Comparing the Sizes for a Couples Portrait: Using Grant Wood's American Gothic

Comparing the Sizes for a Couples Portrait: Using Grant Wood's American Gothic

We've shared before about the tradeoff in paint by number design between paintability and painting detail. There are basically two ways to make an image more paintable. One, you could allow for smaller regions and make more regions. The challenge with this approach is that it makes the canvas harder to paint. At a certain point, it's hard to accurately paint tiny regions with any reasonable paintbrush. The second way to make a paint by number more detailed is to increase the area that the image is mapped onto. This approach still makes the painting less paintable; there is now more area to paint. But it's just more work, not more impossible work. In the same way that a lever allows one to move more weight, just slowly, a larger canvas allows one to paint a more detailed painting with more work, but not with harder work.


Today, we'll be using a classic painting to illustrate how larger canvas sizes allow for more detail, given the same minimum region size on the canvas. Grant Wood's homage to late-19th and early-20th century rural Iowans is one of our most well-recognized pieces of American art. You can see the original at the Art Institute of Chicago. You can find the original image for comparison and more about the painting on Wikipedia.


We're using this image today to look at a couples portrait and see how we can obtain the details we want by cropping or upgrading to a larger sized canvas.

Though not a photograph, this painting exhibits good lighting; the shadows on the face are not too stark and fade gradually across the face. The color palette is also subdued, if Ma's black blouse was bright green it would require another color, with it sharing one of the black colors in Pa's jacket it leaves that green color slot for another color (perhaps another shade of black for more detail in Pa's jacket).


FYI!- Cropping is the term for cutting parts off a photograph usually edges so they fit a certain size or to remove unnecessary parts. We crop most photos that come to us so they fit onto a rectangular canvas (4:5 ratio = 12x15, 16x20, 22x27.5 inches).



American Gothic as 12"x15" paint by number

The painting already crops the couple at the waist. This is a start with capturing the hardest details, the face and, especially, the eyes. Full head-to-toe photos at this canvas size often resolve little, if any, facial detail. Even cropped at the waist, little detail is resolved, especially in the eyes for both Ma and Pa. Ma's smooth face also makes it hard to find any detail at this size so avoid sending in photos where the faces have been softened using camera filters, especially at this size. In some cases, lack of detail may be fine. You want something more impressionist, or you're wearing sunglasses so your eyes resolving doesn't matter. Also, several full figured “wedding kiss” photos have turned out great at this scale simply because much the faces are obscured leaving the painting to shine on the composition, outfits, and background. Otherwise, this leaves us two options: Crop the photograph or upgrade the canvas.


12x15, Cropped Image

American Gothic Paint by Number 12"x15" cropped

If we choose to crop the painting ourselves we'll choose to cut them off at the shoulders and rotate the canvas from portrait (vertical) to landscape (horizontal) orientation. Notice how much more detail resolves in the eyes. The image on the cameo around Ma's neck also takes a truer shape. I know people aren't exactly wearing cameos nowadays but it's something to think about if you have tattoos or large jewelry you want to have show. A ring will likely not resolve well unless it's a very tight portrait (faces only) with the rings near your faces, larger sizes can help mitigate this problem also.



American Gothic 16"x20" Paint by Number

Perhaps you don't want your photograph cropped so much. It's your wedding gown or your uniform and it is just as much a part of the photo as you are. When cropping isn't a solution and you want good detail on your couples portrait, we should look to upgrade the size of the canvas. The additional charge is minimal compared to your investment in time on the project so make the most out of it. The most immediate difference is the improvement in the face and eyes. Ma has eyes. With more space finer details emerge: Pa's glasses, more complete tines on the pitchfork and Ma's embroidery and cameo. The 16x20 may also include more colors than a 12x15, these also allow more depth and detail to emerge.



American Gothic 22"x27" Paint by Number

At the largest canvas size, the 22inch wide canvas covers nearly four times the area that the 12x15 covers. This is the peak of detail without cropping an image. It may also include even more paint colors than the 16x20. I suggest this size for all couple portraits that feature full figures and want well recognizable faces. As we add more people, the camera tends to get further away from the group, that reduces detail so I also suggest this for any small group photos too. Look for a future post on groups!

Looking at Ma and Pa in all their glory we've captured an American masterpiece. One thing that would not resolve no matter the size we made is the design in Ma's dress. Check out the original if you haven't been comparing all along. Notice the bullseye pattern. Small dot and line details will not resolve in a paint by number. These are something I would add on later using a very fine tipped paint marker.


So, you're next. Let's see that portrait! We print on archival quality canvas. Once you're finished painting, a decent archival quality sealant and a frame will make this an heirloom piece. In a few generations, you might be hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago. Get started here.


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