Hollow-cut Life Studies

TAKING INSPIRATION FROM OLD SILHOUETTES I’ve been using the technique of hollow cutting during life-drawing sessions. My aim is to explore again the relationship between drawing and cutting, thinking about the different kinds of line an artist can make with pencil and with scissors.

Cutting and Drawing

Bernadette from the Back
Pencil on scissor-cut paper

I being each piece by cutting. I pick up a pair of scissors, make a brief estimate of where I want the figure to sit in the paper, and stab the centre of that space with a scissor point. I then cut away the area of the figure I wish to remove from the picture, leaving behind their hair and any drapery which obscures the figure. I then take a pencil and draw in details of the hair and drapery, as well as any background objects I might wish to include.

In traditional silhouette art the act of adding details of hair and clothing, while leaving the face empty, is called embellishing. I’ve long been fascinated by this aspect of silhouettes: the selective adding of small, tiny details, while leaving the face black and empty. For me, these drawings are like embellished silhouettes, but leading to a completely different result.

Finally, the drawings are backed with a sheet of glass and framed so that the viewer can see the wall through the ‘hole’, the wall becomes part of the image.  In the image above, the rounded effect on Bernadette’s shoulders is created by the shadow of the paper on the wall. 

Two pictures on a wall and table lamp underneath them
Two hollow-cut studies, framed and on a green wall; what you see depends on where you hang them!

These pieces are hard to photograph or hang. They change completely depending on the kind of wall one hangs them on. 

For me, this is an exciting new direction so I have assembled a collection of these images. The first were exhibited last summer during my open studio and I am currently exploring more variations on this theme. Many people were taking with their simplicity and the quiet nature of the poses, which seem to work best with this kind of imagery.

Reclining female figure from the back
Christina with Orange Cushion (positioned over grey paper)
Pencil and watercolour on scissor-cut paper

Removing the Person

Florence on the Chaise Longue 1 (detail)

The act of removing the mode (really, the person) is an odd one. I had in mind much of what I’ve learned about autism in the last few years. Autism is often described as an “invisible disability”.

To me, this invisibility has two aspects. Most obviously, it refers to the fact that there are no external symptoms of autism. Autistic people don’t carry a white cane, sit in a wheel chair or use a hearing aid. Looked at from outside there is no easy way to tell whether an individual is autistic or not. Less obvious, however, is the fact that autistic people often feel very invisible. They almost literally seem to disappear into the shadows as people unknowingly walk right past them. It’s as if they give off an unconscious signal to those around them:

“Please don’t notice me, please don’t interact with me”.

This unconscious signal is very effective; by and large, people don’t notice autistic people. They often don’t even see them.

The effect of this is to make the person effectively invisible to wider society, often with disastrous consequences for the autistic individual; they struggle to find appropriate employment of the help they need. In my hollow cut life studies I was trying to literally illustrate this feeling of invisibility by removing the person from the picture, leaving just their hair and the imprint of there body in the space, even though the picture is of that person.

Hollow Cutting in the Nineteenth Century

Hollow cutting is an old idea. Like much of my work, the inspiration came from looking at my collection of old silhouettes. In particular, the research I did for my recently-published book Mastering Silhouettes.  The technique of hollow-cutting silhouettes with scissors was last used in the early nineteenth-century, especially in America.

Left facing hollow-cut silhouette of a man, together with a view of the silhouette removed from its backing card
Hollow-cut silhouette by Moses Williams, cut at the Peale Museum, Philadelphia, May 1809

Artists of the day would first trace the outline using a physiognotace, and machine which literally traced the outlines of the face onto paper. They would then take a pair of small scissors, piece the centre with the points, and then carefully cut away the outline until the middle dropped out. The finished silhouette was then backed with something dark, usually black or dark blue silk, before being framed for hanging on a wall.

One such artist in America was Moses Williams, who began life as a slave and later earned his living cutting silhouettes as a free man. In the UK, Sarah Harrington was one of a few women artists who made living cutting silhouettes at a time when it was frowned upon for a woman to earn a living by trading as an artist. Both artists used hollow cutting techniques to make silhouettes.

My idea was to take this same technique into the life room and experiment with a much more contemporary style of work. I’d love to know what you think of them, so please do leave a comment below. You can see the current set in the Art Gallery.

Blues Brothers silhouettes
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8 years ago

I was first “drawn” to Charles’ work after attending an exhibition in Newbury, Berkshire quite some years ago. I was stunned at the beauty and originality of his creations. I was subsequently honoured to be able to model for him at his studios and then after recommending him to my step daughter, she engaged his services at her wedding, to stroll amongst the guests and create their silhouettes. It was a creative, relaxing day for all who attended and the guests were able to take a little piece of the event away with them

Nicki Gregory
Nicki Gregory
8 years ago

What a gorgeous and unusual medium… Such a different and arresting take on a still life. I love it, I’d definitely hang this on my wall! It would be interesting to see this framed – maybe lifted slightly in a box frame to create some shadows.

I'd love your thoughts, please comment.x
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