What size portrait should you choose?
Deciding the size of your portrait is a fun challenge. You know you want a portrait, you know who the portrait is going to portray; but what size should it be? It’s as much a creative challenge as it is a financial and logistical one.
We’re now very familiar with the standard smartphone camera ratios: square, 16:9, 5:4, 7:5, 4:3, 5:3, 3:2.
But how do these apply to portrait painting? Well, they do a bit but their heritage mainly falls into that of photography (I’m confident you will be able to find examples of portraiture that fit these ratios too, but I’ll let you do that research!).
First thing is first, it’s worth noting that what is often referred to or meant when referring to the artists’ ‘canvas’ is actually called a ‘support’. Oil paintings can be on many types of surfaces but most commonly and traditionally they will be on cotton or linen (flax) canvas, as well as ‘board’ or ‘panel’ which will most likely be made out of wood. I paint on both. But should you want more information on either check out THIS blog post which goes into more detail on each.
The first place I advise clients to start in terms of deciding what size portrait they might consider is to think about where the painting will end up. Will it be in a living room? A hallway? An office? It’s then worth taking into account the size of that space. In a smaller room a large 30×40″ support can look quite imposing, especially when its framed. Not only that, in smaller rooms there’s also a risk of damage as people manoeuvre around the painting. So location is the first consideration when it comes to choosing a size.
Second, how many people will feature in the painting? It is quite possible to fit four people, if not more, onto a 16×12.5 support – certainly the great masters did it! They make very endearing little paintings. Yet what they make up for in volume, they can sometimes lack in impact. Far be it from me to decry the great small paintings out there, there is a lot to be gained from such work! However for me, simplifying and expanding the subject into all that it is worth makes for much more stylistically rewarding portrait.
So, with these things in mind (support, location and subject) I went searching for information on the tradition of portraiture and came upon the National Portrait Galleries Research channel. If nothing else, this is a fascinating read and very insightful. But essentially in days gone by, as the shift from painting on wood to flax evolved, sizes of portraits were based on the cut length of linen canvas which makes total sense. It wasn’t until the 19th century that diverting from these sizes occurred as different lengths of material became available.
Nonetheless, I’m a stickler for tradition and love the idea of continuing this heritage in whatever way I can. In an attempt to reduce the variability of portrait sizes and develop a more standardised approach to portrait I try where possible to adhere to these guidelines. I attached a few documents that outline these measurements and how many subjects I recommend in each. I hope it’s as helpful to you as it is to me.