So, here's the thing: I am a working portrait artist-have been for quite some time-and yet, in my portraiture course, I devote a class to teaching my students how to become successful portraitists themselves. Why would I teach classfull after classfull of talented people how to compete with me? Am I nuts? Do I not need the business? Um, "No" on both. The world market is not glutted with portrait artists, and is never likely to be, for this particular reason: Everyone wants a portrait.
Think about it: Wouldn't you like a portrait? If not of yourself, than of your kids, or of your adorable shih tzu, or your beloved Grandma who passed away last year? And if not for yourself, wouldn't a portrait be a wonderful gift to commemorate an event like a wedding, an anniversary, Mother's Day or Father's Day, retirement, a new baby, or just because a portrait is a unique present that has the potential to become a family heirloom, treasured and passed down for generations?
Well, now, you see? EVERYBODY wants a portrait. I personally cannot produce portraits for everybody, so by all means, feel free to step into the gap. And to get you started, here is my advice on marketing yourself to the portrait-hungry public.
Okay, so now you know the big, secret fact: Everybody wants a portrait. Here's the second part of it: Not everybody knows a portraitist. That's why you have to promote not only your talent, but also your availability as a working portrait artist. You can do this in a number of ways, which I will organize here as People, Places and Things (just think of the definition for 'nouns' to remember).
People: Family; friends; coworkers; customers; classmates; fellow members of clubs/ churches/ organizations/ groups. Think about all the people you know-friends, relatives, people in your book club, members of your church, etc. Maybe you are taking classes or belong to an organization like Rotary, a volunteer group or a social club. Maybe you have coworkers at a job, or your own clients through another business, like interior design or real estate. The point is, you know a lot of people. How well do they know you? Your family and friends probably know you are an artist, but do they know you want to accept portrait commissions? Make sure they know, and that everyone else does, too. You don't need to be pushy; just let people know you are a portrait artist, and they will file the fact away for future reference.
And, hey, don't just say you're thinking about being a portrait artist or trying to become one, say you are. Have some confidence! People will be fascinated, and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now, think again about all the people on that list that you may know, and think about this: Every one of those people has a list, too. Your friends have coworkers; your relatives belong to churches and clubs; your neighbors have family and friends and clients.
So if your brother's boss or your friend's Sunday School teacher is thinking about getting a portrait done and asks if anyone can recommend an artist, your brother or friend can pipe up, Yes! And you end up getting a commission from someone you may never even have met. And once that commission is filled and hanging proudly in their home, think of all of their friends, family and so on who might see your artwork, compliment it and end up referred to you. So, if you want to end up with an order from your son-in-law's boss's best friend's minister's gardener's neighbor's manicurist, make sure your son-in-law knows about the whole portrait thing in the first place, okay? It might be nice to sweeten the pot by starting to do portraits as gifts for your friends and family; that way they'll have something to rave over and send your name on down the line.
Places: Retail (yours and theirs); public spaces; galleries; shows and expos; the internet. Presuming that you have produced some sample portraits, there are a great number of places you can show them off. If you happen to own a restaurant or store or know someone who does, these can be great places to display your artwork. Include contact information that people can remove from the pieces and take with them (I usually make a little business card holder out of card stock, which can be stuck to the glass on the portrait itself). If you don't have your own store but you're feeling intrepid, ask around. Many local restaurants hang art for sale, and you might get stores interested by matching your subject matter to their clientele: Put wedding portraits in bridal shops, pet portraits at pet-supply stores and veterinarian's offices. You could overcome some resistance by offering a small percentage of the proceeds on commissions resulting from the displayed work.
Shows and expos offer similar opportunities. You can rent a booth or table at a bridal expo or at a cat, dog or horse show, displaying your portraits and even having one in progress to work on while you man your booth. One caution: People do not come to these events armed with photos and ready to place an order, so these shows should be viewed more as a networking opportunity than anything else. If your want to make your booth rent back, you should take some small things you can sell off the table, such as note cards or magnets featuring your artwork.
Working in public spaces is a great way to get exposure. People cannot resist the magnetic pull of an artist at work, so take a sketch pad to the zoo, park, mall, or even a museum, and get ready to chat with admirers. Have some finished samples of your art to show (I usually have some nice finished drawings in my sketch pad that I can flip to), and have your business cards ready to hand out.
Obviously, the internet is another powerful marketing tool. If you don't feel ready to invest in your own website, you can get your work seen on other websites at very low rates, or even free!
Check out Etsy (click here to see my shop!) or other art-sales websites, your local Craigslist, or make an artist page o Facebook Click here to see mine. Your ISP (internet service provider, like AOL or Time Warner Cable) may give you a free home page you can use to advertise your services, as well. At the very least, you should create an email address to use solely for your portrait business. You can email samples to interested folks without ever having to bother with a website.
Things: Business cards; "leave behinds"; direct mail (flyers and postcards), magazine or newspaper ads. Business cards are indispensable, a must-have. They can lead to many opportunities, and are a relatively inexpensive investment-these days, you can make them on your own printer at home. But be careful about what kind of information you put on them, because they might end up in the hands of a scammer or a creepy person. Your business card should have your name and/or your business name, a phone number and an email address, at the very least; maybe a website and a mailing address, but none of these things should be your personal information.
Get a PO box or private mailbox and use that instead of your home address. It's nobody's business where you live! I never meet clients at my house or theirs, and nobody has ever had a problem with that. Along the same lines, never put your home phone, only your cell phone. Even if you have been careful not to use your home address, it can be easily found out by entering your home phone in a search engine like Google or Superpages. So, name; cell number; PO box, and your business, not your personal, email.
Another handy tool is the "leave behind", a kind of 'super business card' for artists. It gets its name from being what commercial artists leave behind with an art director to keep on file after they have shown off their portfolios. This usually consists of a card in a standard size, usually 4"x 6" or 5" x 7". One side features a sample of the artist's work (one image or several), plus the artist's name and contact information, just as on a business card. The reverse side can be set up as a postcard, with spaces for address, message, and stamp, so your piece can serve double duty as a mailer as well as a handout.
If you try to secure commissions using direct mail or print ads, try to keep it local-shipping photos and artwork back and forth can get expensive, and loss or damage can occur. Some of my portraits have ended up in France, Mexico and Ireland, but they all started from local contacts.
As you can see, there are many ways you can get your artwork in front of potential customers. The best part is when your portraits start to sell themselves. I personally do not spend a penny on advertising at this point in my career; all my clients or either repeat business, acquaintances, or referrals, and they all contact me. It's a pretty nice setup, really. Well, now that you know how, go out and drum up some business!
If you'd like to read my other Figure Drawing 101 articles, click here:
Image is my original artwork, soft pastel on Canson pastel paper. Click to enlarge!