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Reference photos that will make or break your portrait commission

Updated: Sep 12, 2022

Having a commissioned portrait done is a very unique, and personal experience. The success of the portrait ultimately will come down to 2 things.

  1. The skill of the artist

  2. The quality of the pose or reference

1. Avoid Blurry Photos

Blurry photos make it near impossible to identify hard edges that are needed to show depth and column.

Also remember that smaller shapes can tend to blend together in blurry photos, causing them to be lost.

2. Exposure

Whether you're taking a fresh photo or choosing an existing one, you'll want to make sure the photo isn't too over/under exposed. This washes out information that helps discern the anatomy of the face.

3. Light Source

While a family or school photo set up is nice for photography, the lighting has a tendency to reduce any shadows that aid in relaying this information. This is wonderful for photography as it smooths the skin, often providing a more youthful appearance, however it eliminates any artistic shadows that create the mood and drama we seek in artistic interpretations.

Avoid having multiple light sources that are too powerful, and cast shadows on both sides of the face.

HINT: When using multiple light sources for a reference photo, be sure to make sure that one source obviously dominates the other.

To make sure enough information is captured, the balance of light should reveal the shape of the face. So paying attention to reflected/bounce light (the highlights on the shadow side of the face) and the direct light (highlights on the lit side of the face) will be some key areas to pay attention to.

Finding the right balance depends on the kind of mood or feeling you are going for.

  • Moving closer towards the extreme shadows will bring a lot of drama into your piece.

  • Moving closer towards the flat light will give your painting a more peaceful and calm feeling.

TIP: Teeth can have a tendency to look illustrative in a portrait and elude to caricatures. When possible, avoid a toothy grin.

4. Background

When background comes into question for a commissioned portrait, the plainer the background the better.

It's important for the artist to differentiate where the subject ends and the environment begins so we can determine proper measurements and shapes.

And since we'll be removing the background anyway, it's one less distraction for the artist.

5. Poses

When taking or selecting a photo for a portrait there's a few things you should consider for a natural and expressive reference photo, especially since we have less space to work with for composition.

Hands and Fingers

Make sure they are place delicately (not tugging on the skin), and are not covering too much of the face. This appears awkward or claw-like.

TIP: To make hands appear more graceful, make sure the palm of the hand is facing away from the camera lens/viewer.


This helps determine the kind of vibe you want for your model. A figure that is hunched gives a much different vibe than one that's sitting up straight.

A figure twisting to look over their should eludes to a sense of mystery. (What has caught their attention?)

Shoulders, Neck and Face

Don't underestimate the power of adjusting your shoulders along with your neck to get some really beautiful and dynamic photos.

By using the angle of the face you can also create some amazing compositions, just make sure your model looks natural and unforced.

Keep in mind…

It's possible to get a good drawing from any photograph as long as as an artist, you know in advance what problems you will need to resolve and how to resolve these problems, and as as client what issues might be prevented altogether. Some photos make our job as artists easier and some make it harder, and prices may vary accordingly by artist.

I’ve found for me, that working from a good photo reference makes my job much more enjoyable and inspiring when I don't have to decipher what I'm looking at.

Though reconstructions from old photos can prove to be puzzle that is equally inspiring and entertaining.

Just remember to always feature the face in a portrait!

Whether you're considering have a commission done or looking to sell commissions yourself, these tips and tricks are a great jumping off point when setting yourself up for success.


If you're interested in having a portrait commissioned for yourself or that special loved one, and would like more information/want to work with me, I'd love to start a conversation about what you're looking for.

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