Portrait Artist

By TACP Staff on July 10, 2021

Portrait artists use paints, pencils, pastels, or most any other kind of medium to capture the likeness and the personality of their subject on canvas, paper, or another surface. It takes talent and practice. If you think you’ve got what it takes to be the next Leonardo da Vinci, then a career as a portrait artist is for you.

What Is Portrait Art?

Portrait art captures the personality, likeness and even mood of a person in a painting, a drawing, photograph, sculpture, or another medium, with the face as the main focus. A successful portrait will engage the viewer and is clearly intended to show an individual as they appear in real life. Of course, there are artists who push the boundaries of what portrait art should be, like the abstracts by Picasso, or the wildly colorful portraits of pets by Dean Russo. Caricature, also considered a form of portrait art, is a simplified but exaggerated portrait of a person still commonly found in editorial cartoons or magazines. There are self-portraits made popular by artists like Van Gogh and Andy Warhol, and even postmortem photographic portraits of people who had recently passed that were remarkably popular during Victorian days.

When people think of portrait artists like, Edgar Degas, Rembrandt, Raphael, and the other great masters come to mind. But today, artists from all over the world are pushing the boundaries of portrait art. Take for example, east coast-based, Daniel Kornrumpf, who creates elaborate portraits using needlework on canvas or linen. Or, Eric Daigh, who makes portraits out of office supplies, like push pins and Post-It notes. Evan Penny uses software and high-tech 3D printing technology to create portrait sculptures that are super-realistic.

Portraits can be both public and private art. In ancient days, portraiture was mainly a public art created to decorate public places, although private portrait artwork was also commissioned by royal families and the rich as permanent visual records of family members. Today, portrait art remains a common art form, despite the increased popularity of digital art, portrait studios, and selfies, which have become all the rage.

What Does a Portrait Artist Do?

A portrait artist captures the intimate likeness of a person on paper, canvas, or another surface, as a sculpture, photograph, painting, or another medium altogether. Portrait artists use paints, pastels, pencils, ink, and even push pins to create realistic, or not so realistic portraits of their subjects. The talent it takes to be successful is developed over time, although many artists seem to have an inherent talent for capturing the essence of a subject’s face.

An artist might specialize in one or many types of portrait art, such as nude portraits, celebrity portraits, religious, and historical. There are also candid portraits, posed, formal, sporting, groups, and children; full-length, from the waist-up, bust portraits; profile view, full-face view, Tronie, three-quarter view, individual, and double. In other words, portrait artists can use a variety of techniques and mediums, on a wide range of surfaces, in both 2D or 3D, in any pose, in color or black and white, as long as the finished product is an artistic representation of a person or persons (dogs and cats notwithstanding).

Where Do Portrait Artists Work?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, most fine artists, including portrait artists, are self-employed working out of a studio in their home. Some may also work for motion picture and video production companies, newspapers and magazines (but usually only on a contract basis), and comic book publishers. Others might work in state and federal criminal justice agencies and in forensics as courtroom artists and police sketch artists.

Of course, the type of portrait art you create will often determine where you work. For example, if you are a sculptor, you may need a larger studio space to hold all your materials and the finished product, especially if they are life-size or larger. If you are a painter, then enough room for your canvases, paints, easels, and brushes, etc., is important. Some portrait artists rent studio space, some work in warehouses, courtrooms, on a crime scene, on a movie location, or in a company setting.

Portrait Artist Education & Training Requirements

A postsecondary degree is not necessarily needed to become a portrait artist. That said, many employers prefer candidates who have earned a degree in art (or a similar field) as it shows a passion for the industry, dedication to the field, and gives employers the confidence that perspective employees are serious about their future and have mastered the fundamental skills needed to succeed in this field. Of course, individuals may have lots of built-in natural artistic ability and a terrific body of work, enough to win over the hearts of perspective employers and land the job, but it can be argued that many new skills can only be learned and/or cultivated while in school. In addition, attending college offers artists face-to-face mentoring and networking opportunities, as well as the chance to participate in workshops, exhibitions, and internships, which themselves offer valuable experience and access to professional contacts who can help launch a career. Either way, a portrait artist must be well-grounded in the fine arts, dedicated, and committed.

If an artist chooses to attend a college, university or private art school, he or she will take an abundance of art and studio classes. Most BFA programs consists of 2/3 time dedicated to the study of fine arts, and 1/3 to liberal arts. A BA (Bachelor of Arts) program is different than a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) program in that a BA focuses more on the study of liberal arts, whereas the BFA focuses more on the study of fine arts. A private art school will typically offer a much more rigorous class schedule with a focus on individual artist’s career goals. Typical coursework may include introduction to painting, art history, contemporary art, art of the masters, studio classes in design and drawing, color theory, typography, printmaking, sculpture, professional readiness, and portfolio.

Another advantage of attending college (or taking online college art courses) is that students will typically take classes in many different areas of art, such as ceramics or sculpture. And, although an individual may have his or her sights on a career as a portrait artist, taking alternative art classes offers the chance to explore other creative fields, and can expose students to new areas of art they may not have been aware of.

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Portrait Artist Salary & Job Outlook

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, fine artists’ median annual salary in all industries was $48,960 in 2018. The annual mean wage in the federal governement industries was $85,600, whereas independent artists made an annual median wage of just over $38,000. On average, portrait artists made an annual mean salary of $49,380, with reported job growth of one-percent between 2018 and 2028. Job growth depends greatly on industry, level of education, company, and geographic location. Freelance portrait artists’ salary also varies depending on years of experience and reputation.

Freelance portrait artists have the potential to make far more than those who work for a company. This is true in part because freelancers determine the rates they charge, how many portraits they complete in a year’s time, and if any royalties will be paid for work completed. However, portrait artists who work for a company may have a stable income, which is very important if just starting out. Working for a company also gives a future freelancer the chance to build his or her portfolio, which will be a vital tool to show clients when the decision is made to branch out on their own.

There were just over 50,000 jobs held by all fine artists in 2018, and employment of is projected to grow only one percent between 2018 and 2028. Of course, projected growth figures depend largely on the state of the economy. Learn more about how to become a painter.

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