Portraits for Your Pockets: Handpainted Portrait Miniatures

September 24, 2013

I’m Painting Again!

For a long while , I’d been contemplating the idea to paint portrait miniatures. I have over 10 years of experience as a dollhouse miniaturist, mostly in 1:12 and 1:144 scales, and I’d done a lot of sculpting and paper construction, but not much painting in the traditional sense of the art. I focused on fantasy items or micro miniatures. I’ve lost most of the pictures of my previous work (like my micro-scale fairies the size of a grain of rice) as well as a bit of my eyesight, but the love of the super tiny is still there!


1:12 Scale Dollhouse Family “Coat of Arms” Plaque
(measures 1.5″ by 1.5″)


Miniature Leather Masks for Tonner Dolls
(measures 1.5″ by 1″)


1:12 Scale “Bisque” Doll made from Paper and Clay
(measures 2″ long)

104_2123 104_2127

Under 1:144 scale Paperstock Houses
(measures under 1 inch tall)

It’s been well over two years since I seriously picked up a paintbrush thanks in part to wonky work hours and my world being turned topsy-turvy. Now that my Lake Worth apartment is only a few blocks from a Lobby of Hobbies, the artist in me has reawakened!

During my artistic slump, I had amassed a “collection” of miniature portraits on Pinterest. My favorite paintings featured people actually wearing a portrait miniature: a painting within a painting.

Portrait of a Lady by an Unnamed Venetian Painter, circa 1780s
I would love to have a chat with this lady about her extensive intaglio/cameo collection!

The old saying “You use it or lose it” may not apply as heavily to art as it does to, say, algebra, but my skills have atrophied a little over the years. Picking up an 18/0 brush, however, brought back a hint of familiarity to my fingertips and I dove into my first miniature portrait attempt:


Can you guess the model?

Not very smooth, but not bad either! I was trying to mimic the wide-eyed look popular during the early 19th century, but I’m not very good at it…yet. I’m too frugal to buy new paints until my older acrylics are used up, so most of the unpolished brushwork is from the paint being too thick. It’s all acrylic on heavy paper which I then mounted between glass in a steel frame. Period miniatures were usually watercolor, but I prefer to work with oils or acrylics.


I painted the year on the reverse side of the paper along with a floral flourish so when the pendant flops around during wear, there’s always a “pretty side up.”

As you may have guessed, my portraiture skills are not very impressive; however, I had so much fun painting the first miniature, I wanted to try again. I had been admiring Elizabethan-era portrait miniatures for the longest time. I had painted larger, Renaissance-style portraits before, so I feel a little more comfortable in that era than any other. There are plenty of miniatures of adults from this period, but few children, so naturally I took it upon myself to fill in the gap. This time, I decided to forgo a direct portrait in favor of letting the persona develop itself as I worked. I ended up with this little fellow:


Before being cut to frame


These little cases are 1.25 inches in diameter, a bit bigger than an American quarter.

Even though he’s still a tad lumpy from my well-aged acrylics, I figured out a better thinner-to-paint ratio to help lay the paint more smoothly. This little guy is 100% made up from his lace collar to curly red hair, but I did take clothing and style clues from various late 16th and early 17th century portrait miniatures, especially these:

Portraits of Two Unknown Girls Aged 4 and 5 by Isaac Oliver, circa 1590

Portrait Miniature of James I by Nicholas Hilliard, circa 1610

Miniature Portrait of a Woman by Nicholas Hilliard, circa 1590

Portrait of a Young Man, probably Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, by Nicholas Hilliard, circa 1588

The magnificent Nicholas Hillard was one of the Elizabethan master miniaturists and I admire him greatly! I can only dream of one day being as masterful as he, but for only my second attempt at miniature portraiture, I am rather pleased. I like to fancy him the young son of an exceedingly proud gentleman…


Portrait miniatures came in many sizes, ranging from palm-sized to tiny Stuart Crystals the size of a thumb nail. They were often gifts or love tokens. Others revealed political affiliations, like the many miniature portraits of Queen Elizabeth and James I. 16th century miniatures have a distinct “look” to them, often because the emphasis is much less on a person’s likeness, but rather focuses on his or her clothes and hairstyle. Until the 19th century, portrait miniatures were an indulgence for the wealthy. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, science and industrialization made pigments much less expensive, making production much less expensive. Enameling, another method of portraiture, became easier and portraits on porcelain became popular accessories. After the advent of photography, the need for true portrait miniatures decreased, but as an interest in romanticism and history bloomed during the late Victorian period, “portrait miniatures” (typically a generic beautiful woman or a romanticized 18th century-inspired scene) continued to thrive as art pieces. These less-personal-but-no-less-beautiful miniatures were in high demand. Mass-production of printed images and porcelain transfers kept pace with the trend, but portrait miniatures as a true portrait faded from fashion.

For more on Portrait Miniatures:

Portrait Miniatures on Wikipedia – Details many artists and famous collectors.

Portrait Miniatures at the Victoria and Albert Museum – Comprehensive articles about the history and creators of portrait miniatures, from settings, to style, to the evolution of the art.

How to Make Miniature Portraits with American Duchess – A fun, easy project to create your own wearable art.

Artists and Ancestors: Miniature Portrait Art Collection – A lovely blog that archives antique portrait miniatures from the 17th to 20th centuries (listed by country of origin) and advice about collecting them

P.S. Miss Choll, if you’d like to have your anime-eyed likeness, send me your address on FB and I’ll get it mailed to you!

6 Responses to “Portraits for Your Pockets: Handpainted Portrait Miniatures”

  1. Helen Fratena Says:

    Oh, wow. When you said little, you really mention LITTLE. I will be watching with fascination as you continue on the journey to miniature portraits.

  2. Sarah Says:

    Those portraits look amazing! I can’t wait to see more Elizabethan portraits inspired by Nicholas Hillard! :)

  3. Anna Worden Bauersmith Says:

    I am so excited you are doing this. For a good while now, I’ve been wondering about miniature portraits and paintings. I don’t think I have the hand for it. Getting to see your work on these is such a treat.

  4. […] admired the Pragmatic Costumer’s post on painting miniatures, but recognized that my desire for immediate gratification was going to run headlong into the small […]

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