Have you ever noticed how a silhouette can tell you a great deal by saying less? That’s because the human mind is capable of filling in needed information in order to complete a picture or to recognize a familiar image.
Silhouettes were originally profile portraits, generally in black. In the early days they were often taken from a shadow cast by a candle onto a sheet of paper. The word silhouette crept into the language after the unpopular Etienne de Silhouette, the French Minister of Finance in 1759. An outline portrait came to signify a shallow and empty-headed nature. Common during the 18th and 19th centuries, silhouettes were most frequently freehand cutouts on black paper pasted on a white board.
The “Physionotrace” was an early mechanical device for tracing a profile. With the sitter’s head more or less locked with a headrest, the artist, his eyeball up to a peephole, traced lines with a pantograph.
Silhouettes work as art because of the absence of internal clutter. Unlike the French Finance Minister, less is more. Furthermore, this facile understanding of form, whether the human face or a boat at anchor against a sunset, is a supreme creative device. “Photographic memory” aside, many artists find they can “burn in” fairly complex silhouettes. This is an acquired skill. Start with relatively simple silhouettes. With patience you can teach yourself to grab quite a bit of stuff and hold it in the slide-bank of your mind. Human profiles particularly provide satisfying exercises in retention, mental keepsakes, and relatively trouble-free data for future reference.
The invention of the camera by another Frenchman, Nicephore Niepce in 1826, signified the beginning of an era when more than enough information was to be supplied. Studio Daguerreotype portraits, tintypes, and “cartes de visite” dazzled with their accuracy and complexity. Silhouettes faded from popularity. Relatively speaking, it does not take a lot of imagination in order to view many photographs. In a way this is unfortunate. Are we missing something?
PS: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” (Theodore Roethke)
Esoterica: In painting, the silhouette is a method of avoiding distracting detail. As foreground framing, a silhouette is a device to build pictorial depth. It can also provide eye-control and center-of-interest activation. Furthermore, similarly-formed and potentially boring elements can be effectively silhouetted and receded with both linear and aerial perspective. Soft-focus silhouetting adopts a camera technique to heighten reality or add magic.
Cut paper fascination
by Kathi Peters
I have been working with the silhouetted image for years now and have a large body of work devoted solely to the silhouette. I draw complicated images with scenery and subjects depicting distance and movement all cut from one piece of paper. I love the dramatic effect of the black and white of the design and the illusion of depth and shadow. Most of my work depicts the horse in some discipline, as does the majority of my art work in watercolor or casein, but the paper cut silhouette will always have a fascination for me. It is a challenge to envision the entire picture in black and white and then achieve depth perception and a sense of movement and all cut from one piece of paper. I love it. The true master of this art form though was an Italian named Ugo Mochi. He was able to achieve the illusion of movement and drama in a simple paper cut with the skill of a sculptor. It’s a challenge and takes patience, but makes for a real yin and yang statement.
(RG note) The story of Ugo Mochi (1889-1977) can be found at www.artzar.com/content/mochi
by Jerry Waese
As an inside out painter (I never make a drawing first) all of my paintings are actually coloured silhouette projects — every form is filled with color from the inside out first — though almost never just one color. As far as edges are concerned, attention is given to concave and convex color interfaces, color becomes shadow and light — every important feature is essentially silhouette. Properly done, a silhouette promotes the absence of internal clutter while providing just enough information. It avoids distracting detail and heightens reality or adds magic.
Meaning of silhouette
by David Collins, London, UK
In actual practice, the term a la silhouette had the meaning of “on the cheap” because of the parsimonious nature of the French Minister. This according to Ian Chilvers.
(RG note) Ian Chilvers is the editor of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists.
by Moncy Barbour, VA, USA
My work has led me to study the work of Peter Max. We have so much in common that after reading a book on him and his work I was shocked. But his use of marbled brush strokes interested me the most. He and I are now working in the Fauve manner after Matisse. Also now I paint my Fauve paintings on wet gesso allowing the colors to bleed into fine detail. They are wild beasts. Also I was given a book from my daughter on Sir Paul McCartney. I was shocked again. He is doing the same work as myself and Max. By many people this way of painting is shocking as it was in the first movement led by Matisse. I always take that risk in having something new and a fear that it will not be accepted.
