A custom portrait business specializes in creating portraits in a variety of styles and mediums for a diverse array of clients. Your custom portrait business may specialize in mediums such as pencil, paint, or even crochet. You may run a business where customers order a portrait in advance, or you may offer to create a custom portrait on the spot for them.
Learn how to start your own Custom Portrait Business and whether it is the right fit for you.
Ready to form your LLC? Check out the Top LLC Formation Services.
Start a custom portrait business by following these 10 steps:
- Plan your Custom Portrait Business
- Form your Custom Portrait Business into a Legal Entity
- Register your Custom Portrait Business for Taxes
- Open a Business Bank Account & Credit Card
- Set up Accounting for your Custom Portrait Business
- Get the Necessary Permits & Licenses for your Custom Portrait Business
- Get Custom Portrait Business Insurance
- Define your Custom Portrait Business Brand
- Create your Custom Portrait Business Website
- Set up your Business Phone System
We have put together this simple guide to starting your custom portrait business. These steps will ensure that your new business is well planned out, registered properly and legally compliant.
Exploring your options? Check out other small business ideas.
STEP 1: Plan your business
A clear plan is essential for success as an entrepreneur. It will help you map out the specifics of your business and discover some unknowns. A few important topics to consider are:
- What will you name your business?
- What are the startup and ongoing costs?
- Who is your target market?
- How much can you charge customers?
Luckily we have done a lot of this research for you.
What will you name your business?
Choosing the right name is important and challenging. If you don’t already have a name in mind, visit our How to Name a Business guide or get help brainstorming a name with our Custom Portrait Business Name Generator
When registering a business name, we recommend researching your business name by checking:
- Your state's business records
- Federal and state trademark records
- Social media platforms
- Web domain availability.
It's very important to secure your domain name before someone else does.
What are the costs involved in opening a custom portrait business?
The startup costs for a custom portrait business are notably low. This is because there is no need to lease a separate space, pay for attendant utilities, and so on. The only real costs are the costs of your artistic tools, which will vary based on the exact medium that you specialize in. However, you can typically get a selection of canvases and materials such as graphite pencils or oil-based paints for under $500. Advertising your business via traditional methods as well as a website and social media should cost no more than $1,000, and your ongoing advertisement after you open your business will likely be via social media, which has extremely low cost.
What are the ongoing expenses for a custom portrait business?
Using the recommendations above, almost all of your ongoing expenses will be built into your sales. That is, an average painting may have a cost in materials (canvas, brush, and quart of paint) of about $250, but you should be factoring this cost into the price you place on your art, allowing you to merely replenish supplies as you go. Assuming you work from home or at clients' homes and offices, you have no real overhead, and while you may continue to advertise via traditional media, most of your best advertisement will come from social media as well as painting in parks and other public places—both of which can be done for free!
Who is the target market?
While you will likely have a diverse array of clients, young families will generally be your best clients. They will be interested in creating portraits featuring spouses, young children, or the entire family.
How does a custom portrait business make money?
On the most basic level, your business makes money by charging people for custom portraits. Typically, the price per portrait goes up if the medium is more complex, the portrait more realistic, and the overall project more time-consuming.
How much can you charge customers?
A number of factors can inform how much you charge clients. One good formula to abide by is to charge customers for the cost of material as well as how long it took you to complete the work, giving yourself a fair price such as $20 an hour. This pricing may be sufficient if you are selling the work directly, but if it is being sold by a gallery, you may want to double the price to account for the amount that the gallery will get from the sale. Finally, if you provide professional framing services, don't forget to charge the customers for the time and materials involved!
How much profit can a custom portrait business make?
The exact profit potential of your business varies on the area and the number of clients you have in any given year. However, using the formula written earlier for what to charge, even a modest portrait that takes twenty hours to complete should net you a minimum of $650, and that is before you factor in additional costs for professional framing or additional market value factors. Thus, someone painting multiple portraits a week can turn a tidy profit with almost no overhead. It is also very easy now to sell portraits and artistic services through online venues such as Etsy, which can help you find clients beyond the confines of your specific region or metropolitan area.
How can you make your business more profitable?
Create a digital newsletter or mailing list so you can keep clients and prospective clients in the loop about your business. Don't neglect your website—make sure that it showcases some of your best work while offering clients the most pertinent info they need. Finally, don't discount featuring your work in galleries—while it can be annoying to split the profit with a professional gallery, the amount of exposure (and, thus, advertising for those who are most likely to buy) is more than worth it.
