Silhouette paper cutting

Silhouettes are also known as paper cuttings and shadows. Long before photography was invented, our ancestors used to have portraits of themselves taken sideways. They were called silhouette portraits and they were not taken with a camera, but were cut out of thin black paper, and stck upon a white card.While the aristocrats were having their silhouettes cut out and eating like kings much of Europe was starving, especially in France. In the 1760’s the Finance Minister of France, Etienne de Silhouette , had crippled the French people with his merciless tax polices. Oblivious to his people’s plight, Etienne was much more interested in his hobby of cutting out paper profiles, the latest fad.

Etienne de Silhouette was sodespised by the people of France that in protest the peasant s wore only black mimicking his black paper cutouts. The saying went all over France,”We are dressing a la Silhouette. We are shadows, too poor to wear color. We are Silhouettes!” To this very day the black profile cutouts are called silhouettes. Thankfully, the negative connotation no longer remains.

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Many European silhouettists immigrated and became very famous and rich, catering to the American politicians and very wealthy. Others traveled to county fairs and small towns capturing the profiles and the hearts of countless thousands of ordinary folk. Silhouettes remain as popular today as ever. In fact, they have become one of the most collectable art forms.

Silhouettes are still popular today, although the number of silhouette artists has since decreased to about 15 in the entire country. Even though the actual silhouettes remain greatly sought-after as wonderful and lasting encapsulations of people and events, artists are still rare.

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The earliest known silhouette was probably of William and Mary done by Elizabeth Pyburg in the late seventeenth-century England. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there were numerous well-known English silhouettists who usually painted their subjects onto a variety of substrates such as ivory and plaster. These artists include John Field, Isabella Robinson Beetham, John Miers, andCharles Rosenberg. The most well-known silhouettist of all was undoubtedly French-born Edouart, who worked in England and the United States.


The silhouette also flourished in other parts of Europe. In Germany the artist Philipp Otto Runge made both painted and cut portrait bust silhouettes and paper cut-outs of botanical specimens, animals, scenes, landscapes, and full figures. The French artist Jean Huber cut intricate and complex landscapes and historic and tableau scenes from both paper and parchment.


Since the late 18th century, silhouette artists have also made small scenes cut from card and mounted on a contrasting background like the portraits. These pictures, known as “paper cuts”, were often, but not necessarily, silhouette images. Among 19th century artists to work in this way was the author Hans Christian Andersen. The modern artist Robert Ryan creates intricate images by this technique, sometimes using them to produce silk-screen prints.


Since their pioneering use by Lotte Reiniger in silent films, silhouettes have been used to dramatic effect in many movies, including many of the opening credit sequences of the James Bond films. The famous opening sequence of the television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents features a silhouetted profile of Alfred Hitchcock stepping into a caricatured outline of himself.

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America’s premier silhouette artist, Karl Johnson has been practicing this extremely rare art form for most of his life. Karl learned this unique skill as a young boy from his father who had been taught many years earlier by a long time friend of the family.


Karl took to this unusual art form extremely well. Something he attributes, in part, to having vision in only one eye. Karl was born being able to see only from his right eye. Not having binocular vision forces Karl to judge the distance and shape of an object by examining its shadow. This allows Karl to capture an image in shadow in an uncanny way.

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