However, I think a good portion of the problem is that many people who want to commission an artist have no experience doing so, and it's not as easy to find instructions on it as, say, how to draw anime eyes. That's why I'm making this guide.
It should be noted that while I mention commissioning through other websites now and then, this is meant as to general guide, and all of the examples are from deviantart.com. Also, this does not contain information on how to host a contest, which is a much more different proposition than one might presume. For the sake of having real-life examples, various artists on dA are mentioned by name.
Step One: Picking the Artist
This could be the most important step for you. If you pick the wrong artist, your experience commissioning them could be downright horrible and the final art unsatisfying. These are the questions you need to ask yourself:
1. Do I like the art that they're offering to do?
Say you love painted realism and you love anime CG, but the artist is only offering pencil sketches in a cartoony style. Do you really want to commission this artist? Some artists will do more if you contact them directly, especially if you offer them more money, but most won't. Even if you do convince them to do work they aren't offering, the end result may not be all you were hoping for--most artists who do commissions regularly know to only offer what they want to do, and it's not reasonable to expect something else to come out as well. Always remember: art is a creative work, not a systematic one. You're relying on not just the artist's skills, but on their inspiration, and inspiration is not as simple and regular as tax season.
Remember, too: Even if the artist is not offering what you want right now, they'll probably offer it in the future. Stick around, wait, and don't try to pressure them into doing something they aren't prepared for. Some artists will deliberately vary what they offer so they can get practice with different techniques, take a break from the usual ones, and simply not let their work get stagnant. This is a good thing the same way crop rotation on farms is a good thing, and you shouldn't protest--what you want will be back in the future. As an example, I've commissioned anikakinka for two CG works in the past, but recently she offered only flat sketches in the style she uses for her clothing designs. I'm not interested in what she was offering, but I know I may want to commission her for CGs again in the future, so I keep an eye out for her offer to change back.
2. Do I have something I want done in this style?
Just because you love an artist doesn't mean you have something to commission them for. I personally like Christmas-chan's work, but I have never come up with something to have her draw; I simply don't have characters like that. Just because you see an artist you like, don't jump the gun and contact them about it if you don't have anything in mind. Don't force yourself to come up with anything, either--it's worth bookmarking them, subscribing to their blog/shop thread, or putting them on your watch list until you do have something.
If you're dead set on commissioning an artist, period, and you don't care who it is as long as you're setting up a commission ((don't laugh, this is my personal stress-reliever and sometimes that's just how it is)), go back to Step One and pick a different artist.
3. Is the artist able (and WILLING) to do what I want?
This is a big one as well. You have to put your enthusiasm on the shelf and look at the artist critically. Is their skill high enough to draw what you want? Do you think it is, but they explicitly say they're not willing to do it? If you want gore, and the undead are on their "Don't/Won't/Can't Do" list, don't even ask, even if the character seems right up their alley. The only character I have that would look good in Saimain's style is a god of flora in a fantasy world, and even she admits that it would be fun to do, but pagan gods are on her "won't" list, so it will never happen.
The hardest part is figuring out if an artist has the skill to do what you want. I have one character with a complicated set of tattoos, and I'm very particular about those tattoos being accurate whenever she's drawn. I wanted her in anime style, so I went to Blizz-Mii. Well, Blizz thought that was out of her league and refused. I would still love to see Blizz draw her, but I have to trust that she knows her skill a whole lot better than I do and let that go. Next I went to hizuki24, who said yes... but that there was no way she could pull off the tattoos. At the time, I was more concerned with having decent art of the basic design, and clothing and hair were more important than the tattoos, so we went ahead with the commission. I was able to specify a few that would stay the same, but the rest was up to her own discretion and look nothing like my design. Armed with this art and my original drawings, I then went to sakimichan. Sakimichan says outright in her commission journal that she must have artistic license. If you aren't okay with that, and an artist requires it, don't argue--it usually means they've had bad experiences with commissioners who expect too much or want a lot of very specific detail but don't provide any references. I told her that was fine, but that I wanted her to do her best to follow my design. The tattoos, hair, and face came out perfect; the clothing, not so much.
