Written Contracts & Agreements (Curious Monday)

Doing business on a handshake seems to be the easiest and best way to do things – until we realize it was a really, really, really bad idea.

Pastel Portrait by Gillian Lee Smith
©Gillian Lee Smith, Morag. Pastel and Conté on paper, 32 x 25 centimeters. Used with permission.

Putting terms and conditions on paper will save your butt.

And … I know that artists don’t always go to the trouble to get things in writing.

So, here’s what I want to know.

What situations/projects/venues do you have contracts for?

When do you do without contracts?

Have you ever been in a situation in which you would have been better served with a contract? (You kicked yourself by not having a signed agreement.)

Tell us all about your written agreements or your aversion to them by leaving a comment below.

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39 thoughts on “Written Contracts & Agreements (Curious Monday)”

  1. I don’t enjoy custom work so I always have a contract for custom work. 50% down, non-refundable. I put in writing a deadline for finishing the work and the time limit they have to consider it before I offer it for sale elsewhere. If they decide they don’t want it, my time and materials are covered.

  2. A contract for custom work is essential. I also require 50% down with the caveat that if they don’t like the finished piece, they may apply that 50% to another piece that is in my inventory.

    I also recommend a contract with your gallery. When will you get paid in relation to when the client pays? How many shows will you have/be in per year? Etc.


  3. Just recently I had a written contract to show my and two other artists’ work during a studio tour. The studio owner ultimately cancelled at the last minute. I incurred costs because of his cancellation. I am still contemplating taking him to small claims court or dropping it. Thankfully I had a plan B (always have a plan B) which helped save our reputations and allowed us to show during the tour.

  4. Galleries and art centers nearly always supply their own contract – I would be suspicious of doing a show without one. At the very least, I want them to spell out their insurance policy, payment time frame and how any client discounts will be decided and split. For commissions, I have a contract, which an artist friend who is also a lawyer gave to me. It’s simple, friendly and in plain English, but legal. It spells out all the important issues, including how long the client can ask for changes on a finished work. I too require 50% down (non-refundable) and the other half upon completion.

  5. I always had a contract in my decorative painting biz…except when i was subcontracted by other artists. I don’t remember ever having a problem…(50% down…50% upon completion).
    Perhaps those clients who did not want contracts just did not work with me!
    There were some crazy moments working 4 other artists though…like standing outside an atm at 11 at night waiting to be paid hundreds in cash!
    Contracts are essential!

  6. I’ve learned the hardway to always get it in writing. I’ve free lanced doing decorative and faux finishes in the past. If you don’t get it spelled out at the beginning it can lead to many issues and constant renegotiations. Now a deal memo is the very least I’ll use before beginning a project.

  7. I have contracts for any form of commissioned work. I also have them if I do any guidance work. The only situation where I wish I had one in the past involved a custom amulet, but that was before I started using contracts.

  8. For my portraits, I require 50% down and that is nonrefundable. The other 50% is due on completion. If they don’t like the portrait, they do not have to pay the final 50% and of course, I keep the painting and can sell it if I choose to. I’ve never had this happen, but you never know.

  9. Gail Folsom Jennings

    I’ve worked both with and without contracts, usually with for any illustration work. That didn’t do much to protect me after creating a series of greeting card illustrations (under contract) only to find out that the compny owner was a total ripoff and he became invisible when payment was due, not only to me but numerous other artists. I got a lawyer through Colorado Lawyers for the Arts. He was not very reliable either! But as I recall the company owner failed to show up for the hearing and judgement went against him. I still never saw a penny of my money. I also did some illustrations under contract for a magazine and for one of the Disney companies. In both of those cases, payment was made in a timely manner. Otherwise, I’ve seldom had a problem with payment either with or without a contract.

  10. I use contracts for commissioned work. I include a down payment (over $100, but less than 50 percent) that I list as a “kill fee”. If for any reason the client or I are not happy with the results, we kill the job and I keep the fee. Once my client kept changing what they wanted in their painting, and then took weeks to review my sketches. I killed the job and was glad to have the initial fee.

  11. I have a contract for commission work (basically the same as what others have posted).

    I have a one-page contract for when I show my work in a non-traditional venue (they don’t usually have their own contract). It’s simple, but clearly states the two parties with contact info, who is responsible for delivering, hanging, and returning the work, commission (if any), how long the work is intended to hang, notice period for either side to change the intended dates, who will insure the work, who will handle sales, and the list of paintings with their retail price. Most importantly, it clearly states that ownership and copyright of the work resides with the artist. I’ve had to use this contract only once. In that instance, the two owners of a local cafe had some dispute with each other. One changed the locks and took off with all the cash. With my piece of paper, I was able to contact the Sherriff’s office and reclaim the 10 paintings I had hanging in the cafe with no problem.

    I also have a contract for my payment plan. It documents the two parties with contact information, identifies the painting under contract, lists the dates and amounts of scheduled payments, and states that the buyer can take the painting once the painting is 100% paid for. I used to have a rent-to-own plan, but it’s rarely used and is probably out of date now.

  12. If a contract is written properly, it benefits both parties and also protects them. When your art is displayed in a bricks and mortar gallery it is imperative that a contract is used. One can never tell what can happen in the future.

  13. I think contracts are essential when doing business. Showing and selling art is doing business. As simple as that.

    Beside that, some contracts are not clear enough or skip important points. When this happens, I don’t hesitate to ask questions, through e-mail (writing) and make sure all I need to know get answered.

  14. I was burned by a contract many years ago. I sell LSU prints from my art. A man who owned five Hallmark stores bought a ton of prints. I was so excited! I didn’t think when He said, I’ll pay you every 90 days. Never again! By the time we were paid, the money barely covered the bills due to more orders.

  15. I am still kicking myself for two things…a store where my painted purses were on consignment and one got “stolen” so she never paid me for it. I didn’t have a written contract covering that. And the second thing is a store that went out of business and the lady disappeared to Florida. I could never get my giclee cards back.

    Now I don’t let anything leave my studio without a contract for the location where it’s going; whether it’s a painting, accessories, prints, jewelry, etc!!

  16. I have a contract that holds me as the artist 100% responsible for having insurance or a rider on my home owner’s insurance for theft, damages, hanging, promotions, removal, releasing them from any liability and I’m ok with that.

  17. I have usually had very good experiences with galleries without written contracts but I recently had a situation with “lost” drawings. A formal letter solved that one, but after that I got a contract to use with other galleries.
    I do commissions with the agreement that they don’t get the portrait until I am paid and the cheque is cleared. I don’t take a deposit because my health is so precarious that I can’t promise to meet deadlines and a deposit would cause me more stress. So I don’t have a contract but I do have “terms and conditions”. That has worked well for me for the last 40 years.

  18. My brother is a lawyer. I noticed an email he sent back to someone: “per our conversation…” It laid out the oral contract discussed, but not written. If the receiver of the email is in disagreement with anything, they’d better speak up.

  19. I always write an agreement. And usually the people receiving it view it as a positive thing. I even got positive feedbacks about this. I believe that if someone does not want a formal agreement maybe there is a reason to step back! 🙂

  20. I get 30% advance on custom ones with no return policy. I ask customers to view my art carefully so they can expect kind of results from their commissions.

  21. I like having written agreements, especially for hanging art and commissions. For venues, if the venue doesn’t have their own, I draft one for their approval before I show my work. For commissions, I write out expectations and timelines, for me and my client. And, I use this for family members who want a commission as well. When clients or family members balk, I explain its important to communicate intentions beforehand to avoid mis-understandings.

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