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What You Need To Know When Commissioning a Portrait Painting

There are two key questions everyone would ask when searching for a portrait artist: Who that artist would be? and How much would it cost?  

Naturally, commissioning a portrait painting would be something we wouldn't consider to do often, and perhaps once in a lifetime.

Therefore, making the right decision today will be what we and our future generations will treasure and live with tomorrow. Please allow me to share with you my professional knowledge based on the philosophy and professional approach of the Masters of Portraiture, such as Ilya Repin, John Singer Sargent and Valentin Serov, as well as my Academic education and my experience in portraiture; particularly in painting portraits for commission. 

Igor Babailov, what you need to know - Portrait Painting.
By Ilya Repin - Portrait of the Artist's son. About Portraiture, Igor Babailov.

by Ilya Repin

About Portraiture and Higher Standards

Artists have painted portraits for centuries, often for commission, and often not. Regardless of how they were done, the artist’s skill would have been looked at first. As the most perfect creation, the Human Form was the main focus of studies at the old Academies. It has been known throughout generations of artists that, “if you knew how to draw the human form, particularly the human portrait, you could draw anything.”  All academic studies were based on working with life-models, and the artists drew and painted only from life or from their imagination. Even when photography was already invented, the Artists still learned the Anatomy and the laws of Perspective. They exercised their Visual memory and applied their skills of working from life to create life-like convincing multi-figurative compositions and group portraits. 


In the past several decades, with the boom of commercialism and drastic changes in Art education, when Drawing and Human Anatomy were completely erased from the curriculum of Fine Art programs, portraiture became something of a commercial venture, and quite often today it is nothing more, but a copy of a photograph, which does not require the Master knowledge, Creativity, Imagination or any in-depth Academic training. 

Although in the history of art, portraiture has always been recognized by Master painters as the MOST challenging genre in visual arts, today there are more artists call themselves 'portrait painters', than ever before...  That is, because many of them simply copy photos without having to test their skills to the challenge of working from life. It would be interesting to imagine just how many of these artists would continue to paint portraits if the camera and photography would not be available to them. 

Consider this. When we were school children in kindergarten, we copied images from books, comics strips, etc. It really did not require much skill at all to copy a ready made image or a photograph. But in the context of painting portraits professionally in the tradition of the Masters, high artistic skills and ability to realistically create (not just to copy pictures)must be the uncompromising criteria for every "professional" portrait painter!

Fortunately, the values of traditional art education are eternal. Currently, the art world experiences an important transition and the notable art academies have already started the reconstruction of their academic curriculum to teach those traditional values to their students again. However, the consequences of promoting art, which doesn’t require a skill of drawing or anatomical knowledge, are still present, and sadly even in portraiture. 


Therefore, when selecting an artist, consider every aspect including the portrait process. You will be quite surprised to learn how many artists today can not draw with a free hand and trained eye, but simply copy/ grid a photograph (do not confuse it with the Masters' method of transferring their own preliminary drawings onto large canvases and murals). Some of today's artists even use projectors, projecting photos on canvas and tracing them. How about painting over the photographs? Believe it or not, that happens too….

John Singer Sargent - Fountain. The Seven Essentials of Portraiture. Igor Babailov.

by John Singer Sargent

The Seven Essentials

#1.  Realism vs Photo-Realism  ( know the difference )

These days even artists are often confused about Realism versus Photo-Realism, what is what? 

It’s really not that complicated. 

Photo-Realism is the copying of a photograph. And what is a photograph? 

A photographic image is only a second of a life time: “Say cheese.. and you’ll freeze.” So, it may capture the moment, but it may not capture the person. Very often we hear: “I don’t like to be photographed!” or “I’m not very photogenic!”...  Of course, YOU ARE. That is what the camera, the heartless tool, does – it takes everything, what is necessary and what is not.  This is where the difference between the camera and the artist comes in to play, because the ARTIST CAN SELECT.  

Portrait of Leah, by Igor Babailov. Private collection. Realism in Portraiture. The Seven Essentials of Portraiture.

