Best way to get a portraiture likeness on a small face (2.1cm x 1.1cm)

In this attempt I’m trying to get likenesses of my son-in-law, daughter and grandson in this oil painting. It’s a gift to them and need the likenesses to be close. First you see the ref photo, then my first attempt which looks nothing like my son-in-



  • At such a small size you need to reduce down the details and capture the broad placement of the features. I've simplified the forms for you here:

  • So you kind of blurred it a bit so I can capture the likeness without making mistakes by trying to paint the detail ? Sorry, that’s my attempt to state what I’m seeing here… this is a big help. Let’s see if I can implement … thank you @Richard_P
  • A median filter to remove the details but without losing the forms with blurring.
  • This Sargent is very small. Likeness in such a small area is really almost like caricature drawing. You need to figure out the 1-2 things that really make each person look like them. 
  • This one I did of my uncle. The face is about an inch wide. I focused on the glasses, his nose, overall shape and his lips. Not perfect but I think it looks like him. My buddy who had met him recognized him at least. 
  • Thank you all ! Extremely helpful… as I’ve been stumped for several days 
  • Btw, @KingstonFineArt, you’d probably appreciate the location of this pic, can you guess? 
  • @pcstaples

    here' a gigapixel upscale

    Another plus in the Jim Kingston box, and a plus also and similarly for the person wearing the beard (in the photograph).

    Best regards to the beard, the man that wears it, the wife that stands alongside him, and the small thing that stands between them,
    Duncan  :)
  • I can't add anything (and learned much from reading) to the above suggestions.   I struggled with the same problem for 4 months when painting a deceased sibling last year.   I think a lot needs to be left to the imagination of the viewer and let them see the things they most expect to see for that particular human. (as already mentioned above by @dakmediocreart.  Looking forward to seeing this in its final form.
  • Personally I think you've got the start of a good likeness.

    I like the half tone between the hair and the skin. The size and layout of the features are recognizable.

    As a viewer I see two issues.

    The main issue I see as a viewer is the colour ( chroma?) of the skin. Your paint appears too vivid. The source is more grey. 

    The secondary issue is the flat colour of the face. There are no highlights or shadow. This gives it a 2 dimensional feel. You are hampered by the source lighting that is dull, non-directional overcast.

    The paintings from @dakmediocreart have light and shade on the face. The photos from @KingstonFineArt and @richard_p hint that light may be brighter top left. Boosting these contrasts may help, even if it is just one lighter stroke on the left and / or darker stroke on the right.

    On the upside, you still have the whole of the body to do. That will give a lot of context to the face. On Sky TV "Portrait Artist of the Year" the winner painted Sir Lenny Henry... the judges gushed over the hands and posture, never mentioning the face.🤔

    Finally, I repeat that you have 80% of the likeness. Just needs developing.

    Ps I love your Seascape painting.
  • This is going to be a great painting. Love your emerging background. It's interesting that we can pick a family member from a really great distance where we couldn't possibly see significant details. He's halfway there already.
  • That's why I only draw or paint slightly smaller than life size portraits when the likeness is crucial. If it isn't, then it really doesn't matter. 
  • edited January 20
    It's a lovely group portrait in a beautiful setting, @pcstaples. One thing that would have helped with the faces would have been to paint on a smoother surface. The weave of the canvas here is going to make it more difficult. You will need to simplify as @Richard_P said. If you get the proportions of the simplified masses right and get them in the right places you'll get a likeness. 
  • pcstaples

    Remember back to your old class photos from school days. You recognise the tiny everyone in the frame from hair shape and shadow shapes. Don’t sweat the small stuff, it don’t matter at this distance.

  • This is where I am so far… I believe I’ve got it as close as I can with my daughter, her husband’s face has been tough… and my grandson is really hard. Comments are spot on. I should have gone with a smaller canvas or a much larger one. These 1x2 cm heads do not make this task easy
  • @KingstonFineArt … It’s Bubble Mountain across Jordan Pond on Mt Desert Island, ME… this shoreline where they’re standing is just below the lawn at the Jordan Pond Restaurant, where they serve finest popovers around. If you’ve never been you must go treat yourself sometime.
  • Whoa! They're a big step forward and very recognizable.

    The shading under the cap is great, as is his leg.

