Business Overview

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.

Who is this business right for?

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.

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 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.

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.

Getting Started

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 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 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.

Growing Your Business

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.

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.

Legal Considerations

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.

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, check out our informative guide, Sales Tax for Small Businesses.

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.

Learn more about trademark and copyright protection

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.

Services Contract

A services contract will outline the parameters of each project, including price, terms, and client expectations.

Reduce Personal Liability

Structuring your business as a limited liability company (LLC) ensures your personal assets are protected in the event your business is sued.

What is an LLC?

Form an LLC in 5 easy steps

Earning Potential

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!

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!

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.

Next Steps

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