En Grisaille Portrait Silhouettes

I BEGAN PLAYING with an en grisaille portrait many years ago. At the time, I was experimenting with traditional techniques for adding gold details (known as embellishing) and began scribbling pencil notes on my white copies. I began to find these white copies more interesting than the finished silhouettes!

Two en grisaille portraits
A pair of en-grisaille portraits, cut from white paper and embellished with graphite

Miniature Paper Portraits

Michael Herbert
Michael Herbert, by Charles

Instinctively, I began to add details of the face. This, of course, crosses the line between silhouette and portrait!

For me, it seemed such an obvious step, and I became quite enthusiastic about them. I had already been experimenting, in my life-drawing class, with combinations of drawing and cutting. These new pencil-drawn cuttings seemed like a new take on this idea and I enthusiastically embraced them. 

What is “en grisaille”?

Next, I looked for other artists working the same way, which is how I came across the term “en grisaille”.  It turns out that Grisaille drawing techniques have a much longer history than silhouette cutting. It’s a term used to describe any drawing executed entirely in shades of grey, often as studies or underdrawings for complex paintings. Miniature grisaille portraits (known as plumbago drawings) were popular in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. 

My working method is to cut my own own en grisaille portraits from white paper and then embellish them with fine pencil. The portrait I made of Michael was drawn from life. However, many of my early experiments were made using photographs.  Since I began my career as a portrait artist, this move from silhouette to portrait seems a natural one.

The finished cuttings are usually mounted onto dark blue paper. Of course, one can mount them on any colour at all! 

a early experiment with en grisaille drawing and an illustration from Mastering Silhouettes.

Today, these are my favourite kind of portrait. They form the most advanced project in Mastering Silhouettes. I enjoy the relationship between the pencil line and the scissor line. How close to the edge can I draw? If the pencil line goes over the edge, it seems not to work.  For this reason I generally draw just slightly inside the edge. 

Looking forward

After publication of the book, my experiments with en grisaille portraits came to an end. I gave a number of them away, to friends who had posed for them, but never managed to sell even one as an actual commission. My career has been full of such apparent failures. Essentially they’re a product which I enjoy making but nobody ever buys! 

Artistically, they may have a longer life. My current studio experiments with silhouette outline are much influenced by these experiments. I may yet come back to them, so look out for an update…

Jim Tidwell, American silhouettist, in a hardwood, oval 6″x 4″ frame
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