Silhouette the basic pattern
by Pamela M Simpson, CT, USA
That all important silhouette is the first thing both my husband David Lussier and I do to make sure that what we are doing is worth painting. We always take the time to arrange the abstract dark pattern in a silhouette first on the canvas and check to see if it is interesting and abstractly strong before we jump into the painting. That is a point we try to emphasize in our workshops. If the abstract dark pattern is strong I feel that I can try anything with the paint and in the end I will still have a strong painting.
Often after we have been painting we both test our visual memories and draw the scene we were just painting. It is the strong dark pattern that comes to mind first and then you fit all the other movements into it. When we are on a trip, the backs of our placemats are often covered with compositional drawings of what we did, what we could have done and what we might do next time.
by Mona Youssef
Finally I have found someone who would agree with me that using black in a painting is an essential element in order to bring vitality, depth and confirmation to that painting. This is a complete reversal of what we were taught in schools. I teach my students how to use black properly. It is very true that what works with black and white would work with anything. I have done paintings in watercolour (only in black and white) and in pencil. The results were great. There is a great chance to play with so many tones in order to create so much depth in a painting. It is a wonderful experience. I find that lamp black works better in mixing colours. If using white is essential — so is black.
Kids in the studio
by Andries Veerman, Mexico
I enjoy reading your letters and especially the one on “raising creative kids.” I have fraternal twins that turned two last week. When my little girl Michelle was one and a half, she somehow got into my studio while I was away. She took the cap off the tube, squeezed out a little paint, put the cap back on, and then painted all over the lower half of my 36″x 48″ canvas. When I got home I realized all my brushes were dirty and I thought — did I not clean my brushes? I really take care of my brushes and always clean them with goop after a day’s work. I ran to make sure she hadn’t swallowed anything and found her clean as a whistle. My wife and I couldn’t find a drop on her. Later I cleaned up the mess. I thoroughly enjoy watching the twins picking up branches in the park and using them as paintbrushes to paint signs like they were canvases like Daddy. I know that they will be better painters than me someday. They love art and beat on my studio door to paint and draw.
(RG note) My ideas about raising creative kids are at Raising creative kids.
by Alisa Miller, CA, USA
Several years ago I saw someone’s paintings that had strands of thin string on the top of the painting, added by the artist after the oil painting was finished. In particular, the brown strings enhanced the forest scenes he did, and these shiny strands crisscrossed the painting. I would like to know how I could achieve this — what material would go on top of my painting without hurting it?
(RG note) I recommend doing this type of work in acrylic. Acrylic medium is relatively inert and will not destroy string, wool or most other flottage that you might wish to add to a painting. It does not matter how much acrylic medium you use. If you are insisting on doing this sort of work in oil, consider laying the string onto the work while it is still wet and giving it additional staying power with a shot or two of retouch varnish by spray can.
Laughing at obstacles
by Mary Jean Mailloux
“I am not altogether displeased with the shirt-front.” (Cezanne, after 115 sittings for a portrait of Ambroise Vollard) I howled at this one that was in the “Resource of Art Quotations.” I’ve just read The Agony and the Ecstasy then went and borrowed two more books on Michelangelo from the library as well as the movie. Throughout the reading I thought about the Robert Genn letters and your views on art and dedication and persistence and success, recognition, obstacles et al. It is a great read and I recommend it to anyone who thinks they have obstacles in their lives to reckon with.
(RG note) Recently someone wrote to say that our Resource of Art Quotations was the most popular site for artists who wanted to get over their depressions. I’m glad to say it’s for the not-so-depressed, too. It’s at www.art-quotes.com/
More on the bourgeois painters
by Gail Griffiths
Thanks to Janet Warrick. Her remarks were so eloquently and thoroughly stated. I too was abhorred by Anne Barga’s negative and invalid response to Robert’s writings and beliefs. It’s a shame — her painting shows another part of her. Her conflict is not with others but within herself.
(RG note) Janet Warrick’s letter is at Black beauty. My sincere thanks to all who wrote.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.
That includes Jo Scott-B who writes, “An interesting exercise is the drawing of the silhouettes of negative spaces. Joining together what “isn’t there” trains the artist to look at positive shapes in a whole new way.”
And Sherry Preston who wrote, “Regarding darkness, the turmoil of our lives pushes us to accept, adapt, and grow while learning to smile in the face of darkness.”
And Charles Corbett who wrote, “To a watercolourist, one of the best approaches to black is to start with what you call ‘palette gray’ — the mix of all the washes used in the past umpteen paintings. This can be ‘warmed’ or cooled’ by the addition of an appropriate amount of the appropriate red or blue — or ‘blackened’ by adding all three primaries as required.”