Photos are so common that we generally walk by them without a second glance. In contrast, painted portraits are substantial and distinctive pieces of personal art. They get noticed. Well-executed portraits often are displayed for generations by the descendants of the individual pictured.
Bargain alert: Ordinarily, quality painted portraits are pricey—a 30-inch x 36-inch oil portrait from an experienced artist typically would cost at least $5,000 and often tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the artist’s skill and experience and the number of people included in the painting. An artist might double the price for two people in the portrait, triple it for three and so on, while charging extra for a pet, though not as much as for a person.
But the weak economy has dramatically undercut the demand for portraits, thus many talented portrait artists now are very willing to negotiate their prices. And there are various mediums in which an artist may work that would affect price, including oil, acrylic, pastels, watercolor or charcoal.
Strategy: Tell the artist what your budget is and ask, “Can you fit that budget?” Also suggest a simple background rather than a complicated one (such as a city skyline out the window)—this would mean less time required by the artist and so lower cost.
To reduce portrait costs further: Ask an experienced portrait artist to do a charcoal or pastel drawing, which might cost $1,500 or less. Or carefully seek out a skilled but inexperienced artist, such as a fine arts graduate student, who might be willing to paint an oil portrait for $750 to $1,500. In some cases, such artists can match the quality of what you would get from an experienced artist.
FINDING AN ARTIST
Strategies for selecting an artist…
Visit local galleries, and ask gallery owners to recommend portrait artists.
Visit regional art museums, and ask curators, community outreach directors and/or museum educational personnel to recommend portrait artists.
Contact a portrait agency. These agencies represent many artists, often in multiple regions. They might be able to match you with an artist based on your region, style preferences and budget.
If you see a contemporary portrait you like in a home or business, ask who painted it.
Attend art shows at local universities featuring the work of fine arts graduate students and faculty members. Contact those whose portraits you admire.
Contact a local artist you like. The artist’s gallery might be able to provide contact information, or search online for the artist’s Web site. Say you’re a fan, and ask if he/she ever paints portraits on commission.
Helpful: Stick with artists who show proven talent for painting the human form—just because an artist can paint a landscape or still life doesn’t mean he can produce appealing portraits.
INTERVIEWING AN ARTIST
Ask the portrait artist several questions when you meet him/her…
How long have you been painting? How long have you been focusing on portraits? Ideally the answer to both questions should be at least seven to 10 years, the minimum it takes even gifted artists to become adept at painting portraits.
Can I see more examples of your portrait work? May I call some of your prior clients? The answer to both should be, of course, yes. Viewing the artist’s prior work and contacting prior clients should leave no doubt in your mind about his abilities.
As a client, would I have input in the creative process? The answer should be yes. The contract that you sign should say that every effort will be made to satisfy the client.
Will the frame be included? This typically varies by artist. Generally, the frame adds 10% to 15% to the price of the painting, but a frame can range from a simple, protect-the-edge strip frame to a museum-quality, highly ornate, carved and gilded frame that could cost several thousand dollars.
THE PAINTING PROCESS
Good portrait artists typically follow their subjects around for a while to get a feel for the person before starting to paint. Then they ask subjects to pose for at least several hours, potentially more, while they draw color sketches and take photos. These sessions typically are broken up into short segments for comfort’s sake.
Some portrait artists position a mirror or video camera and monitor so that the subject can watch them work.
Portrait artists typically do much of the actual painting back in their studios, without the subject. Portraits can take a month or longer to complete, so make sure that the artist is aware of your time line if you intend to unveil it at an upcoming event.
Warning: You might encounter ads from companies or artists that claim to paint portraits at low prices purely from photos mailed or e-mailed to them. These often are scams—the “artists” actually might just use a computer program and special printer to convert your photo directly to canvas, then add some brush marks to make it look more like a real painting. The result might look similar to a painting, but there’s no artistic interpretation—you’re just getting your photo back on canvas. Worse, the ink used in this process tends to deteriorate in just a decade or two. You might be better off just hiring a skilled portrait photographer.
Source: Edward Jonas, chairman of the Portrait Society of America, a nonprofit organization that provides educational resources to painters and the public. Jonas is a professional portrait artist based in Tallahassee, Florida, with nearly 50 years of experience. He has portraits in the National Portrait Gallery. www.EdwardJonas.com