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How to start a portrait drawing business

Updated on June 3, 2012

By LESLIE A. PANFIL

When my husband returned from a business trip with a lovely wooden box containing 120 Faber Castell pencils, I had to admit that I had never worked in colored pencil before. While I spent the better part of a day just running my hands over the incredible array of colors, it wasn’t long before I was tackling my first project.

After I drew nearly everyone in my family, I garnered the confidence start up a commission portrait business. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way.

Charging for Your Work. I would love to tell you that you will earn a fabulous hourly wage for your work. But, I can’t lie to you. I do commissions because I would be drawing anyway and at least I’m paid something to do what I love. I charge by size: $95 for 8x10, $120 for 9x12, $150 for 11x14. I add $25 for an additional figure (the figure can be person or an animal). I like for my subject to stand alone without a background but, if my client requests a complicated background there will be an additional charge of $25. As demand for your work grows you can always edge your prices up. Shipping is a separate fee.

Understand Shipping. Offering free shipping may be a great marketing tool, but it can really cut into profits. Do your research before you decide to offer free shipping. Also, you need to factor in the cost of boxes, shipping labels and packing materials.

Mount and Flap Your Work. You are going to put a lot of time and effort into that piece of paper so protect it by mounting it on board and flapping it. The practice will also help prevent something disastrous from happening between handing the portrait to your client and their getting it framed. Here is a tutorial on how to mount and flap your work. To learn how to mount and flap your work: http://lpanfil.hubpages.com/hub/drawingpreptips

Work in Standard Sizes. Working in standard sizes is a great selling point. My clients know they can walk into any frame store and pick out a standard frame and their commission piece will fit. I do recommend custom matting because they come in such an amazing range of colors that can really tie a drawing together. Your clients will thank you for saving them money and you will have a set rate card to work from.

Deposits. It is my business practice to take half the commission price upfront and the remainder upon completion. I accept personal checks and I have a paypal account. The vast majority of my business comes from my sphere of influence (friends and family). I usually waive the deposit for friends and family but, it is a good business practice that I encourage you to implement.

Final Payment. Be sure to send a photo of your finished work to your client before they either pick it up or you ship it out. There can be really subtle changes your client would like to see. Many times it has nothing to do with the photo that you worked from and everything to do with what they see in the person.

Realistic Deadlines. Ask your client when they need the portrait by. People who do not draw themselves often have unrealistic ideas of how quickly a piece can be produced. But, you don’t want to miss out on an opportunity either. So, if a piece has to be done sooner than you would normally be able to complete but, you think you can do it with putting more time in each day, I would take the challenge. Most of my clients have open ended expectations, but that doesn’t mean they want to wait forever.


Work from Good Photos. In this digital age where people are taking thousands of photos with their phone, you can be asked to work from some pretty lousy photos. If you are a newer artist, I would pass altogether on working from a poor photo. While not an ideal situation, a more seasoned artist can make a poor photo work. Always preview a photo before accepting a deposit.

Send Work in Progress Photos. Sending work in progress photos will allow your clients to see that you are moving forward toward the completion of their commission. Most clients understand that the photo you are sending is a snapshot of the process and not the end product. But, just in case, be sure to send notes along to explain how you will be finishing the image they see.

Ask Permission to Use. Because you are using the image of an actual person, it is really important to ask for permission to use their likeness before including it in your promotional portfolio. I’ve never had anyone turn me down, but I would completely understand if someone would not be comfortable.

Add on Product. I give my clients a greeting card with a print of the final piece and offer additional cards for a $2.75 or a set of 5 for $12. To learn how to make custom art cards: http://lpanfil.hubpages.com/hub/artintogreetingcards

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    • crockpotcooking profile image

      crockpotcooking 5 years ago

      I always loved to draw, however my profession is something completely different. Drawing a portrait was always challenging to me. I was not successful in it. I had more success in drawing landscapes, just for fun.

      Great work and hub

    • lpanfil profile image
      Author

      lpanfil 5 years ago from Cleveland, Ohio

      Thank you so much. I teach portrait drawing and you would be amazed at how much you can improve. I would love to see your landscapes!

    • profile image

      paxwill 5 years ago

      Wow! Your drawings are really beautiful. I wish you good luck and success with the business. Do you have a website to market your work?

    • lpanfil profile image
      Author

      lpanfil 5 years ago from Cleveland, Ohio

      Thank you paxwill. I'm working on a hub on how to market your portrait business. Because I have enough work from social media and my blog, I have not invested in a website.

    • profile image

      ignugent17 4 years ago

      You are really very talented your works are very beautiful. Thanks for sharing lpanfil.

    • lpanfil profile image
      Author

      lpanfil 4 years ago from Cleveland, Ohio

      Thank you so much ignugent17!

    • TycoonSam profile image

      TycoonSam 4 years ago from Washington, MI

      Wow, I had no idea. Your prices sound very reasonable. Best of luck!

    • ruthieonart profile image

      ruthieonart 4 years ago from Plano, Texas

      I need to ship a portrait. Thanks for the info!

    • manthy profile image

      Mark 4 years ago from Alabama,USA

      I am currently learning to do portraits, I am finding it incredibly hard, Thanks for the cool hub

    • lpanfil profile image
      Author

      lpanfil 4 years ago from Cleveland, Ohio

      Stick with it!

    • Georgina_writes profile image

      Georgina_writes 4 years ago from Dartmoor

      Beautiful drawings. I've tried portraits, but I need A LOT more practice before offering commissions, so for now I'll stick to my pastel landscapes. (I also use Pitt pencils - great, aren't they?). Thoroughly enjoyed this article. Rating up and following (and reading more of your work). Thank you.

    • By Lori profile image

      By Lori 4 years ago from USA

      So nice ! I love portraits there is just something special about them that an actual photo portrait can't create.

    • profile image

      Alisha 4 years ago

      The artwork is beautiful. Just very lovely.

    • Rosie writes profile image

      Rosie writes 3 years ago from Virginia

      I could never do this. You really capture the features of the individuals.

    • Stevie Walker profile image

      Stevie Walker 2 months ago

      I would like to know how to get noticed and get my business up and running

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