Informal vs. Formal Portraits

The first questions many artists ask new clients are about why they are interested in commissioning a portrait, who will be included in the painting, where it will hang and what they like about the sample portraits included in the artist’s portfolio.

The answers to those inquiries help the artist in many ways, and they are crucial to helping establish whether the portrait will have a more formal or informal style. It’s also important to discuss details about the subject’s personality, achievements, status, interests and manner. Because the artist and client
both need to be happy with the painting, it’s helpful for as much information to be shared as possible throughout this creative process.

Formal portraits don’t necessarily mean the subject must appear stiff and lifeless. Informal doesn’t have to mean unprofessional, but often means natural. Even if the subject is dressed in a formal manner, the end result can still be more casual. For example, a friendly, laid back businessman might wear his buttoned up suit for the portrait, but a natural, relaxed pose at his desk can make the portrait informal. All of the information collected by the artist about the subject will help determine which style is more appropriate.

One of our artists, John Howard Sanden, says listening carefully to the way a client, parent, administrative assistant or surviving spouse describes the subject of a portrait is critical.

“If the person seems to be gregarious or reticent, formal or casual, aloof or down-to-earth, serious or jovial, I start to see how the pose, setting and lighting can convey those personality traits,” he says.

Sanden once composed and painted a portrait of
Neil Rice Ayer to emphasize the business executive’s “reflective, far-away look,” whereas he depicted Sanford I. Weill standing with his feet wide apart, his shoulders square and his look penetrating in order to characterize a powerful man who “radiates an aura of success, achievement and authority.”

Sanden and other artists always start with a blank canvas, literally and figuratively, and as they learn more about the subject and desired style portrait, a formal or informal piece of artwork starts to take shape. 

Portraits, Inc. was founded in 1942 in New York on Park Avenue. Over its 70-year history, Portraits, Inc. has carefully assembled a select group of the world’s foremost portrait artists offering a range of styles and prices. Recognized as the industry leader, Portraits, Inc. provides expert guidance for discerning clients interested in commissioning fine art portraits.