However, Hizuki's art is a clothing reference, Sakimi's art is a body reference, and that's enough for now. Sometimes what you want is so difficult that the only way to get good art is to go step by step this way, collecting works that aren't perfect but have one or two aspects correct. Eventually, you will find an artist who can do what you want, and you'll already have the references.
4. Does the artist speak my language?
Most of the time, this will not be an issue. Most deviants speak English, and most of the sites you visit will be in a language you know well--and that everyone there knows pretty well. Sometimes, though, you get an artist you like who doesn't speak the same language and has a friend translate everything for them. And maybe the friend isn't so great at it, either. Or the artist may know the language enough to get by, but their grammar sucks, their vocabulary is straight out of Babelfish, and they don't seem to get the point when you're talking to them. This includes chatspeakers... or if YOU are a chatspeaker, people who refuse to try and figure out what you're saying.
If this really bothers you, sigh and move on. You cannot count on their linguistic skills to improve, and you cannot teach them your language if they don't know it already. Commissioning Teruchan is not going to be fun and easy unless you speak Japanese.
If you REALLY want to commission this artist, and you're willing to do whatever it takes to communicate, more power to you. If you've never worked with foreigners before, here are a few tips:
Keep It Simple, Stupid!
Dumb down your grammar and vocabulary to whatever the artist him/herself is using. You're not trying to give them language practice, you're trying to commission them--it's more important that you understand each other than that you use proper English (or whatever language you're using). If this situation is the reverse, and YOU are the one with the language problem, still keep things as simple as possible--and don't feel bad if you have to ask them to do the same.
b) Give picture references as much as possible.
Folks, pictures are universal. A picture is worth a thousand words in any language, not just yours, and it's going to be a lot easier on you both if the artist from Vietnam doesn't have to do research on what in the world a "spiked mace" is, or which color is mauve.
c) Be patient.
No, really. Any time there's a language barrier, there are going to be problems and difficulties you didn't expect--and shouldn't expect--from an artist who doesn't need a translator. You want the art, you want it from this artist, so you have to be willing to slow down and deal with all the little extras along the way.
Would I get along with this artist?
If there's one good way to make everyone miserable, it's by commissioning an artist you know you won't get along with. Are you hardcore about your commissions and want every little detail exacting and correct before you pay? If so, don't commission someone you want to stay friends with. Do you want your commission done by a certain date, and the artist has a habit of saying "So sorry this was late!" in their comments? Don't do it. Do you flame and troll this artist all the time, and for some strange reason want to commission them anyway? Seriously. Don't do it. There's a certain point where common sense comes into play, and this is it. Do NOT commission someone when you can stand back, think about it objectively, and realize that it's going to be a miserable experience. The art isn't worth it.
And for heaven's sake--if you're about to commission reiq and either don't want it on his website or don't want hentai, period, DON'T commission him just to get some art! If you won't enjoy looking at it, or you will but knowing others are too will spoil it, don't do that to yourself. Again, the art isn't worth the grief it will cause you. Make sure you understand what you're getting into before you put the money down.
Step Two: Your Budget
If you can't afford the artist's prices, don't commission. Write up a budget of what money you have, what income you have coming in, what bills you have going out, the range of your variable expenses--the works. If you can't afford it, don't commission.
What happens when you can't afford it:
1. You get stuck paying for art and realize you'd much rather have had the money to go to a concert, go out to eat, take someone out on a date, buy a decent Christmas/birthday gift for someone, or replace the spark plugs in your car. Sucks, but you should have thought of that ahead of time.
2. You come up short and don't pay the artist. Either you don't get the art and get a bad reputation for ditching out on commissions, or you get the art but have to deal with the fact that you just scammed someone. It may not have been intentional, but you have a legal contract to pay for services rendered. Depending on the artist and amount of money, lawyers may be sent after you. On a website where the payment is not real money, that contract is enforced by the site mods or admin... and if they can't make you pay for it, you get banned. Even if you don't, that stigma is still attached to your name. It's this scenario that makes artists paranoid about being paid upfront.
