Custom house portraits can capture properties at their best, providing a long-lasting reminder of the memories made within a home’s four walls—and can also make excellent house-warming gifts. As award-winning illustrator Simon O’Carrigan puts it, “A portrait of your home is also a portrait of a slice of time in your life, a reminder of your achievements and challenges up to that point.” Here we meet O’Carrigan and three other artists who can turn your home into a masterpiece.
When Mike Biegel’s father bought a new home, the realtor gifted him a framed portrait of the property. “The frame was elaborate and beautiful,” remembers Biegel, “the house portrait was wimpy and weak. Being a pen-and-ink artist, I knew I could do much better… I didn’t know then it would be a main portion of my illustration career.”
Today Beigel produces striking black-and-white house portraits using an old-fashioned dip pen and ink well. “My house portraits are fine-line ‘paintings in ink,’ with a focus on detail,” he says. Biegel works from digital images, which he asks clients to send him, although he has also worked with “old physical photos.” He may also ask for a second round of photographs of close-ups of details, such as front doors, mailboxes, bird feeders, garden beds, or statues.
Beigel first produces a detailed pencil sketch for clients to sign off before beginning the pen-and-ink portrait, which can take anywhere from 25 to 80 hours to complete. “As I finish up the process it becomes more about technique and style with my crow quill pen. That’s when the portrait really pops. When it crosses over from just a rendering to a fantastical piece.”
As well as house portraits commissioned by current owners, Beigel has drawn homes that people have previously lived in and loved. “I’m currently working on six commissions for one client who wants all of his homes as house portraits, from his starter home to his current place of residence.”
Simon O’Carrigan owes his success as a house portraitist to friends who were converting a milk bar into a home in Melbourne. “They asked me if I would make a drawing of their building as it was, to preserve the history of it before they made changes,” says O’Carrigan. “Working on it for them was really fun,” he says. Seeing how much the artwork meant to them was inspiring, and he began painting house portraits under the name Postcard Facade.
Working in watercolor, also from photographs, O’Carrigan likes to visit a property and collect reference material, “a few viewpoints, close-ups of key details, a sense of the context the building sits in.” He can also work with clients remotely, helping them gather the materials for him.
When a potential client reaches out, he likes to find out what relationship they have to the property they want to capture for posterity. “My clients commission me for all number of reasons: the first house they bought, the family home they are about to sell. Sometimes the project is a gift for someone else—a family member who bought a home, or perhaps a settlement gift from a real estate agent. Knowing the context of the home, the taste of the client, and a little about the area helps me get the feeling right in the final artwork.”
Susan Stillman, New York, U.S.A.
Susan Stillman began painting house portraits after a lightbulb moment, some 30 years ago. “At the time my personal work became focused on the landscape of my neighborhood,” remembers Stillman. “I’d seen other artists do pen or watercolor sketches [of property] but I decided to find my own niche with larger-scale paintings on canvas, which would command a more prominent place in the home.”
Stillman’s large-scale works are rich in detail thanks to her meticulous efforts to truly get to know a home before embarking on a portrait. She combines up to 100 prints to piece together an “idealized portrait” of the house she is to paint—visiting and revisiting a property if possible, to see it in different light conditions, with and without foliage, until she feels ready to begin. And, if visiting isn’t possible, she’ll help her client gather the reference materials.
A Stillman house portrait typically takes around three months to complete—“sometimes we start in winter but wait for spring or summer so I can capture a home in full bloom”—and have been described as the perfect “home time capsule.” Many of Stillman’s customers call on her services each time they move, and she has even updated portraits as properties have been added to or redecorated. “I’m currently updating the shingle color and trim on a house I completed in 2013.” She’s also captured homes that are to be torn down as a “kind of memorial,” and even painted two homes after they were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, piecing together the memories of their owners because they no longer had photos.
Zoe Jenkins has been drawing and painting houses since she was a schoolgirl. “I’ve always loved architecture and at school I did a project drawing buildings from my hometown. I absolutely loved it. From then on, I fell in love with drawing people’s homes and places that are special to them.”
Jenkins works in watercolor and inks and describes her style as “very illustrative, almost like I’m telling a story.” She’s immortalized all kinds of properties, from city terraces to country retreats, sometimes with resident dogs included. “One of my first commissions was for a family friend, and I included her two gorgeous golden retrievers at the front door,” says Jenkins. “She was so thrilled to see them there. For a lot of people, it wouldn’t feel like home without their animals.”
When embarking on a portrait Jenkins asks her clients if there’s anything they’d like to include—whether it’s pets or a particular plant in the garden—or to be removed, such as fences or trash cans. Like her peers, Jenkins works from photographs, this time supplied by the client. “Sometimes people have certain photos that they want me to work from, which show their garden in full bloom, for example.”
Jenkins also offers gift vouchers so people can buy her portraits for others. “I think it’s a really lovely housewarming or anniversary present,” she says. “I’ve done a few for one-year wedding anniversaries, which is paper. I think that’s really special.”
Banner image: Boathouse in Long Island by Susan Stillman