TRANSCRIPT: Ep. 053 How Portraits Can Turn Passion into Profits


Miriam Schulman:
Well, hello, this is your host artist, Miriam Schulman, and you’re listening to episode number 53 of the Inspiration Place podcast. I am so thrilled that you’re here. Today or talking all about why portraits were the key to my success as a professional artist. And in this episode, you’ll discover why portraits are art everyone can agree on. Why, if you want to profit from your passion, portraits are a no brainer. And specifically how I used portraits to grow my painting business. But before we get there, I wanted to make sure you knew about my free passion portrait workshop. Today, you’re going to learn all about the opportunity of painting portraits, but if you really want to dive deep into this topic, then I suggest you sign up for the workshop. We’re going to cover much of what we are talking about here today, but you’re also going to get to see examples of each painting and watch me paint. More importantly, we’re going to uncover the taboo technique, professional portrait painters don’t want you to know.

So if you think you can’t draw, then this is for you. During the workshop. We’ll also unpack the five P’s of my portrait painting process, and you’ll get the complete supply list of the watercolors I use to create natural looking skin tones. All of this is absolutely free, but you have to sign up before the end of September. So you can go to for the webinar and for the videos go to Okay.

On with today’s show. Let me tell you about when my daughter was in kindergarten. So if you’ve been listening to my podcast, you know that I quit my Wall Street job and was searching for more meaning in my life. First, I tried being a Pilates instructor. So this is around that time when my daughter’s in kindergarten and my youngest had just started preschool. I wasn’t yet a professional artist. I was still living in that white space I had created for myself to figure things out. It had been two years since I quit that job. And we were just one year post 9/11.

I knew in my heart of hearts that I wasn’t fulfilling my life purpose. I knew my life purpose was not going back to Wall Street. It wasn’t being a Pilates instructor, but I still hadn’t figured out what that was yet. However, I was bursting with creativity. This was showing up in many ways of my life. For example, I was creating the most elaborate birthday parties for my children. When my daughter Talia turned four, she had a Wizard of Oz theme. The children played pin the heart on the Tin Man. I had rainbow cookies. My God, it was so much work. It was so much fun, but I really poured a lot of creativity into that.

And when she turned five, that was the year I created the Disney Princess party. Weeks leading up to the party I planned and created, I baked and decorated a cake in the shape of a Disney castle complete with ice cream cones as the turrets and the party favors were plastic, Halloween pumpkins that I spray painted silver to resemble the Cinderella coach. So you see there was a lot of pent up creativity. All the girls from her kindergarten class were invited plus a few more of her favorite girls. In order to keep all these girls happy, I also planned activities. I don’t remember all the games anymore. I remember we did use fruit loops on licorice rope to make jewelry. But there was the one game that may have been the key to changing my life and really changing the course of my painting career. That was the Disney Princess coloring project.

For this game I divided the girls up into teams. I think I even preplanned who should be with who based on the cliques and which girls I knew my daughter wanted to be with. I bought a full roll of white butcher paper, the kind that teachers use to cover bulletin boards. On them ahead of time, I drew larger than life size coloring books, style versions of Jasmine, Snow White, Cinderella, and all the other female heroines, probably the Little Mermaid as well, Ariel. And for many years, by the way, these color drawings hung up in our basement playroom. These were my first portraits. No, my career did not begin by selling any illegal Disney merchandise. Let me tell you Disney employees, armies of interns to scan the internet, looking on eBay and Etsy for people illegally using their brands. However, the idea of creating life size drawings and the absolute joy that creating these drawings gave me, also the girls, ignited a passion in me up.

Until then I had been just painting watercolor landscapes, and I did have success selling a few of them at local art shows. But when I created these Princess drawings, I realized I should be creating portrait. It’s like the idea came down to me fully formed. Now let’s be honest, maybe a portrait fairy didn’t come down and grant me with special powers. I don’t really believe in that. I don’t think you have to be born with any special talent to do this. But what happened is I feel as though a muse came down to grant me this belief and the idea. It was one of those things that was probably so obvious and right in front of me the whole time. Didn’t know what to do with my life. I was teaching Pilates and here I realized, no, I can be channeling all this creative birthday party energy into painting portraits.