3. You waffle and pay the artist late, or start paying in installments when that wasn't the deal. Remember that if you're using PayPal, there's a fee charged for every transaction, not every penny, and the fee is taken out on the artist's end. If you owe someone $100 and are paying in chunks of $20, and they lose $2 every time you send $20, they only get $90 at the end of that, and it's over time when maybe they needed it all right away to pay a bill. It's better to pay late than not pay at all, but this is still not okay.
4. Depending just how badly you can't afford it, you could end up on the street. If it's ebas or alexiuss you want to commission, I STRONGLY suggest saving up. STRONGLY.
Step Three: Contacting the Artist
Generally, this is the easy part. Courtesy is key.
1. The title
Don't title your Note/PM/e-mail "You WANT to work for me!" It's obnoxious, it's rude, and there's a good chance the artist won't even open it. Even if you're friends with the artist, don't do anything like this. Don't make them guess what's in it, either, or wonder if the links lead to viruses. If you have a question about commissions (such as whether they would be willing to do a certain type of art, what their prices are, or whether they take commissions at all if there's nothing in their journal), title it something very simple, like "Question," "Curious," "Wondering about your commissions," or "Do you do commissions?" Some artists get a lot of mail, and simple titles that state exactly what you want help them sort their inbox at a glance. These are all titles I've used, and they work. "Question" has been especially good, because one-word titles are generally not used in spam or virused mail.
If the artist states that notes about commissions should be titled a certain way, follow their instructions. Anything the artist says trumps everything I say, because this article contains only general guidelines--every artist handles commissions a little differently.
Read over your message several times. Have a friend read it over, if you're not sure. Remember while you're writing it that you're requesting something, not expecting something. You're asking nicely. This may seem backwards, because the artist is the one who wants the money, but that doesn't mean they have to take your commission. They're offering to give art, you're offering to give them something for it, but the artist can refuse you for any reason. Just as you shouldn't commission if you can't afford it or don't want to deal with the artist, the artist shouldn't take a commission if they can't do it or don't want to deal with the commissioner. The less courteous you are, the more likely they are to decide that your money isn't worth having to deal with you.
And always remember: Nothing comes across as well in text as it does in real life. Kill your sense of humor, especially if the artist isn't friends with you. Get rid of "like" and "um"--make it as short and easy to understand as possible without treating the artist like an imbecile.
No artist will take offense if you are enthusiastic about their work. They may be taken aback and deflect it, perhaps saying it isn't THAT great, or that they appreciate that you want to commission them but might be over-estimating their skills (though if they say that, you might want to double-check that their art IS as good as you think it is), but they aren't going to decline your commission for being cheerful. Therefore, it doesn't hurt.
In one case, I was actually told that the artist had been having a terrible day full of depressing drama, and my note had cheered them up. Don't be wacky, but remember that artists are people, too, and everyone's happier to read a happy note than an unhappy one--or even a neutral one.
And if you want to be cynical and manipulative about it, people who associate you with sincere interest and happiness tend to like working for/with you and will put more work into your commission. But if you're manipulative enough to do it for that reason, skip it--chances are that people will see right through you and your fake@$$ "cheer" and just get annoyed.
I don't think I can iterate enough the fact that the artist does not have to accept your commission.
4. Do you provide details and refs, or not?
Unless the artist has posted publicly that you should have all refs and details and have their form filled out in the first note your send them, so they can decide immediately whether to take it or not and give you a slot (or not) right away... don't. Don't expect them to take your commission. Politely ask if they would be interested in your commission, and provide basics such as fullbody/halfbody/headshot, the medium (CG, paint, sketch), whether you want it mailed to you or have a print available (if that even applies to your artist), and the type of character or scene you're looking for.
If they want the form filled out right away, give them everything. If they don't, or you're not sure if they have commissions open at all, be basic and general.
5. Don't pester the artist
Do not expect a response right away, even if the artist is online when you message them. Sometimes you'll get a reply in minutes, sometimes hours or days, sometimes weeks, and sometimes never. If you're on deviantart (or any site that lets you see this), make sure that the artist has actually READ your message before you get annoyed at the wait. Keep an eye on their recent journals and art--If they mention that they have a glitch that won't let them read mail, send mail, or that completely deleted all their mail and they'd like people to re-send whatever it was, there's your answer. Sometimes your message will just be ignored, of course...
