Portrait Commissions: From the Classic to the Unexpected

"The most difficult thing for me is a portrait. You have to put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt." Henri Cartier-Bresson

"To sit for one's portrait is like being present at one's own creation." Alexander Smith

"A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth." John Singer Sargent

A good portrait is a rare and remarkable thing. It captures the form and spirit of a person at a particular time in their life, a particular place in the world, and it allows them to live on forever. It's a collaboration between the artist and the sitter, a conversation, an exchange of all the things that make a person live and glow. We asked ten Artspan artists, working in styles from the classic to the unusual, in a variety of media, to share their policies on making portraits on commission. (click on the artists' name to reach their site and contact them.)


I like painting people, especially from life. I have done plenty of informal portraits, candid and from life, though portrait commissions are another matter. I still prefer to do as much from life as possible, though sometimes I finish the work in the studio. I meet with the subject and talk about what ideas he or she might have, and then scout locations and situations, if the setting is their residence or some venue other than my studio. I will do some pencil sketches to work out the composition and pose, and then get to work, unless I see the Right Thing straightaway, in which case I get to work painting. These formal portraits can take some time:  the picture of Sarah Stone required 18 sittings--standings actually--before it was done; that of Joseph Siti took 13. It turns out that the sitters usually find it an enjoyable process, once they are accustomed to sitting more or less still for a half hour or hour at a time before we break to rest. Depending on whether the sitter likes conversation, there is more or less of it. I tend to talk, both to occupy some part of my mind and to give the sitter something to focus on, except during periods of intense concentration, or vexation more likely.

Portrait fees, which are listed on my website, are $21,000 for full length, $18,000 for three-quarter length, $15,000 for half-length, regardless of size (unless we're talking about something really big).  A deposit of one third is to be paid in advance, the balance due upon completion of the painting.


When I paint, I use symbols and signs in the compositions so that the viewer can “read” my paintings as if they were reading books.  I believe a good painting should have depth, with many layers of stories and should be able to be interpreted differently depending on the viewer’s circumstances: our life is complex and nothing is permanently fixed in any rigid interpretation.


My normal process of painting a portrait involves an initial meeting with the sitter.  In special cases, such as surprise gifts, I would work from photographs, but meeting the sitter in person makes me understand their personality and atmosphere more accurately, and the portrait ends up being more personal and precise. I work with acrylic on canvas, panel and paper.


I love bas relief. I love the combination of illusion and precision. It feels so very impossible to make it work and yet it is possible.  I strive for simplicity and technical precision in the hope that the illusion and wonder that is inherent in bas-relief will be the dominant voice of each piece. My goal is to create a quiet but technically perfect thing: a small jewel.



My commissions tend to be with clients who live far away. When I receive a portrait commission I start by taking photographs of the subject or asking the client to take photographs after explaining carefully what I need. I choose a few images that will work well and then ask the client to live with 8x10 photos of those on their wall for a week or so. It's useful to have the client live with the essential feeling of the image before choosing one to use. The client lets me know which they prefer and then the process begins. The client will talk to me about the person who I will be sculpting so that I hear what is essential about that person. I get a feeling about what strengths I need to focus on and portray. I start in clay and when I reach the level of finish that the clay allows, I make a mold and cast a plaster version. Once I have the plaster version I begin to finish the details and get a good likeness. I work with the client to make sure that they feel that the portrait is going well. It's very important to me that the client is extremely happy with the outcome. When the client is really happy, I make a rubber mold and cast it either in a material called Forton, which is a gypsum, resin, fiberglass material or bronze, depending on the desire and budget of the client. My prices start at $5,000 for a single small Forton portrait and $6,500 for a slightly larger Forton portrait with floral work and lettering.


Sandra Flood is a self-taught painter whose started her career in Bucks County, PA. Painting on linen, mylar, and paper her work is primarily figurative, imbued with subtle yet compelling emotion. She believes less is more when it comes to her work.

My oil portrait work starts at $4000 for a life size head and shoulders view and starts at $2800 for half life size of head and shoulder view. Graphite drawing portraits start at $1800. Pet oil portraits start at $1000. I can work from good photos, preferably jpegs (so I can use my computer for better clarity). I can be contacted through my Artspan site sandraflood.com or my FB artists page for more detailed information  


I mostly work in oils, and I also do portraits in charcoal, graphite, and color pencil. I've always been attracted to portraits set in fictional or allegorical environments. I try to create a window that is, in a way, open on a different world. It is sometimes meant to tell a story. Sometimes, it's not so much about a specific narrative as just about suggesting a sense of mystery. Now and again, a story or a certain mood somehow weaves itself into the image. The end result depends on my interaction with each individual.  


The oil portrait process usually involves two or more sittings in person, so that I can create sketches from life, and then take photos. I generally complete most of the portrait in my studio, working from photo reference and sketches.


The pricing depends on the medium and the size of the portrait.  


