Question: Any advice for artists who want to become portrait painters?
Answer: Getting Started as a Portrait Painter
Generally speaking, artists who choose to paint portraits have an undying passion for painting people. Although they may paint other genres, they will find their joy and a challenge in portraying the human form. They may have particular types of people they prefer to paint—children, women, family members, ethnic groups, etc. — but the common thread among these artists is the ever-expressive face.
As long as there have been artists, there has been a need for portraiture. In most cases, the end result portrays the character and unique attributes of the sitter but the style of the artist will set each work apart. In early Egypt, portraits were done in profile, romantic portraiture was more animated, and Expressionistic portraits were more colorful and garish. The Grand Style depicts more idealized or larger than life forms, whereas prosaic style is more realistic in nature. Then there are the types of portraits: religious, historical, celebrity, nude and vanity portraiture. And, portraits do not have to be limited to people. Several portrait artists use pets as their subjects.
Portraits can range in scope from closely cropped images similar to Ivan Kramskoy’s “Portrait of Unknown Woman” (1833), to complex figurative pieces with multiple subjects as in Joaquin Sorolla’s “Seville, the Dance” (1915). When painting to please yourself, you can choose to paint as much or as little of a figure as you want, but when working with clients, you may find yourself limited by the client’s budget.
FINDING YOUR STYLE AND YOUR CLIENTS
In today’s world of contemporary portraiture, it is difficult to find an artist who works in a style that is totally unique. Whether intentional or not, each piece of art produced will have some similarities to the work of another artist. What we want to do as artists is to find the subject and style that works best for us. This certainly does not mean we can’t experiment or change, but it is helpful to have at least one thing about our work that sets it apart. This can be as simple as using a similar framing style, using the same light source or body position, using the same color palette, or by obscurely placing the same symbol or item in each of your paintings.
Ask yourself, what style of painting are you interested in producing? Do you enjoy tight, photorealistic styles, or loose, impressionistic styles? Totally abstracted portraits and figures? If you aren’t sure how you would like to draw or paint your subject, do some research to seek out artists who paint in a style or method that appeals to you. Try duplicating sections of their work to see how they were able to get the effects they did.
The Antique Dealer’s Daughter, 18×24, oil
Most people who have been classically trained to draw will more than likely continue to paint realistically, but realism is not the only way to paint. Sometimes being less realistic and more creative in your painting style may lead to more decorative artwork that would be desired by persons who don’t care to hang a portrait of someone they don’t know in their home or office. Or, if it is someone they do recognize, perhaps they want the painting to portray the character of the person rather than their likeness. Character sketches are a testament to this. The clients who publicly sit for character sketches seldom expect the finished work to look just like them. The upside of abstracted portraits is that they are sometimes easier to market because they are more generic. Clients who seek these out may be looking for a particular color scheme that goes with their decorative style. Painting a repetition of the same color harmonies may lead to multiple sales, as well.
The upside of realistic portrait painting is that it is a field of study that is highly respected. Many top awards are honored to artists who are successful in their craft and these artists are sought out to do commissions for people from all backgrounds and artists can make a decent living if they are among those chosen artists. Other artists may also choose to purchase paintings from these accomplished artists.
Finding those clients can, however, be quite challenging without extensive marketing efforts. Popular thought on who buys realistic portraits of recognizable people suggests locations where family history is of value. These commissioned works become treasured family heirlooms, made to be passed down from generation to generation. The lives and accomplishments of the subjects portrayed turn into stories to be told over and over, throughout time. Another group of clients may come from the business and professional world—presidents, CEOs, professors, and other distinguished persons, and clients who commission these works will more than likely be found through referrals.
If you are new to portrait painting and don’t yet have a body of work, choose a location where your chosen subjects might be found and ask a few people if they wouldn’t mind sitting for you for the practice. This is a great way to build your portfolio, and there is a chance you might end up selling a finished piece. Just make sure you get a good quality photograph for your portfolio before you let it go!
Lastly, if you are painting the subjects you have chosen to focus on, your sales will probably come from the same group of people who are providing you with references. For example, if you visit religious organizations to gather reference materials, this will also be your target market. Leave business cards on bulletin boards, advertise in their newsletters and talk about your art with people who are gathered for a public function. Offer to display one of your paintings in a prominent area.
If you truly love painting figures and faces, you will be motivated to find new and interesting subjects and figure out ways you can make your paintings stand out from the rest. The important thing is to keep painting. Remember the saying: “If you build it, he (they) will come.”
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