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Tutorial: Silhouettes

September 24th, 2007 · 21 Comments · Family Centered Living, Tutorial

I fell in love with paper art when I was first married. It is an easy and economical way to decorate your home. Making silhouettes of people you love makes the art more special, even an heirloom. This type of home-art is the epitome of Simple Gifts, I think! Below are silhouettes of my three oldest children, done just before Christmas of 1999. Catherine was 7, Andrew “Jack” was 5, and Caroline was all of 3 years old.

Silhouettes 1999

Over sixteen years of married life, I’ve made simple birth and baptism certificates and complex pictures. But I love silhouettes because they are so personal. They are portraits, really. The lack of details like color and shading makes the portrait even more intimate. The viewer is drawn to look more closely at the shapes of the subject’s features, the tilt of the head, the chubby roll under a baby’s chin, or the way a stray lock curls.

I’m not a true silhouette artist who can cut silhouettes from life. That is a very high art indeed. I take my studies from photographs. It may take a bit more time and effort, but I think it’s worth every bit.

When I’m going to make silhouette studies, I first take profile photos, trying to eliminate as much shadow under noses and chins as possible. I have found that using a natural light photo with a strong light (like sunlight) shining right on the subject works well. Flash works best when shot at the exact same height as your subject, but sometimes it can be too much, washing out important features. The beauty of digital cameras is that you can take several shots and chose the best. It’s also extremely quick – no waiting for film. You can, of course, use an instant (Kodak type) camera, but you are limited to the image size it puts out. Be sure to maintain the exact same distance from each of your subjects so that they are in perfect proportion should you want to do a group study. A tripod is extremely helpful.

You can scale digital photos in your computer to whatever size you wish. It is helpful to print your scaled photos on card stock or matte photo paper to make the template sturdy. I chose to make all of my silhouettes the same size so that each one will fill its own frame. If I were making a family study, I would need to be careful to respect the relative proportions between subjects so that baby’s head is not larger than big sister’s.

Silhouette Photos
Gather acid-free scrapbooking supplies including a VERY sharp X-acto knife. I like to put a foamy pen grip on my knife for comfort. I have arthritis in my fingers and they become fatigued very quickly without it. Choose whatever papers suit your decor. As a rule, you want to have a dark solid for the image and a lighter pattern or solid for the background. But experiment! It’s fun and you can re-use your template if you aren’t happy with the results.

Silhouette Supplies
Here’s what the backside of your silhouettes might look like. Be sure to mark the subject’s name and the date the study was taken. You may want to pack away your template for later use. Maybe you want to make a page with successive years’ studies of the same subject. It’s nice to do baby, toddler, child, teen. You could even make a study of your entire family and place the silhouettes together to form one family portrait. And when you get more skilled, you can use a still-life photo of your family and create and silhouette portrait!

Card Stock Templates
And here is a close up of my study of Louis. Notice that lashes, curls and chubby rolls can be enhanced lending more personality to the study.

Louis Silhouette Template
Here is another close-up of a study I’ve done of myself (my daughter Cate was the photographer). Notice that the glasses have been carefully cut out and provide some interest.

Nissa's Silhouette
Next, you will want to trace your template onto the back of your scrapbooking paper. Most scrapbooking papers are colored on one side and white on the other, which makes the tracing very easy to see. For my project, I chose to use a black card stock, which is colored on both sides. I’ve used a light colored pencil to make my tracing. Be sure to trace the mirror image, that is, the opposite, to what you want in the frame. And make sure your pencil is quite sharp for the finest possible lines. See how nice the white templates look on black?

silhouette templates

silhouette templates traced
Carefully cut out your image *just inside* the tracing lines, paying special attention to the small bits. In fact, do the smallest bits first. It is extremely important to have a *very sharp* X-acto so that your paper won’t tear. Avoid tugging to separate the silhouette from the paper. Careful cutting will also prevent the white from peeking out from underneath. If you do get “fluff-its”, just go back and nip them off from the right side very carefully.

Sharp Xactos

Cutting Out

Removing Silhouette gently
You will notice that my templates have a flat bottom. Your silhouettes will be much more attractive if you trace out the contour of the near shoulder and cut it away, sloping elegantly towards the chest and back.

