In What Portrait Painters Need to Know when Working to Commission Annabel Elton, Head of Portrait Commissions at the Federation of British Artists gives hints and tips for artists working on Portrait Commissions.

This series of videos, filmed at Heatherley School of Fine Art, focuses on advice for artists when working on portrait commissions, particularly if preparing for professional practice.

This chapter focuses on How to Get Yourself Seen: The four curated options.

Other videos in the series include:

Introduction to this Video

There is no point in being ready to accept a commission if nobody can find you. So I thought we would start out with how to get yourself seen. A very tiny pocket version of some things you might think about doing.

In this first section, I’m looking at options where the choices have been selected by somebody or a group of people.

How to Get Yourself Seen: The four curated options.

1 Recommendations

The first one’s the hot one: recommendation because that’s free. And recommendations are very quick and very personal, and so not to be underestimated. 

When somebody’s seen your work and enthused about it, they’re free advertising. When you’ve painted a portrait commission that they love, they will tell their friends about it. 

Don’t underestimate personal recommendation. Very often the client will not go straight to commission you, they will go via a website. They will check you out – there’s not quite a straight path. 

2 Solo Exhibitions

There’s the one-man show, which for portrait painters is an interesting one because it’s ‘jam tomorrow’. It’s not like a normal selling exhibition if you’re using commissioned works to show your abilities and so that carries with it more complications and risks than if you were doing say landscape painting which just walks off the wall. 

3 Agents

And the agent option. A few portrait painters will get taken up by agents such as Fine Art Commissions, or Philip Mould, or other galleries that represent your work in general, and will also promote your portraits. But generally speaking, commissioned portraits are not popular with agents, it’s much easier to do sold work. 

4 Open Exhibitions

And finally, the open exhibition, which I think is a very good entree into the public realm. If you look at the exhibition that the Royal Society of Portrait Painters have, you’ll see people going around with their mobile phones capturing you so they can come back to you when they’re ready. 

We have a surprising number of sales for an exhibition that’s not founded on selling. We sell about £25,000 worth of portraits this year. So, of the few works that are for sale, we do sell a lot.

There are prizes and awards of over £22,000. 

And peer recognition, which I know is very important to artists who it’s, on the whole, quite a lonely existence. And I think it’s really affirming when people you rate, rate you. 

And then finally Portrait Commissions. Not everybody who exhibits gets commissions, but there are a lot of people who would like to commission who come to the exhibition. So it’s a good way of bringing your work to the public for that purpose. 

Portrait Prizes

A few statistics:

  • The submissions that we get are very similar to the BP Portrait Award – just a little bit lower, but we take twice as many works. 
  • Last year, we took 52 face to face enquiries, but many more go online and come through the website. 
  • We had 5,000 visitors and 
  • £22,000 in prize money. 

I think there’s a lot to be had through the Open Exhibition and Portrait Competition route as a way to bring yourself to people. For those who are not familiar with these, well these are few opportunities for portrait specialists. So we have our Annual Exhibition, the Ruth Borchard Self-Portrait Prize and very much self portraits,  not so commissionable, and the BP Portrait Award.

Other FBA Open Exhibitions

Many of the Mall Galleries Open Exhibitions take and like portraits which sell and which get commissioned enquiries. We just had the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and that brought in commission enquiries, and The Pastel Society, in particular, takes all drawn media that also gathers commission enquiries as well as sales.



Annabel Elton is Head of Portrait Commissions at the Federation of British Artists. 


Discover other posts from this series:

  1. How to get yourself seen: Marketing & Promotion
  2. The Client’s Perspective
  3. Pricing
  4. Communication: Keeping a Client Happy