Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Elephant No. 247: Silhouettes

I didn't feel like using fancy tools today, so I thought I'd try making some silhouettes.

A silhouette is a solid shape in a single colour—usually black against white—representing a person, scene or other subject. Although traditional silhouettes were cut from paper, today silhouettes are created in many other media, from photography and film to leather and plastic.

Silhouettes can be painted, drawn or cut out, although cut-outs are the most traditional method. At one point, silhouette portraiture was a popular feature of markets, fairs and sidewalks. Skilled silhouette artists usually travelled from town to town, and were able to cut out a person's likeness—freehand—within a few minutes. 

The word "silhouette" comes, oddly enough, from a French finance minister named √Čtienne de Silhouette. In 1759, during the Seven Years War, France's credit crisis forced de Silhouette to impose severe austerity measures upon the French people—particularly the wealthy. Because of these strict economies, de Silhouette's name became associated with anything done cheaply—such as silhouette cutouts, which were an inexpensive alternative to painted portraits.

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, silhouette portraits were more commonly known as "shades" or "profiles" because of the ways in which they were made: painted on ivory, plaster or cardboard; "cut and paste" in which the shape was cut out of dark paper and pasted onto a light background; or "hollow cut" in which a negative image was produced on light paper and placed on a black background.

Although the art of silhouette was most popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, its antecedents are much older. In his Natural History, written around A.D. 77–79, Pliny the Elder tells writes about a potter named Butades, said to have invented silhouette portraits in clay. The story goes that the potter's daughter was deeply in love with a man about to leave on a long journey. Before he left, she traced his profile, cast on the wall by lamplight. When her father saw this, he pressed clay into the outline, then fired it  in his kiln, providing his daughter with a permanent low-relief portrait of her beloved.

During the eighteenth century, one of the most famous silhouette artists was August Edouart, who cut multiple versions of portraits of British and French nobility, as well as American presidents. In England, the most renowned silhouette artists was John Miers who actually had a silhouette studio on the Strand in London.

Silhouette of author Jane Austen, 1810.
Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London, England.
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:JaneAustenSilhouette.png

In the United States, silhouettes were particularly popular between 1790 and 1840. With the advent of photography, the popularity of silhouettes as a form of portraiture dropped, although travelling silhouette artists continued to work at fairs well into the twentieth century.

As an art form, silhouettes survived primarily within the world of illustration. Writer Hans Christian Andersen often produced silhouette illustrations, as did many other artists. Silhouettes were easy to print, and were also much less expensive than colour plates—which had to be separately printed, then glued into books by hand.

Silhouette from Soldier Sequence, 1865
Hans Christian Anderson (1805–1875)
Source: http://www.arcadja.com/auctions/en/andersen_

Today, silhouettes are still produced by many contemporary artists. They can also be found in media such as shadow theatre, film, photography, graphic design and even advertising. The Apple Corporation uses silhouettes to great effect in iPod-related merchandising such as television spots and iTunes cards. Silhouettes are also used on national flags, traffic signs, and identification handbooks such as those produced for naturalists and the military.

Airplane recognition page from a 1917 guide.
Source: http://www.cynical-c.com/2004/11/16/silhouettes-of-aeroplanes/

I decided to make one of each type of silhouette: painted/inked, black paper cut-out, and light paper cut-out placed on black.

For my first elephant, I decided to draw something based on a marble elephant given to me today by Kay, spinner extraordinaire of my fibre arts group.

I began by sketching a silhouette in pencil. It's surprisingly hard to sketch just a silhouette of a three-dimensional object, because your eye keeps seeing over and around edges, making it quite difficult to picture just the silhouette.

I outlined this with a black artist marker.

To finish this first elephant, I filled in the outline with the same black artist marker.

For my second elephant, I decided to work from a photograph. This is the photograph I chose, which I'd used before for my watercolour elephant.

Asian elephant in a poster that reads, "This Lord Ganesh festival, save the elephant,"
produced for the Jopasana Wildlife Conservation in India.
Source: http://www.sunilshibad.com/2010/09/jopasana-wildlife-consevation-

As I had for the first elephant, I started by making a light pencil sketch, this time on black paper. I toyed with the idea of simply cutting it out without drawing anything, as traditional silhouette artists once did, but it felt like that might be beyond me today.

I cut this out with a pair of paper scissors, making sure to pivot the scissors a lot in order to reproduce some of the wrinkles. This is what the final piece looked like when I was finished cutting.

And this is what it looked like when I put it on a piece of blue paper.

For my third elephant, I chose a different photograph, which seems to be quite popular among people visiting this blog. This is also one I've used before, in my post on latch-hooking.

African elephant in gamba grass.

I sketched this one on green paper, to produce the third kind of silhouette, which is a negative image placed on black when complete.

This was much more difficult to cut—partly because of all the grass, but also because it's physically more difficult to pivot the scissors inside a confined space. There are limited opportunities to cut off excess bits, and you always run the risk of cutting off the wrong things. It's also more difficult to think in terms of negative space, and I had to stop and think about what I was cutting quite a few times.

This is what it looked like when I was finished cutting everything.

I enjoyed making these, partly because I tend to like cutting paper, and also because I really like the way they turned out. They also only took about a half-hour each from beginning to end.

This is not something I'd do every day, but I was surprised and pleased by the final results. I had thought this would be a slightly silly exercise and that the final pieces would be a bit boring, but these are actually rather pretty in real life.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Sometimes you have to wonder just how scary-intelligent elephants might be.

Elephants are known for loving fresh, clean water, and will sometimes go to extra lengths to get it. A few days ago, I wrote about elephants raiding an al fresco dinner in order to empty a swimming pool. In an earlier post, I also wrote about a wary group of elephants coming close enough to drink from a ranger's hose.

Some elephants, however, are even more bold and inventive. Stories abound in Africa of elephants who have learned how to break the pipes on preserves, in order to get clean water. One elephant was seen uprooting the pipe, breaking it, and sticking it directly in his mouth until he had slaked his thirst. After that, he let the pipe go, then stood under the spray to enjoy a nice shower.

Another elephant broke a hose feeding a large waterhole. He drank from the hose until he was good and ready to leave, not allowing any other elephant to come close. Once he was satisfied, he allowed the next elephant in the pecking order to use the hose, then went to roll around in the watery mud he had created.

African elephants.
Photo: Michael Nichols
Source: http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/traveler-magazine/

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)

No comments:

Post a Comment