How to Select the Perfect Medium for Your Portrait

The beauty of a portrait is the way that it can fully and completely capture something genuine and special about its subject. An artist captures an expression, a gesture, or a phase of life that is unique to the individual. And yet, the full experience of a portrait is much deeper than just that.


Not only does the artist’s choice of which characteristic to portray mold the portrait, but so do the artist’s tools. You cannot underestimate how important it is that you understand all of the possible ways a portrait can be created so that you select the medium that most appeals to you.


In this article, we seek to illuminate some of the differences between portrait mediums. As you move forward with your commission, we hope to help you do so with a full appreciation for how the medium can enhance the artist’s ability to portray something true and essential about his or her subject.


oil painting of a man, his wife, and their daughter in front of a fireplace


Oil: The Traditional Medium


Fine art portraiture has a rich history, and few mediums have a history so rich as oil paintings. Many of the masterpieces we admire most were crafted with oil and skilled hands. Oil paintings are classic and, with proper varnishing and care, can retain their beauty and sharp detail for hundreds of years.


Artists can capture sharp detail with oil that would be more challenging with other materials. When the subject and setting of a portrait are formal, such as for portraits of dignitaries, judges, or college and university administrators, the precision, detail, and regality of oil is well-suited. That does not, of course, mean that oil paintings must be stiff or stuffy. Oil is an ideal medium for exploring complicated emotions or themes. Its versatility is one of the many reasons that it’s been a top choice of portrait artists for centuries.



charcoal sketch on paper of a young boy


Pastel, Charcoal and Conté: Informal and Ephemeral


Pastel is a medium that features pure powdered pigment rolled into a stick and held together with a binder to create lifelike, vibrant portraits. Charcoal and conté are crafted similarly, but charcoal creates works in grayscale only. Conté comes primarily in black, white, and red tones, but some artists also use colored conté crayons.


First used during the Renaissance, pastel gained widespread popularity in the early 18th century. It can also be used in a manner similar to conté and charcoal to draw quickly, with no need for drying time as in oil portraits. Artists can capture the briefest moment in pastel, creating a final portrait that feels more fleeting and intimate than a formal oil painting. In some cases, artists using one of these mediums may simplify a portrait to its most essential characteristics and message.


The beauty of a portrait in one of these mediums is that it can feel more candid than an oil painting. Depending upon your goal for the finished portrait and the person whom you seek to honor, a pastel, conté, or charcoal portrait may be the perfect choice of medium. Many artists have employed these mediums to magical effect to capture the briefest of moments in a child’s life before he or she ages and transforms from one day to another.


watercolor painting of a young girl in a blue dress


Watercolor: A Vivid Splash of Life


Watercolor artists use pigments bound in water-soluble agents to create diffused depictions of life in full bloom. While watercolor is ubiquitous in Asian artwork, it hasn’t traditionally been used as often in Western portraiture. Today, discerning clients who appreciate the immediacy of the medium and the mastery of skill it requires are commissioning portraits in watercolor with greater regularity.


A portrait in watercolor is lighter in appearance and in feeling than an oil painting because there aren’t thick layers of textured paint, but the medium is certainly not relegated to only airy, bright applications. Through the hands of a master watercolorist, the medium can be used to explore a range of brushwork, color, and emotion that can only be described as magical. The beauty of portraiture is that the subject and artist work together to bring a unique vision to life, with the essential help of the medium.


plaster bust sculpture of a woman with hair pulled back


Sculpture: Robust and Substantial


Ancient Egyptians created some of the oldest forms of portrait sculpture. These sculptures captured both the incredible culture and the likeness of the subjects, and they have endured for thousands of years. There’s something particularly majestic and lasting about sculpture. Artists use everything from clay to metal to sculpt a likeness of their subject.


The literal and figurative heft of a sculpture connotes a substantiality of the position of the subject. If the artist’s muse is a titan of society, within a professional organization, or even within a family, this medium may be the ideal way to truly and comprehensively capture the true weight of a person’s legacy.


Which Medium Beckons to You?


Portraits, Inc. is proud to offer portrait options in a variety nearly as vast as that of humanity itself. From medium to artistic style, you’re sure to find the talented portraitist to memorialize you or your loved one. If you’re still not sure which medium is the perfect pairing for your vision, get in touch. We’d love the opportunity to assist you in bringing your unique artistic concept to life.


About Portraits, Inc.:


If you have a vision that can only be served by a fine art painting, then the right time to commission a piece is now. Request more information on commissioning a fine art portrait, or give us a call at 1-800-476-1223 today.


Founded in 1942, Portraits, Inc. assists families, corporations, and institutions wishing to honor individual legacies with fine art portraits. The oldest and largest firm of its kind, we curate a collection of today's foremost portrait artists, the Portraits, Inc. Collection, which represents an extensive range of styles, mediums, and price points. Portraits, Inc. has gallery locations in Birmingham, Alabama, New York, New York, and Flat Rock, North Carolina, and services clients nationwide through our large network of sales associates.