for the deposit.  All of our longtime customers are used to the way we work.  They also know that the work will get done to their satisfaction, because they’ve worked with us before.


It’s not always the client feeling weird about a deposit.  Sometimes it’s the artist.  Here are some of the scenarios:

THE ARTIST DOESN’T REQUIRE IT BECAUSE THEY ARE DESPERATE FOR THE WORK:  If you are desperate for work, than you surely cannot afford to spend time on something that you’ll never get paid for.  A deposit weeds out the payers from the non-payers.  The people who most likely will never pay you are the ones who won’t give a deposit.  The people willing to give a deposit are the ones that are serious.  See how this works?!

THE CLIENT REFUSES TO PAY A DEPOSIT:  If a client won’t pay a deposit, they just aren’t ready to commit.  If that’s the case, than you shouldn’t commit your time to their project.

Don’t get mad.  Just let them know that you are happy to start the work after they pay.  Tell them to call you when they are ready.  Be friendly and professional.

THEY DON’T HAVE THE MONEY:  I’ve run into this many times:  When I tell someone that they have to pay a deposit, and then they say “Oh, I don’t have the money right now.”  This tells me that they may never have it.  So I say “When you do, let me know.  We are looking forward to working with you.”

YOU FEEL YOU HAVE TO PROVE YOURSELF BEFORE YOU CAN DEMAND A DEPOSIT:  If you’ve been at it for less than 2 years you may still have to prove yourself before you can require a 30% – 50% deposit.  Maybe the client isn’t sure of your abilities and they are nervous to trust you.  In this case, lower the amount you ask for to 20% instead.

YOUR CLIENT IS A HUGE 5 BILLION DOLLAR COMPANY AND THEY TAKE 3 WEEKS TO CUT CHECKS BUT NEED YOU TO FINISH IN 2 WEEKS:  I’ve been faced with this scenario a few times.  Here’s what I do:   I ask the client to write me a personal check and they can bill their company for it later.  Some people laugh at that, but the serious ones send me their personal check.

THEY FLAT OUT REFUSE:  If they just refuse to pay a deposit, than most likely you’ll never get paid, no matter what you do, because of a lack of commitment on their part.  So walk away.  You’ll save yourself a lot of wasted time and frustration.

IF YOU’VE BEEN A PROFESSIONAL AT YOUR TRADE FOR OVER FIVE YEARS:  You can STOP proving yourself.  No one should question you at this point.  You have good references that the client can call if they doubt your abilities.

EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULES:  Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.  We made an exception when we did a deal with Converse – Drew started the work before we got our deposit.  They took 6 weeks to cut us a check.  But we have a good relationship with our people there, and I knew they would take care of us.  I very rarely make the exception, because of being burned in the past.


If you’ve been “ripped off” more than a couple times, than you need to look in the mirror and ask yourself what you’re doing to cause this.  Analyze what’s happening – are you keeping your end of the bargain?  Do you meet your deadlines?  Are you a joy to work with?  Do you behave like a professional?  It’s important to learn from our mistakes and then change the way we do things if something isn’t working.

I read somewhere once that the definition of crazy person is:  Someone who keeps doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result!


If you follow these simple guidelines, you’ll never have a problem getting paid:

Put your price quote in writing (e-mail is fine) – this way there are no surprises on either end.  Give your quote leeway to add to it in the event that the scope of the work changes.  (We do this by adding this sentence:  In the event of unforeseen additional work due to conditions on surface or changes to the design by the client that may require extra labor or detail, this price could change.)

Have a payment policy and include that in your price quote (i.e. 50% down and balance due at completion)

Put a 30 day limit on your price quote – your situation could change or your materials costs can go up.  On my proposals I’ll put:  Proposal Date May 27, 2010.  Proposal valid for 30 days

Don’t begin the work without a commitment from your client in the form of a deposit

Send your client frequent updates of the progress of the work, along with photos of the progression.  This will give your client satisfaction knowing that you are working on it and that it’s getting done.

When it’s finished, send them a photo of the completed work and arrange to get final payment at the same time you hand over the goods.

I sincerely hope this article convinces all of you out there to institute your own policies.  Even if you are a part-time freelance artist or photographer, you are in business.  Your time is valuable.  You should be paid for your work.

Please, in the comments below, let me know what problems you’ve had on this subject and how you’ve dealt with it!

Maria xxoo


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175 Comments How to Never get Ripped Off AGAIN – For Freelancers

  1. Kendra

    Thanks for this article, I needed it lol… I am still in the awkward “proving myself” phase and that’s the self-defeating phrase for my money-woes with art. Also I have had SEVERAL bad experiences where when I request ANY money, I am treated like I am INSANE for wanting anything at all.. I quoted a lady only TWENTY DOLLARS AN HOUR to do a mural (and not a big one at that)— she literally called me INSANE and threw me out of the house saying no one would ever pay that… Next time, a small town asked me to repaint a sign on the town square. Not even a big deal. I quoted the same thing, he called me INSANE and threw me to the curb… Then 3 years later he gave up trying to get someone to do it for NOTHING and hired a painting company (not even an artistic painting company but a indoor wall flat wall color painting company) for 60 dollars an hour (oh you know I asked!!)… It looked really bad, they couldn’t even paint inside the lines, it looks like a third grader was trying to color a coloring book ha ha ha… I don’t know if I felt hurt that he chose these guys for 60 dollars an hour, or felt happy that he got his karma.

