Not Your Average Wall Art.

What I learned from running a custom watercolor portrait studio for 5 years

I run a brooklyn-based custom watercolor portrait studio called WaterColorCastle. Since 2012, we’ve served 300+ clients all over the world and featured in multiple art & design publication such as Redbook (a Hearst Publication). Check out our portraits & process here or follow us on instagram for our newest work.

I started WaterColorCastle from my dorm room.

I spun up an etsy shop in a weekend and started selling my misc paintings. Later in the year I also sold them in a physical student art sale at RISD. I didn’t specify a theme for my shop at first, and I only threw a custom portrait listing in for the mix.

physical art sale vs etys shop

But soon I realized that miscellaneous original painting sell really well at the physical art sale while the custom portrait does really well online.

I started digging in more.

The Custom Portrait Market

so, is there a market?

In the modern days, it has a new meaning. Why do we need hand painted portraits, if you can take 1000 selfies with the snap of a finger?

1.Portraits is stylized, forgiving and gestural.

2.You can hang them up in your house without looking egoistic.

3.Portraits can be gracefully passed on. They have an intrinsic value associated with care and craftsmanship. Gifting.

The current custom portrait market is comprised of three main categories.

  1. royal-style, posing for the artist($1000+) mostly oil
  2. send a picture, get a physical painting ($100–1000) oil, watercolor, acrylic, pen, pencil etc
  3. send a picture, get a digital painting($10–$100) digitally illustrated

The Market Size

Who my target audiences are?

The Initial Plan

Based on my artistic ability and resources, 2 & 3 would be the logical options. After I did a more in-depth comparison, I’ve decided to go with option 2. Here’s why:

  1. I want to paint in a way that is gestural and captures a moment rather than exactly copy the likeness.
  2. The cost of painting in oil is too high, takes a long time and requires studio space.
  3. The margin of each piece needs to be at least 20%.

The First Year

The first year, I experimented with a lot of different things.

(different products)

frustrations & rewarding

takeaway: most p0pular product, shipping, packaging, time

The Second Year

pattern, holidays, returning customer

takeaway: streamlined the process, 3 step

The Third Year

busy, crazy volumn, branding needed

takeaway: branding, social media, gift card to alleviate traffic, offer different timelines

The Fourth Year

way busy, featured on redbook, starting hiring others

takeaway, organization of clients, have a dedicated customer service

The Fifth Year

Migrate off etsy, taking a break, rebranding, focus on instagram, design

It’s just an means to an end.

my greater purpose is to revive the art form of portraits and start to realize the ephemeral beauty of the present time and try one’s best to capture a memory. The best way to do that is to leave space for the mind. And a painting does exactly that.

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