5 Secrets to Becoming a Successful Portrait Artist

By Carrie Lewis in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

It’s possible to make money painting portraits for clients, but it isn’t easy. Nor is it a get-rich-quick proposition.

I’ve been painting portraits of horses for fun and profit since I was seventeen. Most of what I’ve learned, I learned the hard way. Some of it isn’t taught in school but should be; some just can’t be taught in a classroom.

Today I’ll share five of the most important lessons to help you avoid some of the pitfalls I encountered.

1. Know who your customer should be

It’s not possible to paint so as to please everyone and the artist who tries generally ends up pleasing no one—including him- or herself. What’s worse, the artist ends up chasing market trends and developing no particular style.

It’s far better to know yourself and your art well enough to be able to identify the people most likely to appreciate your art AND spend money on it. That helps you create marketable artwork and that allows you to paint to your heart’s content and make money.

2. Really listen to your clients

Once you’ve identified your target market, the most important thing for the portrait artist to do is make their client happy. The person who likes your work well enough to trade their money for your painting (or drawing) is someone with whom you must develop relationship.

I’m not talking about going to dinner or a ball game relationships. I’m talking about a relationship in which you communicate well enough and long enough with the client to talk about the portrait. And not just talk.

You also have to set aside preconceived ideas and listen to what the client wants. If you want your client to have a portrait they’re proud to show off instead of one they leave in the shipping container or stuff in a closet or storage room, you have to figure out their idea of the ideal portrait and then deliver on it.

Open and honest communication also helps if there are problems or delays with the project. Life does happen, but if you’ve established a relationship with your client, explaining those delays or problems is a lot easier.

And usually turns out a lot better for both of you.

3. Research your subject—in person

Modern technology makes it possible to get high-quality photographs of almost anything without leaving home. You will have to make use of someone else’s photos for some portraits, but it’s important to see as many of your subjects as possible.

Most of my clients are out of state. I’ve never seen the vast majority of the horses I’ve painted over the years. In fact, some owners didn’t contact me until after their equine companion was in greener pastures. That makes using client photo references a must.

But I stress to potential clients the advantages of taking my own photographs. That’s not just because I know I’ll end up with enough photographs to get several good compositions (100 or more). Nor is it because I like to travel (which I do).

A personal photo shoot gives me the opportunity to see the horse in person. I can observe how it moves, its attitude and personality, the colors in the shadows and highlights, and a wealth of other intangible information that cannot be captured photographically or described in writing.

That information always influences the portrait. The influence may be as basic as suggesting the ideal composition or finding the animal’s “most photographic” side. But there is a difference between a portrait painted from reference photos only and one painted from a personal photo shoot.

While being there is important for every subject, it’s especially vital if you paint living subjects, whether human or animal. It’s much easier to capture the life of the subject when you’ve seen the subject in person.

Finally, being on location gives you personal memories of the environment, work, and day-to-day life of the subject. While those memories may not be necessary to creating a beautiful likeness, they add a wealth of personality to the finished portrait.

4. Be known for your customer service

We often hear retailers and other business people talk about customer service. Usually, they’re trying to convince us that it’s their #1 priority.

As a portrait artist, customer service had better be your first priority. Whether you’re making a living from portrait painting or it’s a part-time business, your success depends on satisfied clients talking to friends, family members, or professional associates about the great portrait they commissioned from you.

Most of my clients knew someone who had one of my portraits before they bought theirs. There’s no substitute for that kind of promotion because it happens no matter what I’m doing or where I am.

Most artists don’t like being forced to think like this. We much prefer spending time alone, painting or drawing, and letting the art speak for itself.

Good artwork will speak for itself, but before it can, it needs to be seen. The people most likely to see it are those whose friends or associates already own a piece of your work.

5. Go above and beyond for your client

It’s easy to talk about but difficult to make a client feel like they’re your only client, but you must do it. How?

Take the time to talk. This is especially important when they’re making the decision to choose you.

Answer questions honestly. Don’t hedge when a client asks a question with a difficult answer. This usually has to do with price, but not always. Be prepared to answer those questions with confidence. An artist who answers with confidence usually ends up with a confident client.

Keep your word once you’ve given it. Nothing has the potential to do more harm than telling a client you can have a painting finished in six months and take twelve to complete it (unless you have a rock solid reason for the delay).

Find ways to wow your clients. Go the extra mile in creating and presenting the portrait. One of the ways I’ve found to do this is to hand-deliver portraits whenever possible.

The best thing the portrait artist can do to achieve success is leave every client with a positive experience. That experience has to begin from the first contact, but it doesn’t end when the painting is finished.

Your body of work is what sells a client when they buy their first portrait from you. The portrait you paint for them—and more importantly, the way you treat them—is what sells the next one.


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