Maria Brophy

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Is it okay to sell reproductions of a painting that was commissioned by a collector?

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endless-summer-by-john-van-hammersveldThis is one of the questions I received from an artist:

Is it okay to make and sell print reproductions of a painting that was commissioned by a collector?

My answer:  Yes, absolutely!  Selling print reproductions of your work is a smart business model that enables an artist to earn money again and again from one painting.

This works very much like a musical artist:  They don’t sell a song to just one person, they sell it again and again, to enable many people to enjoy it, and to continue earning revenues from it.

Out of every twenty art pieces you create, one will stand out above the other nineteen as a popular image, perfect for selling reproductions.  It is the popular images that successful artists earn their living off of.  If it’s iconic enough, you will earn from it for the rest of your life.

A great example is the very popular Endless Summer art by John Van Hamersveld; he created this iconic image in 1964 for The Endless Summer movie poster.   I’m pretty sure Van Hamersveld had no idea, in 1964, just how iconic this image would become, and that fifty years later he would still be selling prints of it.

We do not have a crystal ball, so we can’t possibly know which art piece will be the winner.  What you love, as the artist, is usually not what everyone else loves.  And vice-versa.  You have to assume that any one of them may become popular or iconic, and be prepared for it.

Since Drew and I can’t know for sure which images will be popular, we ensure that every painting he creates is properly scanned and saved in a high res file before we ship the original to its new owner.

Even if we choose not to make print reproductions of the work, we still need the high res files so that we are prepared when we need an image for a printed book or magazine article.

We never let a piece of art leave the studio without getting a scan of it.

Drew created a painting for a collector called DEEP INTO PARADISE a few years ago.  We recently released limited edition, signed and numbered canvas reproductions of the work, and it has surprisingly become one of our new popular images.  We sold over a dozen of the canvas prints in the first day of releasing it.  This is great for the owner of the original, as the value of his piece has increased.  He’s the only one with the original!

The next question in your mind may be this:  “But won’t your buyer of the original be upset if their art is reproduced?”

It depends on who your collectors are.  If you are only selling in high end galleries and your pieces are going for over $20,000 each, maybe it will be an issue with the gallery owners.  Or if you’re painting portraits, you shouldn’t reproduce something that personal.   But for most artists who are reading this, it will be entirely okay for you to adopt this business model.

Be sure that your collectors are aware that there’s a possibility of reproduction in the future.  Include a line in your written price quote/proposal that says something like this:  “Artwork copyrights are retained by the Artist (me) and I retain the rights to reproduce the art in the future.”

I’ve only had one person, out of almost twenty years of selling Drew’s art, question this practice.   It was a gallery owner in Laguna Beach, who insisted that Drew’s collectors won’t appreciate seeing their painting on reproductions.  I worried he might be right.  So I spent a few days cold calling over fifty of Drew’s collectors.

I asked them one question:  “As an owner of one of Drew’s original paintings, would it bother you to see the art reproduced?” 

It was surprising the positive responses I got.  One collector said, “I saw my Drew painting on a skimboard in Florida last summer and I was so happy!  I have the original hanging in my home.  I felt great about it.”

Every single person I asked said that it would be okay, and most expressed pride at owning the original piece of art.

Except for one guy; he was the last phone call I made.   He said he wanted the art all to himself and would be angry to find that it had been reproduced.  After I explained to him the business model and how it would increase the value of his work, he changed his feelings about it! (Ironically enough, the painting he owns will never be reproduced, as it isn’t one that would have mass appeal.)

What I learned from that exercise was this; most all of Drew’s collectors understand how Drew works with art and they love being a part of the story.  They respect our business model, as we have “trained” people to know what to expect.  It’s important to us to keep our collectors happy and we have life long relationships with many of them.

Our BUSINESS MODEL is to sell art print reproductions on paper or canvas, and/or license the work, of any of the paintings that Drew creates.

Only the artist can decide what BUSINESS MODEL they want to use for themselves.

Your collector’s can’t dictate your business model, no more than you can dictate what they do with their business.

It’s up to YOU, as an artist, to decide HOW you will run your own business.  If you decide that this isn’t the best course of action for the type of art that you create, then don’t do it.   (Artists who paint portraits or other forms of deeply personal art, or those who sell highly priced art to a collector base who would frown upon it, would probably not want to sell reproductions.)

But, if you feel that it works well for the type of work you do, then do it.

I have found that 99% of the people in the world will respect your business model, when it’s clearly defined.   No one will argue with your business model!

