Artists often ask me what to charge for a commissioned portrait and clients want to understand the price structure before ordering a painted portrait. I will explain how to price a commissioned oil portrait so that both artists and clients have a solid base to enter into an agreement.
Pricing painted portraits
Art being art, there are no universal rules for the price of painted portraits. Fundamentally, prices are determined by the artists according to what their customers are willing to pay. Even if the law of demand and supply is at work for portraiture, there are a number of other factors that will influence pricing.
1-Pricing a portrait by the size of the canvas
Pricing a portrait by the square-inch of canvas painted does not work well. A small portrait, for example, at a quarter of life life-size is longer and harder to make than a larger painting at about life-size. Getting an exact likeness becomes increasingly difficult as the painted head size gets smaller. So, it does not make sense to sell smaller portraits cheaper. I painted the portrait of a family of 5 above on a 15 in x 30 in canvas. Each head is about a third of life-size which took longer to do that if they were life-size. Also, this portrait was done using different pictures taken in various light conditions, adding another difficulty. I had to take these considerations into account for setting the price.
If pricing by square inch does not make sense for most portraits, the size of the canvas can still have an impact on the price. Here are some reasons why size can influence the price:
- The cost of the paint, especially artist quality oil paint which is expensive.
- The cost of the canvas
- A larger size often means more elements to paint in the background (like the portrait of a University Dean below)
- Large canvasses need to be moved often on an easel and this takes time
- Artists who paint on large surfaces have to back away regularly from the paintings to get a global view, this also takes time.
So, size matters, but not as much as the level of complexity of the painting which should be the main driver of the cost.
2-Pricing a portrait by the level of complexity
To make it simple for clients I normally set prices according to the level of complexity of the portrait.
- $ For just the head and shoulders
- $$ For a half-figure (from the waist), usually including hands
- $$$ For a complete figure
10 factors to consider in the level of complexity:
- Hands and feet are complex anatomical features that take much longer to do well than anything else other than faces.
- Simple clothing without patterns like the portrait of the family of 5 above is less complex than the textured fabrics in the portrait of the baby below.
- Interior backgrounds are typically more demanding than exterior backgrounds
- Exterior backgrounds take longer than abstract backgrounds, with some exceptions, like the boy with the chicken at the bottom of this article. This background can almost be considered abstract.
- Working from less than ideal photos, for example when the picture is overexposed
- Having to translate into color a black and white photo
- Creating a composition using different photos, especially when the angle of the camera and the lighting is different
- Adding elements that are not in the photographs (like an arm cropped from a photo)
- Correction for lens distortions
- Altering facial expressions
Options that can be priced separately
- Painting from life, exclusively of partially (see below)
- Photoshoot, when done or ordered by the artist
- Post photo image processing (Photoshop, etc.)
- Photo or sketch approval by the client
- Revision or modification by the client
- Travel expenses
3-Pricing a portrait by hourly rate
Just like pricing by the square inch is often ill-advised, pricing by the time needed to paint a portrait is generally not useful. First, normally prices are agreed on before the beginning of a painting and it is not easy to predict with precision the amount of time the painting will require. Recognized and experienced artists often paint faster than beginners. Therefore, artists would need to keep raising their prices when they gain notoriety but also because it takes them less time to finish each painting!
There is a situation when charging by the hours can sometimes make sense, painting from life.
Painting a portrait from life
For centuries, Painting from life was the only way of doing portraiture. Nowadays it is rarely done outside of art classes. The most obvious reason is the time it takes for the sitters to be away from their occupations. Another less obvious reason is that when working from life, the position of the sitter’s head shifts continually. This not only makes it harder for the artist but it is also difficult for the sitter to stay immobile, try it! In order to avoid fatigue, breaks have to be allowed every 15-20 minutes. This adds even more time to complete the commission. One last reason that painting portraits from life are rarely done has to do the facial expressions. Even with regular breaks, the face of the sitter invariably tends to accumulate fatigue and this becomes apparent in the facial expression, so much so that the sitter may look angry or exhausted.
What I personally favor is having two relatively short sittings. The first one is just following the photo shoot, which I prefer to take myself. The other is toward the end of the portrait to adjust for some skin tone and to verify the likeness and the expression of the sitter. This avoids the hardship of live poses and liberates the sitter and the painter while maintaining a certain truth that is revealed by direct observation.
