“. . . the poem may be said to have its beginning — at the end, where all works of art should begin . . .”

Edgar Allan Poe, The Philosophy of Composition, 1846


Visual Idea

Create a visual idea, a concept, a large shape or shapes that quickly communicate or summarize your reason for this work.  Hold to this idea throughout the entire work.  Consider the main theme of Beethoven’s Fifth:


Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

What a simple concept: 3 eighth notes and a half note, changing from G to E and F to D.  To look at it, it seems nothing.  But what power is contained in that theme!  Like a coiled spring.  Your idea can be simple, just fill it with all the power of your soul.

Think in terms of movement and shape.  Be poetic.  Consider the light thrusting into the dark, human consciousness seeking enlightenment, the transformation of the savage to the thinking man, material flesh to spiritual being.  Let it be a pure abstraction.  Be as vigorous and full of life as you want for your work.  This beginning determines the end of your work.

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William Merritt Chase, Study of a Girl in Japanese Dress, ca. 1895


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Tom Roberts, Frances Ross, actress, ca. 1898, Oil on wood


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Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of a Gentleman, c. 1615


Place your Idea

Find the diagonals from corner to corner of your canvas or paper and approximate the vertical and horizontal centers, then place your idea.

Position the chin or bottom of the nose around the horizontal center.  Too far below center gives the viewer the feeling that they are “looking down” on the person.  Too far above center will give the viewer an impression of having to look up at the person.

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John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Albert de Belleroche, 1882


The objective is to keep the area containing the most light, the most important part, around the vertical center.  Place the head vertically with these thoughts in mind:

If the face is mostly lighted or in profile, it will look best near the center line.

If the head is half or more shadow, move it slightly to the left or right of center.

Look for diagonal lines (jawline, hair, neckline, clothing) that are parallel to the diagonal lines from the corners of your canvas.


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John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Jean Joseph Marie Carries, 1880



A traditional width for the head (cheek to cheek) in a bust-style portrait is roughly 1/3 the width of your canvas or paper and the height of the head (from chin to top of hair) about ¼ to 1/3 the height of your canvas or paper.  Give your portrait life, room to breathe.

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John Singer Sargent, Eleanora Duse, 1893


“First touch me, astonish me, tear me to pieces, make me shudder, weep, and tremble, make me angry, then soothe my eyes if you can.”

Denis Diderot, Notes on Painting, 1765


Begin with the end.