My first attempt at a watercolor portrait was honestly a muddy mess. I had done watercolors before, like I said, I’d done landscapes and I had taken classes, but I had never done figures or flesh tones. The first attempt that I did was a painting of my daughter on the beach. Actually, you know what? I have no idea what happened to that painting. I can’t remember now if I gave that one to my mother, or if I sold it on eBay, I probably sold it on eBay. Now to be perfectly clear, it was not my first time drawing people. I don’t want anyone to think that magically, I got these powers to paint people, but let me elaborate. My portrait career began in high school. I would get really bored in class and I found that drawing my teachers really helped me focus. First of all, it kept me awake in class and also the act of moving the pencil on the paper and occasionally looking up convinced my teachers I was fully engaged.

There is actually scientific research to back this up that doodling, that is, helps you focus. But the point is, in spite of not taking our classes in high school or going to art school, I do have years of practice drawing people from life. Even though I didn’t go to art school per se, I have completed my major in art history as an undergrad, which means I did take a few of the basic courses just enough that kept me happy, but not so many that my mother got too nervous. And one of the thing, and this is funny, but also important, when I arrived as a freshman at Dartmouth, there was a life drawing course advertised in our art center. Now I was so unsophisticated back then, I actually had no idea what life drawing meant.

I thought it had something to do with still lives. The drawing class was super cheap. It was maybe I think it was $10 every time to drop in, something like that. In case you don’t know, and I don’t want you to feel badly if you don’t, life drawing is drawing from life. And by life, they mean with a live model. And by a live model, they mean a nude model. Now, the first time I went, it was a male model or I should say he was a male model. I was only 17 and I had never seen a penis before. So my first drawings were eunuchs, I mostly focused on the face. I remember when I came home that Thanksgiving, I shared one of these eunuch drawings with my mother and she said it reminded her of her then boyfriend Frank. Now that’s not what a 17 year old wants to hear from her mother that the man that she had been drawing naked looked like her boyfriend, because I did not want to picture my mother’s boyfriend naked.

But here’s the thing if you want to get good at drawing people, there is nothing that will get you better, faster than drawing from life. However, academic drawing methods like these do take time to learn. So I began to wonder if perhaps I can use nonacademic methods for drawing portraits like I did for those Disney Princesses. We’re going to more about that in a future episode, because there are shortcuts that you can take. And also don’t forget, if you’re impatient, sign up for my Passion Portrait Workshop, because that’s where I’ll be giving away some of those details as well. So you don’t have to spend years going to Italy and drawing from busts of Greek statues or drawing from life to develop those skills, that does help always to draw from life, but there are shortcuts. Also, I don’t want you to be frustrated with mixing the wrong colors together to end up in mud, which is why also in the free workshop, you’ll get the complete and actual watercolor supplies that I use now.

After that first painting I did of my daughter, I was not discouraged by my muddy paintings. If you want to be an artist, if you want to be a watercolor artist, you have to be willing to fully commit. And like I always tell my watercolor painting students, if you want to be a good watercolor painter, you have to be willing to be a bad one first. So moving along. My next attempt, and honestly guys, I don’t remember if there was another painting in between my daughter and my son, but let’s just assume I did my son next. My next attempt was a painting of my son. Now, during this time he was obsessed with Batman. Every single day, he would come home from preschool and change into his Batman costume. This was not just any Batman costume, but the kind with the built in muscles, sculpted muscles on the chest.

And he would strut around the playground, wearing the Batman costume. He actually would make me take him to the park wearing it. That year for his birthday party, of course I did a Batman theme. I did elaborate birthday parties in those days and he was strutting around the birthday party in his Batman costume. By the way, it didn’t spare any time on this party, just like for my daughter’s parties, lots of time went into my son’s parties. I actually made little black capes for all of his guests so they could be Batman or Batboy or Batgirl. During this time, there was a photo of him wearing the Batman costume. He was smiling like a maniac, the way four year olds do, with this cute little teeth that are odd and gappy. His Batman costume somehow made me think of Max from Where the Wild Things Are.

