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What is Quality?
by Kerry J. Cook

A Vanishing Art

Don't Fall for Hype

What to Look For:

Style:  Knowing What You Like

Edouart on the Subject of Style

Art vs. Gimmick

Think Twice Before Ordering Custom Profiles Online




A Vanishing Art


Thirty years ago there were many more silhouette artists working, and more good artists working.  Competition improved the quality of the art.  And because the public had a wider exposure to top quality silhouettes, more people knew what good silhouettes should look like.


Most people today know silhouettes only from childhood, and the concept of hand artwork seems to be fading from our culture.  It's increasingly common for people to assume that silhouettes must go through some process of projection, or some digital or photographic process.


So what should you look for in a silhouette?  How do you choose an artist?



Don't Fall for Hype


It is important to recognize that silhouettes have held a centuries-long association with carnivals and traveling shows, and consequently have been cut by all manner of showmen, Yankee peddlers and other rascals.  Two hundred years ago there were silhouettists who traveled from town to town with automatons -- mechanical puppets dressed in flowing robes -- and these artists assured the local townspeople that their likenesses would be made by the mechanical figure itself.  By magic.  In reality, the machine's operator hid behind a peep-hole, and moved the automaton's hand by means of a pantograph.


Today's hype is tame by comparison.  No more fantastical silhouette-drawing puppets.  Today we just have wild internet claims about being "the best," or " the fastest," or "the premier artist" -- the same boasts silhouettists have made for centuries.


Speed doesn't matter.  Not when the difference between fastest and slowest is measured in seconds, or at most a couple of minutes.  And it doesn't matter which famous clients an artist claims, or what magazines or television shows they brag about.  It doesn't matter how long they've been cutting silhouettes, or at what age they began. 


What matters is the art.


Look at the art.  The art speaks for itself.



What to Look For


The litmus test for any silhouette is simple:  Does it look like its subject? 


But how can you know -- before you buy -- whether an artist's samples resemble the real people who posed?  Many unlikely looking silhouettes actually do look like real people, and many perfectly cute silhouettes are so generic they could represent almost anyone of the right age and gender.


Even if you don't have any way to compare silhouettes with their subjects, there's a lot you can learn by looking at samples -- once you know what to look for:


  • First and most importantly, the best silhouettes have soul.  When you examine samples of an artist's work, does each silhouette seem to have a distinct personality?  Or are they all similar?  Too many "generic" looking silhouettes is the mark of a poor artist, or an amateur.

  • Consider the variety of faces an artist displays.  Do all the noses look alike?  Does every child have a button nose?  Are all the chins the same?  All the foreheads?  In the case of less skilled artists, and formula cutters, you sometimes see the same profile repeated again and again, dressed up with different hairstyles and accessories.  Does the artist show samples representative of diverse types?  Babies?  Adults?  Different races?  Is it easy to tell the ages of the subjects?  You might make some allowances, recognizing that the sample selection may not fully represent the range of an artist's work.  But nevertheless, variety and specificity should be apparent.




  • Look at the quality of the lines.  Are the edges clean?  Look closely at the forehead, the curve of the chin, the tip of the nose, and the finishing cut at the bottom.  If you can see corners and jags that don't belong there, this means either that the artist was unskilled, or perhaps that a skilled artist was cutting too fast.  On the finishing cut this isn't a major problem, and jerky finishing cuts turn up sometimes even in top quality work, such as first rate vintage silhouettes.  But choppy lines in the face are a big problem, and can also be a problem in the hair.  Sometimes the paper can slip on back copies, compromising the smooth line, but those should not be the images an artist chooses as samples.  Be aware that what looks like a jerky cut in an online digital image may just be an artifact of the digital process/screen resolution, but by looking carefully you should be able to tell the difference.  In general, silhouettes shouldn't have choppy lines -- unless appropriate to the likeness, or as a clear affectation of style.

  • Facial features should be distinct.  Still looking at the edges, do all the features seem to flow together as if molded too hastily out of clay?  Look closely at the place where the lips meet.  If the lips are fully closed, that should come to a sharp angle.  Look also at the high point of each lip, and at the juncture under the nose.  These places sometimes also show relatively sharp angles, depending on the face.  Any individual silhouette may be legitimately without sharp angles.  However, if there are no sharp angles to be found in any of an artist's samples, if all the features slide together in rolling curves, that usually indicates a problem with likenesses.

  • A good artist will demonstrate a nuanced specificity of line.  Each individual facial feature will, if you study it closely, turn out to be made up of a complex series of planes and curves.  Nothing should look too "regular" in shape.  There should be no predictable, geometric looking contours.  Nothing that looks too much like a segment cut out of a circle or ellipse -- especially not if you see the same shape repeated in multiple silhouettes.



  • Consider the silhouettes in their entirety.  Are the head shapes realistic?  Do the bottom halves of the faces coordinate with the top halves in a way that makes sense?  Are the postures natural?  Look at the back of the neck and the shoulders -- are these in natural positions, or do they seem stiff or forced?

  • Examine the eyelashes.  Eyelashes are important, because without them silhouettes look blind.  Are all the eyelashes in the right place?  Eyelashes which are too low or too high can distort the whole appearance of a silhouette, and warp the likeness.  Often a silhouette which is unflattering, a silhouette which looks subtly wrong but you're not sure why, turns out to have a poorly placed eyelash.  Ideally, eyelashes should have a naturalistic shape, which varies with each likeness, and should by their direction -- by looking up, or down -- help convey personality and mood.


  • What size is the artist working?  Silhouettes should be small, no more than about two inches from the tip of the chin to the top of the forehead, and usually smaller.  There are compelling reasons for this:

    • First, because it is a matter of long tradition, going all the way back in silhouette history.  Silhouettes have their roots in the practice of painted miniatures.

