Painting, Portraits

How to Pose People for Portrait Paintings

June 4, 2014

By Alina Bradford

girl_in_black imageThe goal of posing in a portrait painting is to covey the subject’s personality while creating an interesting composition.

The first step of posing is deciding on what body position the subject will take. The second step is composition considerations.


Standing often lends itself to more formal portraits. Don’t leave the subject standing in an open space, though. Have them stand by a desk, a chair or a credenza table decorated with personal items, for example. This will balance out the composition and give the viewer a better feel for the subject if the corrects setting is chosen.

Better yet, have your subject perform some action moves, take photos and use the photos for reference.

Girl with sign by Alina Bradford.

Girl with sign by Alina Bradford.


Sitting is usually a better option for subjects with a more casual feel or for those who can’t stand for longer periods of time. Find a chair that suits the person’s personality. For example, a bartender would be perfectly well matched perched on a bar stool. A teacher may look nice sitting on the edge of a desk. A business man would look regal sitting in a wing-backed chair.

There are many posing options for someone who is sitting. Each pose gives a different feel. Here are some examples:

  • Leaning forward and propping an arm across the
    Vixen by Alina Bradford.

    Vixen by Alina Bradford.

    knee (conversational)

  • Head-in-hand with elbow on knee (contemplative)
  • Head-in-hands with both elbows on the knees (friendly or approachable)
  • Leaned back, legs crossed (easy going)
  • Knees together with ankles crossed and to the side (demure)
  • Knees spread apart, elbow on each knee, hands interlocked (confident)


When posing a subject, it is important to give them something to do with their hands. This will make the subject more comfortable and will make the portrait more engaging. For example, the subject could have their hands:

  • In their pocket
  • On the back of a chair
  • Holding a personal item
  • Doing busy work (knitting, sketching, using a calculator)


The biggest mistake many new portrait artists make is sticking their subject dead center of the composition. This tends to be boring.

The best way to decide where your subject should be in a composition is by using the Rule of Thirds. The Rule of Thirds states that the most interesting composition is obtained by visually dividing your canvas into three parts horizontally that are divided into thirds vertically.

This means that your canvas will be split into nine areas. The best composition will have the subject in the intersection of lines in the upper left-hand corner, upper right-hand corner, the lower left-hand corner or the lower right-hand corner. See the illustration. The girl’s face is in the upper left-hand intersection.

Remembering these concepts will help to create a strong pose in your portrait.

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