Can’t afford a painted portrait – Make a Silhouette

In the 1st century, Pliny the Elder told the story of Dibutade, a 5th century Corinthian girl, who traced her lover’s shadow, cast by candlelight, because she wanted to keep the image of her lover with her when he went away on a journey.  A renaissance of this art form occurred in the 18th century when artists would trace the distinguished profiles of the Lords and Ladies at royal balls. These soon became popular with common classes as portraits were expensive. Black painted profile miniatures became an inexpensive alternative and were often provided by itinerant silhouettists. The profile was obtained by placing a candle so it cast the shadow of the subject, which was then traced by the artist. Profile artists promised a perfect likeness of the sitter and often kept copies of their work so they could be easily reproduced and distributed as mementos for loved ones.

Referred to as “shades”, silhouettes were created on paper, wax, glass, ivory, and plaster and painted with India-ink, water colors, and other pigments. Sometimes the artist “bronzed” the image to add detail to the portrait while keeping the facial features obscured.  Silhouette cutting using black paper was a later technique, the one we are most familiar with. However, since black paper was not available until the late 1820’s, paper had to be darkened with charcoal or lamp-black. Another method used was the hollow-cut silhouette. For this, the profile was cut and discarded. The remaining surrounding white paper was then placed against black paper or silk to reveal the profile. Once captured, the size of a silhouette could be reduced by using a pantograph.

Candles, the primary form of artificial light available, were not only utilitarian. They also provided a source of evening entertainment. A candle brought close to a person’s profile could cast a shadow on a piece of paper attached to the wall that might be drawn around and blacked in with lampblack resulting in a silhouette. In those days before photography, a silhouette provided a simple and inexpensive way of taking someone’s likeness. Because anyone could create a silhouette, their making became a popular party activity in the 18th and 19th century. 

How to Cut a Silhouette

  • Hang a large piece of white paper on the wall of a darkened room.
  • Have a person sit in front of the paper.
  • Shine a lantern (a desk lamp will do in the 21st Century) at the person to create a defined shadow on the paper.
  • Have the sitter turn sideways so that the shadow is a profile. Have them sit very still.
  • Use a pencil to draw an outline of the sitter’s head, neck and the top of his or her shoulders.
  • Cut around the outline.

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Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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