Opportunities You Should Turn Down

Someone wants something from you.
Maybe it's a painting “exactly” like your latest landscape. Only she'd like it in cooler colors to match her newly redecorated living room.
Or maybe it's one of your signature sterling necklaces, but “could you do it in gold and add a sapphire? I know you don't like to work in gold, but all of my jewelry is gold and I really don't wear silver.”
You know you can give them what they want.
You know they'd be happy with what they get.
Here's the question you have to answer: Will it make you happy? If it does, great. Go for it!
Maybe you're on the fence. Sure, you could use the money, and you certainly don't want to disappoint a friend. But, gosh, you really don't want to do it. Something just doesn't seem right.
My advice? There is absolutely no reason in the world good enough for you to take on projects you're so uncomfortable with.
Here are three reasons you should turn down opportunities that don't feel right.
1. You will end up resenting the person who asked you to do it.
2. You dislike the idea so much that you procrastinate and procrastinate. Somehow, it festers and becomes bigger than life–a monster that invades your every thought.
3. You will eventually make good on your promise, but you'll hate the resulting work and remain angry with yourself that you ever said Yes in the first place.

Beverly Endsley, Ceremonial Gown
Beverly Endsley, Ceremonial Gown. Oil on canvas, 16 x 16 inches. ©The Artist

The only solution is to turn down such so-called opportunities. I say “so-called” because they can't be opportunities if they lead only to frustration and disappointment.
It's not always easy to turn them down. Sometimes they come from good customers and collectors. Other times they're from friends and family. Of course you don't want to disappoint these people. But you have to listen to your gut. It's usually right. And someone who wants to see you succeed will understand your point of view.
Resist the urge to be the solution to everyone else's problems.
I know a little about this. Trust me, I can't afford to turn down clients. I need all of them I can get.
But sometimes I just have a gnawing feeling after talking to a potential client. I know that no matter what I do or say, it will never be enough for them. They just don't seem satisfied with my feedback.
I either politely such people 1) I'm not the person they're looking for or 2) I'll think about it and get back to them. When I do contact them again, I go back to my first option: telling them I can't help them and, hopefully, offering an alternative for them.
You can do this, too. If you don't like to work with gold in your jewelry, offer your customer the name of someone who does and who would probably be more than happy to get the work. Ditto for the cat portrait in a different style.
You're not sending people to your competition; you are providing an invaluable service. They'll appreciate that.
Think of all the times you wish you had said No to an opportunity that came your way.
What's the worst thing that can happen when you say no? What's the best thing that can happen when you say no? Does it bring you peace of mind?
Does it free you to do the things you really want to do?
Develop a standard rejection line for when these chances come your way. If you don't have one ready, always say you'll think about it before agreeing to do it. Then come up with a list of referrals–other artists who might be happy to work on such opportunities.

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23 thoughts on “Opportunities You Should Turn Down”

  1. Hannah Perkins

    Wow, this was the post I needed right now. I just got an email from someone interested in having me make them something I really really don’t want to do. I’ve been debating it all night and I know I’m just going to feel stupid for accepting the commission if I do it. I feel like I’ll be breaking my own rules, but I really need the money right now. I will take your advice though. I know I shouldn’t, and I’ll regret it if I do it.
    Same thing happened all weekend at a convention I was selling at. I used to make a certain hat design, and for many reasons I decided to stop making it, and I auctioned off the last one to charity, but I had TONS of people asking about it all weekend, I felt kind of bad telling all of them I don’t make them anymore, and many of them asking if I’d make an exception for them. But all my reasons are still the same, and I don’t want to go back on my word and start making them again. Its tough to deal with though. I wish I would have never started them in the first place because now people just won’t forget them….( and I really wish they would, because I want to so bad now…. )

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Hannah: If you really need the money, I wonder if you could reframe the situation. Or focus on making money a different way–one that supports you.

    2. Hannah Perkins

      Well I could use the money, but its not like I’ll be making tons of money off it anyways. And honestly I can make more money by focusing on my own designs. I just have to wait a month til my next convention… which seems so far away at this point.
      I’ve basically decided to take the road less-traveled by all the people that make hats like mine. I’m focusing on my designs and creating a brand for my business, while most others are making hats based off ideas/designs people pay them to make. So you rarely see anything that came from their head. I can’t build a brand if I took all the opportunities that are presented to me. If I took them I would be known for that work more then my own designs. That would just hurt me in the long run.
      Telling so many people no can be tiring. But I know I am staying true to myself, and I make enough to live off of. I am generally a people pleaser, but with my business I know I have to have boundaries for what I will and won’t do.

    3. Alyson Stanfield

      Seems like saying Yes to everyone could be even more exhausting. Glad you are sticking to your truth.

  2. This is always such a good thing to remember. A few years ago I was commissioned to do a piece for a public art collection. They had selected me for my work, but later came back with other things they wanted to see in the painting. I told them the things I was willing to do, but drew a line at something I felt was out of my comfort zone. I said how much I would like to do the commission, but if they were set on this latest addition, it was not what my work was about, and they might need to look for someone else. In the end, they were happy with my vision and the completed painting. Knowing your limits is a good thing.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Angelita: That’s great! Sometimes people don’t really know what they want. Hearing from an artist who has enough confidence stand up for her vision is what persuaded them.

  3. This is such good advice. It has taken me a long time to learn to say “no” and I still often feel uncomfortable doing it. Unlike trying to get one’s family and friends to recognize that studio time or business is just as valid as their job time, this is a case of giving up possible income and regard. But think of it this way, if you say “no” to taking on a commission that you aren’t happy doing and instead refer the client to another artist who specializes in that work, you will indeed earn the regard. And perhaps a returning customer.

  4. Wonderful counsel!!
    I’ve done 2 commissions and eventhough the experience wasn’t too bad, I decided that I would not accept them in the future, but will only agree to add more paintings to a painting series…on my own terms, but keeping the patron’s suggestions or requests in mind. The issue about commissions and/or special requests that I have is that they seem to lack soul for me. I have tons of ideas visualized in my head and as a result, I have a lot of passion about bringing them out on the canvas. With the commissions, it was just work…no passion. That’s dry and boring…I want juicy and exciting!!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Michelle: Good for you! Some artists thrive off of commissions and others’ ideas. REALLY thrive. They love the collaborative process. You have to be right for it.

  5. Brilliant Advice. I do quite a few commissions and find them very enjoyable. Only on the rare occassion when I have allowed a client to give “too much information” was I unhappy with myself and the work. If the client basically likes my work and trusts in the process, then BOTH of us are excited by the results. Thanks for the reminder to give a referral to other artists instead of just saying no. Much better.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Beverly, an interesting post would be how to get a client to “trust the process.” How to prepare them.

    2. It helps if you have a lot of examples to show. I keep a collection of photos and the paintings I created from those photos for examples. We then discuss what they are looking for in a painting, if my style works for them, and what the limits are of painting from the photo they provided. I much prefer taking my own photos if possible. After I am almost finished, I send a photo of the painting and await their comments. Small adjustments can be made at that point,
      It seems that my 20+ years as an interior designer explaining my color boards to clients in as much detail as possible and my firm “no, you can’t go shopping with me” is serving me well!

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  7. Exceptional article, Alyson. I want to share my “standard rejection line” (it’s such good advice to have one committed to memory)–Mine is “Thank you so much for thinking of me, but (fill in the specific further reason)”. Beginning with “thank you for thinking of me” is respectful of them and also it WAS nice of them to consider me. My standard rejection opener almost always softens the blow and I use it even with things that are unrelated to art such as when someone wants me to buy something from them..(that I do not want). I will say Thank you for asking me, BUT (etc). The Thank you right off leaves the asker feeling acknowledged…it’s courteous and always works.

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  9. This is exactly the article I needed now, too. Thank you! I am in the midst of commission I should have gracefully declined a year ago, and am suffering all of the pangs of procrastination, guilt and resentment that you discuss. I felt like I couldn’t say “no.” In retrospect, it would have been more fare to the client than taking on a project I just wasn’t thrilled with. I thought I could muster up excitement and give it my best. Unfortunately, my first “oh, no” instincts have only grown with time!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Lizholm, sounds like you needed the article a year ago. Oops. Sorry for the suffering. I advise you to hurry up and get it over with so that it’s no longer hanging over you.

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  12. I am willing to bet that every single one of us have taken on projects/clients like this. I know I have. Every now and then I’ll end up with one in my lap again and it never fails to remind me why it feels good (and is the smart thing to do) to say NO. Thankfully, the older I get the less this happens!

  13. I was just asked by a niece if I would do a copy of a mass produced flower painting for her new baby…Took me about half an hour to figure out how to say no without offending her. I politely suggested wall decals would be a better option, to my surprise, she took it and ran.

  14. Oh boy, who can’t relate! Last summer, while laid up from knee replacement, I got a great offer to do a painting. It would have been a substantial commission! They knew I was laid up so offered to come get me to see the area, spend the day sketching then have a nice barbecue – it “sounded” like a dream job and I really needed the money. But in subsequent conversations turns out they had a very specific idea of what they wanted and it was nothing like my work! I would have disappointed them and driven myself nuts trying to satisfy them so I called it off – nicely. Painful but necessary.

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