    Of course I didn’t do either of those jobs, but that’s not the end of the many MANY stories I have had where I am treated like I am A NOBODY and I shouldn’t expect anything at all. I worked at a restaurant for a while where the boss asked if I would make some posters… I put a crazy amount of effort into it, even LUGGING MY iMAC DESKTOP TO WORK so he could be by my side and give his opinion as I worked… I gave him an AMAZING deal of only 15 dollars an hour because at the time I was still in art school. He said “I am only paying you 9 dollars an hour, and if you don’t like it I will fire you, and you can’t do anything about it because you need to pay your rent… Don’t be stupid, there’s no way I am paying 15 dollars an hour.” I couldn’t believe it…

    It’s hard asking for the deposit and even TALKING about money, but I do it, because I have been burned so much. It’s good to know I AM NOT CRAZY. People DO pay GOOD money— I have to be looking in the WRONG places because for some reason I attract people who always try to take advantage of me. EVERY single person I have ever asked for a contract, they back out. If I ask for money, they IMMEDIATELY back out, and start SCREAMING at me. I mean they don’t just say “Sorry I don’t have the money.” I actually get a very horrible, emotional reaction from what I thought would be a potential client….

    One guy told me when I applied for a job to design a car actually said “I have got investors now, but I don’t have money for you. You will have to do it for free.” It was such a slap in the face. Literally the guy told me he HAD the money, but it didn’t matter because the money wasn’t for me, and he wouldn’t pay me (pay an artist who ever HEARD of such a thing?????)

    So I guess the point of this soap box rant is: “How do you find the GOOD deals?? I seem to attract the wrong people, is there an effective way to attract a decent, willing to pay, client base?”

    (sorry for the rant, lol, this topic just struck a cord with me!!!)

    1. Maria Brophy

      Dear Kendra,

      Wow, you have some painful stories here! To answer “How do you find the GOOD Deals?” This is a blog post I think I’m going to have to write!

      Until then, here’s what you do: Don’t waste time on the bad ones. Be sure to be a very good communicator – make it clear, up front, what your fees are. Be good at what you do and have integrity (that attracts better clients). Work on your own reputation. Don’t get involved with people with a bad track record. And most important: Make it clear, from the beginning, that you are a business not a charity. You can train people to see you as a professional. It takes practice. Now, keep an eye out for my blog post with the long answer to this question!

      I wish you the best!

  2. Amber Forrest

    I also really appreciate this article; no one ever teaches ” Contract Writing 101 ” in art school, but they should! I have similar horror stories, not including verbally aggressive people, luckily, but many instances where payment never came, was far less than promised, or was withheld for months. I have had to become much tougher as a business woman, and am still learning. Thank you for writing this article!

    1. Jordan

      To any and everyone who has had clients pay late or had trouble chasing payment – please fill out our questionnaire!!

      This is a problem we want to fix, but we need to make sure enough people want it!

      It’s only 8 questions, 2 minutes, so your help is much appreciated 🙂


  3. Pingback: Money is a Commitment | business of art - Maria Brophy

  4. Dalgis

    Great article. I really appreciated for helping other artist in the area that we need the most information to keep doing what we love..

  5. Jim Parkhurst

    Great article! And just to reiterate what you wrote and address past comments, do not, I mean D O N O T take on any job without at least a third deposit!! I can’t state this strongly enough. Every job I’ve taken on without a deposit has resulted in a ton of preliminary work that went nowhere and the potential client eventually bailing out for whatever reason. If a client can’t put “skin in the game” then they were never fully invested in the project to begin with!

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  7. fathima

    My word, I cannot tell you how helpful this post has been. Answered all my questions in one go, and your actual real examples are super helpful. Thank you so much!

  8. eric

    I have a situation where I got a deposit and months later the client wants their deposit back.
    I was commissioned to do a book jacket and 10 page illustrations for a children’s book. The refused to do business by telephone. They do it online only. I explained that the job will take some time because of the nature of the detailed nature of the work. I told them my fee for the book jacket cover. The client said that it was too costly. I shared that I was willing to work with them financially. I explained that I would do it for a royalty of one dollar per book copy sold and that I would need a deposit to cover material cost for each illustration. I received an amount that we agreed to that was well below the one-third to one-half deposit amount I usually require before I start a job.
    I Accepted part of it and proceeded with research and sketches and acquiring material that I needed to get started. There was a deadline that I could not keep and upon asking for more time the client graciously granted it. A few days later the client change their mind, claimed they got another illustrator and demanded their deposit back with threats to collect within 24 hours. The new deadline has not expired yet. They contacted Pay pal to demand their deposit. Pay pal declined because too much time had past for them to do so. I am still working on the project and have devoted a lot of time in it. I have not given them anything tangible that they can use art wise. What are my rights? What can I say or do? Thank you.

    1. Maria Brophy

      Dear Eric,

      Sounds like a stressful situation, but, take a deep breath. Step back for a moment. Look at it all with fresh eyes. And then determine the best action to take.

      It sounds like the client is unhappy either because 1 – You missed the deadline or 2 – they don’t like the concepts you’re coming up with

      And, the client has moved onto another illustrator, so I don’t think that they will use whatever you come up with anyway.

      I’m going to assume that there is no contract. Which is a big mistake, and in the future, always put it all in writing.

      So what to do now?

      You could approach it this way: Knowing that you will never see another penny from this client, other than what you’ve already been paid, offer to produce a piece of art that they can use, in exchange for what they paid. This will make you feel better about it, and maybe make the client feel like they got something for their money.

