Those “Custom Paintings” Are Not What You Think
by Anne Kostecki
Have you ever thought about giving a painting as a gift, to another or to yourself? It’s a wonderful idea: a personal, handmade gift, with untold value for the recipient. Perhaps you want a painting of your family, home, or pet. A painting is more than just a decoration for the home: it represents thoughts and feelings that cannot be put into words. But, original artwork isn’t inexpensive or easily available, and that’s why it’s so precious. Original artwork is just that: one-of-a-kind. Only one single artist can make a single artwork. The most advanced reproduction technology can make a copy of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” indistinguishable to the human eye, but there is and always will be only one original artwork.
Knowing this, it makes sense why original paintings are expensive. Think about this: it can take an artist anywhere from 10, 15, or even 200+ hours to finish a painting, depending on size and medium. Many practicing artists have undergraduate or graduate degrees, and so, would command more than a minimum wage ($7.25 per hour in the U.S., which is hotly debated as an unlivable wage anyway) in creating artwork. In addition to time, there are material costs to factor in (paper, paint, brush wear-and-tear, etc.), and efficiency: a seasoned artist can accomplish a more sophisticated painting in less time than an amateur, with a greater range of technique. My parents often used the phrase, “you get what you pay for,” and for custom artwork, that can certainly be true.
What if you want a custom painting, but don’t want to break the bank?
The Bad News
You might search the internet to see what artists’ going rates may be. And you’re probably going to get wildly different results: just like you can buy a 1 bedroom apartment in Silicon Valley or a 5 bedroom home in central Missouri, costs vary. Art, a subjective medium, is truly in the eye of the beholder, as well as “expensive as someone is willing to pay for it.”
You may search Google or Etsy for “pet portrait” and see some unbelievable prices: $25.00 for an 8x10? Framed? Personalized? The descriptions often say something like “custom watercolor pet portrait, custom art, canvas print…” etc. If you’re thinking that it sounds too good to be true, you are correct.
None of these listings are actual watercolor paintings.
When the listing says “watercolor,” it means that the creator runs your reference photo through Photoshop or another photo editing program, and adds a watercolor filter to it. It simulates the look and texture of transparent paint, and let me tell you, it’s very obvious that it’s not a painting when you see the final result. If the flat printer paper or canvas didn’t give it away, then the clearly manufactured look would show you.
I don’t know a single working artist who could create a custom, from-the-ground-up portrait and call a profit at $25. In fact, I bet it’s barely a profit to take someone’s photo, run it through a Photoshop filter, prep for print, add personalization, print, package, and ship the print and still make a profit at $25. I would say an operation like that is running like a print shop: just like your local Minuteman Press or Kinko’s, they’re taking your file and printing it out for you, nothing more.
On the left is a painting of Earth I recently completed. I'd wager it took me 2-3 hours. On the right, is an auto-generated watercolor image of Earth I made with a Photoshop action using the same reference photo. Notice the differences?
Well, It's Not All Bad!
Now, I want to be clear: if this is what you’re looking for, there’s nothing wrong with that! If you don’t mind these creators sending your photo through a filter and printing it out, then this is a great transaction for you. If you’re looking for a poster-like piece to put on your wall, this is probably your best bet.
However, if you are actually looking for a custom family, home, or pet painting, these are not paintings. I doubt you can ever find a practicing professional artist willing to paint any sort of custom portrait for you for $25, unless it’s some sort of massive discount.
Think about your current per hour work rate: how much would you work for $25? An hour, a half hour; even less? Do you want an artist to spend that much time on your portrait? If so, than these listings might be for you!
A Painting Is Not A Printed Photo
All kidding aside, I wanted to illuminate this issue because it’s one that I’ve been bumping up against recently. I’ve had potential clients contact me asking about custom portraits, and then linking to Etsy listings for “paintings,” as I’ve mentioned. Since many of these clients are not familiar with art/design, they’re not aware that these are not actual paintings, which I completely understand. I suppose that they believe there are painters out there churning out paintings at $25 a pop, mere minutes after receiving reference photos over the internet. They don’t understand why I quote them a much higher price.
So I want to make it clear that my product is different from those products you see listed. I am actually drawing and painting, from over 16 years experience, on real watercolor paper. I wish I could give you an amazing deal, but I wouldn’t even be paying myself back in my material cost if I did that. And I don’t want to de-value my profession by dragging down other artists trying to make a living.
The Bottom Line
A painting is a completely unique, singular creation that often takes over 20 hours to complete. Artists are working hard with their unique skills to accomplish their work. If you’re interested in custom painting by a particular artist and the price is too high for your budget, that’s ok! And if you decide you’re fine with a print job to replicate the look of a painting, that’s ok too. I hope this clears up any confusion about these “custom painting” listings you may have seen. If you have any more questions for me, don’t hesitate to contact me! By the way, I used this Photoshop Action set to create the "watercolor" Earth!