Want a more guided approach? Access TRUiC's free Small Business Startup Guide - a step-by-step course for turning your business idea into reality. Get started today!
STEP 2: Form a legal entity
Establishing a legal business entity such as an LLC or corporation protects you from being held personally liable if your custom portrait business is sued.
Form Your LLC
Read our Guide to Form Your Own LLC
Recommended: You will need to elect a registered agent for your LLC. LLC formation packages usually include a free year of registered agent services. You can choose to hire a registered agent or act as your own.
STEP 3: Register for taxes
You will need to register for a variety of state and federal taxes before you can open for business.
In order to register for taxes you will need to apply for an EIN. It's really easy and free!
There are specific state taxes that might apply to your business. Learn more about state sales tax and franchise taxes in our state sales tax guides.
STEP 4: Open a business bank account & credit card
Using dedicated business banking and credit accounts is essential for personal asset protection.
When your personal and business accounts are mixed, your personal assets (your home, car, and other valuables) are at risk in the event your business is sued. In business law, this is referred to as piercing your corporate veil.
Open a business bank account
Besides being a requirement when applying for business loans, opening a business bank account:
- Separates your personal assets from your company's assets, which is necessary for personal asset protection.
- Makes accounting and tax filing easier.
Recommended: Read our Best Banks for Small Business review to find the best national bank or credit union.
Get a business credit card
Getting a business credit card helps you:
- Separate personal and business expenses by putting your business' expenses all in one place.
- Build your company's credit history, which can be useful to raise money later on.
Recommended: Apply for an easy approval business credit card from BILL and build your business credit quickly.
STEP 5: Set up business accounting
Recording your various expenses and sources of income is critical to understanding the financial performance of your business. Keeping accurate and detailed accounts also greatly simplifies your annual tax filing.
Make LLC accounting easy with our LLC Expenses Cheat Sheet.
STEP 6: Obtain necessary permits and licenses
Failure to acquire necessary permits and licenses can result in hefty fines, or even cause your business to be shut down.
State & Local Business Licensing Requirements
Certain state permits and licenses may be needed to operate a custom portrait business. Learn more about licensing requirements in your state by visiting SBA’s reference to state licenses and permits.
For information about local licenses and permits:
- Check with your town, city or county clerk’s office
- Get assistance from one of the local associations listed in US Small Business Associations directory of local business resources.
Most businesses are required to collect sales tax on the goods or services they provide. To learn more about how sales tax will affect your business, read our article, Sales Tax for Small Businesses.
A services contract will outline the parameters of each project, including price, terms, and client expectations. Here is an example service agreement.
Recommended: Rocket Lawyer makes it easy to create a professional service agreement for your custom portrait business when you sign up for their premium membership. For $39.95 per month, members receive access to hundreds of legal agreements and on call attorneys to get complimentary legal advice.
Trademark & Copyright Protection
When you are developing a unique product, concept, brand, or design, it is prudent to protect your rights by registering for the appropriate trademarks and copyrights.
The nature of legal requirements is ever changing, especially in regards to copyright laws. Here is a frequently updated resource, which can help keep you aware of the legal requirements.
STEP 7: Get business insurance
Just as with licenses and permits, your business needs insurance in order to operate safely and lawfully. Business Insurance protects your company’s financial wellbeing in the event of a covered loss.
There are several types of insurance policies created for different types of businesses with different risks. If you’re unsure of the types of risks that your business may face, begin with General Liability Insurance. This is the most common coverage that small businesses need, so it’s a great place to start for your business.
Another notable insurance policy that many businesses need is Workers’ Compensation Insurance. If your business will have employees, it’s a good chance that your state will require you to carry Workers' Compensation Coverage.
FInd out what types of insurance your Custom Portrait Business needs and how much it will cost you by reading our guide Business Insurance for Custom Portrait Business.
STEP 8: Define your brand
Your brand is what your company stands for, as well as how your business is perceived by the public. A strong brand will help your business stand out from competitors.
If you aren't feeling confident about designing your small business logo, then check out our Design Guides for Beginners, we'll give you helpful tips and advice for creating the best unique logo for your business.
If you already have a logo, you can also add it to a QR code with our Free QR Code Generator. Choose from 13 QR code types to create a code for your business cards and publications, or to help spread awareness for your new website.