      OR: Just walk away. Keep your deposit if you did enough work to justify keeping it. Most likely, they won’t sue you for it, unless it was a huge amount of money worth fighting for.

      A deposit is something that’s given to get the artist started, to cover their costs and time in the beginning. When a client changes their mind, and you’ve done the work, you don’t give their deposit back.

      USE THIS AS A LEARNING EXPERIENCE – this is how we all learn in business – the hard way! In the future, to avoid these situations, do this:

      1 – have a contract that lays out payment, deadlines, all details
      2 – Keep your deadlines, even if you have to stay up for 3 nights in a row without sleep. This is what professionals do – they keep their promises
      3 – keep an open line of communication with the client – continually check in to make sure they are pleased with your progress, or if they want changes, etc. (The fact that this client was looking for another illustrator tells me they were unhappy with something you were doing)

      And again, don’t sweat this – these things happen to all of us in the beginning.

      The most important thing is to learn from it, improve how you handle yourself and others, and never let it happen again!

      I wish you the best! 🙂

  9. Matthew Mercer

    Thank you so much for your hard work, your open honesty on what has and hasn’t worked for you, and on good business practices overall. You are disgustingly talented & I’ve learned so much from you. I pray GOD continually bless you, your family and your business. I’d love to hear your feedback on my work, if you ever get a moment to check out my website. Thank you again and please keep doing what you’re doing!

  10. Karan

    Thanks so much for the article.
    I am going to paint a 9 by 9 wall soon and settled for just 200$ for the entire deal . I feel rather stupid seeing the prices that are quoted around for the murals. There is also this that i am painting murals for the first time and I am kinda nervous about it . I am an artist AND have had exhibitions and painted shoes etc.. yet a little nervous.I got this job from a friend of my mom but after reading this i do get it that i need to b e professional about this stuff. Thanks 🙂

  11. Gilat

    Great info, and thank you for such generosity of spirit! I do have a question, though: For mural artists, how can you “withhold” the final goods before handing them over, if the final payment is not forthcoming from the client? I can understand if it is a standalone piece (still in the artist’s possession), but let’s say it’s a mural at the client’s own home/business.

    This is assuming the client has paid their deposit already, but how do we stay smart with a deliverable like a wall mural?

    Thanks so much!

    1. Maria Brophy

      Gilat, that’s a great question. The best thing you can do to ensure that a mural client pays at the end:

      1 – Make sure you’re working with a good client (not someone you don’t trust)
      2 – Have them sign your agreement (it can be a one-page agreement – see my post on HOW TO PRICE A WALL MURAL for a sample agreement)
      3 – If you are really worried, work out your payment structure this way: 1/3 up front, 1/3 halfway through, 1/3 at the end.

      That should do it!

  12. Gilat

    That makes perfect sense – so much of our dealings still rely on the timeless element of trust, don’t they? Thanks so much for your prompt response and insights, Maria!

  13. Marla

    Hello I’m having a difficult time with a client. A friend referred her to us and between coffee we mentioned what our prices consist of. Later without making a legal contract, we trusted she would pay and we began creating 2 logo designs that she said she needed right away. At that moment we realized we needed a contract or legal form to present to clients before designing. So, we emailed her with the proposal asking for 50% deposit and the rest at completion of project. (NOTE: we had already started on the project when we emailed her with the proposal.)She had mentioned at the beginning that she needed these designs within a week, HOWEVER, she did NOT check the proposal (that we so persistently urged her to look at) until a month and a half later, upon which she responded to saying “I normally pay less for a logo, thank you”. ?!?! We were so upset and with the timely work of 2 logo designs now unpaid. During the weekend I searched for an appropriate answer to reply to her but couldnt come up with a “professional” way to tell her everything. She wrote back before I could email her. In her email it read “I need to finish up all unfinished tasks. I;m leaving out of town and I need my designs finished. I am willing to pay $250 for the logo, Call me please”. The original price for a graphic logo that we offered in the proposal is $550 plus design for brochures, and she only wants to pay $250!! How do I address this issue? This is so unfair and under appreciated. We provide the logo designs in 9 formats and with a copyright. Should we offer the logo without the formats and copyright in exchange for $250, or should we not go for less than previously stated? PLEASE HELP!!!!!

    1. Jim Parkhurst

      Here is my basic answer, although you may not like it. The bottom line, and in fact the main point of this entire blog is DO NOT START WORK UNTIL YOU RECEIVE DOWN PAYMENT. PERIOD. And ESPECIALLY do not deliver the goods!!! If you do you are setting yourself up for, well, the situation you now have.

      OK so that’s water under the bridge now. Here’s what I would do: Get the $250 UP FRONT BEFORE DELIVERY, give them a single .ai file or JPEG (NOT the layered files!!!) and run like hell, forget the brochure, then just chalk the whole thing up to lessons learned.

    2. Maria

      Dear Marla,

      Thank you so much for the comment and the question. First of all, please learn from this one very big mistake that you made: you began the work without having the client agree to a price.

      I don’t know many people who will pay for something without first agreeing to a price. Would you?

      So, from this moment forward, always give a price quote before starting the work on any project. And, of course, get a deposit.

      Now, how do you handle this problem today? I agree with Jim’s suggestion.

      And the most important message Jim gave you was this: Chalk this up to a lesson learned.

