Charles Burns: Exploring the Art of Silhouette

AN HIS LONG CAREER as a silhouette artist Charles Burns has cut many notable portraits, including two silhouettes of the Queen.

Charles was born in London in 1961 and educated at Ampleforth, a catholic boarding school in North Yorkshire. Here he was taught to draw in the classical tradition by the sculptor John Bunting, himself a student of Leon Underwood. Later he attended art colleges in Exeter, Wolverhampton and Lyon, France, graduating with a 1st class Hons degree in Fine Art (painting) in 1984.

On leaving art college he worked for many years as a street artist in London’s Covent Garden, initially drawing 10-minute portraits in pencil and later cutting silhouettes. He naturally moved from there to the corporate events and entertainment market, where he found an audience quite different from the world of fine art. He has appeared at all kinds of venues and cut over 150,000 profiles, including two portraits of the Queen, President Clinton (while visiting the National Portrait Gallery) and the Duke of Edinburgh, as well as a large number of TV personalities, writers, artists and sporting celebrities.

Charles currently lives with his family in Reading, where he has converted a small eighteenth-century barn for use as a painting studio. The barn can double as an ad-hoc gallery and is opened to the public on various occasions each year.

Artist's statement

"In one way or another I’ve spent my whole life drawing people. As a shy and awkward 1970’s teenager drawing was the one thing that seemed to connect me with others. It allowed me to commit to paper my feelings about them, my fascination with their varying characters and my own relationship to them. From an early age my ability to draw enabled me to make friends and helped me define my sense of self. In many ways, it still does.

The activity of drawing can take many forms. My favourite (reflecting the way I was taught) is to use a 3B pencil on paper. Today, after many happy years spent cutting silhouette portraits, this is closely followed by a pair of scissors. Whether drawing or cutting I always begin by just looking, and then allowing my hands to respond naturally to what I see. When working fast with scissors this approach can sometimes produce unexpected results!

When my busy career as a silhouettist allows I still like to find time to draw for its own sake, and for many years have run life-drawing sessions for local artists in my Reading studio. This is an enormous help in keeping the silhouettes fresh; in drawing, as well as in cutting, one never really stops learning. Today I feel fortunate that my ability to draw has taken me all over the world, and given me a chance to meet - and cut - many wonderful people."

Charles Burns, 2012

A set of silhouettes by Charles Burns

Some cuttings by Charles Burns, including full-lengths, half-lengths, a variety of party-goers holding glasses,
and his well-known signature cut: a double face-to-face portrait cut from a single sheet of paper