Skip to main content

Portrait Artist

You might say portrait artists make their fortune in oil. But they sometimes use pastels, charcoal or watercolors, too.

Susan Graber is a portrait artist in South Carolina. It wasn't until she turned 45 a decade ago that she decided to bring more color into her life.

"I quit my job as a paralegal and decided I wanted to do something artistic," she says. "For me, it was that I like to paint and thought there was a chance that I could make a living at it."

And that she has. Though she admits she would have needed to take another job without the support of her husband in the early going (she charged only $800 per painting), Graber is working steadily enough now to live comfortably. She hopes to paint 12 portraits this year, and earn around $35,000.

"I average about one portrait a month, but sometimes I'll take three months," she says. She adds that she usually has more than one work of art on the go.

Graber says people-painting artists don't seem to struggle like others do. "Portrait painting seems easier to sell than other kinds of painting because you can be an average portrait painter and do all right. But you can't be an average landscape painter and expect to make a living."

The good news is that once you become an established painter, the money is a lot better, Graber says. Some of the best artists charge between $25,000 and $125,000 per portrait. They could complete one painting a month or one a year, depending on the artist and the size of the project.

The value of a portrait has a lot to do with the artist's accomplishments. "The galleries where artists have been displayed, the more honors awarded to the artist and the more prominent the subjects he or she has painted, the more valuable his or her future work will be."

It takes a little more than a stroke of luck to be a successful portrait painter.

Knowledge of colors and techniques, a ton of patience, solid people skills, good business sense and a keen eye for detail are all key factors. It's probably a good idea to know how to draw people, too.

Graber does her work from a studio shed. "It's cheap, available and offers the right atmosphere to get my work done," she says. "I need to be in a place that's pleasant."

So what training do you need?

"Anatomy class is essential," says Graber, who admits she wasn't really interested in art in high school. "Learning to draw skeletal structures and muscles is very important."

Christine Egnoski is the executive director of the Portrait Society of America. She says that along with anatomy and drawing classes, it would be wise to take a marketing class and a business course, too.

"If you're interested in running a portrait art business, you have to be prepared to wear all of the hats," she says. "You produce the work, sell it, budget for supplies and basically handle everything. It's not just painting."

If all you really want to do is paint, however, you can hire a portrait broker. Brokers will promote and sell your work -- but they take 35 to 50 percent of any sales.

Paint, palette, easel, tables, chairs, props, canvas and frame stretchers top the list of supplies needed to get a portrait art business going. You'll also need an initial advertising budget to promote the work.

New artists need to submit pictures to exhibits, shows and galleries to get exposure. "Conventions show the important business end to painting," says Graber.

"You can bring your portfolio and get it critiqued, meet portrait brokers. And there is plenty of helpful information for somebody who's just starting out."

Painter David Goatley prefers promoting his work through mailings and portrait brokers. Along with marketing his work at shows and exhibits, a word-of-mouth campaign has sufficed. But he says the market in his area isn't big enough to justify spending big bucks.

"Most of the people I've painted here I've first had to warm and woo them to the idea," he says.

Goatley admits it was more than just a little difficult to get things going. "The biggest cost in the beginning is time," he says.

"The equipment to start up isn't expensive and you don't need much space -- you could work on the kitchen table if you had to -- but you have to figure out what value you put on time, because the job takes a lot of it. You don't just wake up one morning suddenly able to do this kind of work."

Though portrait painting is popular across the United States, portraits are particularly popular in the south, Egnoski says, because of how many historically important portraits have been done there. That's good news for Graber, who is now charging between $2,400 and $3,000 per painting.

"It's a very healthy industry right now," says Egnoski. "There's been a resurgence over the past eight years."

Over the years, painting in general has suffered as cameras became more popular. "When photography came out, painting had to react because all of a sudden it was possible to capture reality by taking a picture of it," says Egnoski.

"Now a lot of people are able to make a living as a portrait painter again because the population is really heading back to original works."

Graber, like many artists, used to have her subjects come to her studio and pose on a chair while she painted them. But she has begun to change her mind about that.

"Now I will go to where my subjects are and take photos of them in their surroundings," she says. She adds that it offers her greater insight into the individuals she paints.

But Egnoski warns that nothing can, nor should, replace the real thing. "New artists need a strong drawing foundation. Instruction is key and so is practice from life -- using a real subject as opposed to a photograph, which could distort things."

Her advice: "Hire a model and train your eye to see the details of real life."

"Draw as much as possible," says Goatley. "Only paint portraits if you really love it and not because there might be a regular paycheck in it for you."


Portrait Society of America
Check out examples of award-winning portraits

A Stroke of Genius
Search the portrait galleries and read the latest industry news

National Portrait Gallery
Find out what's on at the Smithsonian Institute

Back to Career Cluster


  • Email Support

  • 1-800-GO-TO-XAP (1-800-468-6927)
    From outside the U.S., please call +1 (424) 750-3900


Powered by XAP

OCAP believes that financial literacy and understanding the financial aid process are critical aspects of college planning and student success. OCAP staff who work with students, parents, educators and community partners in the areas of personal finance education, state and federal financial aid, and student loan management do not provide financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice. This website and all information provided is for general educational purposes only, and is not intended to be construed as financial, investment, legal, and/or tax advice.