The Magic of Managing a Queue: Avoid Burnout without Losing Your Audience
In my previous blog post, I discussed a common problem in the furry fandom of artists taking on more work than they can handle and then subsequently disappearing on (or "ghosting") customers. In that post, I described a pattern of "emergency commissions" and discussed a lot of practices that commissioners should look for before commissioning an artist. This post is directed more at artists, or at people who are thinking about starting to take commissions. Last post was about a big problem - this one's more about potential solutions. And while the advice in this may not work for every artist, it's worth trying. If you can commit to it, you will be surprised by how much time you find for yourself and how much less stress you have about your work - it really is like magic.
That said, if you're thinking about taking commission work for your art, there's one very important question you need to consider first:
Should I take commissions at all?
Artists do what we do because we love to imagine, and we use art as a way to communicate what we imagine to others. Artists might get into taking commissions for a wide variety of reasons: they might have pressure from friends or relatives who say "your art is so good, you should sell it," or they might see the content they post getting enough positive reaction that they believe (often rightly!) that people would pay them to draw for them, or they might simply love drawing other peoples' characters but don't have the time to draw them for free (nor should they be expected to!). In many cases, there are artists who are disabled, who are part of marginalized groups, or who are trapped in bad domestic situations, and these artists can sometimes struggle to find any other means of income aside from their art. Whatever the reason, many artists start taking commissioned work without realizing a lot of what is involved in doing so, and they are unprepared for the pressure.
Taking commissions: art vs. business
One extremely important lesson that commission artists often learn the hard way is that creating art and running a commission queue require two entirely different skill sets. Being a talented artist doesn't automatically mean you're cut out for commission work. Being a commission artist requires you to have at least some degree of skill in time management, customer service, public relations, and finance.
Creating art and running a commission queue require two entirely different skill sets.
To be clear, taking commissions is a very good way to develop and gain experience with those skills, but that requires a strong work ethic and at least some degree of resistance to social anxiety. The moment you take someone's money for your work, art becomes your job. That doesn't mean you have to hate it; I love what I do. But it is a job: you have a customer who (rightly) expects a service in return for payment. Whoever said "if you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life" is a lying bastard. I love making art, but it is hard work, and I would be lying if I tried to pretend there aren't some days when I would rather just not do it. If you're not prepared for art to be your job - including the days when you just don't feel like "going to work" - you shouldn't take commissions. On the positive side, it's great because you get to be your own boss. You get to choose your own hours. You get to choose which projects you take and which ones you don't. On the negative side, it sucks because you have to be your own boss. There's no one to keep you on task or hold you accountable for your day-to-day business. No one takes out your taxes for you and sends you a W-2 form. Those are all things you have to do yourself unless you want your business exploding in your face.
Alternative forms of monetization
A commission queue can be extremely demanding, and it can kill an artist's passion for art, which is always unfortunate. The truth, contrary to popular opinion, is that taking commissioned work is not the only way for an artist to monetize their art. There are many successful artists who make content available through subscription services like Patreon or SubscribeStar and get paid for doing so without ever taking any commissions, and they are powerful methods of monetization.
Common ways of monetizing artwork on subscription platforms include releasing exclusive content for subscribers (that is, content that only paid subscribers get to see), releasing public content early for subscribers (especially useful for comic artists), releasing content publicly but making higher-quality versions of that content available to subscribers, releasing all content publicly but making works-in-progress available to subscribers, or a combination of several of those options. Patreon in particular has a useful feature in which creators can poll their subscribers for what they want to see next, and it also has Discord integration so that subscribers get exclusive access to their personal chatrooms. Some subscription services let creators charge their subscribers per-post instead of per-period, so if you aren't comfortable working within tight time constraints, that is an option. The point is, there are a lot of ways you can monetize your art without taking commissions.
Safe payment collection
If you are going to accept commissioned work, it's important to collect payments in safe ways. That's frankly a topic for a whole separate blog post, but there are four key things that can ensure a smooth payment transaction:
Never tell your client to use PayPal's "sending money to friends and family" option. Not only is that fraud (for which PayPal can assess a $2500 fee per transaction), it also includes no buyer or seller protections. Cash App also has no buyer/seller protections, so you shouldn't use it for commissions.
Use invoices whenever possible. An invoice is an itemized breakdown of exactly what you're selling. It's extremely useful because it creates a digital paper trail; if there's anything you want there to be a record of your client being told, include it in the invoice.
Have a clear, ethical refund policy that you are prepared to follow. "I don't do refunds" isn't an ethical business practice, and in some jurisdictions, it isn't even legal to have a "no refunds" policy.