How to promote & market a custom portrait business
Often, the first step in marketing a custom portrait business is to stand out from the competition by specializing in a certain type of portrait and developing a really unique style. One great bit of free publicity is to do free portraits in a public park, which lets people see the quality of your work and get to know you.
How to keep customers coming back
Consider offering extra perks and services to retain customers. For instance, framing and matting portraits for an extra cost, and offering special promotions throughout the year to correspond with special holidays and events. Finally, never forget to sign your work—it makes customers feel special and happy to buy more portraits even as it helps build your brand.
STEP 9: Create your business website
After defining your brand and creating your logo the next step is to create a website for your business.
While creating a website is an essential step, some may fear that it’s out of their reach because they don’t have any website-building experience. While this may have been a reasonable fear back in 2015, web technology has seen huge advancements in the past few years that makes the lives of small business owners much simpler.
Here are the main reasons why you shouldn’t delay building your website:
- All legitimate businesses have websites - full stop. The size or industry of your business does not matter when it comes to getting your business online.
- Social media accounts like Facebook pages or LinkedIn business profiles are not a replacement for a business website that you own.
- Website builder tools like the GoDaddy Website Builder have made creating a basic website extremely simple. You don’t need to hire a web developer or designer to create a website that you can be proud of.
STEP 10: Set up your business phone system
Getting a phone set up for your business is one of the best ways to help keep your personal life and business life separate and private. That’s not the only benefit; it also helps you make your business more automated, gives your business legitimacy, and makes it easier for potential customers to find and contact you.
There are many services available to entrepreneurs who want to set up a business phone system. We’ve reviewed the top companies and rated them based on price, features, and ease of use. Check out our review of the Best Business Phone Systems 2023 to find the best phone service for your small business.
Recommended Business Phone Service: Phone.com
Phone.com is our top choice for small business phone numbers because of all the features it offers for small businesses and it's fair pricing.
Is this Business Right For You?
Obviously, this is a business designed for an artist. However, not just any artist: you must be comfortable doing a lot of interaction with many kinds of customers (especially if you are doing portraits on the spot), and you must be able to work quickly, both to achieve customer satisfaction and to increase your margin of time and profit.
Want to know if you are cut out to be an entrepreneur?
Take our Entrepreneurship Quiz to find out!
What happens during a typical day at a custom portrait business?
The daily activities of the custom portrait painter are simple: you will communicate with current clients and work on advertising to and communicating with prospective clients. Otherwise, much of your work day is taken up by practicing your craft and working on the portraits your clients have ordered.
What are some skills and experiences that will help you build a successful custom portrait business?
Any previous artistic experience is helpful, and specific portrait experience is still more helpful. A formal education is not a requirement, but having a higher degree in art or a related field may help you both advertise yourself to customers and charge a higher price for your work. Finally, any experience selling your art (in person or via online methods such as Etsy) can be helpful.
What is the growth potential for a custom portrait business?
The growth potential for a custom portrait business is modest when looking at industry projections for the next few years. However, it is worth noting that such a business has extremely low ongoing costs and a low investment to start, meaning that the majority of each sale translates to profit for the artist.
Take the Next Step
Find a business mentor
One of the greatest resources an entrepreneur can have is quality mentorship. As you start planning your business, connect with a free business resource near you to get the help you need.
Having a support network in place to turn to during tough times is a major factor of success for new business owners.
Learn from other business owners
Want to learn more about starting a business from entrepreneurs themselves? Visit Startup Savant’s startup founder series to gain entrepreneurial insights, lessons, and advice from founders themselves.
Resources to Help Women in Business
There are many resources out there specifically for women entrepreneurs. We’ve gathered necessary and useful information to help you succeed both professionally and personally:
If you’re a woman looking for some guidance in entrepreneurship, check out this great new series Women in Business created by the women of our partner Startup Savant.
What are some insider tips for jump starting a custom portrait business?
Several methods can help you jumpstart your business. For instance, you can do portraits of your family and friends, both for practice and so that you can feature them in your advertising. You may be able to make (or use) connections and feature your work in a gallery, which is a great way of showing off what you have created and recruiting clients. Finally, mentally prepare yourself to juggle several projects at once so that you do not become overwhelmed when your opportunities pick up.
How and when to build a team
Typically, a custom portrait business is a solo business, as it reduces your overhead and makes it easier to generate a personal profit. However, if you truly have more orders at any given point than you can personally handle, it may be time to take on a partner or develop a small team. However, you do risk losing the appearance of a personal touch that comes from being the only artist operating under your imprint.