Marking shoulders
Mount your image onto your background paper (which you will have cut to fit in your chosen frame), being careful to position it so that the effect through the glass is pleasingly even. Another rule of thumb is to leave more head-space than at the bottom. This grounds the image nicely. You can use a glue stick or mounting tape. Please do not use liquid glue of any kind, you will surely be disappointed in the results. Tip: Leaving the edges of the image free gives more dimension to your image after framing. It appears to float.

Mounting and matting
Finally, you can embellish your compositions with journaling, or elements as desired. Be sure, at the very least, to sign and date your work. It is a good idea to mark your subject’s name on the finished piece somewhere, even on the back of the frame.

If you are going to mat your work, be sure your silhouettes will fit comfortably inside and that the mat is a good compliment to the overall composition. You can also embellish your mat-board if it’s plain white or cream. My recommendation is to let the piece live in the frame for a little while first to allow the piece to speak to you. Then you will know just what to do with the mat. Of course, you may already have a clear, complete vision. In which case, zhuzh away! In the event that your mat board and backing board are not acid free, you can purchase a spray-on product to neutralise the acid.

All done!
It’s also fun to mount the silhouettes on a letter, copywork, or essay hand-written by your child or spouse. Use a copy, of course! You could use the silhouettes to decorate scrapbooks, photo albums, notebooks. They can be used to make unique name signs for children’s bedrooms, or to assign a coat hook or cubby. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

Silhouettes are a beautiful way to preserve a precious moment in time. Have fun, and send me pictures of your projects!


21 friends have commented so far ↓

  • clarice

    Oh thank you Nissa, this is wonderful and I have always wanted to do this but not sure how to go about it. I will be giving this a try. Clarice

  • Cindy

    How wonderful! I was just thinking about having these done for my kids – I think you’ve saved me a bunch of money. My husband thanks you!!

  • kingvozzo

    These are great! Are you cutting the template directly out of your printed profile photos?
    Thanks for sharing this!

  • nissa

    That’s a great question! You want to print the digital photo out on cardstock or matte photo paper. And that’s what you cut to get the template. What you are seeing in the photos above is the backside of that paper.

  • Shannon Miller

    I just found you from Meredith’s and I am so excited! My mom did these of us with an overhead projector when I was little and I have been dying to try it with my kids but they are much to small to sit still for that long. It never occured to me to use a picture – what a great idea!

  • Hilda

    Thanks for breaking it down so thoroughly. I not very crafty but I think I can do this one.

  • Monica

    I’ve been wanting to learn how to do this! Thank you so much for the wonderful tutorial! Lovely!

  • Jennifer

    Lovely! The detail is amazing, Nissa.

  • Lynn

    Nissa these are just lovely, very inspiring. wouldn’t they make lovely Christmas pressy’s for the grandparents!


  • Andrea

    I LOVE this idea! We just moved to a new house and my walls are pretty bare! I’m going to try this out! How beautiful! Thank you!

  • Donetta

    Oh what a great idea!

  • Junie Moon

    I discovered your blog via Clarice at Storybook Woods’ post today. Silhouettes are wonderful and I’m so tickled to discover your helpful tutorial. Thank you so much!

  • Eileen G.

    You do really nice work. I learned something looking at your blog here. I have always cut my silloettes out with scissors. I have the matts for cutting. I believe I have the x-acto knife too. Never thought of doing this way. Thanks for the pointers. Eileen G.

  • Christie

    Oh, I’m so excited to see this (via link on Higher Up and Further In)! I have been wanting to do this!

  • jeanne

    I remember my Mother having one of my younger sister and I, when we were young…sadly, who know’s what happened to them over forty years ago..I don’t need to tell you to hold onto mother had a way of leaving things scattered to the wind…these will be keepsakes for generations to come!

  • Cori

    Thank you so much, I have been trying to find a website to show me how to do this. I am really excited on getting started. I am a new grandma! and I wanted to make this for his mommie for “Mother’s Day!! Thank you so much.

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  • Jo

    Fabulous idea! But oh, dear…I can’t see the pictures! Any way I can?

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