If you have attended an event recently - perhaps a friend's wedding or your company Christmas party - you may have been fortunate enough to meet a silhouette artist. If so, you probably came away with a small cut-paper portrait and thought it all a lot of fun.
While placing it onto the mantelpiece you may like to reflect that your new silhouette is part of a living tradition stretching back to Georgian times. The first silhouettists were portrait miniaturists seeking to broaden the appeal of their art by creating a quicker (and less expensive) kind of miniature. Calling their new portraits ‘shades’ they started a craze for cheap, on-the-spot profiles which went viral throughout eighteenth-century Europe and the New World. People rapidly discovered a passion for small, inexpensive likenesses of family and friends which could be passed around as personal mementos. The craze lasted for over 100 years, until the invention of the camera which did the same job far better.
Cutting a silhouette requires the same careful hand-eye coordination that an artist needs to draw from life, but without the luxury of time. A silhouette artist does not stop to plan his work, but cuts straight into the paper with barely a glance at his subject, producing an instant portrait with an ordinary pair of scissors and a extraordinary amount of skill. This traditional technique is known among artists as ‘cut and hope!’
Anybody who has ever had a successful silhouette cut in this way will recall the shock of recognition on seeing a paper-miniature version of their own shadow. As with any form of portraiture, silhouettes stand or fall by this ‘likeness’ - they are either recognisable or not - yet likeness is an elusive quality for any artist to capture. With it, they make wonderful and evocative heirlooms; without it, they are best put in the recycling bin! The skill of a true silhouettist lies in being able to reliably capture this likeness with just a few snips of the scissors.