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Cecilia Beaux Forum Literature Committee: Dealing with Difficult Clients

As the story goes, Sargent declared a moratorium on Portrait commissions late in his career, fleeing the demands and irritations of entitled clients for the joys of painting for pleasure with his friends. (Society wouldn’t let him, though, and he compromised by doing charcoal portrait drawings and charging the same as he had for the oils.)

It seems Sargent and the rest of us share the conundrums of how to deal with our (difficult? demanding?) clients. The subject is the most frequently asked question that comes to the Society’s office. So what might some of the dynamics be?

What factors might contribute to feelings a client brings to buying art:

  1. He may feel like a stranger in a foreign land who doesn’t know the language, or how to judge the worth of what’s for sale, or how to know if he’s getting his money’s worth - and it’s a scary experience in which he feels defensive. Let’s face it: the USA does a poor job of teaching our citizens about aesthetics, art history, and art. How ubiquitous is the comment, “I don’t know anything about art, but...”? What is the first subject cut when the schools are short of funds?

  2. He may be in the habit of considering artists in the category of “service” people, artisans, who work with their hands and come to the back door. He knows what he wants and tells them, then he supervises the work and makes sure it meets his specifications. He is not an artist but he “knows what he likes.”

In situation #1, people who feel powerless and scared may flee or fight, become passive-aggressive or irritable or try to find ways to gain and wield control.

In situation #2, people feel powerful and are in the habit of wielding it. They expect to be in control.

Beyond considering how the client may be feeling, what can the artist do? One choice: give in to both the client struggling to gain power and to the client who feels he already has it; be the powerless servant who takes orders - and resents it. Or try to fight it out with the client - resulting perhaps in being fired, firing the client, or having the client disappear. Or, third: with the goal of addressing both one’s own and the client’s needs, find a win-win situation. There is a balance of power - the client has the money and the desire for the painting, and the artist has the knowledge and skill required to satisfy the desire.

To arrive at a workable compromise it’s important to realize that the painting is only a symbol of an underlying universal need that we all share: love and belonging, power and recognition, freedom, or fun. To understand what need is operating in the particular situation, it is important to understand the particular client, to do “due diligence.”

Portraiture is a “people” profession by its very nature. Who is the client? Why does he want this painting? (To impress somebody? To keep a memory?) Why did he choose you? What kind of art does he like? What about YOUR art does he like? What is the picture in his head? Who else is involved? How may he be feeling? If it’s unfamiliar territory he will be feeling anxious and vulnerable. People are not at their best when anxious. It is our job to put them at ease. How? By knowing what we know - by owning and being confident of our skills and experience - and by listening.

Be confident and assertive. Seeing that you have heard, understood, and care inspires trust, that he is indeed in good hands, that you are a team working for the best outcome: your best quality of art that you are proud to sign, and that the client will be proud to have. This means that it may be necessary to teach the client something about art if he wants you to do something you don’t want to do. Look for a way to work his wants into your style if possible so you are both happy and he can see how his idea has contributed.

Recently a friend who was commissioned to paint a portrait of a family homestead told me she was startled when the client described the house, contrary to all evidence, as being “on a hill.” That was the picture in the client’s head. Sticking to objective evidence would have violated that picture whereas taking “artistic license” did no violence to the aesthetic value of the painting. My friend painted the house as being on a hill. Both artist and client were delighted with the beautiful result.

Some things to keep in mind:


  • be a wimp (neither you nor the client will like a wimp)

  • Paint portraits if you don’t like people

  • Enter into a servant role, letting the client dictate; you are the pro with the expertise in your field

  • Ignore the client and be a dictator yourself

  • Forget you are creative and can think of win-win solutions.

  • Forget that problems are opportunities.

Some triggers:

  • Client wants every detail, nothing left out. But that’s not your style. How did he decide on you instead of a photo? Be patient - educate him about variety of fine art aesthetics, your style.

  • Client wants to bargain about price. Have a contract. Stick to it. Consider a payment plan.

  • Client wants lots of changes. Have a clear policy about how many and when and why you will make changes. Consider that the client may not want the project and relationship to end...

  • Client has a favorite photo and wants a painting of it. You don’t do that. Tell him how fortunate he is to have the photo and to treasure it! Explain why it will not be a painting. (Camera is best at taking photos. You are not a camera. Photos and fine art are two different genres.) Offer a solution.

  • Client treats you like a servant. Watch the film “The King’s Speech”!!

Know your own limits, lines you won’t cross. It is not the end of the world to lose a commission, but it is awful to lose integrity and self- respect.

Maintain the “I’m OK - You’re OK” stance.

What are some of your experiences and how you’ve resolved them - or not?

Happy painting,


Chair, CBF

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