      I wish you the very best – and I’m so glad that you landed here because I do believe that from now on, you’ll be handling your business much more like a business! 🙂

      1. Tatsuya

        These are absolutely geourogs! I love how you were able to catch them on the swings. Not easy to do for sure! They look like they were having a blast:)

  14. eric

    I am so glad i found this article. I have been ripped off several times in the past two months and was getting so frustrated. Why is this happening to me i kept asking. Now it is so clear, had i asked for a deposit before i began the work i could have easily identified those who were never willing to pay me for my work.

  15. sarah

    Hi, having just read your post on how not to get ripped off I am still no better off ! Yes it completely makes sense to ask for a deposit up front especially if your doing commissioned artwork BUT if your a designer and the only way for you to get exposure is too send out your portfolio or a link to your online portfolio then how do you stop them from ripping you off? This has happened to me recently with a large greeting giftwrap company I quite simply do not have to finance to take them to court (they know this) and can just walk all over me, the only way for a freelancer like myself to get some exposure is to send a portfolio on spec. I have a couple of agents that also sell for me but on this one occasion the company in question did not want to deal with agents they wanted to deal directly and as a major high st name I thought innocently that they would be up front and honest, how wrong can you be! instead they have ripped me off and I cant see how I can stop this. I’m in a kind of catch 22 situation if I dont show my work it wont get ripped off and if I do I run the risk each time of being ripped off, I quite simply cannot win!!! This has upset me so much and finally after 20 years of trying feel like giving in and giving up on this dam design career.

    1. Maria

      Sarah, here are a few things you can do to prevent someone from stealing your art:

      Make sure that you send only low res images to potential clients

      All your images should have your (c) Notice clearly printed on them

      Your name, phone number and email address should be clearly printed on all flyers that you leave behind.

      When someone/a company “steals’ your art, promptly send a Cease & Desist Letter and shut it down.

  16. judy

    Thank you for writing this article! I should have read it sooner…. I’ve been in business as a freelancer for 5 years. For the first time ever, I’m feeling extremely taken advantage of. Although, I usually require a deposit, I waved it a month ago for an art director/client an old colleague/friend of mine referred. The project was to be a quick 2 week turn around with his art direction. The art direction was vague and misleading, we missed the look and feel at first because what his client wanted was something very similar to their website – but he set me out on the wrong foot requesting something very different than the site. Now my client, the art director, has told me about urgent family matters he must attend to, and requested some of my files so that he could prepare them for the next step. He made it seem like an emergency, and so I sent them. I want this project in my portfolio, I also want to get paid. It’s been a month since the start date, and my work has been on hold for almost 2 weeks. Anyhow, I’m going to press on, contact him soon if I haven’t heard from him. But I can’t shake that feeling that I royally screwed up due to eagerness and blind trust and should have been savvy. I could of saved myself from a lot of anxiety.

  17. Maria

    Dear Judy,

    Don’t be so hard on yourself, and take this as a learning experience.

    I have found that the one time I made an exception to my Deposit up Front rule (for a friend) I got screwed over. SO, I never make that mistake again! Even with friends, we wait for the deposit BEFORE beginning the work.

    IF the client is in a hurry, they will hurry up and get you money so that you can get started.

    You have all the power here – DON’T start the work without the deposit!

    It’s so simple. Now you know, and you’ll never make this mistake again.

    Now, with this current problem – don’t give this person anything else.
    Promptly send him an invoice with the amount due.
    Call and follow up and find out when he’s sending the check.
    Go pick it up if you have to.

    This is how you take control over your business. And once you do, you will feel empowered, confident and happy about what you’re doing.

    I wish you the best!

  18. butt mud

    People still after completion think that they can get away without paying.
    I have taken a 40% deposit and payment was due on completion and signed for, however they decided to bounce the cheque. The law in the UK means that you may as well kiss your money goodbye.

  19. Brett Stuart Wilson

    I just found your website today and I haven’t been able to pull myself away from it. Excellent posts, responses and solutions. I would like to add one more very valuable tidbit that I learned from a friend who is an intelligent gifted artist as well. He was commissioned to do some very high-end blacksmith work (interior railings & banisters) for an executive in the banking industry. He did make a contract that stated 50% down with all the terms well written. The company sent him a check and he deposited it. (It was good) except that it was for about 49 1/2% he called them, they said it was an oversight, it would be a lot of extra red-tape and you know they were good for the money. He completed the job. No more payment, why because with all of their very crafty lawyers the contract was not valid from the start because the terms were not met. So the moral of a hard earned lesson that he told me and I’d like to pass on is: whatever the terms are make sure you collect the full amount. Thank You Maria for so many useful articles. Peace to you & Drew.

    1. Maria Brophy

      Wow, Brett, that’s a bummer what happened to your friend. It is a lesson to all of us!

      Thanks so much for the kind words about my blog. I’m glad you like it. Please, sign up for my newsletters so you’ll get my posts in your email!

  20. marceau mcpherson

    what if you get a deposit but upon completion they will only pay you the deposit. Am I allowed to go get what I installed??

    1. marceau mcpherson

      I had installed 16 growboxes which came with organic compost and soil and the free plants we gave them and dropped 80 garbage cans of mulch…the resident manager approved of it all and gave us a deposit…then the owners came back from vacation and wont give us a dime…cant i just go get my stuff if they wont pay for it??

      1. Maria Brophy

        Dear Marceau, I’m so sorry this happened to you!