So, unless a painting is done entirely from life, pricing by the hours is usually impractical. When arranging for short sittings, as I often do, the additional time needed for the sitting sessions can be considered in the pricing. The same applies to the photo shoot and other options listed above.
Why do some artists charge a few hundred dollars and others tens of thousands?
You can get a photograph turned into a painted portrait online for as little as 99$. These paintings are usually done in “painting factories” in Asia and invariably look stiff and sterile, not to mention skin tones that can best be described as mediocre. For sure you can find extraordinary artists all over Asia, but they do not work in factories where they need to churn paintings on an industrial scale.
From the research that I have done, you can find portrait artists online who can do decent work for 300$-500$. To get a truly inspired piece where the artist will take his own photos and will develop a concept that will reveal the personality of the sitter, you can expect prices ranging from 500$ to 10,000$ for a mid-career portraitist. This range takes into account the different levels of complexity of the subject and the demand for the artist’s work. If you are willing to pay extra for a recognized name, prices will range from 10,000$ to 100,000$.
What do I charge?
There is no avoiding this question, so I may as well answer it here. I started doing portraits for free like I suggest below for beginner portrait artists. After developing a small portfolio, I had no difficulty asking anywhere between 300$ and 750$ in my first few years as a professional artist. Because of the growing demand, I had to raise my prices progressively. With more requests to portrait Judges, University brass, and Heads of international Agencies, I had to adjust my pricing to reflect the more demanding nature of these commissions. My current range is between 1,200$ and 5,000$ for a single sitter. Since I have to refuse more commissions than I can accept, this range will likely be going up again.
Advice to beginner portrait artists
Setting prices according to the level of complexity in the realization of a painted portrait may seem like the equivalent of charging for the time it takes to finish the painting. Even if this may eventually be the case, in the beginning, it could be a trap. By going with an hourly rate, you will feel tempted to stay above a set rate, such as the minimum wage and it will make you forget a more critical variable in the price equation, the market prices.
If you refuse to work for less than, let say,15$ an hour and that it takes you 40 hours to finish a portrait, you arrive at a price of 600$. This is before adding your cost for the materials, photoshoot, etc. If you compare prices for other beginner portrait artists, this may set you out of range for most potential clients. A better long-term strategy would be to set prices that clients who do not know you are willing to pay (i.e. market prices). Then, once you gain some notoriety, return customers, and word of mouth bring you more clients, you can start raising your prices. Does that mean accepting to work below minimum wage? In many cases, yes! It could also mean working for free (see below for how to build a portfolio). Keep in mind that this is often the surest way to build your reputation and to gain expertise. Having the privilege of doing what you are passionate about may require some sacrifice to start with, but it is all worth it! You can accelerate your skills development by benefitting from the expertise of some our top portrait teachers on ARTZOK.
Build a portfolio
When starting, paint your family and friends for free. This will allow you to hone your skills, develop your style and add to your portfolio. The freedom of doing portraiture without needing to please a client is an excellent way to discover your artistic voice unimpeded. Once you have a portfolio that potential customer can see, you have a starting point! Don’t neglect to promote your work on social media and other outlets that will give you visibility. Not all portraits need to make it to your portfolio, make a selection of your best work. Having clear and high-res pictures show that you care about quality, bring your portraits to a photographer if needed. If you need help building your portfolio, consider getting help from one of ARTZOK’s top teachers in portfolio development.
Do a market study
To speed things up and get clients quickly, you need to establish what is the market value of a portrait done by artists of similar skill levels in your area. Also take into consideration that well-trained artists from around the world, particularly from China, can work from photos and ship their painting in tubes at low costs. Even if you have spent years in prestigious art schools, you will have to compete with a global art trade. Once you see what price scales work in your area (and online), you can set yours competitively. Of course, it is not only a matter of prices, your skills level has to be top notch and a distinct style also helps.
Pricing painted portraits in oil or in other media can be done using canvas size, hourly rate or the level of complexity of the work. By charging according to the level of complexity, the artist will automatically factor in the time it takes to realize the painting. The size of the canvas can also be taken into account, but no more than the 10 other factors listed above. Pricing by hourly rate is impractical and not the best way to build a clientele for a new portrait artist. Beginner portrait artists who develop a solid portfolio and concentrate on sharpening their skills will gradually be able to command higher prices.
The art of portraiture in the age of Snapchat is still relevant. The craft and sensibility of the artist fuse to create unique artworks of extraordinary value.
All portraits on this page are by the author. If you would like to have a portrait painted by me, simply email me at firstname.lastname@example.org