Getting Started As a Portrait Artist

For many centuries, making a living as an artist required painting or drawing portraits. While there are now many more ways to generate art income, portrait work is still a staple of many studios. Getting started as a portrait artist can be time-consuming work, though. Is there an easy way to do it?

There is no quick start program for getting started as a portrait artist. Like everything else art-related, it takes time, patience, and persistence.

Getting Started as a Portrait Artist

But you can do a few things to make the process smoother. And possibly faster.

Tips For Getting Started As a Portrait Artist

There’s much more to becoming a portrait artist than we have time to discuss today, so I’ll begin with four basics. Doing these things doesn’t guarantee success, but not doing them could hinder progress.

 Tip #1: Consider Your Target Market

If you don’t know your target audience, you’ll spend a lot of time and money promoting your portraits to people who just aren’t interested. It’s important to understand who is most likely to hire you before you start marketing yourself.

Figure out the people most likely to hire you, and you can focus on those areas from the start. That alone makes it easier to gain portrait work and name recognition.

Does that mean everyone in that target audience will become a client? Not at all. But it does mean those people are more likely to take an interest in your work.

Does that mean you never promote your work to other people? No, because you can never be sure who will buy something from you.

But best place to begin promoting yourself as a portrait artist is with people who like the type of art you do.

So what does a target audience look like?

Members of your target audience share three characteristics.

One, they like the same subjects you like. Say, horses or dogs or classic cars (yes, classic cars, houses, and landscapes can fall into the portrait category.)

Two, they like art and prefer your style.

Three, they have money to spend and are likely to spend it on art.

It does you no good to promote your portrait work to other artists (a lesson I had to learn the hard way.) Nor does it do any good to promote your dog portraits to people who want portraits of their cats and their kids (unless you’re willing to step outside the box; not usually a good idea when you’re getting started.)

It’s not necessary to spend weeks figuring this stuff out. An afternoon is usually sufficient.

And if the thought of finding a “target audience” is too scary, then just look for people who like the kind of art you make.

Oh, and who have money to spend on it.

For more specific help in identifying your target audience, read 3 Ways to Identify the Best Target Audience for Your Art, which I wrote for EmptyEasel.

Think Local

Once you’ve identified your most likely clients, go where they are. Do you paint horse portraits? Check out the local saddle club, or county fairgrounds. If you do dog portraits, look for kennel clubs and so on.

When I was getting started, I found regular horse shows hosted by the county fairgrounds in two neighboring counties. I went to those shows as often as I could. Sometimes, I went with just my camera. Sometimes I set up a small booth or just sat in the stands and sketched or watched. I got to be a regular and made friends among the horse owners. I rarely sold anything on-site, but it was time well spent, and I often went home with batches of new photographs. Photographs I still sometimes browse through.

Local shows are often free admission and close by, which means reduced expenses all the way around. If you’re working for a living and building an art career on the side (which most artists are), cutting costs wherever possible is a necessity.

The purpose of attending such shows on a regular basis is to be seen and to see. If all you do is make friends and take pictures, you’ve had a good day. Building relationships is key. Think of it as laying the groundwork for future business.

And those pictures could become the reference materials for a new drawing or painting.

Work Your Way Up

Leverage time and experiences at local events into larger events. The friends you make at the local level know about regional, state, and association events. Chances are they know far enough in advance for you to make plans to go, too.

Attending a large show could involve a lengthy drive and possibly admission fees, so when you’re beginning, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to attend very many of them.

But you do need to go, whether you’re exhibiting artwork or not. The opportunities to meet horse people from around the region and across the country is an opportunity you don’t want to miss.

Take a camera, drawing equipment, and a stack of business cards. Take a lot of pictures, and hand out business cards to people interested in your work.

Build a Body of Work

Do as much painting and drawing as possible. You need at least a half dozen pieces to exhibit, more if they’re small. That means six oil paintings or drawings that are as good as you can make them and framed for exhibit.

Choose your best work. You can take them all if you want, but display only the best. It’s nice to have backups to replace paintings or drawings you sell, but your display should always showcase your best work. This will be the only opportunity a lot of people have to see your work; make the best impression on them you can.

Don’t Give Up

Don’t expect overnight success. Chances are you will not see significant sales right away. It is possible, of course, but it isn’t probable. You need to establish yourself as a trustworthy artist with not only the skill and talent to do the work, but the determination to see it through when you get a custom order.

Getting Started as a Portrait Artist is not Easy.

For most of us, it’s going to take a lot of hard work and time to build a career as a portrait artist.

But it can be done and, if you’re willing to put in the time and effort on your artwork and on promoting your artwork, you can do well as portrait artist.

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