Silhouette art is a great southern tradition. Growing up in South Carolina, I was used to seeing them displayed on the walls in black oval frames in people’s homes. When I had a silhouette studio in Greenville, SC for 5 years, I learned so much about people’s perception of this art. The majority of people believe that silhouette portraits are created by someone tracing a shadow on a wall.
There are a lot of people who trace profiles digitally. They use a stylus and an app and offer silhouettes to people. While I’m just happy this keeps silhouette images popular, it makes people not even aware that hand cutting silhouettes is an art form. There are only a dozen or so artists in the US today who practice this art form in the tradition as established in 1700’s France. We travel all over the states and abroad to perform this art at weddings and gallery opening, corporate events, gift shops and boutiques.
There are some talented “digital” artists out there and many can make a pretty silhouette. But is tracing really accurate? What I have learned from my experiences hand cutting silhouettes for many people at live events as well as hand cutting silhouettes emailed profile photos, is that tracing leaves out a critical element!
When I look at a child in person sitting across from me, I get to see them in their entirety. Obviously I see them in 3 dimension so my brain automatically translates shadows and lights that might otherwise mislead a camera. And also, just hearing them, even if just quiet little breaths… their life presence makes an impression on me and it all contributes to how I “see” them and so I cut until I feel like I recognize them in that cutting.
That is what is missing in tracing. That element that an artist experiences in person. Even when I do silhouettes via email/profile photos, I look at the photo until I can “hear” a giggle or a breath etc. Ever since I started doing that, it has made silhouettes via email much easier for me than they seemed at the beginning.
Here are two brothers, Grayden and Briggs. To demonstrate the difference, I have shown each boy’s photograph and to the left, a digitally traced version. As you can see, curly hair can look like blobs. This can be adjusted and enhanced and most digital artists fix this and make the hair look better. But look closely at the facial features. Most digital artists leave this, believing if it was traced, it must be accurate. But I feel the traced versions’ features look too large for their age. I also included my hand cut versions I make without drawing or tracing. Try to imagine them turning to look at you, smiling, blinking, maybe giggling, and then they return to their profile pose. That’s when a silhouette artist begins. The artist holds scissors and paper and begins cutting while looking at the child as a whole. Those personal influences really affect the outcome of the portrait.