Character Descriptions

I’ve been experimenting with HOW and WHEN to give the reader a physical description of characters. In a novel draft I avoided any physical description of the narrator until the scene where her love interest meets her —well into the book. I’m not sure if it worked and, as the novel is in the holding pen awaiting another rewrite, it’ll be a while before I test the theory.

In my current novel-in-progress, I’m nailing down descriptions of each character and, I’ve realized, that writing most of these descriptions is not part of my natural flow. I’ve taken to going back and filling in the appearance of the characters after I’ve “gotten to know them” by writing their dialog and actions. For me, what each character says and does takes precedence over his or her description. Still I acknowledge that without the “picture” of their looks in words, the reader may be at a loss.

I introduce one of the more interesting characters —an older woman with long and important career in the New York City art scene— first with a brief physical description and then by showing the reader her making an elegant dinner in her beautifully appointed kitchen. The protagonist is struck by her hostess’s cooking skills and impressed by the idea that the room is a perfect still life painting. And, as the young protagonist is an art history student with a passion for northern renaissance painters, she knows what goes into a good domestic setting still life and it’s more than a pretty bowl of grapes.

I’m looking for advice about how and when to provide those basic physical facts without slowing down the story. Any ideas?