• Calvin Lai

Tips on How to Commission a Portrait Painting

The original selfie. An honoring of one’s being. A display for all of the world to see you as who you want to be seen for years and years to come. In an way it’s a window to immortality. Portraiture has been a coveted form of art that has spanned across ages and epochs. It has captured the souls of kings to the local barber’s pets. So it’s no wonder that we as a people are so fascinated with it. There is a magical quality when an artist can recreate a bit of you. If you’ve ever thought about getting a piece done of you or your loved ones you might be wondering how to commission a portrait painting. From a commission portrait artist, here are some tips to think about and to consider in order to get an idea of the artist you want to work with and the experience you would like to have.

There’s a multitude of styles out there. Since I’m an artist with a background in traditional painting I will be talking about realistic portrait paintings. Within this genre of realism there is also a wide variety. From painterly to photorealism, anyone interested in getting a portrait done has to first look for a style they like. That is a question of taste and is something based on the individual. But to further narrow down which style a person wants, one can examine if they are more concerned with getting a portrait that is technically accurate, or if they are more concerned with how the piece feels. You can gauge this by when you look at a great painting. Do you consider the technical aspects over the general feeling the piece has? or vice versa? There are styles that fall at one end or the other of the spectrum or somewhere in between, and in reality people who want a portrait done would most likely want both elements instilled in a piece. But it is helpful to know what aspects of art we put more value in, especially if we are to invest all the time and money into commissioning a painting. This helps to successfully find a commission portrait artist whose style speaks out to your own personal taste.

To Sit or Not to Sit

There are really two types of ways a portrait artist does a piece. The artist can use a photo reference or the subject can sit for the artist while the piece is getting worked on. Sitting for an artist is a unique experience that requires a commitment by the subject. In this instance you have to really think about whether you (or whoever is being painted) can sit for long periods of time. Many artist when executing a portrait from life will do sketches and quick studies, as well as take some photos in order to bring back reference material to their studio. It is in the studio that the artist can continue to work on the piece so the subject can go about their daily lives and not have to sit for the dozens of hours it may take to complete the piece. But no matter how much work can be done in the studio, a person will still have to sit for a period of time, and usually that can be taxing. The one reason to do this is for the experience of being painted. It is a unique feeling to being observed so closely by an artist that is painting you. The second option is for the artist to have a photo reference to work from. Whether you give an artist a photo or whether they take photos of you themselves, the reference is a way of getting a portrait done while not tying you down to sit. The one drawback is that the artist generally has a harder time capturing the feeling of the person, as a photo cannot interact with them. Artist can successfully create pieces from life, or from a photo, or from a combination of the two. The main thing to examine is what type of experience you want and are capable of.

Formal or Informal

The purpose of the piece often dictates whether the composition is formal or informal. By formal I mean portraits that have the subject standing or sitting in a pose which clearly shows the features of the person or people. Larger formal pieces usually have some indication in the composition of who the person is and what their occupation or position in life is. Informal portraits are a bit more casual and can show the subject, or subjects, in some sort of action or activity. Sometimes they are not looking at the viewer. The type of people who often get formal portraits are judges, attorneys, doctors, professors, or CEOs. Informal poses can be really anything, but without the standards needed for a portrait used by anyone in a professional field.

The Nitty Gritty

Another tip in how to commission a portrait painting is to think about the type of composition you want in relation to the size of the piece, because the dimensions of the piece often determines what is possible within a painting. As a commission portrait artist, I have been asked to do paintings of a person standing, or maybe several people standing, but the client will want to order a small canvas in order to save money. Though this is an understandable temptation, one needs to keep in mind that the smaller the dimensions are the less detail an artist can put into the piece, and to do a subject standing, showing their full body from head to toe, is really unrealistic on a small canvas. If you’re wanting a painting that shows the full body, it’s best to save up money for a larger size. If you are looking for a portrait that just features the head and some shoulders, smaller canvases work great for this. There are of course compositions that show three quarters of the body or half the body, basically anything can be a portrait (I once did a portrait of a violinist by just painting their hands!), but just keep in mind the general rule of thumb is that the amount of the body within a portrait painting is dependent upon the size of the canvas. Unless you are not worried about getting completely crystal clear and accurate detail, the smaller the canvas means the less body you can show. All artists have their own classifications, but by small canvases I mean anything from 8”x10” to 14”x18”, medium sizes are from 16”x20” to 24”x30”, and larger sizes are anything 24”x36” and up.

How to Commission a Portrait Painting Without the Portrait

Any painting you may want an artist to paint is still a commission. And the tips talked about here can apply to any other subject matter you are interested in. There are more formal paintings of buildings or a still life, as well as informal ones. The size of the canvas still is determined by the subject matter. If you were interested in highly detailed San Francisco cityscape paintings, doing it on a small canvas would just be impossible. But if you wanted a painting of your favorite pair of shoes then a small canvas could work fine. Either way a good artist will be able create a piece with whatever subject matter you ask of them. Just make sure you are willing to work with them and listen to their advice and opinions. It will make the process much easier in the long run, and aid in the creation of a work of art that you will cherish for generations.

If you still have questions on how to commission a portrait painting (or even something else like still lifes to San Francisco cityscape paintings!) please feel free to contact me.


© 2017 by Calvin Lai