Would You Pay $1,200 for an Oil Painting of…Yourself?

In a room decorated by Octavia Dickinson, a custom portrait of Anne Costa by Phoebe Dickinson hangs in a frame by the Holwell Collection.
In a room decorated by Octavia Dickinson, a custom portrait of Anne Costa by Phoebe Dickinson hangs in a frame by the Holwell Collection.


  • Forget selfies: For a portrait with staying power, consider an old-fashioned canvas.

IN THE AGE of Instagram, it seems everyone’s a star: Whether to celebrate an engagement or enshrine a “babymoon," the celeb-style photo shoot—complete with elaborate costume changes—is how many people reflexively mark meaningful occasions. But what if you want a memento that feels personal, not performative?

Consider oil and canvas. Portraits have long been fixtures in the homes of the powerful, well-heeled and not necessarily gorgeous. But now that the internet has made access to artists working in an array of styles and price ranges more democratic, one no longer needs the deep pockets—or snooty design sensibility—of a society matron to commission a painted heirloom. Searches for custom oil portraits on the online creative marketplace Etsy have increased by 173% year-over-year in the last three months. Many portrait artists anecdotally support that data, reporting a sharp uptick in inquiries from ordinary people who want to preserve images of their children or Chihuahuas or commemorate milestones like anniversaries.

I’m a case in point. In 2020, facing a subdued pandemic birthday and craving new art and experiences, I toyed with commissioning my own portrait from Portland, Ore., painter Ruth Shively. She quoted me $1,200 for an expressionistic, 12-inch likeness, to be created from a photograph we both approved. I wondered how Shively might interpret my midlife features—and a friend did question whether staring at myself all the time might get weird. Point taken. Ultimately though, budget concerns, not the potential cringe factor, made me temporarily shelve the idea.

What’s the allure? Unlike the ubiquitous selfie, portraits are designed to be lasting, says British artist Frances Bell, whose classically rendered oils start around $8,000 and have been featured on the U.K. television show “Portrait Artist of the Year." Bell contends that painted portrayals have a visceral power that speaks to our psyches in a way no photograph can. “When seen in the flesh, [paintings] carry a life force around them," she said, “and that has an enduring appeal."

Fourteen years ago, siblings Surya Garg, 24, and Arjun Garg, 27, of New York City, sat for Sharon Sprung, the Brooklyn-based artist who went on to garner acclaim for her official White House portrait of Michelle Obama. At the time the duo couldn’t fathom why their parents wanted huge paintings of them; now they’re thrilled that the same artist who immortalized the first lady captured their likenesses. Should you want to join the club, Sprung is now accepting commissions for 2024—but be warned, they won’t come cheap. Head-and-shoulders portraits begin at $50,000, while full-length renderings run from $90,000 and up.

At the entry-level end of the spectrum, New York City artist Paul Ferney occasionally offers a limited number of modestly priced portrait commissions (starting at $540 for 5 inches by 7 inches) via his website—no awkward, patience-testing modeling required. Simply pay, upload a photo and, around 8 to 10 weeks later, the painting is shipped right to you.

Others take a more hands-on route. British portraitist Phoebe Dickinson, whose Singer-Sargent-esque works start at around $30,000, uses house calls as a chance to vet outfits and suss out details she uses to conceive composition and color palettes. “[Seeing] a client’s interior décor and objects—it all helps tell the story of the person."

Once your new artwork is complete, the challenge is to integrate it into rooms without its feeling forced or fusty. Gloucestershire, England-based interior designer Octavia Dickinson, sister to Phoebe, offers this tip: Avoid making portraits the center of attention “with everything pointing toward [them]." Instead, try a layered approach, hanging one behind a side table or in front of a bookshelf. “They work wonderfully mixed up between still lifes, abstracts and other figurative art," she added.

Pay attention to what’s around the canvas, too. “The frame is as important as the painting, so choose thoughtfully, trying out different styles and colors to see what enhances the artwork," said Octavia Dickinson. Want to cultivate an air of permanence? “An antique frame can give a portrait a sense of timelessness," she added—creating the illusion it’s always been part of a room.

New York City designer Ken Fulk loves the way portraits lend any space a heightened sense of intimacy. “You just commune with them in a different way," he said. An eclectic assortment of friends and strangers adorn his walls—but the piece he prizes most is a portrait of his dogs by French artist François Bard. “If the building was burning, it’s the one thing I would grab," he said.

Brush With Greatness / 3 Contemporary Portrait Artists to Watch

Ruth Shively / This Oregon-based figural artist works from photographs in oil, gouache and watercolor with a loose, expressionistic style that occasionally veers into the abstract. Prints are for sale on Etsy and the price of commissions begins at $1,600 to $2,000 for a 12 inch by 14 inch painting, depending on complexity.

Leslie Barlow / This artist probes issues of race, family and identity in bold, colorful brushstrokes when creating life-sized oil paintings in her studio in Minneapolis, Minn. Rates for portrait commissions range from $500 to $10,000 or more depending on size.

Jeffrey Melo / An up-and-coming artist with roots in New York City and the Dominican Republic, Melo calls portraits “a vehicle for storytelling," and chooses the commissions he accepts accordingly. His pricing is $130 per square inch—meaning a 24 inch by 36 inch canvas costs about $7,800.

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