Archive for the ‘Composition in portraits’ Category

Postscript to Portrait composition: Old World vs. New?

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

When the portraitist begins by focusing simply on the subject’s surface image, of course the tendency is to place it front and center. When one begins by thinking about the subject’s other qualities and other objects central to his or her life, a more complex composition may naturally evolve.


In the Comments following my blog entry “Portrait Composition: Old World vs. New?” portraitist Alexandra Tyng provided a link to a forum description of her process in painting her mother, the architect Anne Tyng (see Comments below). I followed up with a further question to Tyng on the forum. My question related to both her portrait of her mother and that of the artist Edna Andrade:

“How did you make the decision to include an element that would necessitate placing the subject’s head relatively low on the canvas, with the element extending substantially above the head?”

Portraits of Anne Tyng and Edna Andrade, by Alexandra Tyng.  See earlier post for larger image.

Portraits of Anne Tyng and Edna Andrade, by Alexandra Tyng. See earlier post for larger image.

Tyng wrote such an interesting response that I asked her permission to quote it here. She agreed. Here it is:

“To answer your question, I don’t ever think, ‘I’m going to try a portrait with the head placed lower in the composition.’ The placement of the figure comes about on an individual basis, and is a direct result of what I want to say in that particular portrait.

“In the portrait of my mother [an architect], I wanted to emphasize that she is a very small woman with large (great) ideas. I started imagining what a portrait of her would look like, and ideas came to me. She always made a lot of geometrical models that hung from the ceiling of her studio. She also designed some unbuilt structures, my favorite being the Philadelphia city tower project. I played around with ways to arrange these elements in the composition, which led to deciding on the dimensions and size and placement of her figure.

“With the portrait of Edna Andrade, it just naturally happened that she had a very large painting in her living room that I wanted to use for a background. To give a sense of the size and impact of the painting I needed to move it close to the picture plane. She had Victorian furniture (inherited from family) whose shapes echoed the shapes in the painting, and I thought it was an interesting play between her traditional Southern background and her very contemporary work. She wanted to be seated in the portrait so it just worked out that way. The way I arrange compositions is mostly intuitive. A lot of times I see something that will work, that says what I want to say. There are limitless possibilities for placing the figure in a composition.”

I felt it was instructive that Tyng started the process of determining the composition for these portraits by thinking through the more abstract qualities of her subjects, not just their physical appearance. I suspect many portrait artists – myself included – tend to begin with the surface image of the subject, rather than right-brain associations with other qualities of the subject – the small woman with great ideas building models she hangs from her studio ceiling. When the portraitist begins by focusing simply on the subject’s surface image, of course the tendency is to place it front and center. When one begins by thinking about the subject’s other qualities and other objects central to his or her life, a more complex composition may naturally evolve.

For Edna Andrade’s portrait, Tyng began with shape components first – their similarity in the modern painting in the background and Andrade’s Victorian furniture. This then became a reference to the more abstract qualities of Andrade’s traditional Southern background and her very contemporary style of painting. The complex associations between shapes generated a wonderful composition and portrait.

Portrait composition: Old World vs New?

Monday, July 21st, 2008

A client requested a portrait of her son’s family based on snapshots taken in a New York City park (click here for my earlier posting on painting from snapshots). In the photos, the family was surrounded by the park’s enclave of greenery. My client hoped I could also include the city street beyond the park, which appeared in another photo. Her son and his family might move out of the city some day, so she wanted their portrait to capture this urban chapter of their lives.

I resonated with the client’s feelings. I’m always eager to portray my subjects’ worlds in the backgrounds of their portraits. Additionally I wanted to include the cityscape because it was a complex, atmospheric visual element to play off the human subjects.

It also created an interesting challenge in the composition of the painting: In order to fit the street and buildings into the background, the family would have to be placed relatively low on the canvas. The city street would appear above them. And because they were sitting amidst a lot of very green foliage, the cityscape could easily end up looking almost like a separate painting stuck incongruously onto the top of the family portrait. Was it possible to create a unified painting with these disparate horizontal areas?