Realism goes far beyond photography. Through the harmony of tonal and color values it portrays the subject in the appropriate setting, where everything contributes to the individuality and character of the person, and nothing competes with it or detracts from it. The details on the Realistic portrait are not photographically copied, but portrayed selectively, providing the life-like and convincing image of the person. Of course, to be able to do so, the artist must possess a certain skill, which can only be acquired by the knowledge and the expertise of working from life. Because of the popularity of photography and having no other comparison, the innocent viewer can comment about the strong realistic painting: “It is as good as a photograph!" It has been noticed that such a comment never occurs, if the person actually sits for the portrait, participates and experiences the whole portrait process, and realizes that there was no photography involved and the outstanding realistic likeness can be achieved directly from life with a free hand. That is exactly, what in the old days made people appreciate artists. The artist was recognized as somebody who could do something what nobody else could do! Of course today, the vision and meaning of art have changed, but the necessity of the skill required to create portraits in the best traditions of Classical Realism, remains constant and obvious. 

Leah (oil) by Igor Babailov

#2.  The Ability to Draw from Life     
This is where the true artistic skill is revealed! 

Again, these days you may hear from some artists: “I paint, but I would rather not draw.” .. Why?.. Because any weakness the artist may have in portraying proportions or tonal values or in the anatomy details, can easily be exposed in black & white drawing. In painting however, they may get away with those mistakes, as the color or "painterly" brush strokes can distract the viewer's eye from those mistakes.  As an excuse not to draw in front of a client, such artists may even try to undermine the importance of drawing, saying that to draw would be a low thing to do for their "professional level". This is total nonsense! 


The curriculum of any true Academic school in all times was always based on perfecting the skill of drawing, as a fundamental for strong painting. That would remain to be the goal of any Master painter throughout their professional career. The famous 17th Century Nicolas Poussin said: “Drawing is the skeleton of painting, the color is its flesh.” The most contemporary American artist Norman Rockwell stated: "You build the house before you paint it." 

If you can draw, you will always be able to paint. It has been recognized by generations of artists, that Drawing is the core of the artists' strength, especially in portraiture. 


As part of the teachings of the Masters, the ability to draw and paint from LIFE is and will always be a sign of the true fundamental skill of an artist.  However, the popularity of photography has created, if you will, “photocopy artists”, who would only copy photographs which is a very basic level of artistry to begin with. These artists present such copies of photographs as if they were Fine Art portraits, when in fact, they are only representative of a split second in a person's lifetime.

General David H. Petraeus - Life Sketch, by Igor Babailov, in preparation for the official oil portrait. The essentials of portraiture.

Portrait study with Gen. David Petraeus, US Military Commander and CIA Director

If photographs are used in painting a portrait, it would certainly be to your advantage to find out whether or not the artist has a greater skill than just copying photos. The skill in question is the ability to work from life, which enables the artist to portray the likeness with the most natural and life-like appearance, truly immortalizing the person and creating the portrait, which goes far beyond its photographic references.  

Sketching from Life, by Igor Babailov. The Essentials of Portraiture.

To ascertain the presence of this vital skill for a successful portrait painting, you might wish to consider the following: a simple DRAWING TEST. 

DRAWING TEST:    Ask the artist to draw a black & white sketch of you, your child or whomever the portrait subject is - on the spot, and of course from life. That could be done simply on white paper with a graphite pencil right in front of you. Do not worry, it won't take forever. The experienced and skilled Artist should be able to complete a life-like and a full of character sketch within 30 minutes.


Remember,  just like all the Masters of the past, the pro will always be proud to demonstrate their skill in drawing from life without any hesitation. The 20th century master portrait artist Pietro Annigoni once said: "If one can draw, one can always paint".

Sketching Children from Life, by Igor Babailov. The Essentials of Portraiture.
#3.  Experience

Another way to be assured of the artist’s qualifications and the artistic credentials is to see more samples of their work, than only those shown in the artist’s portfolio. That could also prevent you from any surprises and an Oops! situation later on.


As a preliminary portrait stage and part of the artist's portrait procedure, there maybe a life-study involved. Whether it is drawing or painting, skilled artists usually deliver a faster result without jeopardizing quality, simply because they do not waste their time on fixing mistakes. Below is an approximate time which experienced and skilled Fine Artists will require to complete portrait studies entirely from life in different mediums, relatively fast, yet full of likeness and fine details.