For us, it makes financial sense to use this business model, as it has enabled us to raise our family and run a successful art studio business in a Southern California beach town, all from Drew’s art.    If we only got paid only once for every painting, Drew would have to triple his prices and work triple hard.  This method allows us to leverage his art.

This is how it works:  When a collector commissions an art piece, they pay for ownership of the physical painting.  They only own the rights to the physical piece.

We retain the copyrights to all of Drew’s work, which means we can reproduce it in any way we wish.  Often, we will make paper or canvas reproductions of Drew’s commissioned pieces available to the public.  (An exception:  When there are people in the painting or highly personal elements, etc. We don’t reproduce those, as they are very personal to the buyer.)

It’s a great way to earn a living, as you are being paid to create the art, and then you are paid again and again when you continue to sell reproductions of it.

The buyer of the original benefits, because this practice helps to raise the value of their original art piece.  It enables us to continue to earn money again and again from one painting.  And, it makes the art available via lower cost art reproductions, to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford an original.  This practice is a win-win-win for all.

Please, share in the comments, are you using this practice?  If not, why?  If so, how is it working out for you?

Would love to hear your take on this.

Hugs xxoo

Maria

PS:  To make it clear to your buyers that you retain copyrights to the art, you could print a statement such as this one on all of your emails and invoices:  “Artist retains copyright ownership and all reproduction rights to the artwork.  The artwork may not be reproduced in any manner, whatsoever, without a written and signed agreement by Artist.

 

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31 Comments Is it okay to sell reproductions of a painting that was commissioned by a collector?

  1. Dominique Hurley

    Thank you Maria, I really appreciated this post as it’s something I’ve often asked myself and once asked a famous business coach. She herself had commissioned art and didn’t feel that would be a good practice.

    These days, my commissions are Soul Energy Portraits that are co-created with the person’s team of Divine Helpers and involve energy work, life coaching, etc. I wouldn’t feel comfortable reproducing those except for editorial purposes like on my blog, but I’m glad to have this different perspective for commissioned work in general.

    Namaste

    Reply
    1. Maria

      Dominique, thank you for the comment and for sharing your thoughts.

      It sounds like your work is highly personal to each client, and I can see why you don’t want to reproduce the art. It’s too personal to share with the world.

      I love the description of what you do – there are many more artists getting into this type of work and I just love it!

      Reply
  2. Fiona Purdy

    I like this post Maria! As you say the art we create is ours, we own it, even if it is bought by someone else. So why would I not make as much money as I can from my artwork? In fact I once had someone say to me – I want to buy this painting, but I don’t want it used anywhere else. No cards, no print reproductions. I told her that yes I could do that, but she would have to pay quite a bit extra for that privilege. Enough to recompense me for the money I would lose in selling reproductions of it. She didn’t buy the painting, but I did sell it to another buyer and have made quite a lot of money from reproductions. Look after yourselves first!

    Reply
    1. Maria

      Thanks for the comment, Fiona!

      It’s really just a business decision that each artist has to make for themselves. There is no right or wrong, it’s just “what do you want for your art?”

      Having reproductions out in the world does not hurt the value of a painting – Picasso’s work is printed on many different items and his originals sell in the millions!

      Drew and I personally want his art to be accessible to the people who want it, and not only those who can afford an original.

      Glad you sold that piece and held out on the copyrights!

      Reply
  3. Mac De Groote

    You obviously misunderstood the question, they asked re a commissioned piece of art meaning that someone requested a painting of a certain subject perhaps a pet or a family member. I would be extremely upset if I commissioned someone to do a painting of my wife or daughter and see prints in Walmart. However if it was a piece of art that I created of my own image idea that’s a different story.

    Marc De Groote

    Reply
    1. Maria

      Dear Marc, thanks for the comment. The artist who emailed asked if it was okay to make prints of a commissioned painting (not a commissioned portrait).

      If you create a painting for a collector, and it’s worthy of reproducing (and it’s not a portrait), it’s an opportunity to earn more from the art while sharing it with the world.

      One of our collectors, who owns about five of Drew’s paintings, loves that one of her paintings was printed on City of San Clemente street flags. She said it makes her happy every time she drives by it.

      I agree with you, I would never try to sell prints of portraits, as they are too personal. And trust me, portraits of our families wouldn’t sell very well anyway! 🙂

      Thanks for reading!

