Size - how big should your portrait be?

I am often asked this question and something useful to think about is how large the subject’s head will appear in the painting. A life-size head needs a life-size body to go with it, so a full-length, standing, portrait will be taller than the individual portrayed. Make their head smaller than life-size and everything else shrinks in the same proportion. If the subject is seated, or cropped, as in a ¾ length portrait, the painting will be correspondingly smaller. In most portraits, artists prefer to paint their subject’s faces at least ½ life-size, or larger, in order to ensure that the expression and character of the sitter really lives in the painting.

Many of the great portraits that hang in government offices and grand buildings are life-size, but of course, this is too big for most homes or offices. Your artist will work with you to suggest a pose and composition that fits not only your requirements but the space it is intended for.

A rough guide to portrait dimensions might look like this:
18” x 14” to 24” x 18” for a head and shoulders portrait, possibly to include hands
24” x 18” to 30” x 24” for a ½ length portrait
36” x 30” to 48” x 36” for a ¾ length figure
Upwards of 48” x 36” to life-size for a full-length portrait

Don’t forget that in painting the dimensions are given as height x width.

Group portraits complicate the equation slightly, but I would suggest painting a group any smaller than  36” x 48” is not realistic, unless you wish the figures to be components of a scene – a family at play for example – rather than portraits as such. The individual heads would be quite small, even at this size.

Again, your artist should explain how your picture will work, how large the faces will appear in it, and how large he or she will need to work to include everything you would like to see in your painting.

Remember, sometimes less is more – a simple background makes the most of your subject, while a more complex one can help tell a story.