4 Best Practices for Drawing or Painting a Posthumous Portrait

By Carrie Lewis in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

If you’re a portrait artist by trade, you can expect to be asked to do a posthumous portrait at some point in your career. Given that inevitability, you may want to make the decision now: will you accept such a commission?

There’s no right or wrong answer. But it’s worth thinking about ahead of time, before you have a potential client waiting for an answer.

My experience has been that posthumous portraits are typically both more rewarding than any other portrait and more challenging. Here are six of the most common challenges of doing a posthumous portrait (and some suggestions for meeting them):

1. The need for special sensitivity

The most important thing you’ll need in working with a client on a posthumous portrait is sensitivity. No matter how long the family member (or pet) has been gone, looking for reference images, discussing the portrait, and working out the details will awaken fresh grief. You need to know how to respond to such recurrences and to offer empathy and compassion when it’s needed.

A minefield of mixed emotions can also accompany the presentation of the finished portrait. Whenever those emotions appear, don’t minimize them. Let your client experience them, but do so with respect. Even if all you do is listen or wait in silence.

2. Poor quality reference photos

On rare occasions, the client may provide professional photos for references. You’re in luck if they do because all you need is the photographer’s permission in writing and work on the portrait can begin.

It’s far more likely that you’ll be using images taken by family members or other non-professional photographers Sometimes, you may be given only one image to use as a reference and it may be one of those very endearing, very candid shots that are not at all suitable for a portrait.

Obviously, you can decline the commission at this point, but if you choose to accept it, be aware that you will have to make the best of those poor reference images and that there will be additional work involved in creating a wonderful portrait.

3. Compositional limitations

If your client only has one reference photograph that will work, coming up with a good composition can be difficult. Of course, this also gives you the opportunity to stretch your creative muscles!

Look for cropped compositions that make the most of the information provided by the photo. Or, think of ways to change the background to further personalize the portrait.

4. Photo editing, manipulating, and processing

Additional post-production processing of images may be necessary before you start the actual artwork. Scanning photographs, then working with brightness, contrast, focus, and other things may become as vital to the process as putting pencil to paper or brush to canvas.

If you received more than one reference photo, you may be able to “meld” the photos and work from that composite image. The advantage is that you can then offer your client a clearer idea of what the finished portrait will look like before work on the portrait begins.

At the very least, you can use one photo as a reference for the overall composition, and then take some details from another photo as you paint.

If your subject is an animal, you may be able to supplement client photos with secondary references. Most breeds of dogs, for example, have accepted breed standards for conformation, grooming, and other qualities.

While you’re unlikely find a reference that could pass for your subject, you can usually find well-lit, clear photographs that show how a particular breed or species should look under ideal conditions. You can’t—and shouldn’t—replace client photos with these photos, but you can use them to fill in some of the details missing from client photos.

Case in point, I’ve used breed photos to add highlights to subjects for which I had poorly lighted reference photos. You can also get a better idea of coat texture and other general details.

The bottom line:

As mentioned earlier, posthumous portraits can be among the most difficult portraits you’ll ever do, but they can also be among the most fulfilling.

I can tell you from personal experience that there’s nothing quite so rewarding as watching a client as they view the new portrait for the first time and say, with tears in their eyes, “It’s beautiful. You’ve captured their spirit perfectly.”


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