Formula for the Perfect Portrait: 3L=Level, Light, Lots

The perfect portrait does not exist, of course. What we want is a beautiful picture that captures both the likeness and somehow, the personality of the subject.

Probably the most famous portrait is the Mona Lisa, which DaVinci never delivered to his clients, because he was not happy with it. Like most artists, he probably thought there was “something wrong with the mouth.” It was found in his belongings after he died.

portraitmonalisacellponeI like people, I like their faces and I spend a lot of time making portraits and throwing most of them away. (I have learned from DaVinci not to leave substandard stuff lying about.) Naturally, in this day and age, artists use photos, which was one handicap/advantage DaVinci didn’t have to deal with. Most digital cameras distort, making, for example, a nose look huge if you get too close to the subject. We have become used to this distortion, but it shows up on a painted portrait.


porroyalchildPhotos are absolutely the way to go with kids and animals, who have no patience with sitting still for even a 45 minute pastel sketch. If forced to do so, you get Miserable Royal Child Syndrome, as illustrated in the accompanying picture. His outfit may have been uncomfortable, too. Poor kid. Kids and animals won’t hold still for photos either, so the solution is to take lots of pictures and if one is awesome, it is luck. But luck can be enhanced with a few simple rules.

  1. Get on their level.

It’s natural to take photos looking down on kids, since they tend to be quite short. With a digital camera, you may get a cute upturned face perched on a skinny neck and a miniscule body.

  1. Watch the light. porbabylight

The only way we see at all is because of light creating highlights and shadows. Beach scenes are cheerful, but everybody is squinting. Either an overcast day, open shade or my favorite, indirect soft light from a window, works well. The baby is lit beautifully, but of course had to stick his tongue out.



porrembrandtSelf portrait of Rembrandt, illustrating the appropriately-named Rembrandt Lighting. Light and shadow, but the shadow cheek has a splash of light hitting it.

  1. Position is everything in life.

(For formal portraits) Artists have favorite artists and my favorite portrait artist is Svay Teng Denis, who works on the street in Paris. “How is he doing this?” I ask myself as I watch the videos. For one thing, he poses everyone with body at about ¾ view and has them turn their head toward him. This automatically creates a graceful pose. He also works outside in the shade. Yet, in the end, the portrait does not look EXACTLY like the subject. They could go to Walmart photo center if they wanted that.

porsvaytengdenisThough Teng’s portraits don’t look exactly like the subject, they are invariably happy with his finished product. He captures their expression, those tiny changes in the 50 or so muscles in the face that we humans are so expert at noticing.

There are limits to artistic license for most clients. I could offer Picasso-style portraits, but I suspect there would be few takers.


porpicassoselfSelf portrait Picasso.

To sum up, for children’s photos to be turned into portraits, 1. Get on their level 2. Watch the light 3. For formal>Graceful pose

Since you’re working with a wiggly kid, after you’re on their level in good light, rule # 4 is TAKE LOTS OF PICTURES. The really awesome shot is probably going to be a happy accident.




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