More often than not, a slow response just means the artist is thinking it over, and you have to be patient. Sending more messages about it, whether asking the same thing or pestering them to read your messages and reply, is not a good idea. Either they'll take your commission or they won't, and sending repeat messages will only sour the artist towards you and make them more likely to refuse you and possibly block you from contacting them.
If you never get a response, and there appears to be no reason, ask in their journal, on their page, or in their shop thread (if there is one). Once. If you still get no response, move on. Just like girlfriends, there are more fish in the sea.
6. What's different when it's a professional?
For the most part, commissioning a professional artist is no different from commissioning an amateur artist. What's the difference? Well, a professional works for companies, producing regular work. liiga does art for a trading card company, ToolKitten is a colorist in the comic book industry, and alohalilo is one of the guys who did Lilo and Stitch. An amateur is any artist who does not and has never made their living off art alone. That includes art students.
Sometimes, commissioning a professional has exactly the same feel as commissioning everyone else. Other times, it has the detached feel of a business transaction--and in the latter case, you want to match that. If the artist replies to you very professionally, you should tone down the enthusiasm and talk to the artist the same way they're talking to you. It's good because it puts everyone on the same level and helps the artist feel more comfortable working with you. If you can't be as professional as they are, they may take that as a signal that you're too immature to trust when it comes to payment. Make no mistake, even corporations have fallen into the pit of not paying artists and have been taken to court on that, but it's more likely for immature individuals to do it, because they don't have the experience to know what they can really afford and presence of mind to pay everything on time.
This is the same principle as commissioning an artist who doesn't speak your language. In the foreign language case, dumb it down without being insulting. In the case of professionalism, raise your level to be just as professional, or at least as professional as you can be (don't feel dumb asking for someone to read it over, either). Whatever the artist does, the best way to communicate is to match it.
...Unless what the artist is doing is cussing you out or saying something else that makes you particularly uncomfortable. Remember, you don't have to work with this artist if you don't want to. There are always more fish in the sea.
Step Four: Payment
What's simple, what's safe, what's practical... and what's none of the above.
1. What's simple?
The simplest way to pay is all at once. All upfront, all after the sketch and before the finished piece, all right before the coloring, all when it's finished and in your hands... It doesn't matter. The simplest way to pay is to do it all at once.
2. What's safe?
This depends what side of the commission you're on. Safe for the commissioner means paying only once you have the art finished to your satisfaction and are in possession of the file. When it comes to custom commissions (something the artist couldn't use anywhere else), this could also be when the art is completely finished but has a watermark on it--such as a deviantart watermark, with distorts the image but can still be seen through enough to tell if you're getting what you want. As long as there's nothing else it can be used for, there's no reason for the artist NOT to take the watermark off and hand you the final piece as soon as you pay them.
For the artist, though, the safest thing is to be paid upfront. This way all the time they spend on your piece isn't wasted, even if you fall off the face of the earth and never receive it.
This is the dilemma.
3. What's practical?
Typically, the best compromise between safe and simple, and the one that brings equal safety to the artist and commissioner, is half and half. This could be paying the artist half up front and half upon completion, half up front and half at one of the WIPs (Works In Progress) in the middle, or half in the middle and half upon completion. Often the artist will have a preference on which kind of half and half to use. This is considered safest because if the artist ditches, you haven't lost all your money--and if the commissioner ditches, the artist hasn't done all that work for nothing.
The half and half style of payment is currently to most practical way not to get scammed. The idea actually comes from the turn of the century, where "half now, half later" literally meant taking a dollar bill ($1, $2, $5, $100, whatever the amount was) and ripping it in half. The bill was useless to anyone when ripped in half, but it was a promise that the person being paid wouldn't take the money and run, and it was understood that the commissioner wouldn't just throw their money away. Whoever had both pieces of the bill at the end could take it to the bank and have it exchanged for an unripped bill. It's not so easy, these days, when cash is not the main form of payment anymore.
