PUT ASIDE YOUR PHONE CAMERA AND EMBRACE THE VICTORIAN CRAZE FOR MAKING CUT- PAPER SILHOUETTES
Most family pictures these days are snapped on a phone – very occasionally pausing to get everyone to pose nicely. Capturing these moments was a lot trickier before photography, especially if you didn’t have the wallet to get your portrait painted.
No wonder then, that cut-papersilhouette-making took off in the mid 18th century. Much more accessible, these scenes of a single colour ( but usually black) could be made at home and, even without surface detail, convey both the likeness and personality of a portrait subject or group.
This project encourages you to put one of your portraits to paper. You’ll be cutting it out, so keep the complexity of the image you pick in line with your skills (and take a look at our issue 54, for more paper-cutting tips). For inspiration, you may want to look up the painstaking work of Laura Muir Mackenzie in the V& A’s collection (collections.vam.ac.uk). The daughter of a baronet, she was also a talented cutter of paper silhouettes, showing domestic scenes, such as babies being bathed, children playing and members of her family having a game of chess.
Making silhouettes can become addictive – just mind you don’t follow the example of one Gallic politician: the word actually comes from French minister, Etienne de Silhouette, who became notorious for wasting his time on the hobby.
1 Find a family photograph in which individuals or a group are in silhouette, with their outlines clearly visible (photos taken against a wall or plain background work best) – ideally, individual silhouettes would just join or overlap within a group composition, so they remain recognisable. Photocopy and enlarge the photo if necessary to fit A4 size and then trace the relevant outline onto an A4 sheet of copy paper to make a template.
2 Place the template over your sheet of black paper and attach both to your cutting mat with a piece of sticky tape placed over the corners (take care not to place tape over the image area).
3 Start cutting away the white, negative shapes with a scalpel — begin with the smallest areas, to help prevent your paper from tearing. You’ll be cutting both the template sheet and black paper simultaneously. Anchor the cutting mat with one hand, and work with the blade in your other, holding it vertically, like a pencil, for greater precision. It will help you to keep the blade straight if you move the whole mat around while cutting shapes.
4 Continue to work until all of the white paper is cut away, using a metal ruler with your scalpel for any straight lines.
5 Carefully remove your template and finished papercut from the cutting mat and separate the two.
6 Fixing mistakes is not impossible. If you’ve cut too much or too far, you can mend the area from the back. Simply dot glue onto the papercut surface using a toothpick or cocktail stick, then ‘patch’ the area using a tiny scrap of black paper.
7 Place the finished silhouette centrally onto your A4 white background paper sheet and mark its position lightly with pencil dots (these can be erased later).
8 Turn the silhouette over and, again using PVA glue and a toothpick or cocktail stick, dot glue onto the reverse (you don’t need to cover the surface with glue — this should be enough). Position the silhouette, right side up, in line with your previous pencil marks, and smooth down onto the backing sheet. Leave to dry completely.
9 You can now frame your piece. Use a flat frame and sandwich the silhouette between glass and backing.