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Silhouettes or Shadow Portraits for Children

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 are 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 from a very early age. 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.


Student silhouettes of George Washington and Abe Lincoln by Daniel G.

Student silhouettes of George Washington and Abe Lincoln by Daniel G.

My silhouette drawings of students Seth and Silas.

My silhouette drawings of students Seth and Silas.

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

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.

Materials

White construction paper

Black construction paper

Small Scissors

Glue

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

Eraser

A silhouette by Rosa M.

A silhouette by Rosa M.

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

You can never do too much drawing.

— Tintoretto

The Legend of Urashima Taro

George Washington basic silhouette drawing.

George Washington basic silhouette drawing.

Project

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.

Washington drawing on black paper

Washington drawing on black paper

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.

Abe Lincoln by student, Erica.

Abe Lincoln by student, Erica.

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.

A silhouette by Angela T.

A silhouette by Angela T.

“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.

Drawing on Comments Here

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on May 22, 2019:

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.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 26, 2016:

teaches12345,

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.

Blessings,

Denise

Dianna Mendez on July 26, 2016:

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.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 21, 2016:

vespawoolf,

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.

Blessings,

Denise

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on July 21, 2016:

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!

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 18, 2016:

CorneliaMladenova,

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.

Blessings,

Denise

Korneliya Yonkova from Cork, Ireland on July 18, 2016:

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. :)

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 13, 2016:

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.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 13, 2016:

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.

Blessings,

Denise

Linda Lum from Washington State, USA on July 13, 2016:

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 from Oklahoma on July 13, 2016:

You sure are a wealth of knowledge.

Great read.

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 13, 2016:

billybuc,

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.

Blessings,

Denise

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 13, 2016:

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

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 12, 2016:

FlourishAnyway,

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.

Blessings,

Denise

Denise McGill (author) from Fresno CA on July 12, 2016:

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.

Blessings,

Denise

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 12, 2016:

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.

Surabhi Kaura on July 12, 2016:

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.