Cutting a silhouette over Zoom

Can a silhouettist work from home?

I’VE BEEN ASKING MYSELF whether I could work from home. As Coronavirus spreads its way around the world it seems everybody is doing it. Could a silhouettist work this way too?

At first sight, it appears impossible. I feel my job as an artist/entertainer requires me to be there! Where is the art without the artist? And what is an artist without an audience? The real joy of cutting silhouettes lies in working with people. I love the way people crowd around me as I cut, and the unexpected reactions I get. 

Not working at home: a silhouettist gets a good reaction at a Christmas party.
Snapped at a Christmas party last December. I’ve aways lived for moments like these, but already they seem like a distant memory.

However, the question seems to have been taken out of my hands. All those drinks receptions and dinners are already starting to seem like a distant memory. Can we ever get back to them again? Like so many artists, entertainers and performers, I’ve watched the total collapse of the events business with a mixture of shock and disbelief. Where do I go from here?

Zoom to the Rescue!

Many have been quick to point out that I can work from home by cutting silhouettes from photographs. Well, I can and occasionally do, but I’ve always hated doing it!

For me, a more interesting idea involves online conference platforms, particularly Zoom (which the whole world seems to have suddenly embraced). Fuelled by armies of home workers, the entire business community seems to be moving onto Zoom. What can a silhouettist offer to such an online world? 

With time on my hands and driven by an expectant curiosity, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks exploring the world of the online conference. 

Here I have to make a personal confession. I’m a technophobe. Technology and me simply don’t mix; anything with a microchip in it takes me immediately outside my comfort t zone. I’m far happier exploring what I can do with a sheet of paper (which is lots) than what I can do with an online conference platform. 

Despite this I’ve attended a number of talks, webinars and other events. I’ve attended online networking events and joined a monthly PSA meeting online. I’ve listened to a how-to-do-online-conferences webinar and attended a free webinar by some fool explaining what all businesses should be doing *right now*. I even hosted a drinks party on Zoom, inviting fellow out-of-work entertainers to celebrate my birthday last week. It was an unexpectedly fun evening! In between these digital explorations I’ve been taking long (and lone) walks in the Berkshire countryside, enjoying the blue sky and gardening.

In short, I’ve been thinking.

The problem of the online conference

Is it just me, or are online conferences really boring?

Perhaps you have a different experience (and if so, I’d love to hear it) but my overriding impression of listening to others speak from my computer is that it’s really difficult. As a member of the PSA I’ve heard a number of good speakers. I’ve seen how they can so engage an audience that an hour-long talk seems like 20  minutes. Yet hearing that same speaker on Zoom I find myself looking at the clock after 20 minutes and wondering much much longer they’ll speak!

This feels like a problem. Perhaps the speaker was just having an off day, but it feels more like the nature of the media. Or is it something  to do with being at home? The temptation to leave the speaker speaking while I go and make tea is almost irresistible. With so many people now working from home, I can’t imagine I’m alone in this. 

A Street Artist at Heart

Covent Garden Magazine Cover
My portrait stand on the cover of a 1990s edition of Covent Garden Magazine

As you probably know, I began my career as a street portrait artist. For twelve years after I left art college I spent every weekend drawing portraits in the piazza at Covent Garden. I was surprisingly successful there, managing to start a family and buy our first home. I loved it; the lifestyle suited me down to the ground. Even today I still think of myself as a street artist at heart.

As well as earning a living, Covent Garden taught me many lessons which have enabled me to keep on working ever since. Whenever I face a problem I ask myself:

“How would a street artist deal with this?” or

“Could this act survive on the street?”

Whenever I speak about my work I always begin and end with my experiences in Covent Garden.

Today, Covent Garden is my emotional anchor, a refuge in the storm. I’m fond of saying that if ever the corporate events world fails me, I can always go back to Covent Garden.

Visitors to my studio can see my old painted portrait-stand sign propped on a beam. It’s one of my most treasured possessions, I tell people I keep it there just in case I ever need it again. 

So my first thought, when everybody began cancelling events last month, was

“Great! Time to get the old sign board out and head back to Covent Garden!”

The last time I considered doing this was in 2008, when the global financial crisis caused a huge downturn in corporate entertainment. As things turned out, it wasn’t necessary. Instead, I focussed on cutting silhouettes at weddings. I’d always done “a few weddings” but that was the time they really took off for me. 

My Covent Garden sign board kept in my studio
I still keep my old Covent Garden sign board in my studio, just in case!

