- Arts and Design
How to Make a Shadow Puppet
Hold your Own Shadow Puppet Theatre!
Learn how to make a shadow puppet with these step by step instructions, along with ideas and resources about shadow puppets and shadow puppet theatres!
Shadow puppetry is believed to have originated in China over 2000 years ago. Modern shadow puppetry these days can use computers or film to create impressive shadow plays, but there's nothing like the fun of making your own shadow puppets at home!
This is a fun creative craft project for both children and adults - make different animals or characters with children to act out fairytales and adventures, or have a go at making some intricate shadow puppets yourself, as an interesting new papercraft! You could turn them into amazing cards or papercraft gifts, or give them to your children or grandchildren to play with.
This page shows you how to make your own shadow puppet, as well as looking at the history of shadow puppetry, modern shadow plays and links to some brilliant shadow puppet templates and ideas!
Photo Credit: Cat shadow puppet - image copyright of the author
A History of Shadow Puppets
Of course, making shadows with our hands is a pastime that stretches back a long way...
But when and where did actual shadow puppetry originate? In actual fact, shadow puppetry is the oldest form of puppetry in the world. The story goes that over 2000 years ago, the Emperor of the Han Dynasty, Wu, missed his favourite concubine after she died of illness so much, that he lost the desire to do anything, including reigning over China, the country he loved.
One of his ministers came to the rescue. After seeing some children playing with dolls, he noticed the shadows that the dolls cast, and had an idea. He cut a female shape out of donkey leather, creating eleven separate pieces for her joints, and dressed her in painted clothes. His idea? To bring the emperor's concubine back to life!
Using a lamp to cast shadows on the wall. the minister made the favoured concubine dance again. This story is recorded in the official history books and is thought to be the origin of shadow puppetry!
This new form of entertainment spread throughout China as the Manchu rulers spread. It was a show with no language barrier and also started to be used in religious ceremonies, in a manner that allowed the living to communicate with the dead.
India, Turkey and Greece also enjoyed shadow puppetry throughout the ages. Such plays were important in India in the 16th century, and the puppets used were generally the largest. The plays were performed under the eye of Shiva, patron god of puppets. They were usually religious and based on epic stories. In Java and Bali, such epics are performed all night!
In fact, the Indian folklore surrounding shadow puppets is a wonderful tale in itself. The legend states that the shadow dolls were once basic blocks of wood, but one special toymaker would turn this wood into amazing dolls, giving them separate, moving limbs. Lord Shiva and the goddess Parvati visited the shop of this toymaker, and Parvati was so taken with the dolls that she asked Shiva to allow their souls to enter the dolls and cause them to dance. This inspired the toymaker further, and he created string puppets.
Ancient shadow puppets of the Ottoman and Byzantine empires were the forebears of theatres in Greece. These featured a main character named Karagiozi, a hump-backed man with a large nose and one arm longer than the other .
Shadow plays spread throughout Europe in the 1700's, first through Italy and moving into France. The early 1900s saw the creation of silhouette animation, created by a German named Lotte Reiniger, which saw shadow puppets filmed frame by frame.
Shadow puppet entertainment did not catch on in America, however, until after the American Revolution.
While traditional shadow puppets are flat and made from leather, modern shadow puppetry sees plays manipulated with computers or film, with many involving full orchestras, intricate scenery and more. Some cultures continue the tradition of the ancient shadow puppets, however, and there are still many shadow plays with simple backdrops. It is a theatre art with lasting appeal, as puppets can be projected to enormous, larger than life proportions, or tiny images that could fit in the palm of your hand!
Photo Credit: Images used under a paid license from JupiterImages Corporation
How to Make a Shadow Puppet - Seven Steps to Shadow Puppet Success!
Photo Credit: Image used under a paid license from JupiterImages Corporation
* Black, heavyweight paper or cardstock
* A sharp, good quality craft knife and scratch resistant cutting mat
* A small wooden stick, such as a kebab stick or lolly stick
1. Decide on the puppet you want to make. In my example, I have made some cat puppets. The shape does not need to be intricate - merely a silhouette. You can cut some detail into the silhouette if required.
