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Monday, September 2, 2013


Scissors art, AKA silhouettes

A silhouette of Silhouette? Maybe, maybe not.
(date and artist unknown) 
A few weeks ago I wrote on origami (07-21-13), the Japanese art of folding paper in which scissors are forbidden. Today it occurred to me to put in a word for the flip side, what I initially wanted to call "scissors art," though the preferred term still seems be silhouettes. I like my designation better; it's broader and yet more precise. Technically, a silhouette is a backlit image in which little or no detail is visible except for the basic outline. Moreover such images can be created using virtually any method or medium the artist might choose, up to and including merely tracing the figure's shadow cast by a strong light on a vertical surface. "Scissors art," describes precisely the traditional and most demanding method of creating such images, the use of a tiny pair of scissors and a thin, black card relying on nothing more than the artist's expert eye-hand coordination. Now that's a skillful artist. Anyone can draw with a pencil, especially one with an eraser the end, but scissors don't come with erasers. Even a minor error means starting over--perhaps the most unforgiving art form known to man.

Hawk in Flight, Dmytro & Juliia
The silhouette described above dates back to around the mid-18th century, back to a time before photography when those wanting small portraits of loved ones were obliged to pay a miniaturist substantial sums for a painted image in oils. Those wishing a less expensive image had to settle for a no-frills shadow profile likeness cut from black paper in as little as three minutes. The cutout was then mounted on a white background ready for framing. The cost in England around 1800 was a half-crown (who knows how much that might be in today's currencies, they don't make half-crowns anymore). The actual name comes from the French finance minister, Etienne de Silhouette (above, right) who, in 1756, was forced to implement budget cuts and tax increases, especially on the wealthy. His name thus became a synonym for anything done cheaply.
Entertainment art meets instant art.

The color work of Paperosity
expert, Cindi Harwood Rose
Strangely, miniature portrait painters mostly "bit the dust" more than a century ago (or else they all went blind). Yet today, silhouette artists survive....even thrive. Why? In part at least, it's because they've moved into the realm of performance art, able to demonstrate the precise manual dexterity of a brain surgeon combined with the highly discerning eye of the portrait artist (above). They're a major hit at sidewalk art shows and birthday or wedding celebrations of the well-to-do, entertaining guests or selling their art at art fairs for the same, low, low prices (adjusting for inflation, of course) as their artistic ancestors two-hundred years ago. And, while their forbearers were really quite good at that they did, silhouette artists today have move this art form to the level of really incredibly amazing. Today's silhouette artists are not content to merely cut outlines, but now snip out tiny details in the middle as seen in the Hawk in Flight (above, right). Moreover, they're no longer just tiny, purse-size creations, but now sometimes take on the dimensions of wall-size murals. Likewise, it's not just black on white anymore either. Photos, colored paper, and other backgrounds (sometimes airbrushed) have become popular (bottom). And though faces and figures still form the bulk of what they do, silhouette artists today have spread their scissors to tackle virtually every type of content other artists embrace. And that's a profile on silhouettes.

Silhouette landscape by Guatemalan artist, Aritz Bermudez--literally cut and paste.


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