If the artist doesn't have a preference listed, chances are that you'll have to negotiate. It's simpler than you think! You shouldn't be negotiating prices (or if you are, I have no advice for you). This is about when you pay how much. This is how it should go:
Artist: How do you want to pay?
Commissioner: Half when the sketch is done, half when it's all done.
Artist: How about half upfront, then half at the first sketch? I don't think you're going to scam me, but I want to make sure I get paid for my work.
This is where you decide how much you trust this artist. If you don't know them very well, ask people who've commissioned them before. If they haven't been commissioned before, it's a judgment call.
Commissioner: I'm not really comfortable with that. How about half upfront, then half when it's all done?
Commissioner: I'm really not comfortable with that. I don't think you're going to scam me, either, but I've never commissioned you before and want to be sure.
This would be in your own words, of course, but the simpler, probably the better. Be polite about it, but don't get into a deal you're not comfortable with. If the artist takes the opportunity to go off on a tirade about how they don't want to deal with you--ditch them. You don't want to work with someone who's already ticked at you. If they go off on a tirade, but it's about how they've been screwed in the past, it's up to you how to deal with it. If you still want to commission them, do what you can to sooth their feelings and take whatever payment deal makes them happy. Up to you.
4. Not simple, safe, or practical!
There are a few common scenarios where you won't be paying half and half. Here are a few:
a) Not simple: You're commissioning a large number of pieces and the total is more than you can pay at once. I recommend NOT doing this with an artist you've never commissioned before. I did this recently with saintpepsi, and the easiest solution for me worked fine for him--every paycheck, I sent him a significant percentage of the total price, until it was completely paid. Throughout, he worked on the various pieces at his normal pace, which happened to fit with the timing of the payments. Worked out just fine, and I'm happy with the commission. Again, though, I do NOT recommend commissioning multiple pieces from an artist you've never worked with before, for more reasons than I care to list here.
b) Not safe: The artist needs cash in a hurry, to pay bills or buy Christmas presents or something. They just moved and don't have the down payment for an apartment (Minosch), they're about to lose their internet AND be evicted (TerrorEffect), they have unexpected vet bills (pixelinkdust), they have this tendency to break their tablet pen and have other crisis (DarkVanessaLusT)... No matter what the reason, the artist is offering commissions in a hurry, and they want everyone's money up front. It's up to you if you want to go for these artists--even when the artist has a history of good commissions and being a good person in general, their situation may mean that they can't do the commission when they say they can, or can't do it at all. This can work out, but there's a high risk that it won't.
Also not safe: Putting a check in the mail. Yeah...
c) Not practical: The artist wants to do something that's way, way too complicated. Even if they're telling you it's really simple and easy, YOU are the one paying. If it doesn't make sense to you, you won't be able to follow it, so just say no to this. Do what YOU understand.
Step Five: WIPs
What is a WIP, and do you want them?
1. Definition of the term
What is a WIP? The acronym stands for Work In Progress, and it's the same thing as a draft in writing; it's a sketch, lineart, flat (flat colors without highlights or shading), or partially-colored work that isn't finished yet but is often provided before the piece is done.
2. Why do you want to see the WIPs?
WIPs are optional--some artists provide them, some don't, and some provide them some of the time but not all of the time. In my own experience, most artists do, or at least have no problem providing them if you ask.
a) Proof of progress
There are two big reasons to receive WIPs, and this is the first: Proof that the artist is not sitting on their hands while your commissioned art collects dust. Actually, it's also proof that the artist has even started on your commission, which can be a big concern if your name is at the top of their list and nothing's happening. Especially if you commissioned in one of those "unsafe" scenarios [see above], it's important to have WIPs so you know where the artist stands. If they lead a busy life and have very sporadic free time to work on your art, a WIP now and then tell you that they haven't forgotten about you completely... though you should keep in mind that your commission is probably not their biggest priority in life unless they say it is, so bugging someone for WIPs when you know they haven't had a chance to work on it is not that nice [see Don't Pester The Artist, above].