        I have two thoughts on this. First, prevention:

        1 – the way to prevent this from happening again is constant communication. Remind the customer the day before the finish day that you will expect payment the next day. Then, remind them again the morning of the last day.

        For your current problem:

        Yes, go get your stuff! I don’t know if that’s legal, but I would be pretty angry if I were you. Wait until sundown and then go get it. After all, it’s not paid for. Let me know how it goes!

  21. Ryan

    First, thank you for posting all of this useful information. Like so many others who have expressed their gratitude, this is so helpful for us artists!

    Now, I have a situation that I desperately need advice for. I was commisioned for a painting a little over a year ago for a client/mutual friend. The client wanted me to paint a picture for her husband for his birthday and she was giving it to him as a gift. This was my first mistake in accepting the commision. Second mistake was I didn’t set up a contract. So… She told me the colors she wanted, the composition, etc. I emailed her pictures of a sketch plan a colored sketch and she picked her favorite from the selection. I then asked for a 50% deposit which she sent and it wen through jut fine. During the painting process I emailed her pictures of the process and she responded with praise! She loved what she was seeing. I asked her to email me pictures of her living room where she wanted the piece and I made sure to incorporate colors to accent. She loved it. After completion, I emailed a picture of the final product and she said it was “beautiful.”

    I then gave her the piece and she said her husband would love it. She wrote me a final check, it went through, and the painting was now hers or theirs. However, after a few weeks she emailed me and said her husband didn’t like it and she wanted a new painting without paying for it and she would return the original. I told her I couldn’t “redo” it because of my current schedule and she now demands ALL of her money back and simply wants to return the painting.

    What do I do!?

    1. Brett Stuart Wilson

      Ryan, I’m sure that everyone would agree, you have completed your half of the business transaction. Print out the emails as proof of satisfaction. Politely tell her that’s not how it works. You did everything correctly (except for not having a contract) but you have a verbal agreement and email documentation. If she takes you to court, I would assume you are well covered. It’s hard on the pride and you obviously have a conscience because you are writing about it but she/they are asking too much and business is business.

      1. Ryan

        Thank you Brett. That’s how I feel and a second/ third opinion Definitly helps me have more confidence in telling her that.

    2. Maria Brophy

      Ryan, even without a contract, there’s no obligation to return the customer’s money. You did the work, you put in the time, you can never get that back. If you want to meet her halfway, tell her this:

      “I’m sorry you’re displeased. I would like to make it right for you. Since I’ve already put in the time and materials for the painting you purchased, I cannot refund your money. But here’s what I can do: I will put it up for sale online (via Ebay, Facebook Website, whatever works for you), and once it sells, you can ship it to the buyer and I will refund your money at that time. If you want to commission me to paint a new painting for your husband, I will be happy to do so at 10% discount. Let me know what you decide. Thank you.”

      That’s how I would handle it. That way, you are trying to help, but not giving the money back.

      I hope this is helpful to you!

      1. Ryan

        Maria, thank you. I have thought about re-selling it and giving her the money… But not all of it! It’s a hard situation because she is a mutual friend but I have to stand my ground on this and learn from it. Thank you again for the advice and I will let you know how it turns out!

  22. Dolo


    Its so easy to skip problems and make ourselves feel bad, but I believe we can all learn from our mistakes, and work on our self-stem, saying what we believe is right, at the end of the day, if you loose the client, then its no point of continuing, even when we re struggling with the money, or working with a famous person, I believe it all happens for a reason, and the reason is: it was not going to work anyway…

  23. diamond4hair

    When we go to major retailers, or restaurants, it is usually pay before you take. No wine is served before its time. No hair is styled before it is paid. Advance payment policy.

  24. Pingback: Art Business Answers - Should You Send a Sketch to a Client Before Payment - Maria Brophy | Maria Brophy

  25. Eric

    I haven’t not kept up with all of the posts, yet have weighed in on this thread at times.

    I did tell a few clients that I required a deposit prior to beginning work and in both those cases I did lose the job. The client thought it ridiculous that I’d ask for money up front. I was actually busy with other projects, so did not feel it was a huge loss. I think it depends on the scope or length of the project as to whether milestone payments can be set up. I.E, I would never put in more than about 2 weeks of work without payment …and most people I’ve dealt with respect that and do not think it absurd.
    I actually went back to full-time work after a 6 year stint of freelancing. Two factors played a role in my going full-time, 1) health care out of pocket costs for me and my family were getting too expensive. and 2) Getting ripped off by clients.
    The tipping point was when over a 3 month period I had 3 clients of about 7 decide to not pay me. In the previous 6 years of freelancing I had had only 1 bad experience of not getting paid. It was all at once and just too much to deal with …so went full time. I am pretty happy not having to deal with any of this any longer.

    Thought I’d share!

  26. Ginger

    I had a customer buy three pieces at $500 each,paid through Paypal,,,he resold tem at a fantastic price…then 6 months later his credit card was cancelled and all funds were returned to him through paypal…they put a hold on my account and deducted the entire amount,,,I never received a response or phone call…I’m totally baffled at these credit card companies…

  27. ashley bailey

    I love reading all of your advice! So true and great! Keep it up Maria! YOU ROCK! Aloha from Hawaii 🙂


  28. Kayvee

    Hi Maria, is there any chance I could pick your brain regarding a recent commission? I was asked by a company to design an illustration that was to be blown up to be used for a mural as well as prints. I was told the brief was completely open as long as it was based on a fable/myth. I researched my chosen fable and emailed a synopsis of the story along with my ideas for the illustration to the client. This was approved and a contract was drawn up.

