Portrait Commissions: From the Classic to the Unexpected

Ten Artspan artists discuss their portrait commission policies

“The most difficult thing for me is a portrait. You have to put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.” Henri Cartier-Bresson

“To sit for one’s portrait is like being present at one’s own creation.” Alexander Smith

“A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth.” John Singer Sargent

A good portrait is a rare and remarkable thing. It captures the form and spirit of a person at a particular time in their life, a particular place in the world, and it allows them to live on forever. It’s a collaboration between the artist and the sitter, a conversation, an exchange of all the things that make a person live and glow. We asked ten Artspan artists, working in styles from the classic to the unusual, in a variety of media, to share their policies on making portraits on commission. (click on the artists’ name to reach their site and contact them.)


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Words and Pictures

Words & Pictures

Text and images combine to form new meanings

It’s in our nature, as humans, to make connections. We connect words to make sentences and sentences to make stories. If you give us three random facts, we’ll combine them to make a new truth. Show us two pictures next to each other, and we’ll try to find a way to relate them. And we’ll string those images together to make a narrative, to give them meaning. Many artists use images and words in concert to create a twist in the connections viewers make, fortifying, deepening, and splintering them to create a world of new possibilities.

Stitchings is part of Peg Grady‘s Dear Diary series, “where I illustrate the day’s event in stitching. I love using text in my artwork as it slows people down and draws them in to see the piece. Embroidered samplers were used to teach girls how to read and write. Bringing them into the contemporary world makes me happy.” The stitchings are beautifully drawn, simple yet evocative, and the words form small poems, full of humor and reflection. You think about the time it took her to stitch each message, and you realize the importance of the image and of the moment that it captures.

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Inspiration: Marc Cohen

“For years, Cohen’s approach was to shoot three rolls of film over a two-hour walk, develop the rolls directly, have dinner, then go back to the darkroom, develop eight to nine prints directly from the negatives, and cast aside the rest. Cohen did this several times a week for decades. He estimates he has 600,000-800,000 images that he’s never seen or developed, not even on contact sheets.”

Bare thin arms against aluminum siding

Bare Thin Arms Against Aluminum Siding

Mark Cohen is a street photographer who shoots images from his hip, without looking through the viewfinder. In an article in the Guardian, he describes his methods. He doesn’t carry a camera with him all the time, he goes on specific walks just to take photographs. This used to be in his home town of Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania, but he’s recently moved to Philadelphia, and now he takes trolley rides, “I get on a trolley and go to a specific intersection. I like to go to the same one 10 times, so I understand the texture of the neighbourhood.” His photographs, not surprisingly, are unusually framed, they’re askew and disorienting–not focussed on face and shoulders, but on whatever part of the body he happened to catch.

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Inside the Box

Inside the Box

Ten Artspan artists construct and explore the use of boxes in a wide range of media and styles.

Boxes hold secrets. They might contain treasures or memories, mysteries or gifts. They might lie stacked in a dusty attic, filled with yellowing photographs and moth-eaten clothes, or be wrapped in bright paper and contain something precious. Pandora’s box, of course, held all of the miseries of the world, all of the lies, deceit, scolding, despair, accusation, envy, gossip, drudgery, scheming and old age. The very act of combining objects in the space of the box connects them and gives them new meaning together, as a collection. And boxes can be used to confine and limit, to define in a narrow tidy way, or to imprison. Ten Artspan artists construct and explore the use of boxes in a wide range of media and styles.

“Old basements and attics, dumpsters, and objects found while walking the dog, have always held a fascination for me.” Says Will Hubscher, and he combines these found objects with his unique printmaking process to create assemblages, many of which take the form of boxes overflowing with curiosities. “What is cast off by society, thrown out, and discarded, may still hold value in this world as it is repurposed and recycled into something new, something interesting, something now wanted and appreciated again by the world. I find that a bit of fence, some rusty nails, an old doll, twigs, broken chair legs, and bedazzling costume jewelry can all come together to become something new and interesting.

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Found Memories

Found Memories

Artists give found objects a future, waking their memories of the past and joining them with their own to create a new story.

When an artist incorporates a found object in their work, in any medium, they are fusing together the past and the future, they are taking something old and overlooked and giving it renewed meaning and new life. For many artists, the memories inherent in the object itself join with their own memories to give their art meaning.

In a series called Found, Brenna K. Murphy uses her own hair stitched into found photographs to create memories of home. She had a transient childhood, moving eight times by the time she was eighteen, and she developed new ways to imagine a home for herself, through her creativity and through the familiarity of her own body. Her art reflects a nostalgia for a home she never knew. Other people’s photographs of holidays and family gatherings, neat front yards and walls lined with family photos become hers, in a very physical, tactile way as she sews patterns into them with strands of her own hair. She appropriates the memories of others, and they become new and unexpected as she weaves a part of herself into them.

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Sanctuary for a King

Michael Harrison is artist in residence at Leicester Cathedral during the reinterment of King Richard III’s remains. Michael will capture the historic events in a commemorative series of paintings called ‘Sanctuary for a King’ which will  be exhibited The Cank Street Gallery between 6th and 23rd of May.

“It is a great privilege to be present at this unique historical moment.  The discovery of Richard’s remains has captured the imagination of the country and it is a great honor for me to be able to record the events surrounding the reinterment.  I aim to capture the sense of wonder that surrounds this occasion and to record in oil paint the way people have engaged with the story of King Richard which spans over half a century.” Read Harrison’s account of his progress on his blog Sanctuary for a King.

Inspiration: Bill Traylor


Born into slavery, Bill Traylor spent the majority of his life after emancipation as a sharecropper. It was only after 1939 that Traylor began to draw. At the age of 85, he took up a pencil and a scrap of cardboard to document his recollections and observations. From 1939 to 1942, while working on the sidewalks of Montgomery, Traylor produced nearly 1,500 pieces of art.

While Traylor received his first public exhibition in 1940, it wasn’t until the late 1970s, thirty years after his death, that his work finally began to receive broader attention.

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