This is a question I often ponder over. Commissioning a portrait is not a spontaneous decision. It requires an investment of your time and money. It’s not just about recording a likeness, otherwise a photo will do. So why choose to commission an artist to paint your portrait? And is there a serious role for portrait painting in the modern world, or is it just a niche interest – a curious relic from history.
In the past a portrait was a symbol of wealth and status. But that was mainly down to the cost. Nowadays art materials cost a fraction of what they did, and artists are similarly no longer a scarce resource. A painted portrait won’t afford you the status that it would have in the past, so that’s no longer a reason to commission one. However, the good news is that commissioning a portrait is more affordable today than it has ever been.
It’s not just a moment in time
A painted portrait can be so much more than just a snapshot of the sitter – it is a record of the sitting and the entire time spent posing for the artist. But it can also tell a story. It can allude to their past, and even suggest the future. I am sometimes asked to paint a portrait to commemorate a special moment in a relationship. It might be an anniversary or birthday, or even a celebration of surviving an illness. I like to think that the portraits I have painted are more than just records of my brief encounter with the sitter, but are evocations of special moments and memories.
The sitting and the importance of drawing
I find drawing is an essential step in the process of producing a portrait. Even when asked to work from photos, I will never skip the preparatory drawing stage. The act of drawing, of closely observing the subject for two or three hours, reveals qualities and attributes that I would not have noticed otherwise. This close observation enhances my understanding and connection with the subject, which I believe leads to a more intimate and informed representation of the sitter.
What distinguishes portrait painting from photography is the extended process required to produce a painting. I will have to go through the same steps that a portrait photographer will go through (choosing pose, attire, lighting, location) but that will only be the very first step in a longer and sometimes arduous journey. I paint in oil paint. It is an unruly medium: smelly; ruins your clothes and furniture; takes ages to dry, and can be difficult to use. But it is so versatile, and can produce sublime results. I am constantly learning new methods and techniques. I did once dabble with digital art. For a brief moment I was so relieved at not choking on nasty fumes or having to watch for paint splashes and wait for layers to dry, that I stupidly thought it might be the future of painting. But I soon saw that no computer algorithm can recreate the wonderful unpredictability of oil paint. The same things that are so frustrating about this medium are also it’s greatest qualities. When you load a bristle brush with a lump of oil paint and run it along the coarse surface of the canvas, you can’t predict exactly how it will turn out. It will often disappoint, but sometimes the simplest brushstroke can amaze. When you buy a painting, you are buying the product of that struggle between artist and medium.
Is Portrait Painting still relevant?
So those are some of my thoughts on why commissioning a portrait painting is still relevant in this day and age. In the modern world where all the talk is about NFTs and AI, there is a reassuring beauty and appeal about a traditionally painted portrait. It is so much more than just a likeness rendered on canvas. It is the product of a long process. It’s a journey that starts with the subject sitting down in front of the artist.
Available for Commissions
If you’re interested in commissioning a portrait, or would just like more information, please do get in touch via the email address on my Contact Page.
I have written a few case studies of previous commissions. They show you some of the decisions that had to be made in commissioning a portrait: Portrait Case Studies
I have collected some case studies of recent portrait paintings, detailing the decisions that had to be made in planning each painting. I hope they might be useful to anyone thinking about having their own portrait painted.
Portrait Case Study 1. The Blue Dress
Size and pose: This is quite a large portrait, at over 100cm tall. Given that we quickly agreed on a large canvas, it was then a choice of choosing between a full length or 3/4 length pose. We worked through a variety of standing and seated poses, finally agreeing that this seated position looked best. We paid great attention to the placement of the hands – trying to avoid them looking awkward, while also looking interesting in the final painting. Apart from adding greater visual impact, this size canvas does allow for working in greater detail on the whole figure and on the clothing.
Style and clothing: We were limited by the chosen date for the sitting being a blazingly hot summers day, so a loose summer dress seemed the most comfortable option. It wasn’t the first dress pulled from her wardrobe. We considered quite a few options, and in the end agreed that this dress looked nice on her and would add some interest to the painting.
Setting: Ordinarily I liked to have sitters pose in their home environment. Apart from being more comfortable, the decoration and furnishing of a room often says something about the sitter. In this particular case the sitter had just sold their old home and was staying in rented accommodation, awaiting a move to their new home. So this bland Airbnb flat certainly didn’t say much about the sitter, but it was a suitably bright and blank backdrop. I chose to include some of the fire surround just to add some visual interest, and to help set the sitter in space.
Props: The items in the background (shoes, book, flowers) were added later, and weren’t part of the original brief. As I worked on the painting, I felt that there was a lot of dead space in the background that wasn’t doing anything. I also was not fully aware during the sitting what a pivotal time this was in the sitter’s life, and I felt I should include something (spring bulbs) to suggest the fresh start the sitter was experiencing. The boots and book are indicative of her great interests. I could have thrown in lots more, but I did not want the props to distract from the figure.
