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Dealing With Difficult Clients

By Mike Corriero | 18/03/2014
How to Deal with Difficult Clients

When just starting out, one of the problems you’ll run into as a freelance artist will be figuring out how to deal with difficult clients. What I mean by difficult is a client who is very picky, not very good at art direction and request many changes; beyond what is considered “reasonable requests”. Generally what makes a client "difficult" is poor communication on both ends.

There are a lot of clients who know exactly what they don't want but they're clueless when it comes time to explaining what they do want. It may sound strange, but you'll be surprised by how often it occurs.

It's very difficult for an artist when a client supplies a brief containing little more than a genre and a few basic words I.E.; "scary horror creature with six legs, tusks and a stinging tail". This would be fine if the client trusted your judgment. However, if they're paying out of pocket, they're likely going to scrutinize every preliminary sketch down to the last detail - regardless of the fact that their brief was so vague.

The flip-side to the same issue would be a client who provides you with an extremely detailed brief. Quite often the problem with this situation is that whatever you end up drawing is almost always going to fall short of their expectations. So now you'll find yourself fixing the most trivial and minute details on a constant back-and-forth basis in a never ending struggle to make the client happy. This is something you want to avoid when possible.

When dealing with a difficult client you may often get a design brief along the lines of, "feel free to do whatever you think would be cool, interesting and fun….” Your first thought might be “This is going to be an awesome job.” The problem with this is that it gives you the idea that you’ll have complete creative freedom and control, when in fact it may turn out to be the opposite.

These situations occur more often when working with smaller companies or clients who have never worked with a freelance artist before. It's also something that occurs quite frequently when the client is paying out-of-pocket and art directing their own project.

So what do you do when a client can't make up their mind and they demand hundreds of thumbnail sketches, and they're still not happy?

Without a written and signed agreement in place before you start work, you could end up producing hundreds of sketches and the client would still be "in the right" to ask you to produce another 20 or more.

This could go on until either A: The client claims that they are happy or B: you the artist decide to cancel the job. If you agreed to produce sketches until the client gave approval before you could move on to the final product, but you failed to mention how many sketches would be allowed – that's a big mistake. There are also a few things to cover in regard to cancellations. If the job is canceled from your end or the client’s end, you want to make sure you’re covered for any work you may have already produced and sent to them. So make sure to include cancellation fees in the contract.

It's important from the beginning that you establish a clear and precise form of communication. Don't assume anything and don't accept a job simply based on what is agreed to verbally or even in an e-mail. Promises and agreements mean very little unless it's in a legal document - signed and agreed to by both parties involved.

This is why contracts are necessary and extremely important in order to make sure that both parties get exactly what they want. Many times these sorts of clients won’t be too strict with deadlines, but ‘Time is Money’ and you the artist need to finish something within your own schedule.

If the client asks you to send them a contract, this is where you control the limit to how many sketches and revisions the client is allowed. It helps to add a clause in the contract that specifically states a set number of sketches or revisions and this way you can put a cap on how many changes they're allowed. It depends on what the client is looking for and what sort of project they are producing. If they send you their own contract, simply make sure it includes details regarding the amount of sketches and revisions.

Make sure to ask them before you even write up and sign a contract how many sketches or variations they want to see. If they don’t know, then ask them to throw out a guesstimate so you have an idea of how long it will take to complete the job. It helps to set an hourly rate or a daily rate if the client wants to go through a lengthy design process involving 50-100 or more thumbnail sketches, color variants and minor changes. Then charge a set rate per asset for the final art.

If they only need a few sketches, then it helps to phrase it so that you’ll show them 2-4 thumbnail sketches for approval before moving on to the next stage. This way, if they happen to like one of the first two you show them, you’re not obligated to finish the next set of two.

There are all sorts of different hypotheticals along these lines, and various ways to make sure you don’t end up getting screwed. It’s simple when the communication is clear between both parties and it’s in writing. If you don’t know something, just ask the client what they want. If they’re vague about it, make sure you put a cap on the thumbnail sketches and revisions. I always tell a client, “a few minor revisions are allowed but major changes to the final will result in additional charges.” These “additional charges are to be determined by the artist and agreed to by both parties before such changes can be made.” Always cover your bases with a signed contract and make sure to be completely transparent about every last detail the job will entail. There should be no surprises once the work begins.

Mike Corriero -


Mike Corriero

Mike Corriero Colonia, NJ (USA) Mike has nearly 10 years of experience as a freelance Concept artist and Illustrator for the Entertainment Industries. He has worked for companies such as Liquid Development, Radical Entertainment, Applibot Inc., Paizo Publishing and Hasbro Inc., among others. He excels in creature design, which he also taught as an online instructor for the Academy of Art University along with several workshops published in ImagineFX Magazine, 2DArtist, 3DTotal and Advanced Photoshop Magazine.

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