Silhouettes or Shadow Portraits for Children
Vital Mental Exercise
Drawing takes a lot of practice to come naturally. The more work you put into it the better you get. Starting with children and encouraging them to keep drawing, keep practicing is so vital. I don’t think the established public school system understands the vital importance of encouraging creativity exercises yet. Without creativity in the arts and humanities, learning becomes a boring exercise in memorization and not an exploration into the possibilities of the future. I believe there would be fewer drop-out numbers and greater risk-takers, more Steve Jobs innovators if only there were more arts, and especially drawing.
Drawing is where we allow ourselves to think outside the box. Drawing and doodling is where ideas and creativity thrive. Our children are not taught to think as much as they are taught to memorize statistics, dates and numbers. Anyone can draw. We have been doing it: drawing and doodling from a very early age. The key is not to point out any flaws of design or technique and allow children to develop their own style and form. You can always add lessons in technique. But if you squelch the creative freedom early, you cannot get that back. Children don’t recover well from being told that they aren’t doing it right or that they have no talent. They are children. They assume you know what you are talking about.
I’m an artist who loves to share new ways of encouraging children to try drawing and expand creativity. That is why I wrote these lessons and why I took them to the public schools in my area. You may find this silhouette lesson fun and interesting for your children or classroom.
Give Yourself Permission
First, give the children permission to make drawings that aren’t perfect or that they don't like, especially at first. Out of every ten drawings, there will invariably be a few I dislike enough to throw away. Every year on his birthday, John James Audubon used to go through his paintings of birds and any that were not PERFECT, he threw into the fireplace. That's why so few of his paintings still exist. A professional photographer told me that he takes hundreds of pictures and out of those if he gets one or two that are exceptional, he is very happy. Give your children the same freedom. The first few drawings they do may not be what they expected or hoped for. Don't let them think because if they didn’t achieve a perfection that they are a failure or not a real artist. Remind them that they may only need more practice.
Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.— Pablo Picasso
Have you ever done a silhouette before?
I’ve seen these done a number of ways for the very young Kindergarten and First Grade students using a lamp and tracing the shadows on the wall. What you have are very large shadow portraits. However, I wanted to show the students basic drawing techniques and facial proportions by using faces we see every day on our money: Presidents. This made a great project for President’s Day as we decided to use Washington (on the quarter or 25 cent piece) and Lincoln (on the penny).
Silhouettes have a long historical tradition. They could be drawn without having to deal with the overall details of eye shape and musculature. Only the contour or outline needed to be observed. However, it is helpful to know the basics of facial structure to be able to place the dent at the top of the nasal bone and the lips in the right general area. These are the basics that I taught.
Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.— Chinese Proverb
White construction paper
Black construction paper
Pencil (light or white colored pencil is helpful on black paper)
Basic History of Silhouettes
Starting with a basic history of silhouettes is helpful. Many books are available on the history of silhouettes from the library or from Dover Press Publications. The European countries most concerned with black profile portraits were England, Germany, and France. They were called portraits “in little” and were keepsakes or half-secret inspiration of friends or loved ones in the inside lids of snuff boxes or jewelry lockets or prayer books. They became especially valued as loved ones went to war or far away places like overseas for long periods of time. Sometimes a lock of hair was kept with the silhouette but not always.
The Chinese made “shadow puppets” where their cut silhouettes were attached to sticks and made with moving joints and performed in front of a curtain with a light shining behind it. These were created with such skill as to add open spaces so that details were seen by the audience. Some were even beautifully painted even though the audience could not see that detail.
There were many ways of doing the work back then: painting black on white plaster or porcelain, cutting out of black paper to paste against a white card, or painting on the reverse side of clear glass. Also, the subject was sometimes put in the light in order to cast a shadow onto a white surfaced board or wall and then the sketch in miniature was drawn from the cast shadow, not the subject in the chair.
Profiles became very popular in the American Colonies and still are, as you can see in our coins. When Pilgrims and other immigrants came to the Colonies they usually knew they would not see their loved ones back home again. These silhouettes became highly treasured keepsakes.
You can never do too much drawing.— Tintoretto
The Legend of Urashima Taro
The students can choose to draw the profile of either a neighbor/friend or a profile from a coin in their pocket. Either way, the process is the same.
Start with an oval –- egg-shape for the head. Draw a line halfway down one side of the oval for the eyes, half again for the bottom of the nose and half again for the bottom lip as in the project “Basic Face Drawing.”
The Profile is sketched first on the black paper with the light-colored pencil. Then put hair contours, neck and indications of clothing on the sketch.
When it is ready, put two pieces of paper together and start cutting around the profile. This way you have two silhouettes from one drawing and it is not as likely to tear as you cut: two pieces together make it stronger. Go slowly and use the smallest scissors you own. Large scissors make it hard to get around small corners around the nose and other details. When the silhouette is cut out, turn it over so that the side with the pencil marking is underneath, and glue that side (the white pencil marked side) to the white paper.
“I pay no attention whatever to anybody’s praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings.”
Help Younger Children With Cutting
The cutting part can be more challenging for younger students than the drawing part. Notice in some of my student samples that when a child got tired of cutting, he/she gave up on details and just cut straight lines. Also cutting into small triangular areas was a challenge such as under the chin and under the nose. Also, little fingers sometimes miss small nips and corners, which leaves little paper pieces on noses and other places. Cleaning up the edges is important before gluing. The students will be happier with the final product if they pay attention to the little stuff.
Always sign and date your work. It is always amazing to look back on these in years to come to see how far you have come.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Each year I would have my children do this project and the got better and better at it. I taught many homeschool groups as well and they would often turn and draw their friends or family in silhouette. These are only a few samples.
“He who works with his hands is a laborer. He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
— St. Francis of Assisi