Remember Max wearing this Wolf suit in the Wild Things? Love that story. And there were these sculpted muscles in the gray polyester suit. So I carefully transferred the main landmarks from the photo onto my watercolor paper, using the same techniques that I did for creating the larger than life size Disney Princess drawings. Over a series of nights, I carefully layered in the flesh tones when I was done, I knew I had a winner. I actually submitted this painting to a local woman’s art club show and took home a blue ribbon. But the truth was, it was not the blue ribbon that launched my career painting portraits. In fact, this is for all y’all, I know it’s fun to do juried shows. That is not really the path to an art courier, in my opinion. It’s fun to get a ribbon and it can build your confidence, so if you’re doing it for those reasons, that’s great.

But let me tell you really what makes the difference. Here’s what happened. No one ask me to see the ribbon. Okay. Here’s what happened. That portrait stood in my hallway, in my home. And every time my son had a play date, he dragged his friends over to see it. Every time a mother came to pick up her child, the friend showed the painting to his mother. And so it began, the mother would want a painting of her child. And then that portrait would go live in their house. Then their friends would see it and so on, and so on. First I painted my son’s friends. Those paintings went to live in their new homes, the children in those paintings showed it to their friends. And before I knew it, I was getting lots of calls. The calls went always, something like this, “I saw a portrait that you did. I want one of my children.”

You see people go crazy over portraits. Even in this age of selfies. In fact, especially in this age of selfies, art collectors are willing to pay huge sums for a portrait that tells a longer lasting story. Portraits are about legacy. It’s about life after death, rather than the instant culture that we live in. Now, if you want to profit from your passion, portraits are really the fastest way to get there. Now I paint my portraits in watercolor, but I can tell you that oil portraits usually start at $3,000 for an 8 x 10 and can go as high as $100,000. For my watercolor portraits, by the way, I usually get about $1000 per person, a lot of that depends on size.

There are a lot of reasons why people go crazy for portraits, but let me go over the 10, most common ones. Portraits tell a story. People are drawn to portraits because they tell a story both about the subject and really about the artist as well. I always put a little bit of piece of myself and my own feelings and personal stories into the art of my portraits. That’s why so many collectors who like portraits will commission multiple artists to do portraits of their families. My painting of Seth told the story of his mischievous, dramatic play, but I’ve also painted portraits of children with their siblings and those portraits show the relationships between them. There are so many stories that can be told with portraits, whether it’s celebrates the fleeting youth of a child or illuminates the joy of a wedding day.

I remember a portrait I did have two children, one of the children, I’m not sure if he was autistic, there was something developmentally, not quite right with him. I know he had trouble making eye contact at that time. So it was very difficult for me to even take a good photograph of him. But he had such affection for his sister and his sister was a ham. His sister was posing in a tiara. So I just told the little boy, the brother, to kiss his sister, what an adorable portrait that made. And it made the family so happy. It captured how loving their son was. It captured what a ham their daughter was, and probably still is. I think she’s in high school now. But that’s the thing about these portraits. They go on and they go and live in the people’s homes.

And that is really the second reason why people love portraits is because, number two, these memories fade. Portraits capture the humanity of a person in a moment in time. In this digital age, when photos live on phones. And so people even bother to print them, and sometimes they get lost when that unbacked up phone dies. Even a centuries old portrait can conjure up its subject and breathe life into a distant memory and brings a personality that would otherwise have vanished into obscurity. Just walk through any museum and these ghosts instantly come to life.

That’s another reason why people love portraits and why portraits are a no brainer. They really do make great family heirlooms. People know art is a great investment because of the joy it gives families for generations. In our mass produced age, few material objects possess the enduring value and prestige of a unique work of art. There are certainly areas of the country where the tradition of portraiture is stronger. I’m thinking, just off the top of my head, the deep South, Virginia, for example, but also New England, like Boston because of John Singer Sargent and that whole tradition there of portraiture. Anywhere where there’s pockets of culture and dusty, crusty money or even new money, you’re going to find people who are going to want portraits.

In my own dining room we actually have an oil painting of my great grandmother painted by my grandmother’s cousin. I think his name is Moshe Ashkenazi. And my sister who collects very few art pieces, really, I think just the ones I might have given her, also has another painting of that great grandmother. And we both cherish these paintings. But here’s the thing, even in families that value art, most people are very insecure about their own taste in art, and they have trouble making a decision, whether they feel it is worth it to invest from a non famous artist. However, portraits of children, portraits of their children or portraits of their fur children are art that everyone can agree on, which is why art collectors love them. Nothing is closer to a mother’s heart than her children.

