8 Key Aspects of a Portrait Painting

Updated: Sep 3, 2019

What makes a good portrait painting? There are many aspects of a painting that can make it effective, and portraits are no exception. Here I'll discuss 8 key aspects of a portrait that determine its impact as an artwork; The Sitter, Gesture, Setting, Costume, Facial expression, Style, Truth, and likeness.

Of course, like all pieces of artwork, a certain amount of subjectivity comes into play when discussing how 'great' a piece may be, however these points are all variables that will play a part in the outcome of a piece o' portraiture and should not be ignored willingly.

William Wilberforce by Sir Thomas Lawrence oil on canvas, 1828

The Sitter

Any portrait drawing or painting should feature a "sitter", they are called this because traditionally to paint the subject the artist would require them to be physically sat in front of them, of course with the technology we have these days this is not necessary and many contemporary artists work from photographs and digital images.

A person in particular, an animal or group of people are all common focal points of portrait paintings. Portraits are oft used as a method of remembrance and as such should speak to you about the sitters character, this is often done using gesture, the setting and costume. These three help tell a story about the sitter.

Christian Furr, Her Majesty The Queen, 1995

Gesture for example is a focus on the particular body language of the sitter and this speaks volumes of a persons character. Body language is a strong indicator of a persons individual character traits, a person that sits back in a chair with in 'open' stance would show the sitter as a more confident individual for example.

David Hockney, Oil on Canvas

Hockney is a prime example of gesture in portrait paintings, although they were apparently only short sittings, he managed to demonstrate the character of his sitter in this series, allowing them to take their natural sitting stance. The man featured above is sat with legs open leaning back in his seat, displaying comfort and confidence in his pose, the hands are resting upon the stomach interlocked, a common comforting trick among individuals, much like crossing your arms, which some of his other sitters have also demonstrated.

Setting is often used to paint a picture of the kind of world this person would reside in, such as a place of their occupation or a hobby they often partake in. Indoors or outside? The setting is another major component to a portrait, although it is not uncommon to use a gradient or plain background, a background suited to the sitter can enhance the story told by the painting.

Pleasant Dreams, Emma Sandys (1843–1877)

Emma Sandys' portrait paintings depict ethereal portraits of women in gardens, the flowers being a common representation of femininity in paintings, serve to enhance the portraits theme.

Costume tells of similar aspects of the sitters individuality, many would sit in their everyday attire crafting a visual cue into what an average day for them may look like, formal and military clothing are also common to formal portraiture and show the individuals dedication to a profession or craft.

These are not only a visual representation of the sitter, but should also describe the essence of character. This may not always be obvious at first glance and may sometimes require further investigation into a piece, such as a juxtaposition with an item or object, or the artists use of specific colour. A strong portrait should engage the viewer and bring their attention towards these finer details.

George Frederic Watts, Self-Portrait 1864.

Facial Expression

What does the sitters facial expression say about their character? Do they look friendly, or stern? Contemplative and blue? Most people wear their emotions on their face even in a neutral stance and this can be emphasized in a portrait to further explain character.

Peter Blake


A great portrait painting can also tell you a lot about the artist themselves. Different stylistic choices not only show the sitter in a different light, but also the painter. The way the artist handles the medium for example tells us a lot of the intent behind the artists actions while painting the piece. Strong confident brushstrokes can show the sitters sturdy character but also the credence of the artist's accumulated skill.

Unconventional colour schemes are another tell of the artist's inner motive. A great example of this is the muted blues of picasso's famous 'blue period', often attributed to a long period of depression in the artist's own personal life reflected upon the sitter. In this way the portrait is not only a representation of the sitter but also the artist, however intentional this may be is case by case and may not always be a conscious effort by the artist themselves.

Frank Auerbach: Head of Gerda Boehm (1961) Charcoal on paper

Painting the truth

A hot topic among portrait artists is the life-likeness of the sitter, flaws and all. Many artists feel the pressure from the sitter to dim, or completely remove their imperfections. As a painting may last centuries in the right hands it is important for the artist and sitter to come to agreement on the final image, particularly for commission work. For example a private collector that is commissioning a piece for themselves may opt to have their flaws removed entirely, and it is up to the integrity of the artist if they are willing to bend to the whim of the collector.

Lucian Freud 1993, Oil on Canvas


Of course all of the previous points bear some weight when determining the effectiveness of a portrait painting, but none more so than likeness. Without likeness you betray the mission of the portrait, to portray the individual. Likeness doesn't have to be precise realism, but many styles incorporate likeness in different ways; be it through caricature, the emphasization of key features, or representation through other means like colour theme and form.

Gerhard Richter, Oil on Canvas.

What do you believe makes a successful portrait?

The above is my opinion and not definitive and would love to hear your opinions on the matter! Do you think I'm wrong about anything in particular here? Let me know here, or drop me an email for a heated debate.

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