Family portraits by artists stand out as different, lasting

Jewelette McDaniel always felt guilty about not sending photos often enough to her mother-in-law. So last Christmas, she commissioned an artist to paint a family portrait featuring her in-laws and their immediate family: son, daughter, daughter-in-law and four grandchildren.

McDaniel felt a painting had more permanence than photos, and could become a family heirloom. The piece, created by Oxnard, California, artist Nomi Wagner, hangs in her in-laws' living room. "It's something special that (they) can always treasure and that can be shared with future generations," said McDaniel, of Harrisburg, North Carolina.

While the idea of commissioning an original work of art might "sound so fancy," McDaniel said the process was simple.

"I found the artist online," she said. "All I did was send her a couple of photos."

The internet makes it easier than ever to commission artwork. Would-be buyers can find artists working in a wide variety of styles and media who can create custom pieces based on photos and videos. The artists can showcase a family's interests by portraying them at the beach, say, or bicycling or fishing. Portrait subjects can also have themselves depicted as anime or cartoon characters, peg dolls, Lego figurines and more.

Commissioning portraits was for centuries the purview of the wealthy. It remains popular because people are curious to see themselves portrayed through an artist's eyes, said Tyler Cann, curator of contemporary art at the Columbus Museum of Art.

"There's an aspirational element," he said. "People want to see themselves reflected on their walls in the manner of a king and his castle."

A simple drawing from a photo could cost as little as $20, while a life-size oil painting that includes sitting for the artist might start at around $7,500.

The fact that phone cameras are everywhere to capture important moments makes the idea of a painted portrait even more alluring, said Edward Jonas, chairman of the board for the Portrait Society of America.

"You would think it would be dying out but it's not," he said. "People are looking for something that's got a little more personality, that's not so instantaneous and that will have some longevity."

Customers appreciate the work that goes into handmade images, said artist Robert DeJesus of West Lafayette, Indiana, who creates Japanese anime style drawings for people. "Everyone wants to have a unique image," he said. "It's a way to stand out."

Kate Char got the idea to commission a painting after seeing a heartwarming photo of her parents on their 50th wedding anniversary trip to Paris. She forwarded the photo to artist Jill Robostello, who used it as the basis of a watercolor painting. "I wanted to give them that moment permanently," said Char, of Newtown Square, Pennsylvania.

When Josh Jarrell decided to surprise his wife, Stefanie, with a piece of art for their anniversary, he turned to a local artist in their hometown, Charleston, West Virginia. Jarrell admired the way Ian Bode captures a variety of thoughts and feelings in cartoon-style works and faceless characters. The first painting was such a successful gift that Jarrell now commissions one each year.

Bode's casual style suits the couple, Jarrell added. "It reflects our personality. We love the colors and Ian's unique style. It just represents us."

The paintings feature the Jarrells along with milestones of the previous year. The works have commemorated the birth of their son, the purchase of their first house, job changes and more.

"When there's a significant life event, I think about putting it in the paintings," Jarrell said. "It's different than loading up all your pictures and videos to the cloud."

Amy McLaughlin was so taken with a portrait that Bode made for her and her husband, Shawn Means, that she started offering portraits to guests booking romantic getaways at Lafayette Flats, their vacation rental property in Fayetteville, West Virginia. "We love that it supports local artists, empowers more people to commission art, and provides guests with a beautiful memory they can hang on their wall," she said.

People are paying greater attention to the art they display at home, said Robostello, a portrait artist with a studio in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. The popularity of the online arts and crafts store,, has helped generate an appreciation for original works.

"People are looking for more custom artwork," she said. "It's not just portraits. Instead of going to IKEA, it's easy to say to an artist, 'Here's my color scheme, create something.'"