So the best art for her is a charming watercolor portrait of her father. I’m not going to get too much into today why watercolor versus other mediums. If you do check out my free workshop, Passion Portraits, we’ll talk about that in that workshop. But here’s the thing, it’s not just mothers who like these paintings, fathers flip for these paintings as well. They love the paintings for their home or their office. And men are so difficult to shop for, especially after they’ve gotten their stereotypical golf clubs or fishing equipment. Then what? Another blue sweater? I’ve painted so many portraits over the years that the mother commissioned for her husband with Father’s Day as an excuse. I do remember the one time my client had hidden the portrait under the bed. And when the burglar alarm had gone off unexpectedly, the husband discovered the portrait hidden there and that spoiled the surprise, but he still loved it.

But here’s the thing. Portraits do make fantastic gifts. And if you’re counting, we’re up to reason, number five, it really doesn’t matter what the occasion is. It could be a birthday, these are obvious choices, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but you can also give a portrait on the occasion of a child’s birthday. I’ve done adult portraits. So if you think you’re honey, unbelievably beautiful, then you can capture the essence on paper in a lovely portrait. Adults do enjoy portraits of themselves, however, they do make the most difficult clients. It’s not my favorite thing to do is to do a commission portrait for the person who is commissioning me, by the way, if it’s an adult, that’s just me. I prefer to do children.

However, one of my favorite portraits I’ve done, which was not a commission, it was a portrait I did as a demonstration for our local art society, our local art association. I ended up swapping this painting for a painting done by the husband who’s in the portrait. So remember I told you the story with the girl… No, it was the boy kissing the girl, the two siblings. So this portrait was the wife kissing the husband. And it really was a flattering angle for her because she was stretching out her head, I believe at the time he was probably in her 50s, when the photo was snapped, it truly told the story of their long marriage. That is where I got the idea, by the way, to use that pose for the photo shoot of this special needs boy and his sister. So that was a special portrait that I did. And since then the husband did pass away. But I do know that the wife still has the portrait hanging in her home.

Now, not everybody has children and they want to paint, but many people have for babies. People are spending more on their pets than ever before. I looked this up actually. In 2019 Americans spent a staggering 72 billion, not million, billion on their pets. And these animal lovers, they want paintings at their pets. Here’s what I found to be mostly true, as far as pet paintings, a cat lover is usually happy with a cute cat painting. I certainly do know artists who make their living painting primarily cats. But for a dog lover, it has to be their dog. Sometimes they’ll be happy with a painting of a particular breed, but most of the time they want their dog with their markings. People who have dogs, dog people, they consider dogs, part of the family. They sign their dog’s names to Christmas cards. And of course, if you’re doing a portrait, they like to include their dogs. I have lots of examples of portraits with girls and their dogs, boys and their dogs.

I remember this one family of three girls. I did the portrait of three girls together. And then a few years later, the mother commissioned me to paint the three girls again, but this time she wanted with their three dogs, this was six figures. And that was a $5,000 commission. That was some time ago too. I imagine it would be more now. I’ve included dogs and portraits at the client’s request on a number of occasions. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t think I’ve ever had the request include a cat. Maybe it’s just because cats won’t cooperate. I can count on one hand the number of cat portraits I’ve done in the last 15 years, but I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many dogs I’ve painted.

At one point, I thought I was tired of dogs. So I told my assistant to go ahead and double my prices on both my website and Etsy. And the very week, I got two more orders at that higher price. Here’s the thing. If you really want to make a living painting pet portraits, learn how to paint dogs. A beautifully done portrait captures not only the pet’s physical appearance, but also captures the essence and the spirit that the owners love so much. You can paint the pet in a favorite background, like the beach, making the pet portraits even more personal. And by the way, if you’re listening to this and you don’t have interest in learning how to do this yourself, and you do want me to paint your fur baby or family, I do still take on portrait commissions, that is something I still do. So I will make sure I put a link in the show notes for both my pets and my family commissions. It’s Or you can go directly to

