The Super-Mini Portrait

So, do yoChloeu think 3/4 inch is a tiny painting? Aside from a ½ inch eye portrait, it’s the smallest face I’ve ever attempted to paint. Chloe’s portrait will be placed in a hefty Celtic locket for my son.
I work from photos because the painting process is very time consuming and a live model would probably age before it was done! And it would be impossible for the model to get into and stay in the exact angle/position over numerous sessions. The slightest variation would throw off the accuracy of the painting.

After preparing the surface of a LEGAL ivory cabochon 3/4″ in diameter, by spraying it with Matte Workable Spray Fixative, I drew the most important lines of the face. I used a very fine lead mechanical pencil and a light touch. It took a lot of tiny adjustments… a hair’s width can make a huge difference.

(A note about ivory: I purchase mine from Boone Traders, who only sell ivory obtained from certified legal sources, such as mammoth ivory or old piano keys.)


step 1I’m painting in oils, and in the next step I use sepia thinned with Galkyd Lite medium to lay out the shadowed areas. It’s not exact, but it has to be close to where things need placed. Using a clean 20/0 detail brush, I can adjust the edges of the shadows by pushing the paint in tiny increments. Kind of looks like the Man in the Moon at this stage! (Please ignore the tape sticking out from behind the cabochon off to the left.)







step 2

After the first layer dries, I go back in and define the darkest lines and areas, add more shading to give it form and make sure everything is exactly where I want it. In the lower left side, I started blending in some white. Eventually, it will be all shades of warm grays and white. This is called a Grisaille. It’s the underpainting, and by itself it looks rather dead.







Step 3  I’ve added the dark that lies beneath the hair strands on the upper right. Also the earring and ear canal. After blending in more white over the highlight areas, the Grisaille is finished. I’m ready to start applying the glorious blues, greens, violets and flesh tones that will make this pop right off the ivory.


A note about painting surfaces: For very small paintings I prefer ivory, but if you object to the idea, you can use what Boone Traders call Vegetable Ivory… it is a very hard seed that when sliced and polished, looks just like warm ivory. I use copper for larger miniatures: anything bigger than 1.5 inches. An ultra smooth surface texture is paramount to paint the minute details in miniature.




The nestep 4xt step involves glazing the color zones. The “red” zone is typically the strip across the middle face: the cheeks and the nose. If you look closely at your subject’s face, you can see bits of green and blue undertones. Also violet in certain areas. It looks almost clownish, but it will all blend and have beautiful effects on the finished face.







step 5

I’ve warmed things up with glazes of warm fleshy tones, added a little reflected light on the chin, and gave the lips some base color.








To finalize the portrait, I’ve added depth and color to the eye’s iris, added eye lashes, adjusted some of the shadows, and warmed the total face even further with a very thin glaze of transparent oxide yellow and a touch of red. With a light touch, I added darks, then highlights to the hair strands. I think it’s done!

After it dried completely, it got a good coat of ICE, a jewelry grade resin clear coat to protect it, seeing as it will be worn as jewelry.

Hopefully this gives you a good impression of true miniature portraits.

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Comments 7

  1. Leda, the portrait is wonderful as is the detailed description of your very interesting process. Your precision is remarkable at any size, but in miniature, it’s nothing short of amazing!

    The only thing I would change in your presentation is the order of pictures. Chloe very close up in the first picture is a bit too close, in that it is not terribly flattering. As a result, it’s not the best first impression. I would use the second picture first and use the original first picture last.

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      Thank you, Kim! The problem in general, with posting images of miniatures, is that the real life size is only an inch or two. When the photo of the miniature gets uploaded and set in a post, the image gets enlarged to fill a certain size (i.e. 600 pixels x 600 pixels, which might be as big as 6″x6″). It can look distorted and/or show much more detail than expected. I wanted to show how I cropped the photo of Chloe as the first step in the painting process. I suppose I could have used a photo of her entire upper body for the post, but I thought the cropped image had a very classic “cameo” look to it. I’ll look into options next time.

    2. Thank you! That makes sense. I had no idea about the distortion when uploading. You have obviously had a lot of experience with this. Your work is beautiful and the cameo effect is classic. I guess I’m just not used to such close up views, as my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be. I look forward to learning more from your posts.

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      I’m thrilled that you found it interesting. These are the types of posts I will be doing in the future, including images and pages from Book 3 of Hecock. I may appear to be a dedicated Mum, but I started this portrait several years ago! And, shamefully, I still have FIVE half-done full size portraits of my grandchildren sitting on my easel from FIVE YEARS ago! They are my fall project this year, so you will eventually see one of them from start to finish also.

  2. How interesting and lovely! Leda, I had stayed away from oils for years because of an allergy to turpentine. I bought some of the new water mixable oils and have experimented with them; I want them to dry quickly, but would rather use the water just for the clean up. Could you recommend a good medium for me to use, compatible with the water mixables, that would work well to speed up the drying process? I also want to work in glazes. By the way, I didn’t hear back (know you are so busy), so how’s the new grandbaby? Hope all is well with you and yours.

    Most sincerely,

    1. Post

      Thank you, Melba! I used water soluble oils for a while before I used regular oils. I believe that Grumbacher has several different mediums specially formulated for those oils and I’m not sure which is best. I guess the label should say if it slows or speeds drying time. You can use regular linseed oil, too. In fact, anything that is for regular oils can be used with the water soluble, but it will decrease their ability to clean up with water. The only thing I use for glazes is Gamblin’s Galkyd or Galkyd lite, but it is not water soluble.

      As for regular oils, you don’t need to use turpentine at all. You can use odorless mineral spirits (artist’s grade) for thin mixtures to tone the canvas and for initial washes. Also for cleaning brushes and hands. A good medium for regular oils that dries the paint within 24-48 hours is Gamblin’s Galkyd and Galkyd lite. It has an alkyd base with resin and really speeds up drying time, as well as adding a nice gloss.

      The baby! Lumen Zelie is such a joy! I’m afraid I got so caught up with her, among other things, I completely forgot to send you postcards. I’m so sorry! I hope you did well!

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