The Importance of a Contract

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Arty farty type rejects contract

Being a creative soul, I’m not the most practical of people when it comes to things like finances and business plans and negotiations and, more specifically, contracts.

“I don’t need that!” I airily intone. “I’m a free spirit and have no need of your restrictive rules and expense costings. Tralaa… [insert a frolicking interpretive dance about butterflies]”

If you’ve ever seen Nick Seluk’s Heart and Brain comic series, you can think of me as v.much Heart.

But the fact of the matter is that I need contracts more than ever. Because I run a business so small, it falls under a lot of protective radars and it’s a field that people regularly take advantage of.

The lesson of always drawing up a contract, no matter who you are doing work for, is one that I have learnt the hard way over the last eighteen months. This is what happened:

A company I used to work for, and one I’m still very much in contact with, asked me to do some artwork for their offices. And they sent in a good friend of mine to discuss the details. Sneaky! But it meant we got a nice dinner on expenses and, while we did discuss the work in question quite a lot, the wine was flowing and we had a lovely time. What followed was a series of emails between my friend and I* and, eventually, we reached an agreement.

So, I did what any sensible business woman wouldn’t do, and started the work. I figured I didn’t need a pesky contract – the company and I knew each other intimately and they couldn’t (they wouldn’t!) back out…

Could they?

They could. And they did. What was agreed was a seventeen piece commission, six paintings of Leeds landmarks, six paintings of the office locations and an abstract comprised of five canvases. That sentence reverberates around my brain like a catchy jingle. It was a big commission. It was so big, I considered quitting my day job. It wasn’t just this one commission – a small push on social media had driven several new clients my way and, as someone who primarily operates on word of mouth, this was great news! But I didn’t have time for them; I had a big commission and I told them so, so off they went to find a different artist who could fit them in in under eighteen months. I updated the banner on my website to reflect that, unfortunately, I would be unable to fulfil any new commissions until mid-2018. Three more clients agreed to wait until the following year. My waiting list was growing long and strong.

The company began to chase. I’d meet up with them for drinks and the director who had commissioned me via my friend would make snarky comments about having to wait so long. So I booked a load of annual leave and powered on through. I was staying up late, I was getting up early, I was putting off social events and my weekends were blocked out, I hadn’t exercised in months. The deal, as I had understood it, was that I would do the paintings in batches of three, invoicing after each batch so that the company could spread the cost. So I handed over my completed three with glee. Now, as previously mentioned, I am not good at negotiating, so I’d agreed a really measly sum per painting and, having used annual leave and not having charged for expenses, wear and tear on brushes, paint or moodboards, I was actually a tad out of pocket when I totted up the hours I’d spent, how much it would cost under my usual hourly rate (which is in itself incredibly cheap) and how much I’d discounted off. You know, mates’ rates and all that. But still, it was a nice big commission to get my teeth into.

You want to… wait, what?

Then came a bit of a shocker: I always always check how people want me to work. One of the details I consider to be very important is whether the work will be done on canvas or stretched paper. Stretched paper is easy to frame. Canvas, not so much. These paintings had been done on canvas. So imagine my surprise when the Director I mentioned previously, sent me a snotty email to say that he didn’t know how to frame them. Oh dear. We’d agreed canvases that would hang directly onto the wall, so I’d spent even more time making sure the edges of the deep box canvases were also painted. For some reason, the Director seemed to think that framing was my responsibility and the tone of his email was: “What am I meant to do with these? Sort it out.” I paraphrase, of course. Eventually, I managed to get through to him that what happened next was up to him and that I had already checked these details before beginning the work. So he asked me to “pause.” Which was concerning. I expressed that concern and he sent me an even snottier response that said: “I am not reneging – I’m asking you to pause.”

The Pause

I paused for eight months! Christmas came and went and I managed to get a couple of Christmas commissions in. But other than that, I wasn’t working. Finally, I took down my warning about not taking on any more commissions from my website and got a couple of new commissions on the go. Thankfully, things started to pick up really quickly again. To be honest, I don’t know why I thought they wouldn’t – I’m always inundated with requests. But still I heard nothing from the company. I have friends who still work there, of course, so I heard rumblings – I knew the pictures had been dumped on the floor where they could (and did) get damaged. Artists put their heart and soul into each piece of work they produce, so that news was heartbreaking. I started losing sleep, waking up both shaking angry and incredibly upset. I even considered stealing a friend’s work pass and going to get them back. Eventually the message trickled down to me that the pictures had been framed and hung.


Then came a request for three more pictures from that same company. I confess, dear reader, I had a bit of a meltdown. I’d already written that commission off and business was once again thriving. I turned the company down like a bedspread. With some aplomb. Maybe a bit too much aplombing. I received a text from the friend who I’d done the decision making with and she was mortified – I’d not mentioned my rancour in her presence until that point, partly because I didn’t want her to think I was blaming her.

The person I should be blaming is me, I know now. Always put everything into a contract. Always get the person who will be paying the bill to sign it off before you do any work or commit to anything. Never assume that a company has your best interests at heart, even if you have close connections there.

Life lesson learnt.

So, if any of you lovely people would like to commission me, I should have some availability from mid-July, but don’t wait until then to contact me, or you will miss out. And I will be sending contracts to everyone from now on, but if you think about it, it’s for my clients’ peace of mind as much as mine.




* With me providing free moodboards – already several hours’ work, but also part of the service I provide to all clients. It’s possibly something I should charge for, but I don’t have time to consider