How to commission a portrait

The winner of the wildly popular Archibald prize was recently announced, and that has set me thinking about how to commission a portrait for your own collection, or as a gift.

The Archibald might be the most famous, but it’s not the only prize for portraiture in this country. To name but two others there is the Doug Moran National Portrait Prize and the Brisbane Portrait Prize. I think it is fair to say that Australia is blessed with many talented artists working in this genre, and these prizes have played a part in keeping the tradition going strongly.

Commissioning a painted (or sculpted) portrait is going to be a more expensive proposition than using a commercial photography studio, but the result will be much more significant. Not just a personal memento or a piece of house décor, but a piece of art history is being created. If you don’t believe me, visit a major public gallery and note how many portraits are on display.

Find your artist

Decide on your budget first because that will rule in and rule out some options. Top artists will charge top prices.

If you have a favourite artist that you follow, make an approach through their gallerist or agent. Otherwise, you will need to research artists who take commissions but be sure to view their work in person.

Refine your brief

Once you have a prospective artist, you should have a discussion about what you are wanting from the portrait. As you are commissioning and paying for the portrait, you have every right to have some input in to the finished product. Be aware that a portrait that is too flattering or looks ‘airbrushed’ (to borrow a photography term) may not capture a good likeness.

There are instances of people who disliked their portraits and even in some cases had them destroyed! So it is important to discuss the scale, pose, clothing, background and if other objects are to be included to show the sitter’s interests and lifestyle. Once these things are agreed upon, you should feel comfortable to give the artist a free hand to create their vision.

Understand the process

Because of the personal nature of sitting for a portrait, some rapport between artist and subject would be seem to be helpful and conducive to the process. You want the artist to capture the personality and uniqueness of the sitter in the work.

The number of sittings an artist needs will depend on their working method. Two would seem to be a bare minimum though. Most artists will use photographs as an aid, some might do a preliminary sketches. Be sure to ask about the process and timing as you work through the details of the commission with the artist and / or their representative.

Final thoughts

A very good example I think of a portrait that captures an accurate likeness and is extremely elegant is the portrait of Crown Princess Mary of Denmark by Jesús Herrera Martínez. Commissioned for her 50th birthday, the background details are suggestive but not overwhelming as can sometimes be the case.

A word of caution: the resale market for portraiture is fairly limited, even for prize-winning portraits and famous subjects. Your goal should be to commission something of lasting artistic value that you can enjoy and pass on to future generations of your family.

If you would like any help or advice, please do get in touch,

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