    Looking forward to seeing future developments.
  • You have nailed your daughter.  I can see you are still working on your son-in-law.  His leg is great,  Your grandchild's likeness maybe improved if you shift his mouth higher on the face?   You have too much distance between the eyes and mouth if you look at the photograph side by side with the painting.
    It is coming along well.   Looking forward to seeing the end result.
  • You're making good progress, @pcstaples. Work on the leg is excellent and your daughter's face is looking good, too. Don't hurry it. Slow and steady does the trick.  :)
  • I’m really stumped on what to for my son-in-laws face… if I try and any detail it looks overworked, and does not render any likeness to him, especially from a a few feet away… if I just make a general shape, it looks like it does now, like there’s not enough definition. Any suggestions on what to do for his face is much appreciated!
  • Some subtle highlights on the nose, cheeks, brow and upper left forehead. Some lightness in his hair.
  • Add a line for his right eye (as we look at it) that goes downward. Add the left part of the bottom of the nose which is currently missing. Add a line for the teeth above the lips. Make the lips more horizontal, it's curving upwards slightly at the moment. Correct the shape of the eyebrows.

    I appreciate all this is very difficult at such small sizes though..
  • Here’s a more detailed comparison that may help render suggestions and critique for me to go forward. Please know that I’ve read and appreciate all your helpful comments to date and cannot thank you all enough for them. Eg. @Richard_P your first suggestion and helpful image which I tried to respond to in my painting, but it seems I either end up making my son-in-law look like a raccoon or like he’s wearing sunglasses. 

  • Thank you @Richard_P and @tassieguy, I was posting again as you were replying… I’m hanging on every word you guys say…
  • edited January 29
    From what you say... The source image is too detailed for you to easily copy given the scale.

    You need to find a way to blur the image to match your scale.

    I've tried various software filters but so far the best result was putting some greaseproof paper over the screen on my phone. That gives an appropriate expectation of what you could achieve ( pretty close to your current).

  • At this small size you almost want to be treating is as a very small pixel face. Here you can see how the placement of the features at this very low resolution help create the likeness:

    These pixels are where your values should go.

    Does that help?
  • That is a help! Thanks! Very interesting!
  • @heartofengland …very cool approach with the filtering paper over the photo at scale … I think that might prove very beneficial , along with @Richard_P’s pixelated photo! All helpful! 🙏🏻
  • I recently bought a cheap phone to replace my broken one.   I am really disappointed with the quality of the photos it takes.    However, it has a slight upside, in that it turns the photos into a paint by numbers photo when you zoom in.  I find it helpful in its simplification of larger shapes of value and hue.   Here is an example.   Try zooming in on this photo.  I think the  baking paper over the phone will have a similar effect.  If the paper does not help, I suggest you look at other photographs you have of his face and perhaps use some of what you see with the other photos to help resolve your problem. 
    Looking forward to seeing how you get on.

  • edited January 30
    That's a great suggestion, @Richard_P.  Often the problem in not that we can't see enough detail but that we see too much. Especially when painting in small. @pcstaples' problem is a good example of where squinting, pixelating and other methods of simplifying come in handy.
  • edited January 30
    @pcstaples. I affirm everything everyone has said. But there may sometimes be particular nuance to some tiny marks that make a difference - even when you aren't including every detail. If that line or mark that is the summary of an eye goes a fraction too far the eye is 15% bigger!
    I also found in doing a Sargent copy the undulations in the canvas board were affecting my ability to make crisp marks. At that time I also didn't have the high quality brushes I now use.
    On that portrait I started using a headband magnifier I had bought for non-painting purposes to see precisely where the mark was going. I also used a toothpick for making any tiny precise dot.

  • Thanks again! A Toothpick ! I actually think that may become a handy tool at some point… you see, for 2 weeks I have tried many ways to find my son-in-law’s expression. I’ve put in eyebrows and the bags under his eyes… it’s interesting that I almost achieved some likeness, but as I backed away a few feet, I discovered the detail made the face look strange, perhaps values were wrong. In any case, perhaps it’s the placement of the pupils … that’s where a toothpick may do the trick… I don’t know, perhaps I’ve gone mad! Hahaha… in any event, I’ll post when I get something closer, taking all your suggestions to the canvas with me
  • @pcstaples
    Ahh. I've been there many times when I was younger. 40+ years ago. I had friends that had a candle shop in Bar Harbor. I must have hitch hike there from Boston a couple of dozen times. Thanks for the memory jolt.
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