This is the second big reason. Many artists provide WIPs specifically so they can ask you if they're doing it right or if you want something changed. Some artists, like DarkVanessaLusT, will provide a WIP at every possible stage, mainly to check and make sure that everything is to your satisfaction. Others may provide only the initial sketch or lineart and nothing more until the finished piece. In the case of saintpepsi, I usually receive a lineart or sketch to show that he's started and to ask if I like the pose. He doesn't send me one every time, but if I see it and note that I'd like something changed, he then sends me a new WIP with the changes to make sure that's what I meant. In the case of Ninjatic, however, I received one sketch, noted a few corrections, and then saw nothing more until the finished piece. None of these methods are a bad thing, but each commissioner has different preferences; you may prefer tons of WIPs, especially if you want precision, you may like to check the initial sketch or colors and then let the artist do their work without you, or you may even prefer to see no WIPs at all and just let the artist run with it. If you have a preference or would like to know what an artist normally does with WIPs, don't feel bad asking them--the worst they can do is tell you that they have some reason not to send you any.
c) Because it's fun to watch them work!
I don't know about you, but I enjoy looking over people's shoulders. The advantage of the internet, of course, is that you can do this without irritating the artist! Instead of literally standing near someone and peering at their paper or canvas, blocking their light, interrupting with remarks, and/or giving them the creeps and making them feel that much more self-conscious, we get to see clips from their progress and watch the art evolve on our computer screens. For this, the only thing better than WIPs is livestream. Actually, ToolKitten has gotten into livestreaming her coloring and announcing times in her journal, so I highly recommend her if you like to watch artists at work.
3. When you WON'T see WIPs:
There are some artists that don't provide WIPs. You can ask to see some, certainly, and many artists will reply with one, but sometimes your request will be denied. This does NOT necessarily mean that the artist is ignoring you or you're being scammed:
a) If the art is in a sketchy style
If the WIP looks like unintelligible scribbles, chances are that the artist is not going to show it to you. It really is that simple.
b) If the artist is self-conscious
Remember what I said about making someone uncomfortable when you look over their shoulder? Yes, the internet is a great thing, allowing us to do that without blocking light, interrupting a brush strokes, or giving off that creepy stalker vibe. However, many artists are still self-conscious and uncomfortable with being watched, which is one reason more artists do not livestream even if their computer is capable of it and they would have an audience. Not much you can do about this, and arguing about it or suggesting they "get over it" by sending you WIPs anyway... even if you really are just trying to help... usually just makes it worse. You can always cancel the commission if not having WIPs bothers you (I wouldn't recommend that unless you already don't trust the artist, but it's your choice), but you can't force the artist to send you some if they really don't want to. If being self-conscious is the issue, either they'll eventually choose to "get over it" on their own, or they won't, and that's just something you'll have to accept.
c) The artist does not want your feedback
There are some artists out there who are easily stung. They REQUIRE artistic license, explicitly or implicitly, and they expect that if you like their work enough to commission them, you will trust their inspiration and their skill enough to not "teach your grandmother to suck eggs." They may or may not provide WIPs anyway, just to show you that they're working on it or to provide you the pleasure of watching it evolve (IF they know commissioners like that, and they see that you'll be one of them), but they won't give you the opportunity to ask for changes and they will ignore you or be ticked off if you hand them some anyway. As a general rule, read their Note or PM carefully if you are sent a WIP, and make sure the artist wants your feedback before you reply--and if they do want your feedback, make sure it's corrections they want (not just enthusiasm) before you tell them that that's a little too dark a shade of mauve.
d) The art will all be done in one sitting
There may not BE any WIPs. If the artist sketches, inks, flats, and does the shading and polishing all in one sitting (or whatever they're doing to get your commission done, whether it be sewing a plushie or welding jewelry), there ARE no WIPs. There may not even be a concept sketch, and you're unlikely to see it first even if there is. Many artists work this way, so don't be too surprised if "all of sudden" your art is done and in your mailbox.
e) You're on the waiting list
...Folks, if you're on the waiting list, whether that be because you haven't paid yet or because the artist is busy with the people ahead of you and likes to draw commissions relatively in order, don't expect any WIPs. He or she hasn't even started on your art yet, and asking for WIPs at this point is genuinely stupid. Don't do it.
