Portrait Commissions: 4 Tips to Get Started

Though launching into professional portrait painting can be a daunting task, fortunately there are a host of excellent informational sources for portrait painters from beginner to expert levels.

1.  Advance your skills with workshops
A simple Google search can yield dozens of listings for courses across the country. “Taking workshops with professional portrait painters helps advance an artist’s skill,” says John Ennis, “bringing him or her together with like-minded artists and offering an opportunity to seek advice directly from a professional.”

Finding a good workshop, however, is very important. The Portrait Society of America, a not-for-profit organization, has a useful website (www.portraitsociety.org) that includes information on portrait academies, where attendees can observe and even paint with nationally known artists.

“Dedicated,” the website reads, “to fostering and enhancing the practice, aesthetics and applications of traditional, fine art portraiture,” the society is open to all individuals with an interest in portrait art. Ennis suggests participating in the society’s annual conference and submitting work to its annual competition, which, he says, can help you learn about the business, meet other working professionals and build recognition for your painting.

2.  Seek agency representation
Getting formal representation for your work, on the other hand, can be a little tricky. “Agencies are constantly flooded with queries from prospective artists looking for representation,” Ennis cautions, “so getting in with one of them is an accomplishment in itself.” Ennis, who notes his own agency experience has been entirely positive, suggests finding out an agency’s submission policy and strictly adhering to the guidelines.

“It’s up to the individual artist to set his or her own prices,” he says. “Getting pricing right is important. Agencies don’t necessarily require exclusivity but will insist that an artist’s prices be consistent. The agency will show the work to prospective clients, take a commission on a sale, help arrange travel (usually paid by the client), and offer guidance along the way.”

“To fill their rosters, portrait agencies select artists who run the gamut in terms of styles and prices,” Wende Caporale adds. “In my experience, an agency won’t consider an artist who doesn’t have experience in portraiture, since it requires such specific skills.”

3.  Connect with a gallery
“A gallery will market artists using the examples of previous work and the sample the artist has provided, which is displayed in the gallery,” explains Caporale. “The rate varies, but most portrait galleries take a 40-percent commission, and some will share a portion of the deposit with the artist.”

“Becoming affiliated with a gallery can be challenging since the competition is great, but persistence is beneficial,” Caporale continues. “Some of the benefits of being connected with a good gallery are credibility, national exposure and having an advocate when dealing with clients. Galleries also tend to keep their artists quite busy, which can be a double-edged sword.”

Caporale adds that a standard portrait commission contract includes not only the name and contact information of the client and sitter, but the size, medium and price of the finished work. “Sometimes a brief outline of the process of the artist is included,” she says, “so there are no surprises. Deadlines are indicated, as well as a satisfaction clause, so clients can be assured that they will be paying for a portrait they can accept.”

4.  Try an online portfolio
If gallery representation isn’t feasible or desired, an online portfolio is another way to gain exposure. Many leading contemporary portrait artists, including Ennis, are featured on the online gallery A Stroke of Genius Inc. (www.portraitartist.com), which features works by traditional portrait painters and sculptors.

Visitors can browse the site to peruse online portfolios, find links to artists’ websites, commission a portrait artist, find a workshop or visit a virtual bookstore. The Resource & Biz Center link on the site is particularly useful to working portrait artists, offering a list of portrait agencies; art schools and ateliers; legal advisors; framers and other art-related businesses; and an extensive list of marketing resources. The site will also create a Web-based portfolio for a fee.


Meredith E. Lewis is a freelance writer working in Manhattan.


John Ennis, his artist wife, Jo-Ann, and their two boys live in Yardley, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia. To learn more about his work and workshops, go to www.john-ennis.com.

Wende Caporale lives with her husband, artist Daniel E. Greene, and their daughter Avignon in North Salem, New York. Visit www.wendecaporale.com for more information on her art and workshops.

 


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