How important is your reference photo for portrait commissions?

How important is your reference photo for portrait commissions?

Sadly, I’ve turned down quite a few commissions in the past year. This is so sad for me. Yes, I do lose business but mostly it’s sad because I am unable to help a person who really wanted something special to them painted, especially portraits!

The truth is, I turn down more commissions than I paint and it’s mostly because I couldn’t obtain a good reference photo. Sometimes I get reference photos that I just feel I cannot use (both scenes and people). I truly can only paint what I see and it’s all in the smallest details. Without the details I’m really just making it up. This means I’m painting something that isn’t quite the likeness of the individual and I don’t want to paint a ‘close’ likeness. I want to create as good a portrait as I possibly can so you would be happy with it but also so I can feel good about it too.

I have to be certain I can get the best possible results and that means having the best possible photo to paint from. I do appreciate that there will be times when a portrait needs to be created from images that are not great. While I do have the limited ability to enhance photos, it is a hit or miss when it comes to ending up with a true likeness. In this case, I will do my very best to use the photo provided.

I thought I would explain what makes a photo good for me so that you get the closest likeness. If you are considering having me paint a portrait for you, consider the following:

First and foremost the photo must be clear and not blurry.

It must not be too dark

It should not be taken from too far away

It should not be overexposed, or have too much flash or sunlight.



It’s best to get close-ups of faces but make sure you have a complete face.

All of these issues really washout or hide the very important details.

Photos that are taken at eye level are best. That way the individual’s features are not distorted so you don’t end up with a bigger nose or chin or eyes. The more details I see the better! If the face is clear and well-lit and the eyes (most important feature) are clearly visible, the better the likeness.- It’s more helpful to see shadows around the cheeks, nose and eyes.

If the photo is old, I prefer to have the physical photo to use. If you are not able to provide the physical photo, I would prefer that you scan them at the highest resolution or at least 300 dpi. This allows me to see better. Once they are emailed to me, I enlarge them and print them for painting. A scan ensures the photo is still clear and not blurry when it is blown up. Saving the image as a JPG or TIFF format is best. I do paint from digital photos taken with a phone but they need to have high resolution that I can print (Set your phone/camera to capture high resolution images).

Photos from Facebook or other social media are of very low quality with poor resolution and they do not make good reference photos.

Picture of pictures are definitely not suitable – they often have glare and distort the image and details are lost.

Photos that really have captured a person’s personality are best. I love great expressions, colour, wrinkles, scars,  and all those naturally occurring beautiful characteristics that make the person who they are and to me makes them more interesting and paintable. However, it’s best to have a photo that is flattering.


Photos with natural poses make better portraits. You do not need to have a ‘portrait’ studio pose. In fact, the more candid the shot the better portrait.

Some other things to consider – The more photos you can provide of the subject the better and I will choose from among them.

Please remember, I can only paint what I see. If you want me to paint someone without glasses, that may be possible, however if you want glasses added maybe not. I will need a photo with glasses. If a shirt is red in a photo but you would prefer blue I may be able to paint that, however I can’t promise a good likeness if you want me to remove or add facial features or a different background scene. And sorry, I can’t paint someone thinner 😉

If you are needing a portrait to be complete within a specific time period please allow lots of time for completion. There are often waitlists and long turnaround times to create a quality piece of art. Some portraits take up to 80 hrs and can take months for me to complete. I work a full time job and usually can only paint on the weekends. If you are looking for a portrait to give as a present please allow at least 3 months’ notice and if they are Christmas orders, make sure your order is placed by September.

If you are not the person who took the photo or the owner of the photo, I must have written permission to use the photo. It doesn’t have to be complicated – I just need an email or message from the owner/photographer saying that they give me permission to use their photo for a painting without charge and they are aware that I retain copyright of the resulting artwork which may be reproduced.

There are exceptions. If you have a particular image in mind but you are not quite sure if it would work as a good reference send it along and let me decide if I can use it.

It’s been a long time since I’ve created a blog post. I hope this is of interest.Thank you to everyone for sharing, liking and commenting on my art page and thanks for reading my blog! If you like it please comment and share!

If you have any questions or comments feel free to contact me. I am always ready for a chat!

Artfully yours!

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