Give the client a hard deadline for completion before taking any payment. It's frankly shocking to me how few artists are willing to do this. I've heard so many artists say "Oh, I can't work with deadlines, they give me too much anxiety." I'm sorry, I know this is a bit of a harsh statement, but if anxiety prevents you from working within clear, established deadlines, you have no business taking commissions. That's always an unpopular statement, and I usually get some pushback for it, but I stand by it. If you can't work within time constraints, then you need to find alternative ways to monetize your art, because "I don't do deadlines" is a woefully irresponsible thing for a commission artist to say. Commit to a date (give yourself more time than you think you'll need), and either keep to that date or, if the date's close and you don't think you'll make it, reach out to your commissioner (don't wait for them to contact you first) and see if they're willing to wait longer (and if they're not, be prepared to refund them). Period. I'm not under any illusions that my way of managing commissions is the only right way, but there really is no excuse for not setting (and reasonably keeping) fair expectations for your customers before taking their money.
Time management: the most crucial element of preventing burnout
This is the part where a lot of people will tune out; they've sat through too many boring lectures from parents, bosses, or teachers about "if you have time to play video games, you have time to do your work" or other nonsense along those lines that they've begun to instantly associate the phrase "time management" with that kind of thing. The truth is that work isn't what causes artists to get burned out.
I usually do 100-120 Patreon rewards (in the form of YCHs, Telegram stickers, etc.) per month and take commissions (completing, on average, 4-6 commissioned works per month), and I have only ever had to issue refunds twice (in my 11 years of taking commissions) due to being burned out and unable to complete my work in a timely fashion (and in both cases, I made the decision to issue the refund myself and wasn't asked for a refund). I'm not saying that to brag about my record; I'm saying it so that you, my readers, have a reasonably clear picture of my average workload as a frame of reference. The point that I'm making is that work isn't what causes burnout. Stress is what causes burnout. If you do a little extra work up front to distribute your workload throughout a schedule, you'll find that you save yourself a lot of aggravation and pressure later on.
Work isn't what causes burnout. Stress is what causes burnout.
There are a lot of things you can do as an artist to make your work less stressful, the most effective being time management. Time is a resource - and just like any resource, it requires management. The phrase "time is money" has become a pithy, trite capitalist aphorism, but let's apply it in a different way here: if minutes are dollars, then distractions are all those little subscriptions you've signed up for and forgotten about but keep paying. There's nothing wrong with subscribing to a bunch of different things as long as you keep track of them so you don't suddenly overdraw your account. Stress is what causes artists to burn out, and most of the time, the source of that stress is a lack of available time; whether that's due to distractions, procrastination, a competing day job, or a combination of factors, the easiest way to reduce that stress is to make a time budget - or, put simply, a schedule.
Calendars and to-do lists: an artist's best friends
I cannot overstate the usefulness of keeping your commissions on a calendar. I'm not talking about your Trello or the commission queue that your customers see: I'm talking about your own personal calendar. Adding due dates to your art by putting them on a calendar may seem like something that would add to your stress, but in fact, it can limit it.
Putting your work on a calendar (and again, I want to reemphasize: this doesn't have to be a calendar that your customers see; I have a public-facing queue that shows hard deadlines, just like every artist should, but my public-facing queue looks very different from my personal calendar) helps you budget your time because instead of seeing a simple (but possibly overwhelming) list of projects, you can see a distributed plan of when those projects should be completed.
I just use Google Calendar for mine - partly because it's free, and partly because it works with my Thunderbird email client - but there are a lot of options out there. There are even some apps that gamify your schedule and time management so that you can set rewards for yourself for completing tasks and "level up" your skills (LifeRPG is one really good example, but there are others).
You can break your scheduling down further by using task lists. For example, if you have a full commission to do, you might make a task list that includes sketching, getting the WIP approved, inking, coloring, shading, and finishing. That may sound pointless, but never underestimate the serotonin burst you can get from checking off the "that's done!" box next to each item. That's not just a good way to stay organized - it's also a powerful tool for staying motivated, which is the most crucial part of avoiding burnout.
Schedule time for rest, or your body will schedule it for you!
No matter how much work you've taken on, you are not a machine. Your body has physical limitations, and pushing past your limits is an excellent way to burn yourself out very quickly. You need to schedule days off. You need to give yourself time to play games. You need to give yourself time to take care of non-art/non-work necessities. You need to give yourself time to just do nothing. This is especially true if, like me, you're balancing art with a day job.
