Monday, August 11, 2008

Silhouette, Part 1

The silhouette is the outside shape of an object against the background, especially when it is filled in with a solid color.

Here, for example, is an illustration by Barbara Bradley turned into a silhouette. The silhouette by itself still communicates the idea of a girl beside a chair holding up a piece of cloth.


Here's the illustration in full color.
The silhouette helps us to immediately recognize animals, plants, or figures. It's a great way to sketch, and you can do it conveniently with a black brushpen. These are some sketches I did of tree silhouettes in southern California.

The silhouette conveys essential information about the mood and action of the pose. By carefully considering the silhouette, you can give your design more impact.

A face in profile is a common kind of silhouette. In the old days you could get a cheap portrait cut from black paper by a skilled artist.

The character Uncle Doodle is shown as he appeared in Dinotopia: The World Beneath.

Here is the same figure converted to a black silhouette. The whole pose, including the face and both hands, is clear enough from the silhouette alone. This kind of broad comic posing suggests pantomime stage acting from the Vaudeville era, and was popular with golden age American Illustrators, especially Maxfield Parrish, J.C. Leyendecker, and Norman Rockwell.
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Thanks Leif Peng for the Bradley, link.
Tomorrow: More on silhouette

11 comments:

Erik Bongers said...

This seems to relate to so-called 'negative space' in composition theory, where the space between the objects is equally vital as the objects themselves.

I think it also relates to the 2D world of egyptian murals and the way children draw.

So when making a (young) children's book it might be a good idea to check how well a composition works as a silhouette.
(although young children don't seem to have too much trouble in looking out the complexity of the 'real' world)

Justin said...

call me sci-fi, but when I saw the first silhouette my initial thought was "oh, a girl riding a hovercraft or something".

:P I was wrong.

jeff f said...

I was at the MFA in Boston recently and there is a nice small show up of Winslow Homer's work.
They have a some book illustrations he did using silhouettes that are exquisite.

The Art of Kim Kincaid said...

It's weird but to my eye, Uncle Doodles rotated to the left once you converted him to a silhouette. His right hand is now coming from behind him and the left shoulder is in the front holding the little dino critter. I can't make it right no matter how hard I try. Anyone else having this illusion?

James Gurney said...

Kim, I see what you mean, and now I'm seeing it that way, too! I don't know if you're righthanded, but I am, and perhaps in the absence of any other information, I assume that the right hand is the main one holding an object.

Justin, you've even got me seeing the hovercraft. I can see that this would be a fun game: show the silhouette and the next day show the illustration.

Jeff: I'd love to see those Homer silhouettes. I think it was pretty common for artists to do them, not just as portraits. Maxfield Parrish spent a lot of his youth cutting out paper silhouettes, and it shows in his later work. Do any contemporary art teachers do this exercise?

Erik: you last point is really intriguing. Did you mean to say "locking out" or "looking out at..."? As I understand your point, kids are very well equipped at immensely sophisticated visual tasks, even though we seem to assume that the only like simple shapes and bright colors.

jeff f said...

The show is up to January 4, 2009.

They keep changing some of the work, but the last time I was there the silhouettes were still in glass cases. Homer did his in ink and they were for a romance novel.

There are also a few Civil War paintings that he did for Harpers.

judetwee said...

Kids are smarter than most adults take them for! Diana W. Jones writes children's stories with that in mind, so her books can often be a bit confusing to an adult with the leaps in logic she sometimes makes. Kids have no problem, though. Makes me wonder if something in the brain petrifies and stops working if you don't keep working it constantly.

Glendon Mellow: The Flying Trilobite said...

Hmm. This brings to mind the old design maxim that if it works in black and white, it will work in colour.

Perhaps a strong composition in silhouette is strong in colour? Or am I being blindlingly obvious and people are snickering?

Food for (my) thought.

Doug said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Don Cox said...

Arthur Rackham also used silhouettes frequently. And Lotte Reininger made silhouette animations.

Erik Bongers said...

Oops, "Looking out" is quite a confusing typo.
I indeed ment to say "looking at".

But this issue intrigues me too.

Young kids have no troubles with the complex visuals of the 'real' world, yet most children's book mimic to a certain level children's drawings.
And yes, I've also been told that children like simple shapes and vivid (primary) colors.
Why is it that you can almost immediately recognize a book as being for children?
You can actually spot the intended age group of most books from miles away.
That indicates there are very strong conventions.

But this contradicts with the fact that kids have no troubles with our complex world.
E.g., a kid knows the difference between a parent with a serious looking face or with a relaxed face. Many parents/teachers have no trouble to bring a kid back to order by just (calmly) calling out the name and looking at him/her with a serious face.
In fact this is more effective than shouting and threatening !
Any artist whom has ever tried to draw the difference between a serious face(not an angree face !) and a relaxed face(not a smiling face!) knows how subtle it is.
Yet any kid can spot it.
Or the difference in the tone-of-voice between calling out a kid's name to reprimand, to warn (of danger) or to just raise attention. Tree subtly different tones of voice, yet kids recognize them very well !

Fair enough, "us humans" are exceptionally gifted at this kind of 'social communication' ,but still.
Y'know, I wish I could remember how I looked at the world as a child.

It seems grown-ups have a strong reflex to choose children's books that appeal to their own childhood sentiment.
I call it 'the cuteness factor'.
A book with a higher cuteness factor sells better.

Bottom line: I refuse to believe that children are only interested in 'childish' children's books, both story-wise as well as graphics-wise...bookwise speaking.