Medium - what is it painted with and on?

Perhaps the most important consideration here is whether there is a medium you particularly like – if you love oil paintings then the decision is made! If you don’t have a preference, or you’re not familiar with the options. then have fun looking at different portraits and noting whether they are oil, acrylic, watercolor, tempera, pastel, charcoal, pencil, etc. Each medium has its own special beauty, its own strengths and hanging and framing requirements. They tend to have different costs too – with oil paintings being the most expensive and pencil or charcoal being much less so.


Oil paintings are the “gold standard”. They have a proven track record for durability and permanence going back centuries. Their lustrous colors are resistant to fading, they can be cleaned, and will last lifetimes. Most of today’s top portrait painters paint in oil.  

Oil paintings are usually on canvas, linen or panels. All three “platforms”, when of professional quality, are good, stable options.

An advantage of paintings on canvas or linen is that they can be very large and still be manageable. One of the reasons artists began using stretched canvas as a support was to make paintings larger than the wood panels they had worked on previously. Very large panels are difficult to make and can become heavy.

Many portrait painters like the texture of linen as it allows fine detail work (for truly fine detail, especially in very small pictures, finely prepared wood or metal panels – copper is popular with miniaturists - are favored).

Oil paintings on panels do not move (a stretched canvas does flex) and have lasted a thousand years.


Some painters prefer to work in acrylic and can achieve a look and feel quite similar to oils. The paints hold up well and, like oil paints, are fairly light fast and resistant to fading. Acrylic is also flexible, so on canvas, for example, which can move that flexibility helps prevent cracking and flaking.

Acrylic paints have not been around long enough to test them over the centuries but the expectation is that they will last. Strong, direct sunlight and its harmful UV rays, are not kind to any paint (think of the latex paints on your house) but hung properly, there is no reason to suppose your acrylic paint won’t still look great many years after you are gone.

Contemporary painters enjoy the flexibility acrylic gives them in abstract or multi-media work, as the paint can be used in collage, built up with pastes, and over-painted with some other mediums – it also adheres to a wide variety of surfaces. This is not necessary relevant for portraitists, but it explains why acrylic is a popular choice for experimental styles.


Watercolor has its own unique beauty and, painted on acid-free high-quality paper, properly framed and hung away from direct light, has lasted hundreds of years. Nothing else looks quite like a great watercolor and it takes great skill to make a portrait with it, which is why you see so few. Done right, and looked after properly, this could be a beautiful choice.
Watercolor paintings must be framed under glass.


Pastel  is a very popular choice for children’s portraits, because their lustrous soft colors and easily bendable handling characteristics can make for some very pretty effects. A good pastel is a great choice for any subject, though their size is limited by the size of available papers. You will often see head and shoulders portraits done in this medium for this reason, though larger works and different configurations are possible.

Masters of the medium do wonderful things with it.

Often done on colored papers so that the edges can be vignetted in an attractive, artistic manner, pastels are light-fast and durable when framed properly. They must be under glass for protection and, like any painting, are best hung out of direct sunlight.
Pastels are usually less expensive than oil paintings and may well be a good choice for anyone looking for rich color at less than the cost of an oil painting.


A truly ancient medium, in which pigments are suspended in egg whites, tempera is not used by many artists today, but those who do use it love it for its ability to render detail, its rich colors, and its unique look.
Andrew Wyeth was probably the most famous artist to use this medium in recent years and he, and other artists who have mastered it, achieved stunning results with it.|

Although you will not see many artists who major in this medium you will impressed by some of the masterpieces created with it – many of which have lasted hundreds of years. In fact, tempera was the main medium used until after 1500 when it was superseded by oil.


These three mediums can be used in a wide variety of ways and styles, from loose impressionistic sketches, to highly realistic renderings. Generally speaking, the more tightly finished the drawing is, the more it will cost. There is a wealth of difference between a highly polished portrait and a sketch done in a sidewalk fair and the price you pay will reflect this.

Red chalk, charcoal, conte, and pencils (or combinations of these) can make beautiful, permanent portraits and can be wonderful additions to any collection.

This may be the way to go if you are not concerned with having full color in your portrait, or if cost is a major factor in your decision.
As with watercolors or pastels, your drawing will need to be framed under glass.
A great drawing is a joy forever, and certainly a worth alternative.