Negotiating Contracts for Freelance Work

Armand Cabrera

In writing these articles, I am sharing my opinions and experiences as a freelance artist. I am not a lawyer nor am I offering legal advice.

In this article I am not talking about gallery contracts for easel paintings and this article is geared towards freelance production or illustration work. Gallery contracts have been covered before here.

Let’s say you have set up your business to start freelancing. You have a website dedicated to your work; you have a business name and bank account. You have a portfolio to show. You have done your homework and decided on a range of pay that is commensurate with the industry you want to work in. You start applying for work and get a return call about your portfolio and a client wants to hire you for a project. You speak on the phone and maybe meet in person to nail down the specifics of what is expected of you before you agree to take the job. This is a good time to be professional and ask about scheduling, delivery, compensation and payment. You are negotiating a contract.

At its basic level a contract is an agreement between two parties for services and compensation. When agreeing to work for a client you are entering into a contract. Do you know what the terms of that contract are? You can never assume anything about an agreement to perform work and that is why it is better to have a contract in writing. Some people are afraid to ask for a contract thinking they will lose potential business, but a contract protects both parties involved and helps clarify any misunderstandings before they can occur.

If a client is reluctant to create a formal contract I make sure all my questions are answered in emails as a follow up to the initial discussion. If I have met with the client over the phone or in person I tell them at the end of the conversation that I would like to clarify the discussion and that I will email them my understandings. This gives them a chance to correct any misunderstanding before work starts.

The courts have ruled that promises made in emails can be binding under certain conditions. Emails are not considered legal contracts. When I talk to clients either in person or on the phone I write the down the key points of the conversation in a notebook. This way I am creating a journal of the discussion and all of this information helps if there ever is a problem and you have to go to court or arbitration.

I stay positive and don’t expect problems, I just prepare for them. As a freelancer here are things you want to negotiate before you start work.


Are you being paid by the hour or the piece? Either way make sure the compensation offered is adequate with the work involved and fits into your predetermined range for work. I like to break up the assignments into first pass, second pass, and final approval. Once approval is given for a piece any changes afterward are a new assignment for work and requires more money.


How long do you have to complete the assignment? This includes the time it takes for research and reference and of course the work itself. Will the client provide any source material or supporting material? What are their deadlines for delivery of those assets?


How is the work to be delivered? If it is digital what are the specifications for the type and size of the files? What software do I have to choose from to do the work? If I am creating traditional art what medium can I work in? How is the piece to be delivered, can I send a digital file and who pays for scanning?


Payment is not the same as compensation. When and how are you going to be paid? Check, electronic transfer? Each system is a trade between cost and convenience. Do your homework and work it out with your bank or service ahead of time so there are no unexpected charges for you.

Do you get a portion up front? I always ask for a deposit up front and most of the time I get it. A deposit does two things it shows you the client has money and that they don’t expect you to work for free. For long term jobs like video games I like to set up milestones. I don’t like going more than a month at a time for payment, two weeks is even better. That way I don’t have too much invested if the check bounces or doesn’t ever arrive.

Model fees

If you are doing illustration it is always good to ask about model fees if appropriate. Some clients have a budget for them and some don’t; either way you need to know so you can negotiate a fair wage for your services.

Ownership and use of images

How will your work be used and what rights are being negotiated? You need to discuss this before you start the job. Can you use the work in your portfolio? If so when would that be appropriate? For movies or games you might have to wait until the property is released publicly. Make sure all this is understood from the beginning.

2 thoughts on “Negotiating Contracts for Freelance Work

  1. Great post Armand — artists new to the market, whether commercial or fine need to know some of this stuff that art schools never prepared them for. Much of it is common sense, but often not thought of until there's a problem. You've probably been in the biz as long as I have and have encountered every kind of client agreement imaginable, including the rip offs. I especially appreciate your emphasis on artists integrity, respecting themselves and being serious about their career of choice — unlikely anyone else will take your work seriously if you don't yourself.
    Get it in writing!

  2. Eric,

    Not only have I encountered every type of client I've made every mistake there is to make. But as they say the best way to learn is by being burned. You never forget the lesson.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.