Man with cloth cap and question mark

How familiar are you with the silhouette?

If you’ve seen me cut a silhouette, you’re probably more familiar with this shadowy art than most. But how much do you really know about them?

My question today is more about silhouette imagery, as used in advertisements, illustrations and popular art, than about the craft I practice. It’s the concept, or idea of a silhouette which interests me.

The reason I’m asking is that I’ve been invited to give a TEDx talk in Norway next month. My subject will be:

The Eighteenth-century Selfie

This is (of course) what silhouettes really are.

The Eighteenth-Century Selfie

Two painted silhouettes by Mr Charles
Two silhouettes by Mr Charles, Strand, London, .1890s,
painted on card in just a few minutes while the client waited

As the title suggests, I will include some history. However, my main thesis will be about the concept of the silhouette and the ubiquitous role they play in the visual world which surrounds us. Silhouettes are everywhere: on social media, advertising hoardings, book covers, magazine illustrations, etc, etc. The interesting thing, from my perspective, is that most people never notice this. Hence my question.

To expand this thesis I need to talk a little about how most people actually see silhouettes, assuming they see them at all. By “most people” I mean people who have not spent more than half their life studying, practicing, earning a living with, and generally obsessing over silhouettes.

How do most people view the silhouette?

I’ve realised that this is actually quite a hard question for me to ponder. I’m singularly unqualified to answer it! So I’m looking for some input from you.

Do you notice the silhouettes around you in your daily life?

If so, what do you make of them? Do you think about them at all?

Our perception of silhouettes

I think the aim of my talk is to leave my audience with a new appreciation of these simple, shadowy images. Or perhaps, it’s to help them notice silhouettes for the first time. I’ll try to achieve this by speaking a little about how we all tend to perceive silhouettes and what people generally think about them.

I’ll then take my audience on a short journey back in time, introducing them to a few of my favourite historical silhouettists; my teachers, as I like to call them. I’ll discuss why silhouettes where important in the pre-photographic age and why people liked to have these “eighteenth-century selfies” made.

I will, of course, also demonstrate how to make a silhouette!

I’ll finish by talking a little about the shadowy nature of the silhouette, and why it is that designers and illustrators like to use them so much. I’ll then invite my audience to go out into the world and “spot” a few silhouettes for themselves. Most people – when I do this – are surprised by how easy it is to find them. My hope is to enable the audience to quite literally bring the silhouettes around them out of the shadows.

Like all artists, what I really want is to change the way people see the world!

The TED talk program

The fundamental concept behind the TED talk program is that it’s about “ideas worth spreading”. I’ve no idea whether mine is such an idea, but I’m keen to give it a go. Do let me know your thoughts about silhouettes, however brief or humorous they may be (actually, the briefer the better). Who knows, some of your words may even find their way into a TED talk…

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Chelsea Souder
Chelsea Souder
1 year ago

I always see silhouettes as surprisingly familiar. Having co-hosted a silhouette party over Zoom where you cut the likenesses of me, my family, and my friends, it was amazing to me how each finished portrait was instantly recognizable as that person – even those who I hadn’t known very long, and even myself. It’s fair to say that I’ve never actually seen my own profile, except in photos, and I also don’t think that I have ever really studied the profiles of any except my closest family members. Yet, when you would hold up the intricately cut piece of black card, now in the shape of the outline of a person’s profile, I was honestly amazed at how familiar it looked! So I think we notice a lot of silhouettes without noticing that we noticed them.

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