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.
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
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 searching this may mean that you need to spend further amounts of time working on and improving your already existing body of work and portfolio.
I go into detail with costing on an earlier blog post here: https://www.ophanap.co.uk/post/portrait-painting-cost
The key takeaway from this though is that you should only work if you are comfortable with you amount you are charging. I've done portraits for family and friends for free before, this is a good start to build your folio and improve networking as they'll likely tell the people they know. With everyone else you will often feel the need for reimbursement for the long hours you pour into an artwork, you can't eat 'free promotion'!
I would recommend as a starting point something like:
The time taken to create the portrait + material costs + skill level = Final price.
You could also charge by size instead of the total time to complete but I've found personally that the time taken can drastically be changed depending on the subject regardless of the size of the piece.
4. Tell everyone.
Now for the exciting part! It's finally time to start spreading the word.
You can advertise for free through the following places; Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Deviantart, Artstation, Youtube and the many, many art discussion forums out there.
I've had a lot of experience with all of these, some are better than others in terms of getting work, I'll run you through these more in detail below.
There are also a few paid options that may be worth your time: Facebook and Instagram ads, Google Ads, and traditional means such as through Newspapers, Magazines, and Fliers
Obviously due to the cost attached you'll need to be much more prepared when using this method, and even be willing to eat some of the cost.
It can be difficult when using these paid services for the first time to accurately target the correct audience, and even if you do the viewers may not be ready to order a full commission right away. One advantage of this though is how quickly you can reach a very large number of potential clients with very little effort, as opposed to the manual methods of self-promotion.
Start a business page for your artwork if you don't already have one. You'll be able to post to your page instead of your personal wall, track how many people are viewing and interacting with your content and use Facebook ads to promote to a huge potential audience.
I would recommend completing all the sections of your profile page before you start promoting your work as it will make you seem much more professional. This includes a great looking cover photo showcasing some of your work or your brand identity and adding links to all of your other websites and social media pages.
A great place to share your portfolio with your existing audience if you have one. Make sure to post regularly to keep your followers engaged with your work. 1-2 times a day is ideal.
If you have the budget for advertisement, Facebook is currently one of the most cost-efficient ways to do so. I won't go into full details of how to use their ads platform as there are plenty of resources you can find online with a quick google search and Facebook does a decent job of explaining it themselves. (Link)
Create a new account to showcase your artwork if you don't have one already. Go into your settings and turn on your business account. Again, like Facebook, this will let you track the analytics of your posts and gives you access to Ads.
Make sure to utilise the link in your bio to share your website or portfolio as this will be the only place you can currently share a clickable link on Instagram
Ads on Instagram are a great way of promoting to a wider audience. Tip: At the moment I've found the most cost-effective way of getting people to click my links is by advertising through Instagram stories only! This is probably because stories are still a relatively new thing with Instagram so it seems as though they're trying to push it as a concept to crush their competitor Snapchat, so make sure you take advantage of this while you can!
IGTV is another great approach to Instagram that is majorly underutilized by Insta users. Another new concept that Instagram is trying to push, perhaps to try and compete with YouTube, lets you post longer-form video content to a separate section of the app. Of course for this you will need to be producing regular video content too, but as video content gets 38% more engagement that Images on Instagram this is definitely something you should be trying to do. (Link)
To be honest with you, not one of my favourite platforms so I may be a little biased here, but I have heard many other artists finding success on Twitter!
Twitter leans more towards mass uploads of short-form content, something that can be quite difficult to do as an artist as painting takes a long time for most.
You can get around this by posting other types of content, such as behind the scenes of your studio space, personal updates and even curated content you find from other sources that you think your followers may enjoy.
Artstation is an art industry-focused portfolio website with social media aspects that's great for finding professional work! Once you've set up your profile and added your website and social links to your profile you're ready to get posting.
Artstation is one of the few platforms that lets you post multiple images, assets, and videos to your posts. In fact, Artstation themselves recommend you do so with around a 54% increase in audience popularity with posts with multiple assets compared to those with just a single image! You can include work-in-progress shots, breakdowns, and variations to give your audience a greater insight into your work. (Link)
You should also make sure to post regularly and crop your cover image for each of your posts as this is what will show up on the main feeds and will improve the chances of your work being clicked on and shared.
A great way to promote your work for free is being active in facebook groups that are relevant to your niche. For example, an artist that specialises in creating pet portraits may join facebook groups that showcase the work on artists, pet sharing groups, animal advice and groups of that ilk. Please note that these groups expect you to be active on their pages regularly and often do not like you to self promote often and may remove you if you do. Try to be active and become a part of the community first to avoid this.
Much like Artstation in the way that it works, but with a much more casual approach. Deviantart is great for sharing work with a less refined process, a great place for sharing sketches and other in-progress shots.
Deviantart also has a forum section where you can share your work and engage with other members of the community regularly. Not only will you meet other artists with the same goals as you, which is great for networking, but you could also find potential clients and new followers.
YouTube has been a constant for video content since 2005 and this isn't going to change anytime soon. Video is a great way of showing your audience how you create your artwork, behind the scenes in your studio or work-space, showcase your new pieces, tutorials for other artists and general updates.
If you are starting out on YouTube I would recommend checking out what other artists in your niche are already doing and taking notes on the aspects of their videos that you like and trying to replicate something similar for your own videos. Learning to create videos from scratch is a very trial-and-error intensive process, much like most other skills, especially if you're not used to editing and creating video already.
