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 preparing for professional practice when working on portrait commissions. 

This chapter focuses on The Client’s Perspective

Other videos in the series include:

Your client will want ‘One of those’

When you’re selecting images for your website or other presentation, you will probably be thinking about how good the portrait is how well painted, how well drawn,  the minimum marks and things like this, your client however will be looking for ‘one of those’. 

So, if they see a drawing, they won’t know that you paint. If they see somebody in uniform, they will think you don’t do relaxed around the kitchen. If you do male, they think you don’t do female. And if you do old, they think you don’t do young. 

So they will be thinking: I want ‘one of those’. 

The client looks at it very quickly. And for an artist that can be, you know, you go to this effort, create this wonderful work of art with tremendous integrity. And they’ll only be picking it up subliminally. 

But the main question is, ‘is it what I want?’ ‘ Is it one of those that I’m going to get?’

They only see what you are showing them

I deal with a lot of images. So I have quite a lot to say about images. 

First of all, quality matters. It is not just the resolution, which has to be right (and that doesn’t mean big). On a website, you don’t really want more than 72dpi, or thereabouts. 

But for prints, you need something much higher. It’s also about the image itself. If the colour balance is out, then it’s out and it’s not going to look right and if it’s slightly out of focus is not going to represent you well. 

So it is worth putting a lot of effort into getting good images by whatever means you can and if you’ve got good images, make sure that anybody representing you gets to see them because when I’m showing people your work, I can show them only what I’ve got. 

I can’t show them what I haven’t got, so keep people up to date with what’s there, keep your website up to date.

My sister, I hope she won’t mind me saying, missed an opportunity because Mall Galleries had space at the last minute, she had work that was exhibition-ready. It would have been perfect. But when I took my colleagues to her website, it was so out of date, the work that they saw was irrelevant. You don’t know what opportunities you’re missing by not keeping your website up to date. 

And how you treat your images. If your images are not titled properly, they’re very easy to lose. They’re easy to lose on the internet because if people are searching by title, they’re not going to show up that easily and they are easy to lose in your own filing system. 

And they’re easy to lose when you send them out to people like me. So once you get an image, you’re happy with please, name and title, medium and size are a good addition to but name and title are an absolute must. I get a lot of very badly titled images.

A note on Copyright

Something you may or may not be aware of is copyright. 

A commissioned work of art is your copyright. So your client might have paid for it, your client might have sat for it, but the copyright belongs to you. 

It doesn’t mean that it is sensible to always to keep all of it because settings can be very private, clients are

very sensitive about it.

And so it’s a conversation to be had, as to what rights everybody’s going to use.

Are they happy for you to put that image out and about?

Do they want to use it for say Christmas cards, because that’s your right, and you can grant a licence for them to do that or anything else they want to do. 

You have the right to charge a fee for that, you also have the right to have your name and title properly on the image wherever it appears. 

So just be aware that copyright is yours. And you need to look after it. 

You’re not the only person involved. If you’ve got a professional photographer to take the image, the natural way, the default position is that the copyright belongs to the photographer.

So you need to negotiate that upfront. You also need to acknowledge the photographer when you’re reproducing as appropriate. 

Distinguishing the artist’s contribution to a portrait from the sitter’s 

So we go to you’ve got to work out there. How does the client think about it when they’re choosing you? We’ve covered how they look at your image rather differently. In a ‘I want one of those’ way. 

Now we’re looking at how do they compare artists? How do they think about the different artists? with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, we have artists boards. And we do that deliberately. Because clients find it very hard to distinguish between the sitter and the commission, the nature of the commission. 

The element of a portrait actually belongs to the artist. When you present lots of works at once you start to get a sense of what belongs to the artist. It stops matching quite so much about the pose, the age, the background, the content and all the peripheral things in a portrait. 

And they start to get a sense of the uniqueness of you. And we’ll do this quite quickly. Looking at John Walton’s work. I think everyone knows each one of those would have taken many painstaking hours to produce but somebody’s looking at it will know whether it speaks to them or not in a matter of seconds, minutes, no time at all. So that’s the rate of which you’re reaching people. 

When I’m working with people, I get them to look through all the boards and instinctively quickly and heart-led, not intellectually or head-led and slowly to pull aside anything they’re attracted to, to make a shortlist. And that shortlist is then whittled down on a thought through head basis. 

So it’s a very instinctive partnership. commissions are very personal, it’s me to you. And I think that’s how so many amazing relationships seem to be formed through the commissioned portrait. 


How your choice of image affects the commissions you attract

Some mistakes you can make when presenting your work is produce one of those that you don’t want to do anymore. 

I thought I’d tell the story of lovely Harry here. 

Geoffrey Hayzer RP produced an enchanting portrait of a young boy which we actually use quite a lot for publicity, but it started to work against him, because he got really fed up of getting portrait commissions of children. So we had to slightly hide Harry and put adults forward to try and draw a different audience. 

The other way it can go wrong is if your style is fluid and changing over time. People looking at your website will look at your body of work and say I want ‘one of those’. And actually, you’re not doing ‘one of those’ anymore that can lead to confusion. So just be careful to manage expectations as to what you’re doing now.


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

Other videos in the series include: