Painting Silhouettes

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A silhouette demands that you see in two dimensions.

There is no local color or lines of characterization to express the shape, and the viewer must rely on the artist’s talent to convey the form convincingly.

Studying silhouette drawing and painting is a good exercise to develop a student’s powers of observation and increase his drawing skill.


A piece that is relying heavily on silhouette must have good design. Appealing color and charming details will not be able to conceal a lack of good design, so preliminary work should be done to ensure that the overall drawing is strong.

Since a silhouette is lacking detail, it is preferable to use strong, simple shapes in a piece. Preliminary sketches should use solid masses rather than mere line drawings. Use charcoal, crayon or marker to quickly mass in areas that will become silhouettes in the design process. A composition is an arrangement of shapes, and the local color and detail is secondary. Composition is subjective as well as objective. There is no one composition that is most correct. Try a number of sketches with different set-ups to find the one that is most pleasing.

One artist’s trick is to turn the picture upside down to view it. Seeing a composition from another perspective allows the artist to see if the layout is strong. If it does not hold up compositionally upside down, it is not a strong composition.

That is the purpose of preliminary sketches. Work out the details before committing paint to canvas. With a silhouette, you do not have the luxury of painting more to obscure a weak area. It must stand on its own.

Silhouette Subject

A silhouette can be the piece in its entirety, or a portion of the work. The artist may paint a full-color, detailed background and superimpose the silhouette in the foreground.

An example of this could be a landscape of trees at sunset or a cityscape with looming clouds. These are examples of natural silhouettes, which are based on the angle of sunlight against objects. The position of the sun will throw shadows, or in the extreme, render the subject as a solid shape devoid of color.

In this type of painting, the student would complete the background and any foreground detail which would not be a part of the silhouette. After that portion is completed and dry, he would then proceed with the silhouette portion of the painting.

In a painting from nature, one would rarely use tube black paint. The student should mix a deep black color from his palette, using such combinations as Prussian Blue, Alizarin Crimson and Burnt Sienna or Burnt Umber and Ultramarine Blue. The resulting color will appear to the eye as black, but a black with life and richness.

Silhouette Study

Studying silhouette painting will improve the artist’s observational ability. Being well informed and knowledgeable about a subject will allow the student to paint with more clarity and express to the viewer his intent. When the student has an intimate familiarity with a subject, he can become more creative and confident in translating it to his canvas.

When you study the silhouette, you are studying the shape. You learn to see the actual object, not just what your mind perceives an object to be. Try painting a familiar object from memory. Paint a cup, tree or a daisy. Do not peek. Complete the picture and then find a photo of what you just painted. How realistic is your tree compared to the picture?

You may be surprised at just how little you really knew about its structure. We all have preconceived notions of what the world around us looks like. However, unless we train ourselves to observe, that picture is likely to be faulty.

Using the silhouette as a means of study helps to focus on shapes. Paint the silhouette of a figure in various poses twenty times. Do not draw the shape first, but just begin painting. Just like playing the piano, the more you practice, the easier it will become.

Most of us are not like Mozart, who began playing at three and composing at five. We must start with “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” and work our way up to “Fur Elise.” We begin with a basic figure shape and practice until it becomes recognizable as a human being. Silhouette painting can be a learning tool as well as a final product.

An artist is forever a student. An artist never stops learning, striving for new insight and experience.

Silhouettes can be not only a learning tool, but also an adventure in painting. Simplicity can be a very powerful thing. Bold statements that convey a message clearly or merely decorate in a daring and colorful approach.

In any case, the silhouette is a technique that will intrigue and challenge.

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