4. What's the difference between a WIP and a concept sketch?
Sometimes an artist will provide several concept sketches before beginning the piece. These are not WIPs. A concept sketch is an idea only, and sending these to you could be one of two things: Either the artist wants you to know that they're thinking about your commission and planning, even though they haven't started it yet, or they're looking for feedback from you on which idea to go with. In the case of Minosch [in one of the "unsafe" commission types mentioned above], I was provided one concept sketch shortly after sending her the payment and another, completely different concept sketch several months later, when her life calmed down a little and she had the free time to work on it again. It was the second one that she turned into the finished art, but she could easily have gone through several more ideas before finding one she was inspired to work with. In the case of liiga [one of the professionals listed above, who treats commissions the same way she treats pro work], I was provided three concept sketches and asked to choose which one I preferred, and the one I chose was the one she turned into finished work.
A concept sketch does NOT mean that your finished commission will look anything like that. All it means is that the artist is brainstorming on what they might do.
Step Six: Legal Rights
This is a fun one. Some artists are very touchy and concerned about who has what legal rights, and they have a right to be concerned. Other artists are not concerned and honestly couldn't care less.
1. What's the big deal?
Heh heh... Lordy, is the answer to this a long one. Google it, check dA News and the journals of pro and/or big-name artists, wiki "copyright," ask a lawyer. The short answer is that artists make money off their work and want to continue making money off their work, and they don't want you destroying it by cropping, warping, color-shifting, or otherwise altering the art they've made for you--or the art they've made for someone else. There are many long, heated, and very legitimate and factual articles on this all over the internet, but I can't find one that deals with it directly from a private commissioner's point of view, so I'm afraid you'll have to look on your own if you're interested. Because of the mass ton of information on this subject, Step Six here is going to be the sketchiest part of the whole guide, even though it is still quite long. Sorry about that.
2. Do you need a contract?
If you're commissioning privately, meaning you have absolutely no intention of using the art for commercial purposes, you do not need a special contract and shouldn't expect the artist to want one. Your Notes, PMs, or e-mails are not confidential according to the law, and whatever arrangement you make is legally binding. If the art is for your personal use only, and you only ever use it that way, it's rare for an artist to try and sue you for it. IF, however, the art is intended for commercial use (trading cards, tarot cards, book covers, advertisements, even website logos--anything that helps you make money), or if you originally commissioned it for personal use and decide to use it commercially later on, then you need a contract. Your e-mail may be legally binding, and it will hold up in court, but those are usually ambiguous and contracts more clearly state everyone's legal rights. If you're doing anything commercially, trust me, you want those rights. My dad is an attorney specializing in this stuff. TRUST ME. @_@
On the other hand, I'm not a lawyer myself and I haven't yet commissioned work for commercial use. I have no idea how to set up a contract and cannot give you advice if you need one.
3. The usual deal:
First of all, there is no usual. Most artists, amateur and pro alike, will not outline who has what legal rights when you commission them. Each artist has a different idea if what you are and are not allowed to do with their work; it's normal to assume that you can do whatever you jolly well please, since you paid for it and therefore it's yours--except it's not. That's the fun part. Yes, you paid for them to create art, and you more specifically paid for them to create your art. However, it is their art. They made money off the creation of it, and they give you certain legal rights to use it, but most of those rights actually belong to the artist, because creative work is funky like that. The law doesn't make a whole lot of sense if you're just looking at it as a commissioner, but that's how it is.
From the artist's point of view, the law makes a lot more sense. An artist, first off, is not a construction worker. A construction worker makes money by doing the same basics tasks over and over again, and doing them well. A construction worker does not require inspiration, and his job does not depend on reputation--if you walk on the job site and can hammer a nail straight, the boss probably doesn't give a care if you've been doing it one year or twenty years, nor does he care which houses you've worked on. An artist, however, does require inspiration to produce better work, and they do depend on their reputation to get a job in the first place. They are more likely to have a "dry spell" where their work is simply not as good because their homelife sucks, they have a thesis to write or an exam to study for, they're going through a divorce, etc. They rely not just on original commissions but on royalties, whether that be print sales or contract-specified royalties that come from book or trading card sales. If you spread their art around and make money off it without giving a reasonable percentage to the artist, you're denying some of their legal right to income. If you alter their work by removing their mark (usually their name or username), you're denying them potential customers who might otherwise see the work and go looking for the artist who made it. If you alter their work by cropping, warping, covering with text, etc., you are damaging their reputation by displaying art that isn't actually what they made for you, and again are causing them to lose potential customers.