Subject placement in portraits today

The vast majority of portraits place the subjects’ head/s above the horizontal midline of the painting, often close to the top of the canvas. (Heads are most often centered from side to side.) The head is almost always the top-most visual element in the painting. This positioning leaves no doubt as to what is the most important element of the painting: the face and head of the subject.

This type of composition has of course generated many wonderful paintings over the centuries. Here are some terrific contemporary examples. Please click on any image to see a larger version on the artist’s website.


Portrait by Patricia Wilkes

Portrait by Jiawei Shen

Portrait by Ron Hales

Portrait by Ron Hales


Portrait by Fanny Rush

Portrait by Scott Tallman Powers

Portrait by Ying-He Liu

Portrait by Christopher Alexander French

Portrait by Toby Wiggins

But is this the only composition that can create a successful portrait? The internet allows a survey of composition in contemporary portraiture in the United States and Britain. Four major portrait websites, among others, provide images of many artists’ work:

  • For the US,, and
  • For England, The Royal Society of Portrait Painters ( and (These include artists from other European countries who are represented by these two British agencies.)

In my endless prowl for visual ideas, I’ve surfed through the work of hundreds of portraitists on both sides of the Atlantic (and some in Australia, China, etc). The more I’ve looked, the more I’ve perceived a pattern that I find surprising, intriguing – and puzzling. While it’s true that most portraits on both sides of the pond follow the compositional rules outlined above, our Old World colleagues seem to venture “outside the box,” as it were, more often than we do. Here are some of the many examples of portraits by British artists (and portraitists from other European countries represented in England) in which major visual elements appear above the head of the subjects. As everywhere in this post, click on any image to see a larger version on the artist’s website.

Portrait by Sergei Pavlenko

Title: Maria Cabanas and Maggie Maguire Size: 18 x 14 inches Medium: Oil Year Painted: 1990 Collection: Private

Portrait by Jason Sullivan

Title: Nicky Clifton Brown Medium: Oil Year Painted: 2005 Collection: Private

Portrait by Susan Ryder

Title: Dame Sandra Burslem Medium: Oil

Portrait by Alastair Adams

Portrait by Heidi Harrington

Portrait by Dick Smyly

Title: Professor Sir Peter Lachmann FRS Size: 107 x 71 cm Medium: Oil Year Painted: 2003 Collection: Academy of Medical Sciences

Portrait by Jeff Stultiens

Portrait by Rene Tweehuysen


Portrait by Fanny Rush

In fact, there are many portraits by British painters (or Europeans represented in England) in which the heads of all subjects are placed on or below the midline of the painting, with other major visual elements above the heads.

Portrait by Alastair Adams

Portrait by Rene Tweehuysen

Title: Homan Potterton, Director of the National Gallery, Dublin Size: 30 x 40 inches Medium: Oil Year Painted: 1987 Collection: Private

Portrait by Andrew Festing

Portrait by Tom Wood

Portrait by Vincent Yorke

Portrait by Oisin Roche

British-represented European artists are also unafraid to allow vast space above their subjects’ heads. They are able to do this without diminishing the importance of the subject, but adding to it.

Portrait by Heidi Harrington

Portrait by Laurence Kell

Portrait by Heidi Harrington

Yuqi Wang, represented by British, trained in China and now based in New York, is a master of this technique.

Portrait by Yuqi Wang

Another very effective British/European variant allots a lot of space above the subject’s head, with another dramatic visual element off to the upper side.

Title: Sir Eric Anderson, Kt, Provost of Eton Size: 152 x 107 cm Medium: Oil Year Painted: 2004 Collection: Eton College

Portrait by Paul Brason

Portrait by Marilyn Bailey

Portrait by Rene Tweehuysen

Portrait by Andrew Tift

Title: Simone Size: 74 x 61 cm Medium: Oil Year Painted: 2004 Collection: Private

Portrait by Michael Reynolds

Title: Richard King, Sculptor Size: 102 x 76 cm Medium: Oil Year Painted: 2002 Collection: Private

Portait by Jeff Stultiens

In contrast, I’ve come across very few American portraitists who place all the subjects in a given painting low on the canvas. Yet when they do, they are as likely to produce magnificent paintings as the Europeans do. These two, of J. Lindsay Embrey and William Paley, are by Portraits, Inc artists (artists are not identified on this website).

