5 Essential Steps to Getting Your First Portrait Commission

I'm going to talk you through some of the most important steps I took to gain my first portrait commissions and actions you can take right now to increase your client base!

There are many ways to advertise your services, but there are also a few things you'll need to do first before you get started to increase your chances of getting new commissions. However, once you've completed these steps there are also a few great ways to promote yourself at no expense at all!

Summary; Build your portfolio, Know your audience, Know how much to charge, Tell everyone & Be professional.

Now for the details.

1. Build your portfolio

This should be your first step. People will need to see the quality of the artwork you produce, and what style you tend to work in. Of course, it's perfectly fine to show different styles in your portfolio, I even do it myself, but you should still maintain some sort of basic theme throughout your portfolio. This should reflect either type of portraits that you would usually create.

The theme could be any of the following; The subject you usually paint (i.e. people, Dogs, Horses etc), The medium you work in (I.e. Oil paints, charcoal, digital, etc.), The style of work you usually paint (I.e. Abstract, realism, surrealism, etc.) or even something as rudimentary as a consistent colour or composition scheme. The trick here is aiming for some kind of consistency. It is good to be able to produce a variety of different approaches to those listed above, but your main responsibility with your portfolio is to link each of these together somehow to create a cohesive and compelling demonstration of what you can offer the client.

portfolio portrait commissions ophanap
My current Portrait Portfolio. I'm working on pet portraits and more conceptual work at the moment so I will split the folio into more sections later on.

It is also a good idea to add your contact details to every page within your portfolio, and even save the files as your name, the name of the piece and a way to contact you directly. This means that anyone that decides to download the artwork from your folio has a way to contact you should they feel inclined to do so. It also means that there's a chance to have further eyes on your work should they decide to share the image online as many platforms still show the file name on the website if the sharer themselves didn't change it.

The way I like to advertise my portrait commission portfolio is by keeping an entirely separate page on my website, this allows you to fully explain all the details the person may need to order something from you without them having to navigate through your website. You can see what I've done here: https://www.ophanap.co.uk/portrait-commisions

I've also included here most of the information someone may need to contact me, what they can expect, many examples of the range of work I can make for them and a rough idea of pricing.

I used to include a full pricing list here, but found after a few initial clients that it can be a little misleading to the buyer as there are a lot of variables that go into creating a piece of artwork that can really stack up the time it takes to create; i.e how many subjects, the level of detail requested, the style and the medium all being major factors. I now tend to give a starting price for the minimum and explain the thought process behind what I charge to the client when discussing their requirements. I've written more about the pricing below.

2. Know your audience

This is key. If you don't know who you're trying to advertise your portraits to you'll end up wasting a lot of time and money aiming at the wrong target. This isn't a complete waste of time, however, as you can still learn a lot about marketing while doing so and I would even recommend the try and fail approach to those new at it as you'll learn a lot about the correct audience of your work by elimination, and the intricacies of the systems you'll be using.

To know thy audience you must know thyself. By looking at the body of work you have (and the portfolio you created from step one!) you'll be able to get a better idea of the kind of person you'll want to target. Figure out the people most likely to request your services and you'll have a much easier time gaining commissions and garnering name recognition within your niche.

A few good examples of this are (but not limited to);

  • Pet owners are very likely to have a portrait painted of their furry or feathery friends, some good ways of advertising to these people would be: advertising in local pet shops, pet magazines, posting and guest writing on pet blogs, a brochure or leaflet on a local community notice boards. I've also found a few commissions though pet pages on Facebook and Instagram!

  • Parents & Grandparents would love a portrait of their newborn addition to the family or a family portrait to be hung on the mantle. They are a great source of commission as they'll often come back for more and they'll tell their (most likely grandparent) friends! I have found that it's mostly traditional, realistic styles that sell to grandparents. You'll need to make your website easy to read and navigate, particularly with the less tech-savvy of us, consider adding an email and contact number as an alternative way to be contacted just in case. You can target this audience by aiming for the content they usually consume; Newspapers, newsagent windows & retirement homes.

  • Newlyweds & anniversaries. I've had a number of portraits for couples that have either just married, or are celebrating an anniversary requested a piece of artwork of their big day! This can be a very lucrative market, but usually depends on the style of work you produce, the aesthetics of your work will play a big part in working in this kind of niche. Caricatures are perfect for guest invitations, whereas traditional methods may be better for keepsake pieces. You can advertise to this audience through traditional wedding outlets, such as wedding magazines, blogs and of course through pages on social media (Pinterest being a particularly good one for this).

  • If you like it, most likely someone else will too. You can use yourself as an audience type just make sure to keep it broad enough that you'll still find others! You're not looking for someone just like you, just enough like you that they'll like your work. It sounds confusing but all you need to do is find the people that like the subjects you paint, be it horses, planes, dogs, people, cars, houses or even landscapes. Use yourself as a demographic, consider your age, gender and interests when defining this audience and you should have something rough to aim at initially! Refine this over time and you'll be set.

You could also consider casting a wider net occasionally also. Though you may have had luck promoting your work to your defined audience, you never know who else may be interested in your artwork unless you broaden your approach. This will also allow you to expand the width of your defined audience, opening up a whole new market of potential buyers!

3. Know how much to charge

ophanap digital portrait painting
Portrait study, 2019

This is a tricky subject for a lot of artists, particularly those starting out. Many experienced artists may tell you never lower your prices as you'll lower the value of your work, however, they are also supposedly well established and no longer need to worry about the financial aspect as much.

I believe it's better to start at a lower price and work your way up. By introducing your services to new clients you'll need to prove your worth as an artist and having social credibility having already completed a number of commissions really helps. Not only that but you'll also receive vital experience interacting with a client, reacting to their needs and accommodating any changes they might request.

Having this experience early on in your career will better serve you down the line when interacting with bigger fish down the line. Also, any payment is better than none! (Surprisingly) There is little merit working on your solely on your own studies when you could be earning experience, improve your painting skills AND improve your client service through commission work.

Saying this, of course you need to meet a certain standard in terms of the quality of your work before you start working for others, if you can't find a commission outside of your immediate family members and loved ones after a time of