      Reply
  4. Anne Belov

    I enjoy your newsletter, and usually am too lazy to comment. (my bad) But I had to jump in here on this one. It actually has nothing to do with business models or customer “permission” if you want to reproduce your work. YOU OWN THE COPYRIGHT UNLESS YOU EXPRESSLY GRANT IT IN WRITING TO THE BUYER OF A PIECE.
    Does it make sense to let buyers know this upfront, so they don’t get their panties in a twist? Yes. After all, you want happy customers. Or you can tell them, your artwork will be exclusive to you, but I have to charge you $10,000 (or whatever) for exclusivity rights, in addition to the price of the piece.

    I believe there are different cases in the case of “work for hire” which COULD include commissions, if they are worded that way in the contract. But usually WFH is when you are doing assigned work for a company. (Not to be confused with WTF)
    Okay. rant over. I’ll crawl back under my rock now.
    (FYI on the information tag on all my paintings, I include the phrase “all rights reserved by the artist” It’s not a legal term as far as I know, but it does give you a talking point when a person who buys a painting gets mad when they see it on a garden tour poster, for instance.)

    Reply
    1. Maria

      Anne, thanks for weighing in on this! Yes, I agree, your collectors should be made aware that there’s a possibility that their painting may end up reproduced. I’d never want a client to be surprised later!

      Reply
  5. Cy Hundley

    Hi Maria,

    I have produced my originals including commission works for years. I mainly am commissioned for pet portraits and I have produced many pets to greeting card, and posters which I sell on my Etsy store amongst other places.

    I have no problem using a commissioned piece as I am aware of copyright law, But I ALWAYS tell my client about my plans to use the artwork created especially for them.

    More important than the business model or the potential monetary gain, is the consideration they deserve to know about the plans for their image/piece, which in most of my cases is extremely important and personal, AND lets not forget would not exist with out their hiring us in the first place.

    In my mind, reproducing any piece of commission work without first at least telling the client would be very inconsiderate and unprofessional.

    And as you have stated, ALL of my clients love the idea of there artwork being out there available to the masses!

    NOW… How do we market and sell these newly produced pieces of affordable art, that our gracious clients have given there blessings on?

    Thank you as always,

    Cy

    https://www.etsy.com/shop/ArtByCy

    Reply
    1. Maria

      Cy, I totally agree with everything you said!

      I would imagine, when painting pet portraits, you would want to be absolutely sure that your collector is okay with you reproducing the work, as it is so personal to them.

      It’s always very important to me that our clients are happy and that we maintain long term relationships with them.

      Reply
  6. Cindy S

    I’m not really selling reprints now, but even when I was, I felt uncomfortable selling repros of people’s pet portraits. Seemed too personal. So even though I retained that right, I didn’t exercise it. When the buyer knows up front how copyright works, they won’t be unpleasantly surprised later. I’d only do a work for hire if I was paid for that kind of exclusivity, or the work was of no commercial use to me afterwards, e.g. a logo, I’d never sell reprints of or use for myself in any way except to say I did it. When I was younger I painted murals, etc, for companies, and they were works for hire; I was an employee. I had a hunch that I should never mingle my personal work with theirs, though at the time I didn’t know what this section of the law was called. Now, I’m glad my instinct told me to keep my personal work out of my day job.

    Agree that you often need a professional image capture. Many of us can do well enough with small pieces, but the bigger it gets, the more likely it’ll have flaws and won’t make nice reprints, at least not at full size. I have not always been as vigilant about getting GOOD shots/scans before it left the studio as I probably should be. Not selling reprints has something to do with that. But once in awhile, I finish a piece so close to the day it’s installed in a show, there is really no chance. Once in awhile if I think it has potential as future repro’s, I almost hope a piece won’t sell; that’ll give me time to get a good shot/scan after the show.

    Reply
    1. Maria

      Cindy, thanks for the comment! I can understand you not wanting to reproduce portraits, even of pets. It’s too personal to your collectors, and in the end, we want to keep our collectors happy!

      Reply
  7. Ina

    Hi Maria,

    Great post, i absolutely agree, prints can definitely support an artist’s practice and I also see it as our right to make full use of it if it suits.
    My dilemma is this: I often create digital work, so even if I start out with watercolour for example, the piece will be finished digitally and will therefore never exist as an “original” where you can see every brush stroke etc. The commissioning client will also only be able to get a reproduction of sorts as it is the only way to make the piece “real”. However, then I always end up feeling uneasy about selling prints as they are essentially the same thing the client received, the only difference is that he got something made to his/her wishes. But is that enough of a distinction to warrant prints for sale (at a lower price point)? What do you think? Would love to know your thoughts on that angle as it has been bothering me for a while! 🙂

    Reply
    1. Maria Brophy

      Ina, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

      In the case of digital work, where there is no original, then you would have to come up with a way to distinguish the commissioned piece from the reproductions.