    I proceeded with generating roughs during which time the brief began to change. Eventually it became clear the brief wasn’t open at all, they had a very definite idea of what they wanted: a magical townscape. I did another couple of roughs based on what they had asked for. At this point they approved a rough for final artwork. They even went as far as to ask me to base the look of buildings on an illustration I had in my online portfolio.

    I sent progress images which were also approved. The client had asked that before I sent the original artwork to their office, to email them a pic of the finished illustration in case there were any minor changes needed. I did as requested and received a reply stating that the finished illustration did not now fit with their requirements. This was surprising as the last image I sent was when the image was 70% completed and was approved by the client. They expressed a desire to continue working with me until they had a design that they could use. The email also hinted that they did not want to pay me for the work I had done as they would not be using it. I get the impression that there was a miscommunication between the person I was dealing with and their boss/creative team and the fault is now being placed with me.

    I replied to the email and sent them an invoice for the completed work. I have yet to hear back from the company. I was to be paid the entire fee at the end of the project. I am covered by my contract, but I have a feeling this could be a drawn out process. I feel entitled to the full fee as I’ve spent a huge amount of my time on this project which had been given approval at both rough and progress stages. How should I proceed?

    1. Eric


      I am sorry to hear what you are going through. I don’t have any “guaranteed will work advice” as to how to proceed. Yet, do you have an email or signature in writing of their approval of the initial stages? Can you show that each stage was approved, that you indeed got the go ahead to proceed?

      I am always very clear up front about the process, and that I would need approval before moving on to the next stage in work. Usually an email has been sufficient, as it is a record that both parties can go back to.

      Even so, I would guess that you are correct in that the person you are working for is getting new information from their boss and thus passing the pain on to you.

      Not telling you to do this, but If it were me I’d send an email to your contact and your contacts boss. I’d professionally and politely state that you’ve been asked to make revisions to steps in the process after they were approved. That this is time consuming for you and is not a cost effective way to work. Keep it positive and state that you would like to continue on the project and offer if it would be helpful to sit in design meetings with the larger team, as this may help make the process more efficient? Not sure if they will be okay with this. If so at least you’ll get clearer direction from the team (not one person) and if they don’t want you to meet w/ the team then at least the boss will be clued in to what you’ve been going through. That is provided he/she is competent to care enough.

      I dealt with this a few times. If you can, find good clients who have repeat projects. With murals it may be tough.

      I feel your pain.
      hang in there.
      I hope others have some better advice.

    2. Maria Brophy

      Kayvee, I’m sorry to hear about what happened.

      That’s why I harp so much about getting a deposit before starting work. If you can’t get a deposit, then a Purchase Order would be the next best thing.

      How I would handle this: I would bill them for 1/2 the total. I’d drive to their offices and wait for them to cut a check. Dont’ let them get away without paying. It’s not fair.

  29. cnut

    When should the final payment be made when one is painting the mural ahead of time on sheets (metal/boards) and then installing them (part of the mural price is the installation costs)? It seems once the mural sheets are installed and the mural is completed, then it is possible they might not pay the final half of their bill. How do you solve this?

    1. Maria Brophy

      cnut, make sure you get 50% up front, and then do the work. Make it clear in your written agreement that the final payment is due at completion. Remind your customer, before you install it, that you will expect payment once it’s installed. I never had a problem with a customer not paying at the end. I make sure I remind them, “please have the final balance of $xxxx in an envelope for me.”

  30. Michael Hyde

    Ukash scams. Con artist are using a new con. They tried it on me, but after a few hours I figured out what these two-bit low life scum were up to. Let me explain how you are victimized. These losers infect your computer with virusesand use Cheshire police or some legit police organization marquee and cite ordinances and laws you have violated; they give you €100 or whatever equal amount in sterling or dollar term. You have 48 hours grace period to pay ransom and then your computer will be unlocked. You can do this on your own, by switching off your computer improperly. When you switch on computer again, you will be asked to turn on your computer, do so by utilizing the Safe mode command prompt, your computer will do a systems check be patient. You have a few seconds to type in explore, then on next prompt type rstui.exe, on next prompt which computer asks if you want to restore your computer to factory settings. Mostly the clock will go back a few days before hand. Your files and pictures and other personal stuff is un affected. My suggestion to avoid such a scenario again, is to download Anvi Defender as well as maleware bye, both are free; this should stop these yutzes in there tracks, save you money and if this pisses these asses off, that’s a bonus. Any questions, call me at 087 291 2256 or at my e-mail which is

  31. DoDa

    Hi Maria,
    I just stumbled upon your great site – I learned so much by reading only this post of yours , and I intend to read more on your site! Thank you so much for this wealth of very useful info!
    I am a beginning artist freelancer. I am designing greeting cards and stationary. A company wants me to send them hard copies of my designs. If they like them, they told me, they will ask me to send them my portfolio. My fear is that when/if I mail them hard copies of my greeting card designs, they can misuse/steel/ rip off, even if I put the copyright clause on them. I think you had a similar question here by Sarah, but she was asking about her portfolio. You replied advising her to send portfolio of a low resolution. Should I do the same with my card designs? But it it’s low resolution prints, how will they see all the ritchness of the original art work? I guess my question is – should I send low resolution copies? What would be your advice – how to protect my work from being stolen by them even in this pre-portfolio phase?
    Many thanks for your insight, I immenselly appreciate it, and I’m so glad I stumbled upon your site.

