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Silhouettes or Shadow Portraits for Children

Updated on July 23, 2019
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Student drawing/silhouette of her friend Rachael.Student drawing/silhouette of his friend by Kris H.
Student drawing/silhouette of her friend Rachael.
Student drawing/silhouette of her friend Rachael. | Source
Student drawing/silhouette of his friend by Kris H.
Student drawing/silhouette of his friend by Kris H. | Source

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.

Student silhouettes of George Washington and Abe Lincoln by Daniel G.
Student silhouettes of George Washington and Abe Lincoln by Daniel G. | Source
My silhouette drawings of students Seth and Silas.
My silhouette drawings of students Seth and Silas. | Source

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
American coins
American coins | Source

Have you ever done a silhouette before?

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Shadow Portraits

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
Diagram for Lincoln's silhouette.
Diagram for Lincoln's silhouette. | Source


White construction paper

Black construction paper

Small Scissors


Pencil (light or white colored pencil is helpful on black paper)


A silhouette by Rosa M.
A silhouette by Rosa M. | Source
Chinese Shadow Puppet Lady
Chinese Shadow Puppet Lady | Source

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.

Chinese Shadow Puppet
Chinese Shadow Puppet | Source

More History

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.

Chinese Shadow Puppet
Chinese Shadow Puppet | Source

You can never do too much drawing.

— Tintoretto

The Legend of Urashima Taro

George Washington basic silhouette drawing.
George Washington basic silhouette drawing. | Source


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.”

A student's drawing of Washington and Lincoln.
A student's drawing of Washington and Lincoln. | Source
Washington drawing on black paper
Washington drawing on black paper | Source

The Profile

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.

The Lincoln drawing on black paper.
The Lincoln drawing on black paper. | Source

“I pay no attention whatever to anybody’s praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings.”

— Mozart
Abe Lincoln by student, Erica.
Abe Lincoln by student, Erica. | Source

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.

My silhouette drawings of students, Jessie and Katie.
My silhouette drawings of students, Jessie and Katie. | Source
A silhouette by Angela T.
A silhouette by Angela T. | Source

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
My drawings of students and teachers.
My drawings of students and teachers. | Source

Drawing on Comments Here

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    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      13 months ago from Fresno CA

      I think kids aren't taught the basic rules of facial construction anymore. It's too easy to fall back on photography or even computer manipulation. It's a shame really. We need to teach the basics.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      3 years ago from Fresno CA


      Thank you for sharing that. I don't remember ever having a professional silhouette done but then I came from a very poor rural area and we probably didn't have the funds for such a luxury. Once I learned to do it myself, I made silhouettes of my children yearly. Thanks for commenting.



    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      3 years ago

      I found this very fascinating and it brings back memories of grade school portraits. Back then, it was common to have a silhouette once a year by a professional photographer at school. Very well done.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      3 years ago from Fresno CA


      Thank you. So true. I had hoped this would be a great resource for those teachers who haven't much in the way of ideas or resources. I remember in my public school we sometimes had teachers who had some creative talent and there were art projects every week, and then other teachers who were good teachers but didn't have much creativity and if we had an art project once a month it was a treat. It seems to me that art is too important to neglect and I wanted to encourage teachers to add as much as humanly possible to the curriculum. Thanks for commenting.



    • vespawoolf profile image

      Vespa Woolf 

      3 years ago from Peru, South America

      This is a beautifully written article. I remember doing shadow drawings and cutting them out when I was very young, maybe 1st grade. I appreciate the point you make about not being a perfectionist and teaching children to develop their own style. This is a great project for schools!

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      3 years ago from Fresno CA


      It is actually easier than it looks if you aren't too worried about a perfect likeness. Otherwise using a lamp and tracing the shadow is best. Still, I remember reading that some older versions used tracing the shadow then painting black on glass from looking at the shadow tracing instead of the person. I guess that works well if you have the time to do both. Thanks for comments and support.



    • CorneliaMladenova profile image

      Korneliya Yonkova 

      3 years ago from Cork, Ireland

      This is really enchanting. I have never tried to make silhouettes. Now I am going to pass this hub firstly to my younger daughter who is an art lover and I thin it will be a great challenge for her. I am not sure in my own talent, but I should try to create something like this. :)

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      3 years ago from Fresno CA

      Carb Diva,

      I remember those. My parents only took me there once but I remember the silhouettes. I wanted one but we couldn't afford that; not with 3 siblings all wanting the same thing. However, I thought it would be really cool to work there. I tried doing a similar thing at flea markets but didn't get much business. Partly because I didn't have the shadow making equipment so my process took a little longer and partly because people are cheap and didn't want to pay me what I thought I was worth. If I were in Disneyland they would have happily paid the price but at a flea market; well, people are looking for bargains there. Thanks for sharing your memories with me.



    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      3 years ago from Fresno CA

      Larry Rankin,

      Well, I don't know about a "wealth" but I am filled with some useless trivia... haha. Thanks so much for visiting my meager writings.



    • Carb Diva profile image

      Linda Lum 

      3 years ago from Washington State, USA

      What a great exercise for young budding artists. I really enjoyed this hub.

      Do you remember (know) that years ago there were silhouette artists at Disneyland who would create the profile of your child in just minutes. They didn't use a light to project a shadow that could be traced. They worked simply with a sheet of black paper and scissors. The accuracy was (and is) amazing). I still have the silhouettes of my two daughters that were created when they were 4 and 6. Precious.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      3 years ago from Oklahoma

      You sure are a wealth of knowledge.

      Great read.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      3 years ago from Fresno CA


      Right back at ya, Teach! I love history. Isn't that funny? When I was a kid in school, I dreaded history... all the dates and names to remember. But now I really enjoy it. Especially when it is linked to art in some way. Maybe that's the key element for me: art. Thanks for commenting.



    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I liked the history lesson that accompanies old historian, I am, so that really interested me. Thanks for the lesson, Teach!

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      3 years ago from Fresno CA


      Some of the ones above were done by my children and their classmates. I think I cherish their own handiwork almost as much as photos and silhouettes I have of each of them. Thanks for commenting.



    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      3 years ago from Fresno CA

      Surabhi Kaura,

      Thank you so much. I agree the educational system is concentrating on good things but they shouldn't neglect the arts. I seems they pour lots of money into sports but none into visual arts, music, creative writing and dance. Just my opinion. Thanks for commenting.



    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      3 years ago from USA

      What I wouldn't give to have a silhouette of my daughter when she was 2 or 3, my favorite age that brings back lovely memories. I have often seen them cut out or drawn but have never tried one myself. Nice instructions and encouragement.

    • profile image

      Surabhi Kaura 

      3 years ago

      This is a well-written hub, and one that is worthy of praise, Denise. You know what I feel, my dear, our educational system is engrossed in other subjects so much so that they forget the value of art and crafts. It's a wonderful mental therapy. Loved the sketched and the quotes! Keep us inspiring.


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