2. Practice drawing the shape of your puppet freehand, before drawing it carefully onto card or good quality paper. Alternatively, print out a pattern or trace a template. If you're using a pattern, cut it out and glue it to your paper. Ensure the entire back of the pattern is stuck down well.
3. Start cutting out your puppet. Start with any inner pieces first, as the puppet becomes more fragile the more paper is cut away from the outside.
NB: There are exceptions to this rule. If you are cutting out a basic shape and then making patterns on the inner puppet using a decorative punch, then you can do as I have done and cut out the puppet first, before punching designs into the centre of the puppet. With my face-on cat, I have punched swirls for eyes and a flower motif in the centre to represent a collar
TIP: When cutting lines on your puppet, always start in the corners and hold your craft knife as if holding a pencil. Follow the pattern line until the end, before lifting the knife and starting again from the next corner. To cut circles and curves, slowly cut with the knife while carefully turning the paper with your other hand
4. Once the inner parts of the puppet are cut, you can cut out the puppet's outer lines. Remember to lift the knife when reaching a corner, as dragging it to the next line may damage the paper
5. Once the puppet is fully cut out, place it face down and put your stick down the centre of the puppet, as shown below. Cut two small rectangles from your spare card or paper, place them over the top of the stick and glue them in place
6. Your shadow puppet is now ready to entertain!
7. Experiment with different lighting, distances and angles to bring your shadow puppet to life!
Photo Credit: All tutorial images copyright of the author
How to Make a Shadow Puppet Book
Make an array of puppets and even a stage for them to perform upon, by following the guidelines in a dedicated book. This particular title is THE shadow puppet bible!
This clear and wonderful book highlights work from shadow puppet masters, explaining how to make both puppets and a puppet stage.
It also covers shadow play techniques, the design of puppets, how to make translucent figures, and even staging and lighting tips too!
Shadow Puppet Template and Instruction Links
Find more help on making shadow puppets and theatres, as well as shadow puppet templates to download and print.
- Shadow Puppets: Designing, Building, and Performing
In this article, I'll share what I've learned about the three parts of the shadow puppet effect - Light, Puppet Shape, and the Screen. All the ideas in these articles are workable to create a shadow puppet show, but please remember that no one person
- British Museum Shadow Puppets Download
Links directly to PDF of shadow puppet templates for a Chinese dragon and two figures.
- Martha Stewart Shadow Puppet Templates
Downloadable shadow puppet templates from Martha Stewart
- Martha Stewart Animal Shadow Puppets
How to make polar bear and muskox puppets
- Dinosaur Shadow Puppets
This how-to provides instructions for building a shadow theatre for little ones and dinosaur puppet templates
- Billy Goats Gruff Shadow Puppets
Instructions for a shadow puppet theatre and Billy Goats Gruff templates
- Make a Burmese Theatre
How to make a Burmese shadow theatre and puppet
- Shadow Puppets
This is actually a site demonstrating hand shadow puppetry, but is fun and can help inspire your puppets by experimenting with shadows.
How to Make Shadow Puppets Video Guides - More Tutorials on Making Shadow Puppets!
There are some terrific step-by-step visual guides to making these puppets on youtube - here are some of the best, including simple puppets, shadow art and how to make joints for your shadow puppets.
Best Shadow Puppet Links
Find inspiration from these amazing shadow puppetry websites and theatre groups!
- The Shadow Makers
The most ancient form of storytelling is brought to life in these grand scale shadow shows. With modern technology and large-scale projections, this new style of magical theatrical performance has many applications: visual effects in film, educationa
- Isabella's Art
Wonderful, whimsical site of art by Isabella, which features a shadow puppet section. By making these hand-cut puppets she has revived an old art form. Most are one-of-a-kind and sell quickly, and she also takes custom orders, so if you want Isabella
- Wayang Kulit: The Ancient Shadow Plays of Bali
The puppets are believed to have great spiritual power, and are "brought to life" by special ceremonies performed by the dalang, the puppet master and story teller.
- Oregon Shadow Theatre
The Oregon Shadow Theatre is a Portland Oregon based company specializing in the art of shadow puppetry. Their award-winning shadow plays have toured across the United States and in Canada.
- Hobey Ford
There are some amazing puppets on this site, including shadow puppets, marionettes and rod puppets.