DETAILED portrait studies from life by an experienced artist

             Medium                                                        Time required


Graphite Pencil Sketch (14"x11")        -                   up to 30 min.

Pastel Portrait Study     (20"x16")        -                  approx. 1.5 - 2 hrs.  

Oil Portrait Study           (20"x16")        -                  approx. 2.5 hrs.   

Bill Frazier, 2.5-hr Oil Demo from life, by Igor Babailov. The Seven Essentials of Portraiture.


Pope Benedict XVI, 15-min Sketch from life, by Igor Babailov. The Seven Essentials of Portraiture.


Lady in a pink hat - 2-hr pastel from life, by Igor Babailov. The Seven Essentials of Portraiture.


#4. Academic Education
It is as important and fundamental in Realistic art as the alphabet is to learn a language!
Igor Babailov Academic Figure Drawing from Life, Academy - 2nd year. The Seven Essentials of Portraiture.

Figure Drawings from Life

Igor Babailov - Oil Painting from life, Academy 3rd year. The Seven Essentials of Portraiture.

Life models

As I mentioned earlier, in the past several decades (since about 1960-s) classical art education was basically ignored in many art schools. As a result, after completing art programs, graduates could not really draw, because the in-depth Renaissance teaching methods were not taught. This is why, university art degrees, along with their titles, presented in the artists's portfolios since that time, were often not considered by others to be an important criteria of the artists' credentials. 

Igor Babailov Fine Art Education, Human Anatomy Studies, Academic School of Art, Figurative Art, Traditional Realism, Human Anatomy, Drawing from Life.

Expertise in Human Anatomy

Fortunately a handful of accredited schools remained, providing high quality art education and focusing not only on teaching how to "express emotions", but on giving students the vital Drawing skills. Because of this and due to the Realist Movement and the current return to traditional values in visual art, historical appreciation for Fine Art Degrees is finally coming back.. 

A standard university art degree, offered by fine art education in 'studio arts', is BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts).

The HIGHEST DEGREE one can earn in visual art education is the MFA degree, Master of Fine Arts, equivalent to the Ph.D. and E.D. in other fields, please read here.

ALL the greatest Masters of all times regarded the Traditional Academic training as indispensable in the development of highest artistic and professional skills - the higher the TRADITIONAL ACADEMIC education, the higher the competence, credentials and credibility of the artist. 


A few examples of the academic works by Igor Babailov

Igor Babailov - identical master copies of the Masters' works in museums. "An Italian Girl" - Academy, 3rd year. The Seven Essentials of Portraiture.

Master Copies in museums

Throughout the centuries, the artists' main goal was to study in the highly acclaimed accredited Academies of Art, or under the Master(s), who graduated from such Academies.That was to obtain the highest possible knowledge of Human Anatomy, Perspective, Master Methods of Drawing and Painting. Only after successfully completing these studies, could they pursue a professional career in figurative art including, of course, Portraiture. 

Igor Babailov Academic Drawings from Life. Portrait of Samuel - Academy 1st year. The Seven Essentials of Portraiture.

Portrait Drawings from Life

#5. Budget and Investment 

Price comparison is naturally a priority consideration, but make sure that you compare 'apples to apples' !  Since having a portrait painted is usually a once in a lifetime experience, every credential should be considered, including the artist's ability to work from life. If you're thinking to hire an artist to copy a ready-made image of a photograph, you may as well just enlarge that photo and save yourself a lot of money... However, remember: photographs don't last, as they start fading immediately after they are taken.....                                                                    

If you are thinking of a true luxurious Fine Art Portrait in the tradition of the Masters, to pass it on to your descendants and future generations, look beyond the price tag, as in the long run our descendants are going to inherit what we purchased for them. So why not go for the best!  Please keep in mind though, because of today's common unawareness of what the portrait painting should be, a 'photocopy artist' may ask almost as high price for a portrait as the skilled Artists would.  Once again, the way to be assured in the true qualifications of 'your' artist would be by offering the DRAWING TEST (please see Essential #2). 

It is known that with time, the works of Fine Art*(please see below) increase in value, and this is naturally applied to portrait painting**(please see below). For your information, ninety percent (90%) of the Metropolitan Museum collection are life-painted commissioned portraits. If the artists' officially commissioned portraits include those of business and political leaders and celebrities, whose names stay in history, the artists' names who officially painted them go into history with their subjects. The value of such artists’ works are guaranteed to be on the higher level at any time and in the future.