    1. J.P.

      RED FLAG #1: This “company” is asking for your hard copy greeting card designs B E F O R E they’ve seen your portfolio!?! Send them your portfolio first. If they like your work you could set up a work order for your greeting card designs with a sizable advance. But as someone who has been in the business for over 20 years, this company is dead set on ripping off your artwork. I’ve seen it before, even been lured into the same situation years back. Don’t even send them your lo res JPEGs because it is the IDEAS they are really looking for. Sad but true.

      1. DoDa

        J.P., thanks a lot for your reply and insights, I appreciate it. Just one more thing, if you have a minute to reply: two other greeting card companies that I found on their websites list their submission guidelines and they also ask for card samples as well, they don’t even mention portfolio (“if we like your designs, we’ll contact you”). Seems to be a standard “procedure”. Do you think all of these companies might be onto ripping people’s ideas off? Their websites seem legitimate, with lots of cards on sale, displayed. Again, many thanks for your reply, and again, I’m a total rookie in this, sorry if these questions sound silly.

      2. J.P.

        Dear DoDa. I think in cases where greeting card companies ask for card samples in their submission guidelines, they are asking for your best samples from your portfolio and not original samples pertaining to something where a company can use your idea or actual files. That’s the difference. In any case it’s always a good idea to add a copyright symbol or even a watermark to ensure the prospective buyers that you are the owner of these images. Hope this helps.

  32. John (Dee Dee) Cameron

    I had to laugh at this: I read somewhere once that the definition of crazy person is: Someone who keeps doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result! I thought that was called “Fishing”.

  33. Daz

    Hi Maria,

    Thanks for this, a lot of thought went into it! I really appreciate your thoughts, and makes me feel good knowing I do roughly the same thing.

    I’ve been a designer for 15yrs now and have been a freelancer for 1.5yrs. Ive always done the 50% upfront 50% on completion, but found that clients don’t always want to pay the second 50% on time, pay the right amout (try to renegotiate), or pay at all.

    I got so fed up with it that myself and a few amazing IT security expert friends came up with a way to stop this problem and help us freelancers. It’s and its a milestone based payment service that collects money from clients before work starts and then pays designers as soon as the work is finished.

    Would love to talk to you more about it if you’re interested?

    1. maria brophy


      Thanks for the comment. I think it’s very easy to prevent a client from not paying the remaining balance – you do 2 things to keep that from happening:

      1 – The contract you sign with them should specify that the final payment is due upon completion, and no later then 15 days from the date the art is finished. After that, 1-1/2% is charged on top of the balance due.

      2 – Don’t give them the high res or original art until after you cash their check or receive payment.

      Promise Pay sounds like a good idea – I checked out your link. But, I don’t think I’d ever use it because I never have a problem getting payment when I follow my 50% down 50% at completion rule. It works 100% of the time!

  34. Chantel

    I’ve recently had a problem dealing with a family member. She wanted me to do a Christmas gift for her daughter with their last name, etc. on a canvas. Her daughter wanted me to do a digital design in-stead of painting it. She told me she will print it out on a canvas when I was done. The price that she told me would be 65 dollars, well now that I am asking for the money she now tells me that the price was including the canvas. I told her we never discussed that. I am sure now she will try to pay a cheaper price and I don’t know how to get around this! What should I do? I’m I wrong on this?

    1. Maria Brophy

      Dear Chantel, I’m sorry you are dealing with this. It’s frustrating. But, you could have easily avoided this by setting a price that is fair to you. Never let your customer (even a family member) determine how much you will charge. Learn from this, and from this point forward, tell any customer (even family!) what the price will be. Write it on a piece of paper, ask them for 50% deposit to cover your up front expenses, and then make sure you get full payment when it’s finished. You will never, ever, have this problem again!

      1. Chantel

        Hello Maria, We agreed upon the price up front, so I don’t know why she is trying to get out of it now. I am defiantly going to start doing that. In fact I have a logo design that I am working on and I just set down with them to go over the 50% up front. I was just wondering if I was wrong to ask for the 65 dollars since we never discussed whether the canvas was included or not?

    2. Maria Brophy

      Chantel, I’m not clear on what happened here. Did you give her a price, and then later add $65 to it? If you did that, then I think you shouldn’t have. It’s best to give one price, up front, so the buyer has no surprises later. Whatever price the two of you agreed upon is the price that she should pay.

      1. Chantel

        There was no change of the price. The one she found to give me an example of what she wanted was set at 65. She told me that she would pay me that price if I made it for my cousin (of course in my own style.) I told 65 would be fine. That has been from the beginning and hasn’t changed, until I sent her an email of the finish product.

  35. Roth-co. inc

    I own a t-shirt business. I want to commission an artist to design several ideas I have for t-shirts. I am in touch with an artist to pay him a commission for the labor and skill. The artist wants to retain ownership of the orginial art, but states my company would own the rights to use the art for the shirts, and that he would not use the art for anything but portfolio purposes.

    Why would an artist not want to sign over the rights to the original artwork if they agree only to use the art for portfolio use?

    Am I unreasonable for asking for the rights to the original artwork?

    We have offered an $800 good faith deposit for 3 works with a total of 10 to be completed by the end of the year.

    1. Maria Brophy

      Dear Roth-co.Inc, thanks for the comment on my blog post, and your question.