If you're finding that you don't have enough days/hours off and have no flexibility (that is, you don't/can't allow yourself enough time to reschedule projects on days when you're sick or otherwise just not feeling it), then you need to consider raising your prices and/or taking less work. Self-care days are very important to an artist's physical, mental, and emotional well-being, and self-care is important every day, but it's important to not let all your days become self-care days where nothing gets done. I'm not always good at following my own schedule! I'll be the first to admit that. Anyone who's been a supporter on my Patreon for any length of time knows that it's pretty normal for me to run things right up to the very last day of the month despite my best intentions (but I've been a good boy the last couple of months - validate me, dammit!). The point is that keeping a loose schedule is better than keeping no schedule at all. Using a schedule - seeing your time broken into specific blocks - can also be a wonderful way to help you know how much work you can afford to schedule.
Self-care days are very important to an artist's physical, mental, and emotional well-being, and self-care is important every day, but it's important to not let all your days become self-care days where nothing gets done.
Putting things on a calendar is a good way to keep yourself on task, but you need to build in some cushion on that schedule so you can afford to take a few days here and there. Building in some leeway gives you flexibility, and flexibility is one of the best ways to lower your stress and avoid burning yourself out.
Communication is key
The other most important skill for a commission artist to have is the ability and willingness to communicate. Frankly, that's more important than time management. You'll generally find that commissioners, especially in the furry fandom, are willing to forgive a lot as long as you just talk to them in a reasonably professional manner and don't string them along. I'm not saying time management doesn't matter; just because commissioners are forgiving doesn't mean you should take advantage of them by being disorganized and taking far more time than you actually need. But if a commissioner feels like you're actually invested in their project and not just blowing it off, they're usually going to be willing to give you a lot of grace over unexpected things that keep it from getting finished. Of course, even with good communication, that grace is never going to be infinite (nor, frankly, should it be), but you'll get a lot further with good communication than you will without it.
Proactive vs. reactive communication
There are two types of communication in a business-client relationship: proactive (where you, the artist, initiate communication with your client) and reactive (where you respond to communication from your client). There are appropriate settings for both types. Proactive communication is very important in some settings - for instance, presenting a WIP for approval, or asking for clarification on a detail that the client's art references don't address. In other settings, there's nothing wrong with communicating reactively. What's most important is understanding which setting calls for which type.
For instance, if you're coming up with a concept sketch and you're not sure whether the character you're drawing has one earring or two (e.g. because the ref only shows the character from one side), what would you rather do: send a message to the commissioner and ask how it's supposed to look, or take a guess and forge ahead and have to potentially fix the mistake/oversight later on? That's not a purely rhetorical question; if it's genuinely easier for you to get the whole sketch down first even if it's wrong, there's absolutely nothing amiss about that as long as you keep an open line of communication and are willing to make corrections later on.
Setting expectations and following through
Ultimately, the best way to gain the respect of your audience it to establish yourself as being trustworthy and, just as importantly, reliable. That means that when you set expectations for your clients, you need to follow through with them. It also means that you need to be transparent about your process. These are the key ways to do that:
Keep a public queue. Like I said in my last blog entry, there is absolutely no reason not to have a public queue in 2023. Just having one isn't enough: you also need to keep it up to date.
Follow the deadlines you set. If you promise a WIP by a certain date, you need to either deliver by that date or proactively tell your client "hey, this is going to take a little longer than I anticipated." (Don't wait for your client to message you if you know you're going to miss a deadline.)
Don't make excuses. If you can't keep the promises you've made, your reasons don't matter as much as your willingness to make things right. If "life stuff" comes up (and it does for everyone at one point or another!), don't drag your client into the weeds of it; just be honest, and offer alternatives: "Hey, I'm not going to be able to deliver on the date I promised. Can we discuss a new date, or would you rather have a refund?" (The overwhelming majority of furry commissioners will opt to take a different date instead of a refund, in my experience; if they can be reasonably sure they'll get what they paid for, they'd rather have that than their money back.)
There's no reason you can't make art into your main source of income, but like any job, it requires hard work, and the fact that an artist is their own boss can make that both better and worse. Time management and effective communication are far and away the two most important skills for a commission artist to have. Managing your time effectively - breaking your workload into chunks, scheduling your work so you have time to take care of yourself, and keeping track of time as a resource - is the most effective way to reduce the stress of a heavy workload. Communication is the key to giving your customers confidence in your ability not just as an artist, but as a professional - keeping open lines of communication, being transparent, and keeping your commitments are just as important as producing good art when it comes to getting your clients to keep coming back and telling all their friends.