#6. Painting Hands

Another way to asses the quality of work you're possibly interested in, is to observe the artist’s ability to paint hands. It has been recognized by generations of artists to be even more challenging than painting the portrait itself. The Masters referred to hands as "the second portrait." Given their impeccable knowledge of Human Anatomy and not to mention that they painted only from life, the hands in their portrait paintings look life-like just as the heads do. Strikingly, many of today's artists experience difficulty with painting hands even when they are copying photographs. So once again, simply look at the larger number of the portrait samples where the hands are included and then listen to your heart.

#7. Listening to your heart

Igor Babailov - painting hands in portraits of children. The Seven Essentials of Portraiture.
Hands in the Portrait of Martha-Ann Alito. Igor Babailov - painting female hands in portraits. The Seven Essentials of Portraiture.
Official Portrait of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney by Igor Babailov - Painting hands. The Seven Essentials of Portraiture.
Pope Benedict XVI portrait by Igor Babailov - Painting hands in prayer. The Seven Essentials.

Regardless of your art education, or what your occupation is, and whether or not your neighbor had a portrait painted by the same artist, you will feel intuitively, if there is anything wrong with the portrait samples you are looking at. That should be the signal for you to just look more thoroughly at things, so you would avoid making a costly and irreversible mistake. 


Artists with the lack of proper education and experience of working from life, totally depend on the camera and copy whatever is visible on the photograph, without knowing what’s underneath. As a result, instead of creating the in-depth and full of character portrait, they draw a mask with no soul. 


Unlike the amateurs, the Pros, by bringing their experience of working from Life, improve on the reality of the camera, filling in the one element missing: the Soul.  


Photography was a great invention and today it often assists in creating commissioned portraits, both on the client side and for the artist. However, because of its general popularity, photographic image became more than a reference point and quite often even used as a subject for copying and tracing, which sadly simplifies the true essence of fine art portraiture and in reality, shallows its meaning. 


Just like The Masters of the past, I don't believe in "short cuts", especially in portraiture, as it is a form of art, which represents the highest form of The Creation, us. 


I also have a great admiration for those contemporary artists realists, who chose not a path of least resistance, but to explore and study the expertise of the traditional school, the most challenging and the only school, which teaches you to draw and empowers the artist with the skills of the Masters.

If you have read up to this point, you are one of the many people interested in knowing more about the fine art of portraiture and its timeless values which will always exist, regardless of new movements in art.


To Summarize, commissioning a Portrait is a huge responsibility you undertake for the generations to come. Therefore, I believe you deserve to have this necessary fundamental knowledge about: 


  • the differences between photographic images and realistic portrait paintings 

  • the skill of drawing freehand

  • when photographs are used, developing a portrait from a number of references, vs just copying a single photo

  • the artist's ability to work from life and the value of that experience in painting successful portraits 


All of these factors and information above may assist you greatly in your selection process and efforts in finding your artist, for you and the future generations to benefit. 

Igor V. Babailov, Honorary Academician of the Russian Academy of Arts (est.1757) painted his first portrait at the age of four and began his formal classical art education at nine (1974-1990). Having studied with leading Masters of painting and drawing at the Surikov Academy of the Russian Academy of Arts (est. 1757), he received the Master of Fine Arts Degree (MFA) and In the direct ‘teacher-student’ lineage of the Russian Academy, Babailov is a third generation student of the world-famous artists Ilya Repin and Valentin Serov.


Traditionally, "Fine Art" term is referred to the form of art, created by the artist's Talent and the human Skill.  This obviously doesn't include photography, which is produced by a camera.   ( I.V.B.)


According to scientific research, it takes 450 years for Oil paint (Oil paintings) to dry completely, this is why today the beautiful Renaissance paintings look as 'fresh' as if they were painted yesterday. A photograph, on the other hand, starts to deteriorate IMMEDIATELY upon it is taken, and fades visibly in 30 - 50 years.    


© The essay herein is the intellectual property of Igor V. Babailov and may not be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission from Igor V. Babailov. Any attempt to plagiarize the written material of this page will violate the international community's laws and ethics.

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