by Carolyn Edlund
Two artists share how they have built businesses specializing in portrait commissions.
I recently spoke with two artists who specialize in creating commissioned work for clients, and asked about marketing, their terms and the process. Taking commissions isn’t for everyone; it requires a mindset where the artist is excited about the collaborative effort involved in producing a personalized piece of art.
“What appeals to me the most are the connections I make with my clients,” says Lisa Cunningham, an artist who specializes in home and business portraits. “I enjoy learning about their lives and families, and the strong connection it all has to their homes. It is important for me as an artist to involve my clients in the process, from educating them about my chosen medium, which is pastel, to having a dialogue about the painting as it unfolds. It is especially rewarding when I deliver the final painting.”
Her love of architecture in the landscape led this artist to seek commission work. At first, she participated in juried art shows in her local community, but soon gained business through the referrals of satisfied clients. She also connected with a local framer who began sending business her way. A close friend commissioned Cunningham to paint a portrait of his golf club, which was displayed in the lobby and resulted in even more referrals.
She explains her commission process, which is spelled out clearly for clientele. “If proximity allows, I will meet at their home or place of business to take photographs, discuss goals for the project, and timeline for completion,” she explains. “If distance is a factor, I will usually work from a photo provided by the client. I then take my clients on a step-by-step journey, beginning with the rough drawing, through different phases of the painting, and right up to completion. I send photographs of the work in progress so as to educate on my process and keep everyone up to speed on how the painting develops.”
Her approach works to keep the project on track and to suit the needs of the customer. “Ideas are shared and discussions take place throughout, and my goal is for complete satisfaction with the entire process, including the end result,” she says. “Some prefer that I stay closely tied to the photograph and others allow for some creative interpretation. It’s all very personal and part of the journey.”
Canadian artist Patricia Mitchell would agree about the importance of personal connections in the commissioned portraiture work that helps her earn a living. She originally began choosing commission work when a broken back made the hustle and bustle of art shows impossible, and loves what she does. “I am a realist,” she says. “I like to have my subjects, which are mostly children or animals, in an environment they are very comfortable with. I like to see them with smiles and sunshine. In other words, not a formal picture but a happy casual approach.”
Much of her business comes through word of mouth, but she also maintains a website that is focused on portrait commissions. She’s done many types of paintings, and states, “I love the challenges and am willing to tackle almost anything; it’s a great way to learn. Teaching classes also brought me many commissions.”
She explains the commission process that she uses, saying, “The reason I decided to build a website is to share my commission terms, and I refer people to that. It starts with an email and some photos of the subject. I like to get some ideas from my clients, and after looking at photos and more discussion, a photo is picked, and a graphite sketch done and evaluated by the customer online. If we agree, I start the painting. If there is some reason we cannot agree, the graphite sketch is theirs and will be sent flat packed to USA or Canada. The non-refundable 20% fee covers this, including shipping.”
Artists who are seeking commission work may want to consider online sites for this purpose, including The Commissioned, Portraity or Custom Made, as well as designing their website around this business model. And since referrals are such an important factor in gaining commissions, follow up marketing such as email newsletters can be effective as well.