Books: Writing about Silhouettes

EVER SINCE teaching himself to cut silhouettes in 1989 Charles has been looking for information about the way professional silhouettists have worked in the past. Although there is some published literature about the life and times of such artists, there is almost none about their techniques and working methods. Charles has reconstructed these techniques through a combination of artistic intuition and a close study of antique silhouettes. He has written a number of articles and a website on the subject, as well as a book.

A girl with a violin, a silhouette cut from several sheets of coloured paper

Mastering Silhouettes

This book is aimed at artists, both amateur and professional, as well as anybody interested in learning more about the history of portrait silhouettes. It consists of a series of projects, with step-by-step instructions for the reader to carry out, each of which is based on the work of an historical silhouettist; some of the many who have been influential on Charles’ own development as an artist. The projects are designed to impart a hands-on understanding of the historical work in question, so that readers are able to experience making many traditional kinds of silhouettes as well as read interesting stories about the artists who originally made them. All the projects make use of easily-available modern materials.

The various project talk about 'capturing shadows', scissor-cut silhouettes, painted silhouettes, caricatures and full lengths, as well as painting on glass, various kinds of embellishments, work in colour, en grisaille and the so-called 'Etruscan' silhouettes. Some of the better-known silhouettists looked at are John Miers, August Edouart, Hubert Leslie, Isabella Beetham, Jacob Spornberg and many others.

The book is well produced and lavishly illustrated in colour throughout, so will make a good present for anybody interested in either art or history. Although the subject, silhouette, is often seen as a black-and-white art, this is far from being a mono-chromatic book. It includes a number of highly colourful projects - such as the young girl in yellow playing ‘Peter Pan’ - cut from several sheets of coloured paper arranged over black.

The Life-size Shadows project from "Mastering Silhouettes" by Charles Burns The Jacob Spornberg spread from "Mastering Silhouettes" by Charles Burns

Sample spreads from 'Mastering Silhouettes'. On the left is a project for making life-size silhouettes of your friend, for instance to decorate a marquee or other venue. On the right is one of the history spreads, in this case the story of Jacob Spornberg, which introduces the project about 'Etruscan' silhouettes.

'Mastering Silhouettes' was published in early 2012 in two separate editions: by the Fil Rouge Press in the UK, and by Stackpole Books in the USA. Each copy bought from this site is signed by the author, who can include a personal inscription if you wish, and can be ordered from the Shop. Copies are also available in all major books stores.

The 1806 patent design for Schmalcalder's revolutionary silhouette-taking machine

Cutting-edge technology of the early nineteenth century. This revolutionary physiognotrace was patented by Charles Schmalcalder of London in 1806. The subject had to sit in a chair with his head held immobile against a round metal plate. The silhouettist then traced around his profile with the long pole; this pole was so heavy that it needed to be kept in balance with a series of pulleys and ropes. At the other end was a short pole with a pointer which traced the profile, upside-down, on a small piece of paper behind a screen. Scale could be varied by changing the relative lengths of the long and short poles.