This episode was primarily directed at you, if you are an art student and you want to learn how to paint it, I’m trying to inspire you and motivate you to do that. But if you are an artist or curious, and you just want to know how much I’m charging right now, then you might want to go out and check out those links anyway. So are you starting to see why painting portraits is so rewarding? You just think about how much people value them, how value this art. If you’re wondering whether the paintings you’ll do, if people will like it because you’re painting flowers, or landscape, you don’t have to worry about that. With paintings of dogs, paintings of people’s dogs and paintings of people’s children, they go crazy for it. Are you starting to see why painting portraits is so rewarding? Not to mention profitable, because portraits are the gifts that they don’t want to return.

And I want to highlight this point a lot. I know a lot of my listeners, a lot of my art students, they just want to paint for fun, or if you’re intimidated by starting an art career, so perhaps that’s you. But here’s the thing, lots of my students who do start painting their children, grandchildren, or their pets or their friends pets. They give them as gifts during the holidays. And by the way, portraits do not have to be people or even pets. Another popular art commission that I do is to get a painting done of either the wedding chapel or the church as a wedding or anniversary gift. I’ve even done portraits of wedding bouquets and I find that the same people will come back to me year after year, which PS that’s why it’s important to stay in touch with them and send emails.

And another popular watercolor commission I’ve done is of the wedding flowers as a wreath around the physical invitation. What I do is the client sends me the invitation, I mount it to watercolor paper, and then I paint the wedding flowers around the perimeter. And families come back to me year after year for these creative wedding gifts. If you’re counting, this is reason number seven, why people love portraits. People are really proud of their homes. So another popular portrait commission is a housewarming gift to remember a childhood home. I’ve done that for people who have given it as gifts to their parents, either when they’re about to move away, the parents are about to downsize. So the grown children will chip in to get a painting done of the house they grew up in as a gift to their parents. And I’ve also sold my house portraits to real estate agents to give their clients as closing gifts.

Portraits also create immortality both for the subject that you’re painting and also for you, the artist. Which I think maybe is probably the most important reason of them all. Portraits really are a way to create your legacy. I never have to wonder if what I’m doing in my life matters. I know whether I continue to paint portraits or I never paint another portrait again, all those portraits that I’ve done, they’ve gone on to be part of all those different families’ legacies. They all have art in their home and that creates immortality both for the sitter as well as for myself. If you’ve been inspired by what I talked to today, and you want to learn the art of painting portraits, then I would love for you to check out my free Passion Portrait Workshop. It goes live on September 4, 2019.

If you’ve always wanted to learn how to paint portraits, but don’t know where to start then you’re invited to join this free Passion Portrait Video Workshop. You’ll uncover the taboo technique most portrait artists don’t want you to know about. We’ll explore the five P’s of my portrait painting process. And you will learn exactly which water color supplies you need to get started so you don’t waste money on the wrong stuff. When you sign up for the Passion Portrait Workshop, you’ll also get an invitation to join the Watercolor Portrait Academy when it opens in September. I have not opened registration to my watercolor portrait classes in almost two years. So I would love for you to be a part of this, whether you end up joining the Portrait Academy or not, I would love for you to explore this exciting process with me.

To reserve your spot and September’s Masterclass go to If you can’t join the live workshop, at least check out the free video series Now just a quick warning, if you’re listening to this episode, when it goes live in September, don’t delay, this free workshop will only be available through September 25th. If you missed out, be sure you add yourself to the wait list. Okay?

That is it for today, my friends, I hope you found this both inspirational and informative. And to wrap up, I just want to remind you to subscribe to my podcast. And if you’re not, I encourage you to do that right away. For the next few weeks, I will be diving more into the wonderful world of portraits. I’ll be exploring both the taboo technique as well as uncovering the five P’s of my portrait painting process. If you want to be notified when each one goes live, make sure you subscribe to my podcast right away so you won’t miss a single episode. All right, guys, thanks so much for being with me here today. I’ll see you same time, same place next week. Make it a great one. Bye for now.

Thank you for listening to the Inspiration Place podcast. Connect with us on Facebook, on Instagram @schulmanart, and of course on

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