The materials needed to cut silhouettes are:


Tracing paper

Black construction paper or black thin paper (the size of the photo)

Background paper (the size of the frame)

Carbon paper

Hard lead pencil 4H


Silhouettes Picture
Silhouettes Picture
The scissors must be the sharpest you can find; the type isn't important. Cuticle scissors are perfect and can be kept sharpened by cutting through fine sandpaper. When you cut with cuticle scissors, make sure they are pointed outward, and slightly up-tilted. This gives the clean, black edge. A hard (4-H) pencil is best, but any type, as long as it is kept sharp, is good. The hard pencil doesn't require resharpening as often, and consequently saves time.

Lay your tracing paper over your subject and gently trace all outside lines and any inside lines pertinent to the final form of the silhouette. After the pattern is traced onto the tracing paper, place a piece of carbon paper onto the black paper to be traced. Place the tracing paper with pattern on top of the carbon, and holding firmly with your free hand, trace over the pattern, bearing down enough for it to "print." Don't forget the tiny areas that are to be cut out for the background to show through.

Once your pattern is drawn, start cutting the outline with your scissors. The large areas should be cut first, and then the fine details of the silhouette. Spaces to be cut inside the main body of the pattern should be done before the exterior of the silhouette is cut, since the paper has more strength at this time than later. Poke the bottom scissor point through the largest portion of the opening to be cut, and work from the middle to the edges.

If you have a pattern in which the arms or hands must be emphasized inside the body form, it is best to use the cuticle scissors, cutting this portion before the outside edge is cut.

Remember that you need only give an impression of the position of these extremities or objects against the body. It is best not cut around the entire arm with one cut-- it is better to decide upon strategic spots along the arm to give the area definition, and cut along these lines with the tiny scissors once. After this is done, go back and make the thinnest cut possible, parallel to the original line. Take just enough off to allow some of the light background to show through the black paper. You can use a piece of plywood or formica top to place the black paper on to make your cuts. Use an X-acto knife or razor blade to cut out these impression lines.

Silhouettes Picture
After all the openings in the form are cut out, the next best place to cut is the face. Holding the paper in the left hand, if you're cutting with the right), begin cutting with the pointed end of the cuticle scissors turned outward and tilted slightly to the right. This insures the silhouette's having its thin edge down. On any paper, this is the way it should be cut, and if other than cuticle scissors are used, follow the same procedure. Move only the hand and cut rhythmically with the scissors, turning the hand to make sure the scissors follow the pattern line. If you continue to move the scissors, it could result in a non-sharp image. Corners must be cut sharply and cleanly, for this is one of the most important points in making a professional looking product. Cut as close to the pointed end of the scissors' cutting surfaces as possible. Cutting hair takes patience and time. Hair is cut in simple thin lines where it sticks out from the head. If you prefer, paint on hairs with India ink and a sharp pen done after the silhouette is glued onto the background paper. If you use this method, practice on a piece of paper until the ink runs in the desired thickness before putting it onto the silhouette background. Silhouette artists of the 18th and 19th centuries also painted profiles using oil colors.

Silhouettes Picture
Reverse silhouettes are merely the patterns cut out of the black background, leaving a pattern opening to be backed by light paper, exactly the reverse of the ordinary ones. They are very effective in a grouping. You can always use the cut-and-paste method on light paper and gluing it onto the black paper, however, it isn't nearly as effective.

Choose your frame which would best highlight your silhouette cutting. Oval frames are perfect for single bust silhouettes. After the decision is made, you can usually use a carpenter's square and draw on manila paper, or art paper, the size of the frame opening you intend to use.

Use Elmers Glue to glue the silhouettes onto the backgrounds. Go sparingly on the glue; to glue the whole back is to invite disaster because the silhouette will shrink and wrinkle beyond repair.

Out-of-print books provide my only source of old patterns, since there are relatively few authoritative books on the subject in libraries. Some of the older books are:

Ancestors in Silhouette, By E. Augustin Edouart compiled by Mrs. E. Neville Jackson History of Silhouettes E. Neville Jackson

Shades of Our Ancestors Alice Van Leer Carrick

The Art of Silhouette Desmond Coke

Source: Research & text by Bryan Wright

Related Links:

Antique Silhouette Blog
Peggy McClard Antiques

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