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The Power of Silhouettes in Art

Updated: Apr 27, 2021

Bringing 19th Century art into today's paintings.

It's all about the Black

Sometimes the darks in a painting can appear flat and lifeless. This is usually because they are neutral and don’t lean towards cool or warm. ” From "Black Watercolour"

You may have heard a few years back about a colour called Vantablack. In 2014 Anish Kapoor was painting with what was then the "Blackest Black" and two years later aquired the rights to be the only painter who could use this colour. Later MIT developed a blacker black - 10 times darker - which is said to absorb 99.995% of all light. So what does this mean? Anything painted with these paints absorbs all light, looks flat and, well, lifeless. Good for preventing glare on ships maybe, but not so good for watercolour.

I have been learning to create my own blacks by mixing colours, creating warm and cool blacks using strong dark paints and little water to give the blacks in a painting movement. Warm darks look closer and more solid, while cool darks look more transparent and further away. Darks in a forrest scene call for earthy undertones, darks in the sky vary from blues to deep crimsons mixed with neutral tones depending on what the I am trying to portray. The darks I choose for a silhouette will affect the viewer's perception of the image. In the image above I stuck to a neutral black, leaving the image stark in contrast to the sky and water. And sometimes I want that, a strong neutral shape. However in my paintings of Orcas I chose to add cool tones, deep purples and blues, into the black to give the orcas life and movement.

Silhouettes - the Fast and Easy Art

Silhouettes became popular in the Victorian Era, before photography, when in 1770 Johann Caspar Lavater wrote an essay proposing his belief that moral and spiritual character of a person could be studied in the human face. Well everyone wanted to show their virtue and have a portrait painted, but sitting for a portrait session was both expensive and time consuming. Along came the idea of focusing on the outline of a person, a side view to show their features. This was both quick and cheap, as it used less ink and required only one sitting. Three techniques were used to produce the portrait: painted, holow-cut or cut-out. Today, painted silhouettes still offer a the same advantages, especially to new artists like myself, and in watercolour allow a bit of a cheat - as dark hues can be painted over lighter transparent backgrounds similar to other mediums like acrylic and oil paintings.

I like introducing a shaded silhouette into a colourful textured background to add a captivating element to my paintings. As a new to painter, I found using the techniques of the Victorian Era a great way to enhance my art

Silhouettes in Impressionist Art

I was once was told my paintings "speak". That is the highest praise. I paint with joy, and hope to give my art life.

Today we think of silhouettes as more than portraits, more than people, it's considered the dark outline of someone or something against a lighter background. Dark shapes are seen used by artists like Claude Monet's painting "Impression Sunrise" where he painted the shapes of people in boats, and in modern day impressionist painters like Slava Ilyayev who uses dark colours and slightly abstract outlines to represent a couple in the park in her painting "Drawing a Picture of Love".

I find this form of painting fun and uplifting. Impressionist artists paint what the painter's feels and sees, focusing on colours and shapes, lights and darks. Impressionist artist may have been the first to paint outdoors - "en plein air"- trying to capture the look of a changing landscape, painting quickly and trying to capture that first impression of the scene. I have not done many true "en plein air" paintings but use a picture of the moment and try to recapture what drew me to the scene. The painting below is one that took me six attempts before I finally felt I had captured the glow of the sun and the beginning of shadows, as the sun set on the scene.

Silhouettes in Today's Art

Silhouettes are seen in today in pop art, and most noticeably in logos and icons, in their original form of dark (or light) on a contrasting background. These images can tend towards a stencil like image with light and dark mixed to show more detail in the subject. Just like in Victorian times, cutting stencils or "cut-outs" is a really fun and fast way to enhance an image. Today with photography and computers it's even easier to find or create silhouetted images that can be turned into stencils or traced onto a background and included in an image, and then painted in dark hues just like the Victorian artists.

I have seen a new form of silhouette art cropping up on Facebook and Pintrist. This has taken silhouettes a step further, reversing the idea of outlines so that the detail, the landscape, is within the silhouette. This painting process requires the skill of the Victorian snippers, as it utilizes a shape drawn or traced onto a taped painting. The tape is cut and then positioned like a stencil on the paper allowing the artist to paint an inspiring landscape within the shape of a person, but allowing the freedom of painting fluidity of the impressionists. The tape protects the negative space, the white, so when removed leaves a precise and perfect portrait silhouette. So far my attempts to mask my paintings with tape have not been successful, as watercolour likes to flow on paper and has it's own agenda, going where it wants.

But I am inspired by the idea. I think this is wonderful progression of the Victorian silhouette, one that shows the moral and spiritual character of a person not through their features, but revealed through the art as if we are seeing their soul.

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