Working with concept artists: contracting

Once you’ve found artists you want to work with, it’s time to write up a contract. No matter how small the job is, resist the temptation to skip this step. Contracts are vital in protecting you against misunderstandings. Misunderstandings cost money. All sorts of less-than-ideal outcomes can arise:

  • Your freelancer underestimated the amount of time it would take to create your artwork, and is charging by the hour.
  • Your freelancer interprets your instructions very differently than you intended.
  • Your freelancer is juggling too many other jobs, and hasn’t worked on your assignment for weeks.

That’s why it’s so important to spell out exactly what you’re requesting, how much you’re willing to pay for it, and how soon you need it completed. This not only protects you from having to pay for incomplete work, but it also protects the freelancer from toiling over things you don’t need.

Specifying the delivery

What you write here is what you’re paying for, so make sure it’s both specific and reasonable.

  • How many renditions of the vehicle/character/environment are you commissioning? If you don’t specify, that number will be “one.”
  • How detailed do the drawings need to be? Sketchy? Inked and colored? Photoreal?
  • What views do you need? Three-quarter? Blueprint/isometric? Overhead? Don’t assume the artist is going to pick the angle you had in mind.

Determining pricing

Artists like to be paid by the hour. Clients prefer to pay by the job. Either method can spiral out of control when the number of revisions starts to rack up. For smaller jobs, a hybrid approach is usually the most workable one: Ask the freelancer to estimate how long it would take them to do a given task, then negotiate based on that amount. Don’t be afraid to ask for ways of getting that number down—you might be able to get the artist to reduce their hours by working in black and white instead of color, for example, or by agreeing to a hard limit on the number of revisions.

Once you have a figure you can both live with, that’s what goes in the contract.

The kill clause

Sometimes a freelancer just can’t produce the work that you need to move your project forward. Maybe their style is a mismatch with the existing art; maybe they’re too slow or the quality just isn’t there. If you don’t have a “kill clause” in your contract that allows you to abort an assignment and save your money, then you may be obligated to pay full price for whatever the artist delivers, even if it’s unusable for your purposes.

It’s best not to get overly complicated with the kill clause. If the project gets scuttled before it reaches the revisions stage, the artist should half of the agreed-upon sum, and both parties go their separate ways. Don’t argue over blame or try to re-negotiate—you’ll never be satisfied with the outcome. Just make a clean break, hire a replacement and move on.

The deadline

Make sure you specify a deadline to protect yourself against delays. Otherwise, an artist might deliver a concept long after it’s too late to be useful, and you’d be contractually obligated to pay them anyway. There’s no need to get fussy with penalties and notifications, just figure out when you need the artwork by, and say so in the contract. If the freelancer can’t deliver by the deadline, the contract is nullified.


Make sure the contract states that the client assumes ownership of all rights to the artwork upon payment. Most freelancers expect this anyway, but again, it’s safer to spell it out in writing. Unless you have legal reasons to maintain secrecy, try to at least grant the artist the right to display the pieces in their portfolio, as this directly affects their livelihood.

Signing on the dotted line

That about covers it! Send your freelancer a dated, signed contract, have them sign and fax/e-mail you a copy, and you’re good to go. To save time, keep a template contract on hand that you can keep modifying as you work with different artists, and always make sure you negotiate everything listed above before any work begins!