The Covid pandemic has been so very disruptive to my art practice, with commissions postponed, exhibitions cancelled, and my studio closed down for months.
But this particular commission was the exception, as it came my way because of the pandemic. A group of friends struggled to think of an interesting birthday present for their housemate, when the usual “experience” gifts are somewhat limited with covid restrictions. So what better gift can you give someone than a commissioned portrait 🙂
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.
In this strange new world of social distancing and face masks, I thought I should write a few words about how it will affect my practice for the foreseeable future.
First, because of the limited space in my new studio, I will be unable to have any sittings there – it will be impossible to maintain anything close to social distancing. As a lot of people prefer to be portrayed in their own home, I am quite happy to travel to the client’s home to make preparatory drawings and to take reference photos, as long as there is enough space to allow me to do my work at a distance of 2m from the sitter. As it’s not feasible for me to relocate my studio, I will attempt to limit sittings to a couple of visits, and will complete the painting in my studio, using the sketches and photos.
I will be writing a post in the coming weeks, to describe the process of commissioning an artwork. I realise that some people are put off approaching an artist because of a lack of clarity regarding prices, and also what is required of the sitter. I hope to redress this.
I recently had a callout for volunteers to pose for portraits. These are some images from the sitting I arranged with the first volunteer. I think they give a good idea of how I set about making a portrait. I start with initial drawings, and once I’m happy with the pose and lighting, I commence with the painting. This painting is still in its early stages, but I’ll be able to finish it now using reference photos I took in the sitting.
This is an ongoing project, and I’m always on the lookout for volunteers. If you can get to my studio in London SE12 and can spare a few hours to pose, please do get in touch.