Tiffany Baxter writes: Dear Lisa

I am currently working on becoming a full time artist. I love what I do and would love to carry on and build a good business for myself, however I am having trouble dealing with clients. I hate turning people away when I have an order, so when they send me a terrible photo of their pet to draw then I always try to work my magic to try and make it a great portrait. I ask them to email me the full resolution photo of the photo they send me over facebook or instagram and it still manages to be the most pixelated photo you can imagine (I guess eyes and nose details on a daily basis). I don’t know how to get a great photo through the internet so I can work without having to guess and get frustrated. What also happens a lot of times is the customer expects me to “know” certain things and I’ve ended up redoing portraits because the hamster is actually white and not a tan color because of bad lighting. I’ve linked people on how to choose the best photo on my website and even let them send me a ton of photo’s yet people just have a general bad habit of taking terrible photo’s and expecting great art from it. I don’t want to turn away customers but I don’t want to keep struggling like this. it’s making drawing become frustrating and annoying.

Thanks for the great videos on youtube and patreon!
Love your work!

Ah the dreaded bad reference photo that all portrait artists have to deal with.

I’m going to start by telling a story

Years ago there was an italian greyhound forum that was quite active. There were a handful of us who were artists and were regularly hired to paint or draw people’s pets within that forum. One day a girl who was in college drew one of my friends dogs. The friend was a photographer, so the photo was AMAZING!! The lighting, the angle…everything about it was the most ideal photo to work from for an artist.

The artist completed this piece in colored pencil. Another friend saw this and loved it so she hired her to draw two of her dogs. The problem was that my friend provided this artist with a terrible photo. She (as most clients will) expected to receive a piece of art as amazing as the colored pencil piece the artist previously completed. I think we can all see where this is going. Let’s just say my friend was not happy…at all. She then showed the terrible artwork she received to ALL her friends…which was a lot in this community. No one was going to chance paying for artwork that looked like THAT! So no one would hire her. Lucky for the artist, she was in college and not trying to make a living from selling her artwork.

So what went wrong?

My friend provided the artist with a HORRIBLE photo. The artist should have said “Nope! I’m going to need a better photo!”

Why did the artist accept that photo then?

Because she was afraid to say no. She was afraid to lose that customer…so in the end she lost all future customers from that forum. She didn’t just lose the person she created the art for…she set herself up with a horrible reputation.

The funny thing is, I’ve done several drawings of this same friend’s dogs. I had to teach her how to get a decent photo that I could work from. Her first dog took two photoshoots with me sending her back to take more. She was more than willing to do this to get the right shot. Many clients will be…some will not. Either way is it worth your reputation to work from a bad photo and not be able to create your best work?

But if the had a good photo they wouldn’t need us!

Yes and no. Some people prefer the look of a painting to that of a photo. It may be because there are minor things they want changed from the photo, like background or details, it might just be a preference for paintings in general.

Now, to be fair, most clients are not going to be able to provide you with the best photo ever. I’ve had to work from poor quality photos in the past because the dog had passed on or the owner LOVED a specific photo for some reason. As the artist we should be able to improve on the photo if needed, but when we’re new that is MUCH harder to do. Once you’ve completed 50 or so portraits it will get easier for you to work from poor quality photos. In the beginning I recommend sticking with some of the better reference photo. If you can’t produce artwork that the client expects…neither of you are going to be happy in the end. I would MUCH rather lose a commission to start with than have an angry client on my hands.

If you HAVE to take the commission one tip would be when you post photos of your finished work, get the clients permission to post a photo of the reference you used next to it. I know of one artist local to me who keeps taking commissions from bad photos but she really does improve on them so much that the clients are loving them. Of course they wont be as good as her best work with a good reference photo, but when you see the photos she has worked from you just have to be impressed. I think that having that reference photo next to the artwork can help to give clients a better idea of what to expect depending on the quality of their own reference photo.

The key is to be able to provide what the client expects. If the reference photo is bad, let them know that this will not come out as good as your best work. Walk them through how to get a better photo and what you need to create the best you can, but show them photos of work you’ve created with lesser photos so that there are no surprises at the reveal of the artwork like my friend experienced.