J. Lindsay Embrey and William Paley by Portraits, Inc. artists

June Allard-Berte is a rare American portraitist who has done a number of portraits with major visual elements in the upper half of the canvas, above subjects’ heads that are on or close to the midline. In general, Allard-Berte gives an unusual amount of attention to composition: “Her sense of composition is superb; it is endlessly inventive, elegant, and nearly always strikes just the right balance with subject. It neither over nor underpowers the strength of the person.” Allard-Berte’s talent for composition is very special.

Portraits by June Allard-Berté

American Bart Lindstrom rose to the challenge of a high space over a fireplace with a wonderful composition placing his subjects low on the canvas with a brook flowing through a forest above them. Yet Lindstrom doesn’t seem to have used this type of composition elsewhere.

The American Alexandra Tyng has used it several times to create paintings that are real gems:

Portraits by Alexandra Tyng

But these examples are few and far between among portraitists in the United States. Interestingly, it seems that American portrait painters who venture outside standard centered composition are much more likely to place the subject to one side of the canvas or the other than they are to place new visual elements above subjects’ heads. Here are some terrific American examples of placing the subject off-center horizontally:

Portrait by Portraits, Inc. artist

Portrait by Marvin Mattelson

Portrait by Garth Herrick

I don’t know for certain what causes this cultural difference between England and the US (which I believe extends to other issues besides composition). But it’s interesting to speculate. Is it because a country with centuries-old self-confidence in its aristocratic bona fides feels eager to venture outside the confines of traditional portraiture? Is it because Americans see themselves as needing to dominate their surroundings, while the English are either more humble or more secure, so they feel free to allow their surroundings to appear higher than they are? Perhaps the tradition was begun by British aristocrats who felt their stature was enhanced by their chandeliers, high ceilings, and walls covered with paintings and tapestries. Perhaps they saw such finery above their heads as metaphoric crowns that proved their wealth and nobility rather than belittling them. And perhaps from there, the British became used to portrait composition with other kinds of important elements above the heads.

Portrait by Andrew Festing

Portrait by Richard Foster, no longer available on the internet

Title: The Royal Family; A Centenary Portrait Size: 366 x 249 cm Medium: Oil Year Painted: 2000 Collection: The National Portrait Gallery

Portrait by John Wonnacott

Title: The Goold Brothers Medium: Oil

Portrait by Alastair Adams

Last, here is my own portrait with the cityscape as the highest element.

Integrating the city street into the background was complicated because, although in reality it had been behind the family, it didn’t appear in the photos I used for them. I had to make judgments about the cityscape’s scale, placement, angle, etc, in comparison with the park foliage, trees, and people. I eliminated certain components from the street photo: a car and several pedestrians. I had hoped to find a way to keep these in the painting, but ultimately they were distracting and not such attractive elements for the eye to wander over. So in the end they got painted out, and I had to extrapolate street shadows and sidewalk to fill their places.

There are several vertical elements that bind the park to the city street: the yellow and gray traffic light, greenery on the left edge, ivy-covered tree trunk, and street light pole. I carefully adjusted each of these so together they would all help ground the street behind the park.

Color also ties the layers together: I altered the actual clothing colors in order to echo the building colors, thus binding the uppermost and lowermost components of the painting. In other areas of the painting, green foliage, working from the very bottom of the canvas up to the trees along the street, also pulls the disparate elements together.

Looking at “out of the box” composition by both Americans and Europeans has enticed me to think more about placing subjects lower on the canvas than other complex visual elements. Given the magnificent paintings that have been achieved by others, I hope it will add to my repertoire and result in unique, rich portraits.