Cutting around a photo to make a silhouette

How can I make a silhouette myself?

I’m often asked if there’s an easy way to make a silhouette. If you have a mobile phone, yes there is! Here’s an easy project you can do at home during the holidays to make silhouettes of your family. Try it out with your children, parents, friends or siblings.

I will show you how to take a profile photo of your subject, turn it into a simple “cutting guide” and then cut it out.

You will need the following ordinary household items:

  1. a mobile phone or digital camera
  2. a computer screen or tablet
  3. thin white paper (tracing paper or ordinary photocopy paper)
  4. a soft pencil or felt-tip pen
  5. sticky tape and craft paper glue
  6. scissors suitable for cutting paper (not your mother’s favourite sewing scissors… )

Things for the shopping list

  1. black paper or card
  2. Plain white cards for mounting the silhouettes

Optionally, you might also need an ordinary inkjet printer (if you have access to one) and a frame for your silhouette.

Taking a photo and making a cutting guide

The method is simple. Place your subject against a plain wall and ask them to assume a “normal” expression (not smiling or laughing). They can face either way, depending on their preference (some people feel they have a best side). Take a couple of photos and open the best on a larger screen using your usual image-viewing software.

Then do either of the following to make a cutting guide for your silhouette:

1. the printer method

If you have access to a printer you can print the image onto thin white paper. You will use this as a cutting guide, so make sure to print it at the same size you want to make your finished silhouette. If you plan on framing the silhouette the size should be about half that of your frame. Silhouettes need a generous white space all around, so bear this in mind while scaling the print.

Three photos wooing how to print a photo and prepare it for cutting
Printing a photo to size, cutting it down and sticking it to black paper for cutting

Before you begin cutting you should think about your want to finish the bottom edge of the silhouette. I recommend drawing a simple S-shaped curve as a guide. Silhouettists call this a “bust-line termination”.

2. the tracing method

If you don’t have access to a printer – or just want to be more arty – place a thin sheet of white paper on top of your tablet, or tape it loosely to your computer screen. Next, draw carefully around the profile using a soft pencil or thin felt-tip pen. Make sure not to use anything too sharp which might damage the screen.

Three photos showing the stages of drawing from an iPad
Tracing the outline of a photo from an iPad and sticking it to black paper for cutting

Again, you’ll to think about scale. Before tracing, you should scale the on-screen image to the size you want your finished silhouette. If you have trouble seeing the profile through the paper try increasing the contrast of the image or brightening the screen (or both). You could also try using thinner paper, or tracing paper if you have some.

Cutting the profile

Next, place either your printed or drawn cutting guide on top of a sheet of black paper or card. Before you begin cutting, it’s a good idea to chop image down to size by cutting a rough square an inch or two bigger than the profile. This makes it easier to turn the paper while cutting the silhouette.

Now tape the cut-down photo or drawing onto a slightly-larger piece of black paper using two or three pieces of sticky tape. This will prevent the two sheets moving, relative to each other, while you cut out the silhouette.

Finally, take your scissors and cut carefully around the profile, taking particular care as you cut the features of the face. If you can, try to include an eyelash, even if this isn’t visible in your photo or drawing. It adds a professional touch! If the subject is wearing spectacles cut a then line inwards to indicate the lens.

Two photos showing the cutting out a photo with scissors
Cutting around the printed photo with scissors will produce a simple black silhouette

While cutting, try to turn the paper with your other hand to make the scissors cut in smooth curves. This is easier than turning the scissors. Generally, I recommend cutting in one line: upwards as you cut the face and downwards for the back of the head. However, you should cut in whichever direction feels most natural to you. You’ll find this depends on which way your subject is facing and whether you are right or left handed.

At the end, you can add an artistic, curved bust line at the bottom of your finished portrait. This both helps the composition and also separates the two sheets of paper.

You should now have a finished back-paper silhouette in your hand. Hold it up to the light. Can you recognise it?

If you wish, you can now discard the cutting guide and off cuts (although these can be fun to look at too).

Finished silhouette of a boy based on iPad drawing
Cutting around the drawing and mounting the finished silhouette onto card

Presenting your silhouette

You should glue your silhouette to a piece of white or cream card. If you plan to frame it, you should first cut this card to fit the frame. As you stick it down check the original photo you took to make sure the silhouette is sitting at the correct angle. It’s easy to spoil an otherwise excellent cutting by tilting it forwards or backwards by mistake.

Before framing it, do sign your artwork! Also consider dating it and adding the name of your subject. All this is useful information to anybody who may find your silhouette, in years to come, and wonder who it is.

Postscript

If you tried out this project I’d love to see the results! Please do add a comment at the bottom with an image attached. I promise not to critique it (that is, unless you ask me to… )

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William Freeman
1 year ago

Bravo Charles and thank you. I look forward to trying this but please be assured I won’t be competing with your outstanding services. William

Brian Moffatt
2 months ago

Better than Blue Peter! Maybe they should invite you to appear and cut silhouettes and include the dog and tortoise?

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