If you have any questions about commissioning your own portrait, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. My email is on the Contact page
Portrait Case Study 2. Renaissance Garden
This is not actually a commission, but was painted as a portfolio piece – a painting that I could show to prospective customers and take along to art fares. In the event, it was snapped up by a collector shortly after I finished it, so now I only have the photos to share with you
Canvas Size: I chose a 50cm x 40cm linen canvas for this painting before I even started. It’s quite common to start a commission with a decision about the canvas size. It might be to fit in with your budget (larger paintings will incur more costs), but more often it’s because most people have limited space to display artwork. This particular linen has a very nice surface for portraits; although the weave is still visible, it’s less intrusive than cotton canvas. The smoother surface allows for more detailed work.
Pose: I worked through quite a few different poses with the sitter. She had a wonderful calm demeanour about her, which I wanted to capture in this painting. Having already decided on the canvas size, I was limited in my selection of poses. A full body pose would have meant her face would have been quite small on the canvas. I find this size ideal for a head and shoulders portrait, being large enough that I can introduce quite a lot of detail in the face. We went through different poses with arms crossed, or the model sitting. In the end I chose this standing pose. The model had such excellent posture, and that wonderful poise, that I wanted to try and capture it with the simplest of poses.
Style and clothing: I asked the model to select her own clothing, giving consideration to how she wanted to be portrayed. She arrived wearing a colourful headscarf and loose knit jumper, which suited her well. The jumper provided a nice contrast in textures, which worked well in the finished painting.
Background: I initially planned this portrait with just a plain background, but I quickly realised there was a timeless quality about this model, which got me thinking about Renaissance portraits; where they might sometimes introduce a section of landscape in one of the top corners. This was a useful device to add depth and perspective to the composition, while also adding colour and visual interest to the painting. I was more interested in the latter, and how a serene vista would complement the model’s calm manner. I also wanted to demonstrate how alternative backgrounds can be easily introduced into a commissioned portrait.
Props: No need for props with this portrait. The smaller canvas didn’t lend itself to being cluttered with objects. With similar commissions of this size the sitter has asked that they be painted wearing a particular piece of jewellery, which was of sentimental value.
Painting technique – Glazes and underpainting
The photo above shows the painting at three different stages. I had already worked out the composition on paper, with preparatory drawings. The underpainting is painted with a monochrome or very restricted palette. Once I was happy the tonal values were correct, I introduced colour into my palette. The final photo above shows the painting just before I add the colour glazes. It’s a traditional technique can add a wonderful luminosity to the highlights, and a depth of colour to the shadows that simply cannot be achieved with other techniques.
This was a challenging commission. It taught me a lot about ballet, and also about specific problems in painting “action” poses. I was approached by a ballet teacher who wanted a portrait of herself in a recognisable dance pose. Being a lifelong admirer of Degas’ wonderful paintings of ballet dancers (here’s an example at the Met), it was a commission I couldn’t refuse. I was concerned that my studio would not be big enough. Although fine for portraits, I felt it might feel cramped if she started throwing her arms and legs around. Despite my suggestion to have the sitting at her dance studio, she preferred to come to my studio.
Problems holding a pose.
The first problem I encountered was that it proved difficult to hold any dance pose long enough for me to produce a useful drawing. Gestural charcoal sketches were okay, but the more detailed drawings I like to produce were not possible, and the sitting became quite a challenge for the both of us. I can see why Degas favoured pastels. As soon as I had enough sketches, I suggested my client should run through her repertoire of ballet poses, and I would start taking photos. She looked through the photos every now and again, and we would adjust the poses accordingly. Apart from the different poses, we also tried different outfits. In the beginning the tutu was my least favourite outfit and I couldn’t see it making it to the final painting. By the end of the sitting we had lots of photos of various ballet poses carried out in three different outfits. My client checked through them, pointing out any where the pose was not up to standard, and then I undertook to work up some sketches from the remaining photos, offering some alternative layouts.
A choice between two poses and outfits
I couldn’t find the original sketches, but did manage to find photos of these later oil sketches. We had already eliminated alternative poses, and I offered my client two slight variations of this pose. Although I hadn’t been keen on the tutu at first, by this stage I felt it looked the better outfit, and made for a more balanced composition. Also the pose on the left looks that little bit more dynamic.
What did I learn? Ballet instructors are very demanding about their dance positions being spot on. I got into trouble with some wonky arms in my first sketches. Second, although I’m very happy with how the painting turned out, I still feel that it would have added extra visual interest if it was set in a dance studio. Finally, if I’m presented with a similar dance challenge in future, I would forgo my usual preparatory sketches, and would instead video the sitting while taking photos. I think that would be a more useful record than my charcoal sketches. I have started to use video even with my traditional portrait paintings (especially when the sitter can’t pose in person), as it can sometimes give a better sense of what the sitter really looks like.
If this article has given you the inspiration to commission your own painting, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me – use the email address on my Contact Page.