      Or sell the reproductions at the same price as the first one.

      Or, do what photographers do:

      Many fine art photographers will sign and number and limit their photos (i.e. #1/200). The first one is said to be worth the most.

      Or, don’t sell reproductions at all. You’ll have to find the answer that fits best with your work and your clients.

      Reply
  8. Kara Rane

    Absolutely agree! And I too find it so interesting that the art piece I create that I think is the best is usually the least popular and vice versa. In fact, I have had people pull things out of my reject or trash pile and convince me they were good! Ugh, the Artist is not always the best biz person but thankfully we can learn from people such as You!!

    Reply
    1. Maria Brophy

      Kara,

      So great to hear from you! I feel like we’ve known each other for so long now….

      I love your work, please don’t ever trash any of it!! Send it to me instead! 🙂

      Reply
  9. Shelley Smith

    Maria, Nice post. Thank you! I sell high quality limited edition prints of my paintings in relatively small editions, and I too have sometimes been uncomfortable selling prints of one of my patron’s paintings (even non-commissioned) because I was concerned they would feel their piece is somehow devalued. As you write, you seem to believe prints actually increase the value of the original. If true, then I can share this information with my “originals” patrons. In addition, one of my pro photographer friends who also owns a gallery had a good suggestion. She suggested when making prints, make them smaller than the original – even if only slightly smaller – so that the original format is still “special” and unique to that artwork. I think this is a good idea and once I sell out of the few prints I made the same size as the original, I am going to refrain from creating any new prints the same size as the originals.

    Reply
    1. Maria Brophy

      Shelley,

      Thanks for sharing your comments. I like the idea of making the reproductions in a smaller size. That’s one way to further distinguish them from the original.

      Reply
  10. artMAN

    A lot of my comments are repeats from Maria’s informative article and readers’ postings.

    When purchasing items like a pencil, shoes, furniture, and a car, consumers believe and expect that they own those personal properties out-right. This rule works well until it gets applied to creative works, like paintings, photographs, and other art media.

    To protect your business and not surprise your clients, your art commissioning agreement needs to CLEARLY state, among other things, the following:

    1) (Assuming the commission work is not of a person or pet portrait.) Even though the client is ordering a commissioned art piece and may be providing the artist with general “ideas” or guidelines on the direction of the piece, the artist will solely and exclusively own the piece’s entire copyright, i.e., the client agrees that its contribution to the piece will NOT be a joint-authorship.

    2) The client will own the original commissioned piece that they may display in perpetuity in a home, office, or other private, non-commercial settings (or other displayed location/s agreed to). All other rights are reserved with and belong to the artist.

    3) As well, the client needs to be in the loop that the artist is reserved the right to make additional reprints and derivative works from the original commission art piece that can be sold, licensed (or even given away for free!) in perpetuity and in all media forms now or forever known.

    Copyrights were mentioned in the comments: Creatives can rattle their copyright swords as much as their hearts desire, but until their copyrights are timely registered with the US Copyright Office, their copyrights are NOT fully enforceable against infringers. A painting that includes an informational inscription tag of “All Rights Reserved by the Artist” might be an interesting talking-point, but it’s very much useless until its copyright has been registered. If you enjoy having problems and headaches in your business, skip registering your copyrights.

    Work-for-hire (WFH) was also mentioned in the comments: Assuming the creative is a non-employee, independent, freelance artist who runs her own business, her commissioned art piece can only be deemed a work-for-hire contribution IF the following three things all take place:

    1) BEFORE beginning work on the art piece, the artist and client have agreed in writing that the artwork has been specifically commissioned; AND

    2) That its copy/rights and ownership will solely belong to the client as a WFH contribution; AND

    3) The art piece falls into one of nine categories:

    (1) a translation (2) a contribution to a motion picture or other audiovisual work (3) a contribution to a collective work (such as a magazine) (4) as an atlas (5) as a compilation (6) as an instructional text (7) as a test (8) as answer material for a test (9) or a supplementary work (i.e., “a secondary adjunct to a work by another author” such as a foreword, afterword, chart, illustration, editorial note, bibliography, appendix and index). See http://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ09.pdf and http://www.copylaw.com/new_articles/wfh.html.

    If any one of the three WFH elements is missing, then the artwork canNOT be a WFH contribution. Consequently, clients will often include a copyright “transfer” clause, just in case the WFH is not valid or the artist is reluctant to agree to any WFH contractual language. Sadly, many creatives unwittingly sign-away their artworks’ IP.

    Reply
  11. Frank A Pollifrone Sr.

