Commissioning a Portrait Artist – What to Look For

Port traits

Commissioning an artist to paint a portrait is a once-in-a-lifetime undertaking for most people, if they’re lucky enough to have the means to do so. Today many more people enter this exciting venture than in the past, since the internet has made hundreds, if not thousands, of choices in portraiture available. Some of those portraits are offered by serious, professional fine art portrait artists; others come from mass production workshops in China and other overseas countries, and sometimes similar outfits in the U.S. which employ teams to turn out work.

Let’s say you’ve decided not to go with the cheapest portrait you can find, but with an individual American artist. That narrows down your selection a little, but you will still find yourself with a vast array of options. How do you know what to look for, and whether you’ll be satisfied in the end, and feel you’ve gotten your money’s worth?

One of the first things you will notice when you’ve begun your search, is that there is a very wide range of pricing in portraiture. Maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise: after all, you can buy a brand new car for $10,000 or half a million, and it’s still a car. But remember what your parents always told you: You get what you pay for. Are you simply interested in having a favorite snapshot copied and converted into a painting? Or are you looking for a professional to take time to get to know the subject and create a work of fine art which will capture spirit and personality as well as an excellent likeness? Depending on your answers, you will want to call on very different artists.

You need to do your homework:

It is always best to go and look firsthand at actual portraits done by the artist or artists you’re considering. Having said that, this may be impractical if you don’t have a number of portrait painters in your area. Today most true professionals have websites with high resolution photographs of their work, many of which can be enlarged to show detail, usually of the facial features. This can suffice. However, you may still want to begin your search with artists in your city, your state, a neighboring state, or at least your region of the country. You (or your child or the subject of the portrait) may be needed for a photo shoot and/or a sitting or several sittings. Some artists will travel to wherever you are for this purpose, but it will cost you more for their added time and expense. If, on the other hand, you need a posthumous portrait, you want an artist who is entirely comfortable with working from existing photographs.

Here are some important questions to ask yourself when entering the commissioning process:

What can you afford?

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If your budget enables you to order an oil portrait of over $10,000, you may be best off using the services of an agent. Normally an agent will not represent an artist whose fee isn’t at least this amount, since they need to earn a commission on the fee charged. A good portrait agent will listen closely to the style of portrait you have in mind, ask you numerous questions, and then give you several excellent and reputable portraitists to choose from. In some cases they may even be able to show you actual portrait samples, as well as on line or printed portfolio images.

To get a good idea of the range of fees charged by professionally trained and well established portrait painters, do a number of online searches. One excellent website called A Stroke of Genius gives you over 100 artists, mostly in the United States, to choose from. It will even let you select the type of portrait work you want to view. Examples of groupings include outdoor or indoor paintings of girls (or boys); family portraits; and formal corporate subjects such as judges, political figures, and university presidents. Fees for artists on this site range from about $2,000 up to over $25,000 for oil portraits, but charcoal, pastel and even watercolor portrait artists are also represented.

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