This is a photo of my latest work in progress. When I moved to Ramsgate I had the idea of painting a series of portraits of Ramsgate artists. I thought it would be a good way of introducing myself to the local artistic community, I could promote my portrait work, and I might find some interesting subjects. So what happened? I had a run of four commissions which seem to have taken as many months to finish. Good for the bank balance, but not so good for this particular project. And then I got covid, which seemed to linger forever. I lost my studio, and then I sold my boat and moved away from Ramsgate. Oh well.
The sitting took place in November last year. Fingers crossed that I can finish it soon 🙂 The sitter was Ramsgate composer and sound artist Emily Peasgood. She is an amazing artist and I was so pleased that she found the time to sit for me. You can check out her work here: emilypeasgood.com
I don’t remember her exact words, but that was the gist of it. She barely knew me, but knew that I was an artist, and had seen my work online. How those words sound to an artist’s ears! Of course I wanted to paint her. She had been through a lot – had fought enough battles, aside from her illness. And now she wanted to present a positive image of herself to the world; not the image of a scarred or damaged person, but instead the picture of a strong and beautiful woman.
It has made me wonder about the different reasons people have for commissioning a portrait. Most of the enquiries I receive about commissions are someone wanting a portrait of their wife, child or husband, in that order. Although I receive fewer enquiries from people who want their own portrait painted, they are far more likely to turn into actual commissions. It seems they already know what they want before they contact me. But their reasons are not always the same. There was the ballet teacher. Dance was her life. As she began to look ahead to retirement, she wanted a record of herself as “the dancer”.., before she hung up her ballet shoes for good.
The poet wanted a stark, bare portrait to take on stage, for his act. I think it turned out too stark and bare. He didn’t take it on stage.
A woman wanted a nude portrait of herself, as a gift for her husband. A man wanted a nude portrait of himself for his husband. I wondered why I had a growing number of enquiries for nude portraits. I’ve tried to promote my conventional portrait work just as much, and didn’t understand this trend.. It turns out that my website ranks highly for “commission a nude portrait” and barely appears in a Google search for “commission a portrait”.
So anyway, if you know any poets, dancers, husbands or wives, or whoever, who wants that special portrait painted, whatever their reasons…, please point them towards my contact page.
I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. I can onlyspeak from the perspective of an artist. When I look at the portraits I have painted, I consider them as a record of the time spent with the sitter – whether it was just a single session, or a number of repeat sittings. During that time I was able to familiarise myself with not just the appearance of the sitter, but their overall demeanour and personality. I believe that contributes towards the final artwork being far more than just a record of the sitter in a static pose, frozen in time. The whole process of producing the portrait, from the initial enquiry, through the various stages, is very much a cooperative exercise between artist and sitter.
How to commission a portrait.
Find an artist.It is important to find an artist where you feel a connection with their work. I would have said that art fairs and open studios are a great way to check out lots of artists, but I’m afraid they might not properly resume for quite a while. Thankfully, it is a lot easier now to peruse the work of various artists than it ever was, with most artists having an online presence – whether it’s a website or an Instagram account. Try to find examples of their previous commissions.
Contact the artist. Unless an artist specifies that messages should be directed to their gallery, they will probably welcome enquiries about a prospective commission. Sadly, artists with online presences will attract more than their share of bogus messages and scams, so it might reassure them to give your phone number, or at least your full name, so they can try to verify your identity.
Discuss the brief. An artist cannot provide you with a price unless certain parameters have been decided. The most important will be the size of the finished portrait, and then the type of pose – head and shoulders, half body, full body, two figures. Each adds a level of complexity to the painting, and will incur an additional cost. Even a complicated background, compared to a blocked out colour, will cost a bit more. So it’s a good idea to decide on these things at an early stage. The artist should be able to guide you through the decision making process, and then he will be able to give you a price.
The contract. Some artists will require you to sign a contract and pay a deposit. Others, including myself, may only require that expenses and materials are paid for in advance. However you agree, whether by phone conversation, zoom call or email correspondence, it is important to have that final agreement in writing, to avoid any future misunderstandings. If there’s is completion date, you should make that clear with the initial discussions. Oil paints take time to dry between layers, and some working methods take longer than others.
The sitting. Some artists will work exclusively from life, whereas others will work only from photos. This is something you should consider when first approaching artists (they should make their working methods clear on their website). Can you get to their studio? Is the artist prepared to travel to you? I personally insist on at least one sitting for a portrait painting. I am not happy with painting from supplied photos. I find the initial drawings are an essential element in the process. Apart from getting to know the sitter, the process of looking at the sitter reveals far more about them than a photo can tell me.
So, we’ve arrived at the stage where the artist will commence painting. This is the exciting bit. I find the initial sitting is like preparing the stage for a play. Decisions are made about the background (the setting), and how the performer willpresent themselves to the audience (the artist, and eventually viewers of the painting). This is the most collaborative stage in the whole process. Sometimes ideas present themselves straight away, and other times it can take take some effort to work them out.
So there are a few tips on the first steps in commissioning a portrait. I can’t pretend that it won’t require an investment of time, but it doesn’t necessarily require a huge investment in money. Of course, the first step is find that artist, and get in touch with them.