    Dear Maria, love your creative business website, and have used some of your tips to land and complete a recent mural project, I was wondering if you can tell me how to come up with the cost of working in the square footage format, I`am not certain how you arrived at these prices. I used a $30.00 per square ft. and it worked fine for me. I would love to hear from you

    Reply
  12. Thander

    Hello Maria,

    I’m new to your sight but from what I’ve read you’ve been very helpful and clear with your advice. I was hoping you could do the same for me.

    I’m a digital illustrator, and recently a self-publishing author had contacted me to paint her book cover. I haven’t accepted the job yet since we’re still hashing out the logistics of it all but she told me she wants to use the artwork on merchandising such as bookmarks/pens/magnets/apparel/postcards/mugs/totebags/keychains/keyrings/phonecases/notebooks/prints – essentially selling whenever a fan demands to buy it. She’d like to sell it at conventions as well. The Author has no idea how successful this book launch will be and if anyone will even want to buy merch – so it’s a gamble for her.
    I’m thinking of licensing the artwork at a flat rate for a limited time, but I’m utterly stumped on how to get a number – I won’t go easy on the price just because it’s a financial risk for her but I also don’t want to scare her away.
    I don’t expect you to give me a perfect answer but any advice will have me tickled pink!

    Thank you!
    Cheers,

    Thander

    Reply
    1. Maria Brophy

      Hi Thander, thanks for the question.

      If this self-publishing author has never sold merchandise before, and is not backed by a large company with a healthy marketing and branding budget, they most likely will not sell very much merchandise. On the other hand, if they end up selling the book to a publisher, and they get backed by a company that knows how to merchandise for a profit, it could be lucrative. That being said, I would recommend making a short term agreement for merchandise (2 years) that is something she can afford (i.e. $500 – $1,500 flat fee for merchandising rights) with a limit in the contract that states that the license is NOT TRANSFERABLE (this way, if she is picked up by a larger entity, the license doesn’t transfer – they will have to license from you directly, at which time you can charge more). If, at the end of 2 years there has been sales, you can then renew with a royalty agreement and a larger up-front fee. Does this help?

      Reply
      1. Thander

        That’s makes perfect sense, I had come to similar conclusions but I always appreciate your perspective on things!

        Thank you so much Maria, you’ve been a great help!

        Cheers

        Thander

  13. scottie

    Stumbled onto your website and have enjoyed reading a few of your articles!

    This is the business model I am striving to achieve as well. Would you say that one could be successful in doing both reproduced prints *and* custom personal paintings that wouldn’t be reproduced? Or would it be easier to focus on just one?

    Reply
    1. Maria Brophy

      Scottie, thanks for the question. Yes, you can be successful doing a combo of paintings that you will reproduce, and personal commissions that you will not reproduce. Over time, you will find that it makes sense for you to put more time into creating the art that you will reproduce, as it will generate better income for you. But yes, doing both works.

      Reply
  14. Nicolas

    Hi!

    Just wanted to say thank you for bringing the subject. Research done by Dr. David R. Hawkins through clinical kinesiology, shows that a mechanical reproduction of an artwork makes the body go weak. In contrast to this, when a person looks at a handcrafted work his body goes strong; and this is true regardless of the pictorial content of the painting. There is great power in human touch and originality. Clinical kinesiology can also automatically detect forgery. Source of this info: Power vs Force, and Truth vs Falsehood, by Dr. David R. Hawkins.

    Reply
  15. Antonio Butts

    Thanks for your very informative articles, they are not only informative but enligthening. As an artist this and other information is things that we should be aware of when we exhibit and sell our works.

    Reply
  16. Amy Jennings

    Hi again Maria! I do large scale paintings (largest 4′ x 5′) on canvas and I’m not super knowledgeable about the digital parts like scanning, etc. that you mention doing. HOW or WHERE do I get this done?? Thanks. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Maria

      Hi Amy – look for a local photographer to do your scanning (by way of photos), someone who is also a printer, they tend to do the best quality work, as they care about colors and quality. Hope that helps!

      Reply
  17. Janette Miller

    Ah but not in New Zealand! NZ has a unique Commissioning Rule where the copyright and copyright work belong to the commissioner. NZ Copyright Act 1994 sec 14 & sec 21,3(b).

    If the artist wants to keep copyright he has to ask for it at the time of commissioning in writing otherwise the copyright follows commissioner.

    This safeguards creators original ideas and does away with patents, trademarks, and expensive lawyers. Artist and photographers hate it.

    As a commissioner of artworks I find it excellent.

    Reply

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