A student of mine emailed me last night asking for referrals of people interested in painted portrait commissions. I replied that there is a lot he can and should do to get a business started for himself, and my comments are below. As with many MFA students, his “serious” artwork is of a different stripe than the kind of “straight” portraits many people are willing to commission. Also, his painting / rendering skills are such that conventional portraits are technically no problem for him. Therefore, my comments address the challenge facing most entrepreneurs: marketing.
- Branding – do you want the commissions to be regarded in the same way (or by the same people) as your other art? Looking at your website, I can see the technical and palette similarities, but of course the content is worlds apart… you might make a separate website for the commissions, and if so, maybe even a different name? I am just thinking ahead a little, and imagining a day when your commissions get you a lot of attention, to the point that perhaps people aren’t paying as much attention to your other works. What if you’re not OK with that? Or, in other words, when you are 75, do you want to run into people in the supermarket who say “oh, you’re the guy who does commissions” rather than “you’re the guy whose museum show I saw”? I don’t have an easy answer for this – you’ll have to figure out what feels comfortable and then go with that. But I think that 2 websites makes a lot of sense. In my case, I use “David A. Parker” as my artist name and “David Parker” for business stuff with other people’s art. 2 sites, 2 identities, 2 business cards. It works well for me.
- What are you willing to do? For example: will you do babies? Then new options open up: putting up a sign/business cards at places like Babies R Us, or family photo studios in malls. Even better: do cooperative marketing with Babies R Us (or a locally-based competitor – they are often more open to creative marketing and will be easier to approach) so that you sit in the store with your easel on a given afternoon and make a painting from photos, life, whatever. It will bring good exposure for the store, and incredible free publicity for you. Many people will freely spend on memories of their babies. Will you do pets? Then do the same stuff as above for Petsmart, Petco, etc. in your area. Another way to think about this is: who are the people likely to spend money on a commission? Answer: people who feel really strongly about the subject and memorializing it. So pets, babies are big. What about graduation/special events? Again, partner with photo studios, tuxedo rental places (where you pay them a referral fee, perhaps). What about funeral homes, or memorial services (tombstones) or floral shops (who are always doing things for memorable events like weddings, graduations, funerals). There are also special event planners (typical: http://www.samayaevents.com/ ) and funeral planners (example: http://www.floydmortuary.com/staff/licensed-professional-staff.aspx ) not to mention legions of wedding planners who actually need special services like memorial portraits or commemorative images. You need to meet these people and have them think of you for that “special touch” that a client might need, in the form of a unique oil painting. What about the soldiers who are serving from your community? That’s the kind of thing, if you were to donate a small work to the family (in case they won’t pay for a commission), that would make it into the local paper – again, very powerful free publicity, and it could lead to other people saying “we should have one done for our family.” It’s an empowering thing that gets your mind moving in healthy directions to ask “what can I do to get exposure for my business for free?” If you use a bit of imagination, you’ll find that there’s a whole lot that’s immediately within your reach – I personally would not spend big bucks on an art magazine ad.
- Do a free workshop / demo at a place like the local library (or even the mall – I went to the Fox Valley Mall in Aurora, which has so many empty stores, you could probably get an arrangement where you sit in the concourse and paint portraits at no cost to you) to show people how they can “paint their own unique portrait themselves.” Of course, what will most likely happen is that they will show up, realize that you have way better chops than they do, and then hire you to do the work for them.
- Make sure your business identity is on Craigslist for your area, as well as Facebook or anywhere else that makes sense.
- Think about niches that you are really comfortable in or have special access to. I think you told me you have a background with bands. What about a commission for a band, maybe for an album cover, etc? Again, more great exposure for the work. A schtick like Kehinde Wiley’s (ordinary people in opulent clothes and regal settings) could catch on big if you find something that works for you.
- Don’t forget that painting is still King of Art. Most everybody is impressed by a well-rendered oil painting, whether they admit it or not, and so your challenge is to figure out how to make them feel that it is something that can be real for them in their life. Trophy shops? Offer them a referral fee and maybe do one of the owner to get it hung in his shop! What about country clubs? You could paint portraits of the current club president, etc. Where are other places that trophies are respected? How about Porsche dealers (imagine a painting of a graying dude in his new Carrera – it could be worth real money to him – and the salesman in the showroom would love to get the referral fee from you – maybe you can get one on the wall of the showroom!). Same goes for powerboat dealerships – and maybe Harley dealerships (haven’t I seen you in Harley gear?).
See how far this can go? I hope this gets the gears turning for you. Get works placed where people will see them and be impressed by them, and you will be off and running. Good luck!