      The reason an artist would want to retain copyrights is so that they can maintain control over their identity, which is their art. An artists’ art and style is very much like their logo. They must maintain control over it at all times.

      Also, should the artist wish to use the art for anything else in the future, for non-competing projects, they can.

      It’s in an artists’ best interest to keep their copyrights. In the case of licensing their art to you for use on t-shirts; there is no reason to sell all rights to the designs when they are only being used for t-shirts for a short period of time.

      Why don’t you do this: Ask the artist to sign an exclusive license agreement, stating that the artist won’t license the artwork to another t-shirt manufacturer for 3 years. That way, you won’t have to worry about competitors getting the designs, and the artist gets to keep his copyrights. It’s win win for both sides. That’s typically how it’s done in art licensing.

      1. Roth-co. inc

        I am considering that. This is a very new artist, I see the potential in their work. We offered to pay double on the amount they initially quoted.

        Also, I am offering the vision and insight for each design (we know what we want, we simply need someone to bring it to fruition) so, minimally, I feel like we could be co-owners of the copyright (or do you not see it this way. Why or Why not?)

        If she is willing to sign an exclusive agreement, I am fine with her retaining the copyright.

        We are starting out with t-shirts and depending on the success this may evolve (posters, art print). We don’t want to limit ourselves.

        I am tempted to suggest a work for hire agreement. What do you think?

        Again, we have a vision. If the artist came up with an original concept, we would have no problem; however, if they base the art on our vision, we feel like we should at least be entitled to half the copyright.

        I look forward to your insight and your reply.

      2. Maria Brophy

        There are two ways to work the copyrights with an artist:

        1 – Where they keep their copyrights and simply give you limited rights to use it for a specific time period and usage on specific products.


        2 – Where you have them sign a Work for Hire Agreement, which gives you the ownership to all copyrights.

        There is no one right way to do it; but both sides have to agree on how it’s done!

        Many artists who are building a name for themselves do not want to sign away their copyrights. And I think that’s a good thing for them to hold onto.

        However, there are illustrators out there who are somewhat anonymous artists and who are happy to sign Work for Hire agreements.

        If you have a vision for a line of clothing and other products with these designs that you have came up with, and you plan to use the designs for more then just t-shirts for a limited time, then you may want to find an artist that is an illustrator that does Work for Hire work.

        Since it’s your concepts and vision, and you wish to take the art much further then t-shirts, it would make sense to have an artist sign a work for hire agreement.

        OR: If you are set on using this one artist, and she’s not willing to sign a Work for Hire agreement, then ask her for a very generous license that gives you a long time period to use the art and for multiple products.

        I do believe that these things can be worked out, when both parties get what is really important to them.

        I hope this info is helpful to you!

      3. Roth-co. inc

        The information you have provided is very helpful. I will go forward with these options.

        Hopefully the artist is willing to compromise. I don’t want to seem unreasonable, I want the agreement to work for all parties.

        I will bookmark this blog. Thanks!!

  36. Stu

    Thanks. Was feeling really angry about being ripped off before this but i left myself open and it was only a few hours. Glad i read this blog before getting shafted again.

  37. leo

    I have a question if you could help its much appreciated.
    If an artist is hired by a company to do a drawing or illustration. everything is well drawing done and paid for. Who owns the drawing? Can the company use the drawing for merchandise such as t-shirts, coffee mugs etc? Is there special permission needed to be acquired from the artist first?

    1. Maria Brophy

      Dear Leo,
      Thanks for the great question!

      Every deal is different. Many artists will create art for a client, and allow the client to use the art for a specific use and for a time period, but the artist will keep the ownership to the copyrights.

      When the artist keeps the (c) ownership, they then can license that same art to other companies for other products, or they can produce the products themselves.

      The artist never needs permission, but the client does. A proper agreement will state that the artist is giving the client a limited license to use the art for a specific product, for a specified time period.

      The artist automatically owns all copyrights to art, unless they sign the copyrights away to a client.

      I hope this info answers your questions!

  38. Richard

    Thanks for the good strong talk. This gave me a bit of a reality check.

    I am too often too gentle and let a lot of stuff pass.

    These suggestions apply to all sort of business (mine being software development –

    From time to time, I get a customer that asks for the moon, the moon gets delivered but the payment is slow to come.

    Fortunately, I have more customers that do appreciate my work and pay on time.

    I will review my payments policy.

    Have a great day and don’t let these situations bring you down.


  39. JonJudace

    I’m thrilled that I’ve found this website. You cannot imagine how informative this site has been to me, I feel like I have unlocked the key to my success. The reason for this is the way things are explained, in a way completely in tune with my preferred way of taking guidance and instruction. You’ve answered some key questions I had, yet had no one to ask and covered every aspect I could ask for. I had a meeting this morning to put forward ‘my’ proposal for doing a mural near a soon to be demolished estate. Though I did not have to get into pricing as yet, I was able to secure a positive second meeting and preliminary plans due to the proposal, which was greatly helped by me trawling your website throughout the early hours of this morning. You’ve given me a good foundation in truly making my art a business. (I will be recommending this site) Thank You Maria

  40. juliana

    thank you thank you thank you so much for this. I thought i had to figure it out all on my own. i am now going to be able to make a living.

  41. Pingback: What to do When your Client Won't Sign a Contract for an Art Commission or License Deal - Maria Brophy | Maria Brophy

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