I wasn’t even out of school when I had my first meeting with an art dealer. A friend of mine who happened to be a big collector at the time set up the appointment for me. I remember being equal parts grateful and terrified as I handed my slide portfolio to the gallery owner. Leaning over a light table, eye glued to a magnifying glass, the nice man with big white walls and a reputation for placing pricey art grunted at me: “Portraits, huh? Tough sell.”
Naive as I was, this response flabbergasted me. Almost nine years later, it takes a bit more to surprise me, but I’m still not over the stupidity of such a statement.
There is just one important truth about sales, a truth from which all other sales advice flows:
People buy from people they like.
Similarly there is one important fact about the psychology of liking that everyone knows on subconscious level even if they’ve never thought about it too clearly:
People like the people who like them.
If you put those two things together, the result is that portraiture is profitable.
There are of course a few caveats. You have to be just nutty enough to be able love every subject, and you have to understand the dynamics at work behind commissioned artwork. Nevertheless, the fact remains that portraits are an extremely salable kind of art.
Which brings me back to the art dealer I met in 2003. He knows more about the gallery business than I ever will, but he and all the other art dealers who refuse to get involved in commissioned portraiture are sales failures. Seemingly, they can’t see the money that’s there for all the emotion that comes with it. And that’s unfortunate because, although earning enough money to sustain an art career and an art practice is nice, the relating part of portraiture is infinitely more valuable.