    • Second, for the very practical and important reason that an artist who freehand cuts larger than sight-size (the two-inch rule) has much less control over the likeness.  The quality of his work will suffer as a result.

    • Third, and most importantly, silhouettes must be small for reasons of aesthetics.  Just consider: Silhouettes have only one line -- the outline -- with which to tell a story.  If the image is small, the silhouetted shape looks intricate and intriguing.  It draws you in, and makes you want to look closer.  At larger sizes, the lack of surface detail becomes too glaring, making very large silhouettes appear unsophisticated, and often soulless.



Style: Knowing What You Like


Some artists cut a clean, slightly stylized line.  Others specialize in intricate detail.  Some make lots of in-cuts into the black area of the silhouette, to show surface details of hair and clothing.  Others prefer to tell the story as much as possible with the outline alone -- the one pure line of contour, the true silhouette.


All these styles can be done well or badly, and are matters of personal taste.


Even though each artist has a unique style, a good artist should usually be able to match or compliment the style of old silhouettes that have been passed down in your family.  (Depending on the request, and the time and difficulty involved, this may require a special commission.)


But someone who knows how to cut a very detailed line well, can easily cut a more stylized line.  Someone who knows how to cut a stylized line well, can always add detail.



Edouart on the Subject of Style


Writing in 1835, Augustin Edouart, arguably the greatest silhouette artist who ever lived, expressed some very definite -- and somewhat petulant -- opinions about style.


In his time gilded silhouettes were all the rage.  These silhouettes, cut from black paper, were decorated with colorfully painted details, which Edouart described as "possess[ing] sometimes all the various colors of the rainbow..."


"With gold hair drawn on them, coral ear-rings, blue necklaces, white frills, green dress and yellow waist band, etc., is it not ridiculous to see such harlequinades?... I cannot understand how persons can have so bad and I may say, a childish taste!  Very often these Likenesses are brought to me to have copies made of them; and it is with the greatest trouble I am able to make them understand, that it is quite unnatural; and that taking a Silhouette, which is the fac-simile of a shade, it is unnecessary for its effect to bedizen it with colors...


"It must be observed that the representation of a shade, can only be executed by an outline; that all that is in dress, is only perceived by the outward delineation; consequently, all other inward additions, produce a contrary effect of the appearance of a shade.  Here it may be said that everyone has not the same taste..."

Monsieur Edouart, A Treatise on Silhouette Likenesses, 1835


Art vs. Gimmick


  • Silhouettes are traditionally cut out of black paper, mounted on white.  You can easily find online craftspeople offering all sorts of gimmicks -- crude profiles in unusual color combinations, machine-cut  scrapbooking images from digital templates, selections of  "one-size-fits-all" generic profiles intended to represent you family members, and all sorts of other "modern" affectations.

    It's important to understand that if what you really want is a good silhouette cut out of green paper, a real artist can easily do it for you.

    But if what you want is a  good silhouette, the hobbyist or craftsperson who relies on gimmicks won't be able to help.

  • Beware of artists who emphasize speed over quality.  If speed is what they care about most, this will certainly be reflected in the quality of their work.  Will you display a silhouette on the wall of your home, and pass it down as an heirloom to your children, because it was cut in less than two minutes?  Or is it more important that the likeness is clear and evocative, and the lines are beautiful?

  • A real artist should invite people to stand behind them when they work.  One fairly recent "how-to" book actually offers detailed instruction for pretending to cut silhouettes freehand, while in reality covertly employing pre-made templates.  Founded on the very mistaken idea that all faces look pretty much alike anyway, this sort of  trickery depends on not letting anyone watch from behind.

  • Silhouette artists look at the face, not at the shadow of the face.  Remember that in daily life shadows are almost always distorted, and unclear. Any sales pitch about some special talent for seeing shadows is just that -- a pitchman's ploy.


Think Twice Before Ordering Custom Profiles Online


All silhouette artists occasionally work from photos.  Sometimes there's no choice.  But it's wise to think twice before commissioning a silhouette from someone who seems to prefer working from photos.  The real joy and art of silhouettes comes in working from life, not from photos.


Silhouettes cut from life have more personality.


A silhouette based on a photo can never be better than the photo.  The artist is limited by the photo.  For one thing, there is no choice of expression.  Perhaps the photo is not in true profile.  Or, very commonly, the chin or jaw is not in a natural position, distorting the likeness -- but the artist won't have any way to know that.  A chin held too high in a photograph makes for a very unflattering silhouette, whereas in person an artist can easily say, "look down a little lower."


Especially with very young children, whose faces are so incredibly mobile, the artist's job is to correctly catch the right lines to tell the story.  A camera can't do this effectively, because cameras see only tiny "slices" of time.  With very young and wiggly children it's quite common that there is never a single instant when the whole face is in the best expression, all at once. Sometimes even their noses change shape, depending on the position of their lips.  But the artist, who watches the child in motion, can patiently compose features one at a time, in order to create the most charming likeness. 


A silhouette done from life also allows the artist to select telling details which may not be apparent in photographs -- for example, a single wispy curl at the back of the neck of a very young baby.  The camera may not show this clearly, perhaps because of lighting, or because the curl twists too much to the side.  But the artist can choose to include it. 


With a few snips of the scissors -- and a live model in the chair -- an artist can turn a pigtail into a pony-tail, in order to make the silhouette more appealing.  In making these sorts of artistic decisions, the outcome is always better when the artist has the opportunity to see the real hair from different angles.


Whenever possible, it is always better to have silhouettes done from life.




Copyright  ©  2010 Kerry J. Cook
All Rights Reserved