As a commissioner, this sucks. It sucks even more that you almost always have to ask special just to find out what the artist is really giving you. In the case of thegryph (another professional), she specified upfront and explicitly that the art was to be credited to her and that we would need to have a contract if I wanted to use it commercially later, but that I could use it privately as a character reference any time I wanted. With her permission, I have her art posted on a separate dA account designed to organize written rough drafts and character references for a novel-in-progress: Baroness-byArynChris. In the case of vaniamarita, I found out some time after the art was finished and paid for that she honestly didn't care what I did with it; as far as she was concerned, it was totally mine the moment she had the money. Generally, it's thegryph's approach that an artist will take, if they even think about it in the first place, but that doesn't mean they'll tell you if you don't ask.
4. So how can I use the art?
As a general rule of thumb, it's always a good idea to credit the artist and link to either their webpage, dA main page, or shop thread if at all possible. Not every artist requires that, and it's sometimes unfeasible to do so, but it's unlikely to bother them if you do; again, artists make money off their reputation.
If you want to turn their art into a banner or post it on webpage, especially if it's possible for a viewer to get confused about who did the art or whether the art originally included words (or if they may think that the art sucks because the font doesn't suit it), contact the artist first. In some cases, I have been told that sure, I can use the art for a banner, but the artist would prefer to make it for me his- or herself, to prevent distortion of the original work. Sometimes I have been told outright that it is no problem, do whatever (vaniamarita)... and sometimes I have been told that I absolutely do not have that right. You will never know unless you contact the artist, and they can get you in a lot of hot water with the law or site admins if you do what you want without talking to them first.
If you only use the commissioned art for rp character references or your desktop background, and never try to give someone else permission to use it, you will never have a problem. Likewise, posting it as a character reference for a contest or giving it out as a reference for yet another commission will never get you into trouble. Everything else gets tricky and weird, though, and depends on the artist.
5. How can the artist use the art?
Any way they darn well please, unless they tell you that YOU have a certain right--in which case, they no longer have that right themselves. You should expect that any original characters will be credited back to you, and that the artist will display your commission as a sample of their work (unless you have a commercial contract that states that they can't until it is first published commercially). Other than that, the artist can sell posters, calenders, the original hardcopy (if there is one), art books, and even submit it as a contest entry for someone you've never met. That last is in seriously bad taste and usually goes hand-in-hand with fraud, but it's not always illegal. If you see the artist doing this later and didn't bother to make everyone's rights clear before, don't be too surprised. Feel free to demand that they stop making prints available, take it out of their calender, etc., but realize that the artist has no idea how you feel about any of it until and unless you say something.
If you believe that the artist is overstepping their rights, ask around and show your correspondence to someone whose judgment you trust. If they agree, or you decide on your own that there really is a problem, the first thing to do is send a calm, polite e-mail/note/PM to the person requesting that they stop. If you get no response and/or the artist continues to use the art illegally, the next step depends on what precisely they're doing... contact a mod or admin, contact the contest host with an explanation of this situation so they can decide whether or not to disqualify the artist, or call a lawyer. If the artist is making a profit off something in a way you both agreed they would not, or is claiming your character(s)/idea to be their own (that's stealing YOUR copyright!), you have every right to take them to court on it. Whether you do or not is up to you--but you do have the right.
1. Pick the artist you actually want to work with.
2. Make sure you can actually afford it first.
3. Be nice, courteous, and respectful.
3 1/2. Match the artist's level of communication.
4. Don't get scammed.
5. Figure out if you care about WIPs.
6. Know your rights.