But today it feels different. Short of war, I never imagined any scenario that would simultaneously take out all corporate entertainment, conferences AND weddings in the space of two weeks.

So could I really go back to Covent Garden?

No, of course not. There’ll be nobody there. I imagine the place is deserted. For the first time in my life, going back to Covent Garden simply isn’t an option. 

Zoom Silhouettes

Last week on Facebook I announced (at suitably short notice) an evening of silhouette cutting on Zoom. A few people joined me and I asked them to pose in profile.  Cutting simple head-and-shoulder silhouettes I held them up to the camera and got some surprisingly good reactions. It was a lot of fun!

Working from home: a young lady poses for a silhouette on Zoom
In sequence: posing while I cut a silhouette on Zoom and the reaction to the outcome.

I came away feeling this might really be a viable way for a silhouettist to work from home. It’s quite a steep learning curve (for me anyway) but my initial experiments seem positive and people enjoy it.

Last month I read a blog by the speaker Eddie Obeng on the theme “never waste a crisis“.  His central thesis is that we should all embrace the move into the digital age. However, having spent his life travelling to conferences to tell people this, he wonders why those conferences are not yet online. Has he failed? Why isn’t he now speaking about online working online?

The answer to his question is partly inertia. Businesses are used to real-world conferences; they understand their value and how they work.  However, I wonder if it’s also because online conferencing can be just, well, rather dull?

The value of a conference lies not just in the keynote speaker, but also in all the little meetings which take place. Those unexpected moments of experiencing something new, or meeting a colleague from some past job. And what about the freebies? And all that entertainment? Let’s face it, the prospect of leaving the office and having some fun is the reason most people attend conferences in the first place. This being the case, providing the fun is really important! If virtual conferences are ever to replace the real thing this needs careful thinking about. How can we make digital conferences fun?

This, perhaps, is where a silhouettist could make a difference. 

Looking for opportunities to work from home.

In truth, I’ve no idea exactly how this could work. I’m simply throwing it out as an idea to see where it lands. Perhaps you have your own ideas? In the meantime I’m looking for opportunities to try it out and see where it goes.

Here are some things I’d like to try:

  1. Setting up a silhouette “breakout room” at a large online conference and directing people there in small numbers at a time.
  2. A Zoom “away day” for a company with large numbers of staff now working from home. A chance to say “Thank you” with a silhouette portrait whilst catching up on office chat at the same time. 
  3. Creating a group portrait for family or friends scattered in self-isolation across the country. Next time you all meet together on Skype, bring a silhouettist along too!

Participants will see their silhouettes straight away (just like a real-world event) and can capture them with a screen shot to share. After the event I’ll post the paper originals to the client for distribution amongst the guests. Each silhouette neatly mounted on a card, optionally printed with your company logo or any kind of message (again, just like a real-world event).

So if you’re thinking of organising any kind of online gathering in the next few months, please do get in touch. I’d love to chat!


28.04.2020 by Charles Burns

After a number of experiments I launched my “lockdown special offer” today. It will last until the end of May at the earliest.

The hand on my sign board is carved from Beech wood and painted, with brass buttons and a real pencil added
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Dominic Eldred-Earl
4 years ago

A good blog and a great example of adapting to a new situation – this way of meeting will probably continue in volume long after the ‘crisis’ is over.

jeanette LINEHAN
jeanette LINEHAN
4 years ago

Good Luck! You impressed me at Pinewood Studios with one of your silhouettes, done so rapidly I could hardly believe it. It was very realistic, even though you were a little kinder to me than I expected! Thank you!

I was there with my daughter in law who was receiving an award for her books, and she, like you has seen her work dry up, as she does presentations in schools, for which she is paid, as well as achieving book sales. Unlike you, she is very tech savvy and she has put her head above the parapet online, which is good for raising her profile, but not for raising revenue, sadly.

I hope you have more luck than Tina, my daughter in law.

Best wishes Charles

Katie Foot
Katie Foot
4 years ago

Zoom family portait: That sounds a great idea, Charles, especially for people who have had to postpone a big birthday party or something! I’ll see if I can’t work out a Facebook post about it and add your links.

David Evans
David Evans
4 years ago

I love the idea, and it has to be possible. This crisis is showing us a new way for working without all the travel that we are so used to. Conferences will still be necessary and I am in conversation about moving one on line that is planned for 2020 and your brilliant silhouettes are exactly the sort of extra/add on that would make up for not getting away for the office for three days.
Keep thinking – your thoughts are always interesting

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