The karma of art


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, John Dinan of Cross, Mayo, Ireland wrote, “I earn my living from my paintings so, like any skilled worker, I’m entitled to some reward for my labour. But I have a problem. Every so often I ask someone to sit for a portrait and I feel uncomfortable about asking to be paid for it. These are not commissioned portraits, of which I do quite a few, but rather people with faces I need to paint. How do I handle the situation diplomatically? Do I offer them at half price? Many of these sitters cannot afford the work at any price. In this small community, how do I charge one and not another?”

The Chief's Wife, 1984 Oil on canvas by Bettina Steinke (1913 - 1999)

The Chief’s Wife, 1984
Oil on canvas
by Bettina Steinke (1913 – 1999)

Thanks, John. I may be a bit soft in the head on this one, but they need to either pay the full price, or receive it from you as a gift. You need to make it clear right up front. The sticky stuff comes when you keep the work and later sell it through your regular channels. Your sitter may feel a sense of participation and may also appreciate some payola. It’s your call — consider sharing.

A few years ago, in a small park somewhere west of Gallup, New Mexico I met an elderly Navaho by the name of Nastas, which he told me meant “curve like the grass.” After offering him $20 and a glass of lemonade, I had the soft-spoken, well-lined fellow sitting at ease under my motorhome awning. I told him if the painting was any good I’d give it to him. As it turned out okay, I did. I can still see him carefully laying the still-wet 16″ x 20″ oil onto the hay-littered bed of his blue Ford pickup and taking off in a cloud of dust. I never saw Nastas again, but a decade later a woman wrote to me from Phoenix, Arizona to say she had purchased the painting in one of those native-run pawn stores you see along Southwest highways. The photo she enclosed showed it in an opulent home, magnificently framed and looking like a regular Nicolai Fechin, Sergei Bongart or Bettina Steinke. Paintings have stories. Paintings carry karma. Paintings can brighten the spaces between brothers. Paintings given away and perhaps just starting their rounds already have more going for them than a lot of those that have merely been sold.

The Medicine Man, 1956 Oil on canvas by Bettina Steinke

The Medicine Man, 1956
Oil on canvas
by Bettina Steinke

Best regards,


PS: “I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with catcher’s mitts on both hands. You need to be able to throw something back.” (Maya Angelou)

Esoterica: Another way to handle the problem is to give the sitter a giclee or a decent photocopy — even if it’s not of your particular effort together. Most will understand that you are a professional and art is your livelihood. With regard to the “small town syndrome” many artists deal with, most collectors, in my experience, understand the situation of the self-employed artist. Collectors also have goodwill to offer.

Bettina Steinke, 1940.

Bettina Steinke, 1940.

“Joy is but the sign that creative emotion is fulfilling its purpose.” (Charles du Bois)

This letter was originally published as “The karma of art on December 17, 2010.

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  1. I think, in all honesty, if you are good enough at what you do to make a living from it, if you approach someone you ‘need’ to sit for you then you should be the one to offer them something for their time and willingness to sit for you. Certainly, you would want to keep the painting yourself for future exhibits or a possible sale, so it stands to reason that your subject, the one you approached, should be compensated somehow. One option would also be to offer them a ‘share’ in the event that the painting be sold. Either way, if you were to ask me to pay you for a ‘sitting’, my answer would be: No.

  2. I recently paid a friend to model for me so that I would have a number of images to work from. I set up a photo shoot in my studio, the model did several costume changes and followed my direction for various poses. I promised her $25 per hour, and although we only spent about an hour and 15 minutes, I paid her $50. She took time out of her day to do this for me, she got some extra cash, and I’ve yielded several paintings from the modeling session. It was a win-win.

  3. This is very timely as I am wrapping up prints and 2 original small paintings each with an emotional tie. I have 6 prints of one of my favorite small paintings of expressive, exuberant flowers in pinks, greens and a bit of yellow going to the 6 siblings of an old childhood friend who passed unexpectedly this fall. The flowers remind me of her and the joy she brought to others. It is my honor to pass this bit of joy onto them at this point. I have a small 5×7 oil painting I am mailing to another old friend who wrote me the most heartfelt support of my art over the past few years and it arrived in my inbox on one of those “low” art days when we question what are we doing here as artists? Is there a reason? Is it important? His words were a balm to my soul. I am surprising him with a gift of a small painting. Another small painting is being delivered to the owner of the farm where we were welcomed to paint this fall through our plein air painting group- I caught the horse of the owner’s elderly uncle who absolutely loves his horse. How can I not pass it on? Anyways my point is we are all merely stewards of this great big beautiful world of ours recording time, places, people and emotions and I think our world needs our art more than ever now. Peace, fellow artists- keep working your special kind of magic.

  4. All models who sit for me who are not family are paid. This eliminates my feeling obligated to them. I mostly use professionals. If they want to buy the piece afterward (which is rare – they’ve seen it all, lol), I will usually cut them a deal … maybe 20% off my usual price. For favorite models that I work with frequently, and for family members, I often give them another small payment if the painting sells, around 10% of the sales price, to keep good relationships going. A really good model inspires me and is part of the process, so I like the idea of rewarding them after a sale. They usually seem surprised, so it must not be the rule. But it is my rule, nonetheless. Paying it forward, I guess.

  5. Lovely story, Robert! I once sat for an artist friend some years back for an art group demo. I didn’t intend to have my portrait painted that day, just ended up sitting in front of a man with a brush later that evening. He was thankful I did him the favour as he wasn’t able to arrange for a model. The painting was not finished in the two short hours, so he offered to finish it at a reasonable price. I thought, why not, and sat and had it finished, and bought it at a very reasonable price, knowing that would by groceries for his family. I’m not one to love looking at photos, or paintings, of my mug, but I love the story, and the memory. I didn’t “love” the painting then, but have to say, it is improving with time. :)

  6. I agree that the sitter should be paid. They are ‘working’ too. Create a ‘contract’ before you start painting, so that everyone is clear who gets what, and that there is something in it for the sitter.

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