I remember the first time I saw my own child’s silhouette portrait. Casting my eyes over the delicate cut black paper, I was amazed at each little detail the artist had made using only a tiny pair of scissors. Then the moment came of recognition of my child, even though it was just his silhouette, “that’s him!” I shouted excitedly to the stranger in the queue behind me. I recognised the line the artist had cut, and somehow she had captured a moment and my connection with my son completely.
Silhouette art is a rare thing these days with only a very small number of silhouette artists still practicing around the world. Most are very guarded about their techniques, a bit like magicians and their magical effects. Many people will not have heard of silhouette portraits and yet it is such a timeless, beautiful way to create lasting memories.
As an art form it has a rich history and tradition. Before photography, and for those for whom photography was too expensive, a silhouette was cut, framed and displayed around the house. These classic images cut freehand by an artist using only paper and scissors, were handed down through generations as heirlooms. Families even had (and still have today), a tradition where each family member is silhouetted at a certain age.
It’s an amazing feature of silhouettes, that despite changes in hair and clothing fashions over the years, they hold a timelessness. Whilst people often cringe at photos of themselves taken with 80’s perms or 70’s flares, silhouette portraits are simple and elegant and do not date in the same way. In my experience these treasured family heirlooms carry magic and emotion in them. As the artist casts their eyes to their subject and begins to cut, glancing only briefly at the paper, those watching reach a moment (as I did) where there is a gasp of recognition. It’s also quite something to watch a silhouette artist at work – in a matter of 5 minutes, without sketching or technology, beautiful portraits are created.
Today I work as a silhouette artist in London and the south, although my work often takes me across the country. I create freehand cut portraits for people at historical themed events (like Victorian days or Georgian fairs), private functions, corporate events and by commission from families. Having a silhouette artist at weddings is also becoming popular where I am booked by couples to capture portraits of their guests. These become an everlasting memory of the day, and are sometimes used as an alternative to wedding favours (a change from sugared almonds!). Silhouettes are such a romantic art form it fits perfectly with that special day.
Silhouette art is slowly getting more widely used, as I found when asked to appear on the new series of the Hairy Bikers on BBC2. The production company wanted Si and Dave’s silhouettes to be cut out on the beach, so we headed down despite the wind and rain making cutting paper pretty tricky. They were thrilled with the results, two rather portly men in Victorian bathing suits (hilarious!). I think it was such a different and interesting way to capture their shapes at that moment in time – before the new low fat regime slimmed them down.
Creating silhouette portraits does require an abundance of patience and focused attention, but as a father of four I am not short in that department! I cut lots of children’s portraits and squirmy, wriggly children are becoming a speciality. I enjoy a challenge and encourage parents to leave their child’s appearance as natural and everyday as possible. Then the silhouette will be true to the young person you see and love all day, every day.
I’ll be working with JoJo stores across the UK and am pleased to be able to offer this unique way to capture your child’s portrait. I hope to see you start your own family tradition, or keep one going. Most of all I look forward to giving you that moment when I hold up a freshly cut silhouette and you tell me ‘that’s my child’. It’s an experience I know you will remember for a long time.
Mark Conlin will be coming JoJo Maman Bébé stores, see stores for details. You can find out more about Mark at his website here www.theshadowcutter.co.uk