Two great approaches to your video content that are mainstays in video content are to either provide your audience with entertainment or to provide them with information. I've tried to provide a small portion of both with my own YouTube channel, however, I've only made a handful of videos at the time of writing this and I plan on writing more information focused video tutorials in the future.
The videos I've made so far are aimed at other artists and people interested in the creative painting process, personally I like watching videos like this which is why I've chosen to create this type of content but admittedly, it's not the most popular type of video as it provides little in the way of information to those who are untrained artists. They also may not have the know-how to re-create the process I use, they may not use the same painting software, and because the time-lapse videos are greatly sped up they are only best used as guides on a macro level and do not include minute to minute information on the process. This is why I plan on creating tutorial content that goes deeper into detail about the process of my artwork and even some of the topics I've touched on here on my blog.
These forums are a fantastic way to network and meet new artists and people that may be interested in your work. Some prime examples of these are the artistic areas of twitter, Artstation forums, and the Deviantart forums.
Much like Facebook groups, it is best to become an active member of the community first before you post self-promotional posts to limit your chance of your posts being flagged as spam. In fact, many forums limit your account privileges until you become more active in the community, meaning you are unable to post pictures or links until you do.
Local Community & Networking
One of the more traditional approaches to advertising your services but it shouldn't be overlooked. Do not underestimate the power of word and mouth!
This approach is particularly useful if you have already received a number of commissions but would like to increase your clientele. Not a method I would particularly recommend if you're just starting out as it takes a certain amount of social proof, or notoriety to get going.
Reaching out to your local network be it through your place of work, previous employment, where you went to school or anywhere you have frequented in the past is a great place to start. Let them know that you are a portrait artist and are currently providing a portrait commission service, with any luck they may pass the message on to people they know or let you keep your promotional material such as flyers or business cards at their site.
It is a good idea to carry a few business cards around with you so that you can give to anyone that sounds interested in your work.
You can also speak with local shops in your area to see if you can put a flyer or card up advertising your work, some businesses will charge you a small fee for this but some are free. Depending on your budget this can be worth doing, however, I wouldn't pay much for this as you'll likely receive much more eyes on your work advertising online.
As mentioned above, it is imperative in this age to have your own website or online portfolio. The majority of online users in the world is growing at a substantial rate, with around 3.9 internet users as of 2019 (Link).
By having your own website you have a professional front that people can find you through. There is no better way to promote your portfolio of work through a custom website, you can build this yourself if you have the time and patience to do so. However many I understand if you feel like you don't have the time or the will to learn as it can be a large task. I happen to make websites with easeweb.online if you're looking for a quick and affordable way to create your professional online portfolio! You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com if you are interested.
If you'd like to do this yourself there are a number of fantastic tools available, such as Wordpress, GoDaddy, and Squarespace. These platforms are mostly free but require you to do everything yourself However please note that these are not completely free as you will still need to pay monthly costs for hosting and any additional packages and services they provide.
Email marketing is a long-standing approach to customer acquisition however it takes a long time to build an email list if you don't already have one. If you already have a large audience this shouldn't be as much of an issue as you can convert a percentage of your followers to your email mailing list, though I'm guessing if you're reading this you are still building up a following of your own.
One of the biggest advantages of having a large mailing list is the direct nature of it. Every email you send out will go directly to someone's email inbox, meaning that a large proportion of your audience will see your updates. This is of great contrast to posting through social media where only a small number of your followers (around 5-10%) will see your updates.
Family and Friends
Never forget that your family and friends can be a powerful networking tool! Take advantage of your loved ones, they are the ones that are most likely to share your work to their own networks, and may even order a commission from you themselves! Personally I don't feel comfortable charging to family and friends and will work for free or a lower rate, however obviously you won't make much of a living this way and as a professional, you still need to make ends meet so shouldn't do this often.
Offering a discounted rate can help your work reach new eyes as the client will often share your portrait with their immediate network, so it is always worth taking the time to complete even at a lower rate. Just something to consider.
5. Be professional.
This is an often overlooked part of commission work, as it usually involves your actions while interacting with your client both before and after you finish working with them. How you behave with the person commissioning you to work will greatly enhance the opportunity of them recommending you to their friends, family and immediate network.
Some tips with working with clients:
Maintain a friendly but professional tone. Keep your approach polite, but refrain from using emoticons and slang.
Under-promise but Over-deliver. If you know how long a portrait should be once you've received all the commission details it can be wise to add a little extra time to the estimated delivery time. Not only does this give you a little extra time should disaster strike and you are unable to produce the portrait on time, but it also makes a happy customer should you finish long before you were estimated to do so. You can also add a few extra goodies in your package when you send the completed work out, free postcards, stickers, and mini prints are a common way to do so. Not only does this give the client even more free value, but it's a great way to improve your networking with little cost. Include a business card also if you have one so they are able to easily contact you again if they need to!
Keep records of all of your encounters with each of your clients separately. This includes all images sent, invoices, emails, and notes from conversations on the phone. Not only does this cover you should something happen, but you will also be able to recall any detail when requested at a later date. There was a client I had last year, I had sent out the finished commission much before the date I had given them, however, the piece was lost in transit to the client. Luckily, by keeping records of everything I was able to eventually recover some of the costs from the courier due to the evidence I kept at the time. I ended up having to restart the commission free of charge for my client as a gesture of good faith to the client.
Include your name, your contact details and your website & social links in the signature of your emails. This makes it as easy as possible for those that you are in contact with to reach you should they need to, and to share your pages and information to others if they have been happy with your service.