Modern Variations: New Ideas for the 21st Century

Freedom of Expression

ONE of the freedoms experienced by the modern-day silhouettist is that he need not be constrained by tradition. During the writing of his book Mastering Silhouettes, Charles was able to experiment with a wide range of styles, both traditional and modern, each of which were used as the basis for individual projects. Some of these have an immediate application for events, while others are more suited to studio work. Here are a number of 'alternative cuts' to consider; some of which require a bit of planning, while others are likely to simply appear at random whenever Charles is working at an event.


These slightly ridiculous cuttings have never yet been known to offend. They work well at student balls and christmas parties, in fact anywhere where guests are dead-set on having a good time, and usually consist of a full-length body with a massively over-exaggerated head. Guests often enjoy challenging the artist by striking hard-to-cut poses. As each silhouette only takes a couple of minutes it doesn't matter too much if these sometimes turn out to be hard-to-hold poses as well! These silhouettes are all about fun.

Student caricatures

A set of caricatures cut at a student ball, where they proved immensely popular

A face-only silhouette set in a rectangle mount

Half silhouettes

Any good silhouettist will tell you that the secret to likeness lies in the shape of the head rather than the nose or mouth, so cutting just the face is more - rather than less - difficult for the artist. The great advantage is speed: one cut and it's done! Half silhouettes can literally be made in a few seconds, making it possible for one artist to cut through 100 or more profiles in a couple of hours, while two artists can cut well over 200 silhouettes in a single evening. They are worth thinking about if it is important that everybody in the room receives one. These silhouettes are all about speed!

Four photographs showing the hand sequence of cutting a half-silhouette

A pair of hollow-cut half silhouettes cut from a single printed white card, and presented to a guest, all in less than 60 seconds

A hollow-cut silhouette with a shadow behind

Hollow cuts

Known as 'the hole-in-the-doughnut', these silhouettes are made by cutting away the head from the inside of white paper. This counter-intuitive manner of working was popular in early nineteenth-century America, especially among fairground artists of the day who relied on various automatic-silhouette contraptions to delineate a profile. Charles had to re-invent the idea as the basis for a project in his book, as they have not been made professionally for over 150 years. People really appreciate their strange 'inside-out' nature, as well as the skill involved in making them: as the artist begins by stabbing the paper with his scissors! These are quite ambiguous silhouettes.

A painted caricature by silhouette painter Charles Burns after a portrait by Louise Fenne

Painted silhouettes

Most eighteenth-century silhouettists painted, rather than cut, their profile portraits. Cutting was considered a rather vulgar innovation as it seemed to reduce the miniaturist's art to a few quick snips! A number of silhouette painters claimed, like the cutters, to be able to produce a profile in just a few minutes. Intrigued, Charles set out to see how this could be done. The result is a series of portraits and caricatures, each painted in five minutes or less. Might this have an application at an event you are planning?

A painted caricature by Charles,
after a portrait by Louise Fenne

A silhouette wheel cut from a single sheet of paper by Charles Burns

Silhouette wheel

An early innovation by Charles, this idea evolved from a request by a client to cut all her guests from a single sheet of paper. The silhouettes are cut in a continuous loop while the artist's arm goes through the hole in the middle. Each guest poses for just 60 seconds or so before making way for the next. The idea generally works best at smaller events, although Charles has cut a single wheel of 36 heads in the past. Does that sound like a record which needs to be broken?