How to choose a suitable picture for a portrait commission

This guide will give you a quick overview and some pointers that you may find helpful when choosing a photograph as a reference image for a portrait commission.

The basic points to guide you are:

  1. Keep the face as the main focal point (even if doing a full or half-body shot)
  2. Make sure the face is well lit and that we can see the eyes clearly
  3. Make sure it is an expression that is typical of the subject (so that it looks like them!)
  4. Avoid arm and leg gestures that lead the viewer off-the-page

Faces and Eyes

You want to be sure that you are getting a portrait where your subjects face or faces are clearly seen. This is presumably what you want to do—unless you are aiming to achieve some unusual effect. For now we will just keep it simple.

It’s important to catch the eyes, because they are often the most recognisable part of a person. The eyes have been described as the ‘windows of the soul’. In a portrait, you are attempting to capture (or at least represent) something of a person or subjects soul. So most of the time it is very important that you capture the eyes appropriately. The same is true of the face, or at least, facial features.

Sometimes an unusual expression might make an interesting picture, but it may not make the best reference material for an artist to make a portrait from. You should remember that when you commission a portrait, it may come to represent the subject in a long-standing way. That is why it is important to get an image that gives a true reflection of the subject.

Problems with selecting a suitable photo for an artist to use as a portrait painting reference (Lighting)

The biggest obstacle to seeing peoples faces clearly in a photo can include poor lighting or a poor contrast. Poor contrast is caused when the background or some other aspect of the picture is pulling attention away from the face that you are trying to portray.

This would make an excellent reference photo for a painted portrait commission, because of the lighting of the details, the pose, and the composition of the photograph

Photo by Dmitriy K. on Unsplash

The face above is naturally lit and we can see it clearly. It is not in shadow. The background is also quite clear—so it doesn’t take away from the subject. You can select an image with a complex background (and sometimes this is the best way to tell the story that you want to create) but keep in mind that complex backgrounds (or other details in an image) can take away attention from the main subject. So it’s probably best to only use a complex image when it helps to tell the story. You may, for necessity, have to choose a photo with details that are not important for the finished product. You can talk with your artist about this, and see if it is possible to take only the elements that are required from the reference photo.

How viewing angle can influence your choice of photograph for a portrait commission

Where we (as the viewer) are in relation to the subject, makes a big difference in terms of how we perceive them. The view-point in the photo above is from below the eyes of the person. This makes it seem like we are looking up at the subject. The effect of ‘looking up’ at the subject can seem to ‘glorify‘ the person, and/or create an ‘epic‘ feeling for the picture.

To contrast this, we can imagine that a view which is looking down at the subject would put the subject in a ‘down’ position. This could perhaps be useful if we wanted to create a sense of pity, or perhaps empathy with a subject. You can easily imagine how looking down at a homeless person sitting on the street, or perhaps a small child standing on the floor would make sense. They are somewhat naturalised positions. Of course, not every shot will be from a ‘natural’ angle.

Looking from the same level suggests just that – it puts the viewer and the subject ‘on the same level’.

Choosing the right composition as a reference point for a portrait commission

The composition basically means how the elements of the photograph are placed in relation to each other. You want to make sure that the main subject is clearly the focal point of the image. There are also things at play, like arms and limbs etc., or other ‘visual lines’ that may be present in the image. These can lead the viewers attention in particular directions around your picture.

For instance, you can see below (in the girl with trees) how the lines of the picture are almost all pointing down the way. The tree lines (including the branches, which are mostly mostly pointing down the way) and the arms and fingers of the woman. These lines naturally lead attention downwards towards the end of the picture—and eventually—off the picture! As a result of this, we kind of have to ‘fight’ internally (against the flow of the image) to keep our attention on the page. Contrast this with the composition below it (Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’) it and you will really see what I mean.

This picture has cropping from just below the knees. It leaves the picture feeling unfinished. It’s like its missing the last line of a song, and the woman is just floating without legs.
Below the sea-shell, we can see that the lines of the water curl upwards redirect our attention back towards the subject. All aspects of this image lead focus towards the main subject.

Using a [reference] picture with a composition such as the woman in the trees above makes it difficult for an artist to create an image that will comfortable hold attention.

Issues with arms and legs in photographs

The extended arms position of the ‘woman in the trees’ makes it difficult to crop even higher up (as you could see in the first image) because the hands are below the waist.

For added contrast you can see that the woman in the trees could be cropped up higher on the womans body, as in the image at the top of this post. However, the issue is still the same, where the lines lead the viewer ‘down-the-way’. The gestures of the top image keep the viewers attention back towards the subject and stops it from going off-the-page.

Here is a good example of a crop and pose combination with great light on the subject and a complex background that compliments the subject

This image is cropped above the knee. We can contrast this with the crop that is below the knee in the photo of the woman in the trees. Another problem with cropping towards the end of a limb is that we have started to ‘read’ it, so we naturally want to see it all in conclusion. Cutting it away kind of cuts the story short after we have invested our attention in reading some of it. This is frustrating for the viewer, if even on a sub-conscious level.

In the image of the woman looking at the river, we can see that the subject is looking up, creating a nice dynamic because we know that the sunlight is coming down (we can almost feel it in this image B-)). This dynamic is supported by her left-hand, which a sense of floating, or rising upwards. As a result of this ‘floating fee’, the images welcomes our attention to remain comfortably and interestedly on the subject. This ‘hanging around’ allows us to get a good sense of the feeling that she is experiencing.

Backgrounds

This image of a woman near the water also shows how a dynamic shot with a complex background can look well – though this probably works better as a ‘snap-shot’ than it would as a portrait per-se. This is because you want to be able to see subjects the eyes. I would say that this shot represents a moment, and a feeling, rather than a person.

Summary

When you are choosing a suitable picture for a portrait commission, you want to create a dynamic in the image that holds the viewers attention. Certain crops can lead a viewers attention ‘off-the-page’ while others can keep it focused on the main subject area—and this is what you want to achieve.

You also want to ensure that your subject is in good light. You can read more about good lighting practice (here) in this article on composing your own photo.

If you have questions about any of this, please let us know. You can comment below, or send an email. The address is in the Contact page.

If you are having difficulties choosing a suitable image as a reference point for a portrait painting commission, or if you are just unsure about whether the images that you are looking at may be suitable or not—feel free to get in touch with your query. We will be happy to get back to you with a ‘no-fee’ perspective, with no obligation to buy.

Author: admin

Andrew Brett is a successful Artist working in the Republic of Ireland. You can find more about his work at andrewjohnbrett.com

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