The Portrait Contract
How to Keep Everything Clearly Understood
When you arranged this first session with your client on the phone, you would have clearly stated how long it would take. It is courteous to stick to that agreement - your client may well have other important things to do that day.
So, keep a discreet eye on your watch, and when time's nearly up, thank your client for a productive session. Ask that s/he be willing to come to the studio again for at least one more sitting prior to the final check (skin and hair colouring etc) before completion of the painting. S/he is certain to agree; after all, s/he has as much interest as you do in achieving a successful portrait.
It's a good idea to discuss size at this stage; some people have a fixed preference, though they will accept your advice if you clearly explain your reasons. I have sometimes had to persuade clients to a smaller size - for example, when a huge canvas of a child would be inappropriate to the subject and overwhelming in the home - or a larger size when a double portrait would look cramped on a small canvas. You might ask whether s/he would like to arrange the framing or would prefer to leave it to you.
Before s/he leaves, explain that you will send a letter setting out the specifications of the work for approval, within the next X weeks. This will depend on how long it takes you to decide on the composition, which in turn will decide the best size ( and in most cases, the price ) for the work. If you're an experienced painter, this will also allow you to quote an estimated delivery date.
It's extremely helpful to both parties if you can show your sketches or drawings at this point. It's a bit tough to expect anyone else to imagine what you are planning from words alone! Because my technique is to make a detailed Drawing straight onto the canvas, I can invite clients to view it at the studio if they live locally or are prepared to travel. But many folk can happily decide to go ahead on the basis of photos of your drawings, so long as you spell everything out.
If you accept a commission from a corporate or public (i.e. government funded and administered) client, I would recommend the use of a formal contract. Guidelines are available from your local Art Society or Arts Law centre. But for private clients, my experience has been that such formality is not needed. Your letter setting out the specifications of the work, and the client's acceptance* will be binding enough. In nearly thirty years, I've never had a private client who did the wrong thing.
*If you have doubts, ask for a written acceptance 'for your records' or write a memo of the client's phone call accepting, and maybe lodge a copy with your lawyer.
One more thing: Because a portrait is a Painting, and a painting evolves like a living thing during its creation, it is vital that you reserve the right to make changes if the artistic need arises, even after the client's approval of your original design. Make this request clearly before you begin, in fact, it's best to include it in your letter as well. If you've taken the time to plan the painting to the very best of your ability, any changes will not radically affect the design, but will only enhance it.
To sum up:
* Seek the inner person of your subjects.
* Faithfully reproduce their real physical appearance - no 'artistic Botox or plastic surgery' even if it means refunding the deposit and declining the commission; if the rejected portrait works as a Painting, it will usually sell anyway.
* Explain your plan for the work clearly and honestly to the client. Make sure that you both understand what is agreed, so there are no nasty surprises.
* Don't contemplate becoming a portraitist unless you truly enjoy painting people. If you do, Happy Painting! It's a fascinating challenge.