Are silhouettes the perfect socially-distant art?

Nearly twenty-five years ago, early in my career as a silhouettist, I found myself working at a hunt ball alongside another, best-forgotten silhouette cutter. 

While cutting a silhouette I overheard him say to one of the guests:

“It’s not that you smell, but could you stand a bit further away please?!”

I immediately resolved never to work with him again.

You’ll be relieved to hear it’s not a line I’ve ever been tempted to use. However, amidst my shock at this extraordinary social faux-pas, I did recognise what he was getting at. If somebody stands too close, it’s really hard to cut an accurate likeness. 

An artist needs space. A little distance to stand back and contemplate the composition goes a long way in cutting the perfect portrait.

Cutting a woman with an elaborate wide-brimmed hat png before social distancing was in force
Cutting a 2016 bride’s mother at the correct distance, and the resulting portrait

The ideal distance from which to cut a silhouette is, coincidentally, about 6 feet – or 2 metres. If the subject is standing just a couple of feet away it makes it really hard to visualise the correct proportions: the all-important shape of the head and slope of the shoulders. 

Studio Conditions

Of course, at most corporate drinks receptions such distance has always been impossible to achieve. I’ve worked at events so crowded that I struggle to even move my elbows enough to operate the scissors. As an artist-entertainer one learns to cope without “studio conditions” – the whole point, after all, is to take the art out of the studio and into the event. I’ve always found a way to cut a reasonable likeness no matter what the circumstance. 

However, when I heard that – whenever events are once again allowed – organisers will need to ensure a 2-metre physical distance between guests, part of me felt genuinely elated.

“At last”, I thought “studio conditions,

imagine how much better the silhouettes will be!”

For me, it’s revolutionary. Such events are custom made for a silhouettist.

Charles and the bride at a wedding
Trying to get enough distance to cut a portrait of a bride in 2018.
I wish the guests behind me would move a bit!

A Heartfelt Plea

While preparing this article I asked a number of people whether they thought silhouette cutting could be considered “safe” in our current times. And if not, what would be their main concerns?

Apart from social-distancing requirements, one of the concerns which cropped up related to the wearing of masks.

“You can’t possibly cut silhouettes while the guests are wearing masks, can you?”

Well, as it happens, I can. 

At this point I’d like to insert a heartfelt plea. Could all you event organisers out there please think about engineering the return of the masked ball? As a party theme for 2021, it’s just crying out to happen.

Seven silhouettes with feathers and various kind of mask
Masked silhouettes have always been among my favourites.
Do you feel you could recognise these people?

As an artist, nothing gladdens my heart more than a roomful of people in evening gowns and masks. For me, it’s an adventure playground; mask wearers make superb subjects for silhouettes. As a result, masked balls represent a golden opportunity to really show off.

Masks represent a challenge, and people love to challenge an artist. How can they capture a likeness if they can’t see the face? Most people simply don’t believe it’s possible, so when I pull it off they’re incredulous

”OMG, it really looks like her!”

“But she’s wearing a mask! How’s that possible?”

An Impossible Challenge?

The reason it’s possible is down to a basic but little-known tenet of portraiture: that likeness resides in the overall composition rather than the details.

Applying this to silhouette art means I find likeness in the shape of the head, and the way it sits on the shoulders, rather than in details such as the chin and nose. (This, despite the fact that chins and noses are the only things anybody ever comments on!)

If I can capture this shape then the likeness persists, whether or not the nose is “quite right”. Conversely, if I miss the shape then no matter how well I cut the chin or the nose, the likeness will elude me.

Sadly, the masks we’re all wearing today are not the befeathered creations of a Venetian masked ball. Yet the principals of structure and composition remain the same. 

Two silhouettes of same woman, one with and one without mask
Masks present me with a simple choice. Should I include it or not?

If a guest is prohibited from – or uneasy about – removing their mask as they pose, then I’ll give them a simple choice

“Should I include the mask or not?”

My guess is that most will choose “not”. However, those silhouettes I cut with mask will remain a poignant reminder of these extraordinary times for years to come. 

For the rest, I’ll attempt to “see through” the mask by focussing on the shape of the head. As long as I get this right there should be a likeness, even if some details are only guessed at. When I get this right (and I often do) it has a powerful, almost magical effect.

Gloves and Paper

As well as masks and social distancing, a few people asked questions about the use of gloves and paper handling.

“Can you cut silhouettes while wearing gloves?”

Well, yes I can, but I’d rather not. My preference would be to rely on regular hand washing and the use of those alcohol-based hand cleansers which all event organisers now need to provide as a matter of course.

If the venue insists on gloves then I can cut while wearing light, surgical gloves. These work well with my surgical scissors and only slow me down a little. I’ll also need a leather thimble on my left forefinger to prevent the gloves being instantly punctured by the scissors!

The card and paper I use will arrive at the venue sealed in my bag, where it will stay until needed. It’s a feature of black paper that fingerprints show up quite easily, so I’ve always been fastidious about cleaning my hands before handling it. 

The Perfect Art?

Perhaps it’s just me, but the more I think about my quirky nineteenth-century art the more it feels like the perfect art for our troubled times. It simply fits!

What do you think, have I found the perfect socially-distant art?

Do let me know below.

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7 comments on “Are silhouettes the perfect socially-distant art?

  1. Jo Hall says:

    I’m not a portrait artist in any shape or form but do know how important head shape is. Great post Charles and what incredible skill!

  2. P:atricia John says:

    It is logical that a silhouettist can cut a portrait even with mask on. Artists can reconstruct and draw a face from a skeleton, or age a person using a child’s picture. I think you are perfect for events now. Good luck and success

  3. Tamara says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. I never thought abt some of the things you mention.

  4. Mary Chatburn says:

    Hello Charles. I definitely agree that as a silhouette cutter you are performing the perfect socially-distanced art.
    I hope a good amount of work comes your way, and that you can continue to wow people with your amazing skills.

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