If you’re thinking about starting an art portrait business from home, read this post first. I’m going to break down your business plan, talk about challenges you should look out for, how to stand out amongst other artists, pricing advice, and so much more.
Hi! My name is Mei Pak and I help makers, artists and designers make a consistent income from selling their handmade products online.
What is a Portrait Business?
First, let’s define a portrait business. A portrait business is you creating a piece of art that's a portrait of someone else.
The portraits can come in lots of different varieties. You could do:
- oil painting
- pencil sketches
- line drawings
The possibilities are endless.
The biggest appeal of a portrait business is that it can be a really good money earner.
People love anything personalized to them. People love their family and friends and their pets and they will pay top dollar to get a really nice, personalized gift featuring their favorite people (or furbaby).
This isn’t just another trend. People have and will always want stuff that’s personalized.
There are, however, some challenges to look out for when you're thinking of starting a portrait business.
Custom Work Can Be Complicated
The first one, and I think the biggest one is by nature, portraits are custom. You can't sell someone else's portrait to lots of other people, which means you're going to be creating a portrait for each person as they ask it.
There's a lot of complications that come with that.
There's a burden of communication with the client. They may be very picky or very difficult to work with.
You need to be really specific about telling people exactly what they're getting.
Like for instance, if you do line drawing portraits that are really just a sketch, you need to be super clear about that to your customers. Explicitly tell them that they're getting a sketch, not a 30 hour detailed portrait.
The descriptions are important and also your policies need to be really well thought out. If you spend 20 hours working on a portrait and then the customer changes their mind, or they're not going to pay for it, you're the one who's out that money. So it's really important that you set yourself up for success there with your administrative systems.
Shipping and Packaging
Another challenge is if you're making larger portraits, you're going to want to make sure that you have your shipping and your packaging really under control so that people are receiving their products well delivered.
This is a lot different from the challenge of, let's say, making a knitted hat where you can just wrap it in some tissue paper and put it in a bag.
One of the biggest challenges is you're going to start seeing stiff competition from digital art. Digital art is art that's created from a photo or from a template using a computer to manipulate the image.
Right now, there’s a lot of people taking a photograph and using a filter to make pretty dang good looking portraits for very cheap because the computer algorithm is doing it. You're going to start seeing very stiff competition from very low price pointed shops and you're going to need to make sure that you set yourself apart.
Determining Your Shop's Niche
In a crowded marketplace like portraits, it's really important that your shop establishes a niche and has a clear message about the kinds of portraits that you do.
Even something like watercolor portraits is too broad to differentiate yourself from your competitors. At the end of the day, a description like that is not going to help.
I'm just going to come up with a few ideas for portraits off the top of my head.
- Maybe you only do portraits in shades of green, super crazy and brilliant at the same time. Or some other color palette, like maybe all of your people are in rainbows. That's one way to establish a niche. It can be as simple as that, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel too much.
- Maybe you draw people with funny hats
- Maybe all your portraits are in the style of sixties, pop art
- Maybe old school, renaissance paintings, or in the style of a certain historical artist.
Whatever your niche is, you need to take some time to develop your it so it’s consistent and clear. That will make all of your marketing easier.
How to Stand Out
Now that you've narrowed down your product ideas and figured out your niche, the next step is to think about how you can stand out.
There are lots of ways you can stand out, and just like picking a niche, you don’t have to be better than everyone else in every aspect of your business. You just need to be different in one way or another from the next guy.
It doesn’t even have to be how your product is different, but it can be your values as a business, or your packaging.
Now, I don’t recommend competing on time or price. You don't want to be the person selling the cheapest portrait because at the end of the day, you're going to be bone-tired after knocking out 12 portraits in a day. What you want is for someone to look at your art and know that it comes from your shop. When you become recognizable, you’ve done your job in this department.
Take your time with this, this is not meant to be an overnight process. It will take time to figure out what makes you different.
You need to earn enough money if you want to stay in business so don’t undercharge yourself. Most artists don’t charge enough, so pay attention here. It's going to take some calculations, especially for a business like a portrait business where each piece can be extremely time-consuming.
Check out my pricing video here where I go into the details about how you should be pricing your products based on the amount of time it takes and the materials costs, but on top of that, you also need to build in time for all the steps of the process, including client communications, which are a big part of what goes into creating your portraits.
You might spend an hour making the sketch and another hour going back and forth sending emails to the customer. You need to factor all of that in to your final price. And don’t forget about the time it takes to make revisions, if that’s something you offer.
In terms of pricing strategy, it can be pretty hard to charge significantly more than your competitor's prices. If you came up with a price that just doesn't match well with the market and you’re way above the price that everyone else is offering, then you need to think of how you can offer your product in a different way.
This is where the work we did before to figure out how you’re different, can be really helpful.
Let's say you're doing sketches and you need to charge $50 for a sketch, but everyone else is charging $30 for a sketch, right? Maybe, you can add these super cool hologram vinyl bits to your portrait. It only costs an extra dollar, but it elevates the entire product to where people would want to pay $50 for this portrait.
Those are the sorts of ideas that you need to get flowing so that your pricing and the market all come together. There needs to be alignment with everything we just talked about if you want to be successful and make money.
You're going to need a great collection of photographs for your items. Obviously you're creating made to order items, so you can't show someone in advance what their portrait looks like, but you can have a good library of photos that shows people what some of your other portraits looked like.
You could do before and after photos to show new customers how you turned someone's photograph into a cool art drawing of them.
Your photos are your biggest asset when it comes to marketing since it’s your only way to communicate what you do, so make sure to spend time investing in these!
It would be worthwhile doing some media outreach and influencer marketing for this business. Reach out to some people who might be your ideal customers on social media and make sure they have a large (and engaged) following and offer to make them a portrait for free in exchange for photo or video assets. Maybe even a mention on their Instagram feed or stories.
In the beginning, you don’t need a lot of customers. Start with just a few and use them as guinea pigs to perfect your systems and service processes.
Maybe there’s a way you can automate or make more efficient the first few steps of getting started, like directing people to a link on your website where they can fill in a form and upload their photos and where you can explain your process and turnaround times to them so they know what to expect.
This is such a service heavy type of business model, so it’s important that you automate as much as possible otherwise you’re going to be spending a lot of your time doing tasks that don’t directly affect your bottom line.
Because you’ll also probably charge a higher price for your services, you can totally do well starting small and promoting your business in forums like Reddit or in Facebook groups where your ideal customers hang out at.
You, of course, don’t want to be promoting yourself all the time. Remember to build relationships with people, be of service, and be helpful. Then when the topic comes up, you can talk about your business.
Your business will also benefit a ton from word of mouth, so make sure you give your customers an exceptional experience from start to finish and they’ll tell all their friends about you.
Besides that, media outreach is a great way to market your products and get the word out there about what you do. You can reach out to magazines or big websites like Buzzfeed or Huffington Post and connect with writers who cover gift guide roundups, especially over special occasions throughout the year like for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Christmas.
Your portraits will be good for anniversary’s and birthdays as well so you can definitely promote yourself all year round.
You can find a lot of success quickly with Facebook ads if you have the budget for that.
I did a livestream recently where I talk about the power of Facebook ads and how my husband and I started a new personalized art print business less than a year ago and it’s already making $55,000 in sales per month, just from Facebook ads. I’ll link to that here if you want to check it out.