My work is not traditional portraiture; I do what a want with considerable input from the client. As I have told clients in the past "I'll do a work on commission and once I get the deposit (which usually covers cost of materials... maybe just a bit more) I'll proceed with the picture. It takes a bit of time (I work a regular job so I can eat).” However, should the client not appreciate the work at the end of the process I keep the work. I've not had a client turn me down as yet with regard to accepting the work.  


I work from photographs in the case of commissions. I am in Virginia Beach so unless we just happen to luck into a client nearby that's pretty much what we will have to deal with. Pictures can be big (quite big) and quite expensive, or small, but I prefer medium-size. There tends to be a conversation that develops between the client and me over what they want and what I am willing to do. Usually we reach a quick agreement, though there have been cases where it just took a bit of time...in the end it worked out.


I prefer Oil  and can do photo realistic watercolor (but that is a bit expensive as it takes many, many hours).  I'm open to suggestions from the client--the last picture I did was not what I necessarily wanted but it turned out pretty good.



As an emotional and also visually literal person, I make primarily representational imagery from an emotional space. My greatest satisfaction comes from knowing that my work has elicited an emotional response from those who have viewed it. With regard to commissioned portraits, I try to create a sense of casual lightness with a touch of whimsy rather than a more formal approach. I welcome portrait commissions of adults, children and pets.


There are three stages to the portrait process. Stage 1 begins with a meeting between the client and myself to discuss the scope of the portrait to be created. Questions of medium, size, price, mood, clothing, background and scheduling are considered. The price is determined by size, number of subjects, and complexity of the background. The actual size of the piece is not determined exactly until the composition has been finalized, so an estimated size and price range is given at Stage 1 and finalized at Stage 2. I prefer to work from photographs I take myself, but can also use pictures the client provides. A nonrefundable deposit of a third of the agreed upon price is required at contract signing.

 Stage 2. After the photo shoot and selection of images, I create a preliminary layout, which is presented to the client. Upon approval of the layout, the size and price is finalized and 50% of the remaining balance is due.

 Stage 3. The remaining balance is due when the portrait is completed. 

Base price is for head and shoulders of a single subject on a plain background. Each additional subject, add 50%. Detailed background, add 30% of base. 



I do indeed accept photorealistic portrait commissions, but only 3-4 (max.) per year due to the time involved in my process.  


In my work I strive to capture extreme intimacy with the subject to create something personal and intriguing. My style ranges from photorealism to hyper-realism in a close-up, editorial photographic manner. Most works are on high quality archival paper in pastel with combination of water media, ink, Conté, and acrylic. I start from photographs that I take or that the subject provides. I select and edit an image down to a low-resolution image, from which I will begin creating a study and then painting the portrait.



I do accept commissions on a limited basis. If you have looked at my work and are interested in "my way" of making images, I will be glad to work with you. I always ask which photographs of mine inspired the buyer and I also like to get together with the person before I make a decision to work with them. I want to be sure, which is really hard to do and sometimes I have been wrong, that the person truly is interested in a "Benita Keller Photograph.” This doesn't mean that I don't work to have a "pleasing" image. But it does mean several things, and the most important is that I do no photoshop "fixing" of my images. If a person has wrinkles I don't get rid of them or alter them in Photoshop. If a person starts talking to me a lot about "what they don't like about their personal body image," I usually run very fast. I have had people bring be a photograph that they have seen and they want me to duplicate it with them as the subject. I don't do that either. I usually require several sessions, which I have to say often become a lifetime great adventure for the person who has commissioned me. And here's the most important part:  I will not take on a commission unless the person is willing for their images to be part of my portfolios and published in books, shown in galleries and offered for sale as my artwork. I like to shoot both in film and digital for all of my portrait shoots and I still make black and white silver prints. 



The Art-making Process 

 Usually I start by asking the sitter what type of portrait they would like, whether it's a family portrait, an individual, etc. Then I would take reference photos, trying out different poses. I also may do a few quick sketches of the sitter in the agreed pose, to capture elements that can be distorted on a photo, such as overexposed lights. 


Once the sitter and I agree on a reference photo, then I would start to create the painting itself. I start with an underpainting, either by using a grid to transfer a drawing to the surface or by drawing it directly on the canvas, depending on the complexity of the composition. I usually use either raw umber or a mix of burnt sienna and ultramarine blue for the underpainting. In this stage I also lay the groundwork for the shadows. Once that's set, the next step would be applying the lights and colors with opaque paint. The painting would progress with several layers in this way, always keeping in mind the initial drawing. Once the painting is finished, I apply a coat of Gamvar varnish, which deepens the darks in the painting and also gives it a nice satin finish.

Payment terms 

I usually work with an installment plan of 3 payments. The first payment acts as a deposit and is used to buy the materials for the work. Once I receive the third and last payment the work is given to the client. A contract or agreement may also be drawn, detailing payment terms. 

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