Trend watch: Silhouette art
It's time to stop thinking of silhouettes in terms of black and white. Paper-cut artists like Los Angeles-based Karl Johnson are bringing the centuries-old art form into contemporary decor as the must-have trend of the season.
STYLE AT HOME: When people think of silhouettes, they often think of projecting a light onto a face in profile, then tracing the outline of the shadow on paper. How is your art different?
Karl Johnson: All of the silhouettes that I do are done freehand -- purely through looking at the subject, and then cutting the subject out of paper with a pair of scissors. It's the traditional way they were done. In the 1700s, the camera had not yet been invented, and if somebody wanted to have an inexpensive portrait created, they had no choice other than to go to a silhouette artist. They could have a painted portrait commissioned, but the masses in Europe couldn't afford that -- not even a sketch. So there were itinerant silhouette artists who did this very inexpensively, and you could capture the likeness of a loved one by having an artist look at you, and cut out your silhouette. I adhere to that tradition. The projection-and-tracing method came about in kindergarten and elementary school classrooms, and that's been a hurdle for those of us who are silhouette artists, in that the public may think that's how it's done, and it's not the case at all.
S@H: Where did you learn this centuries-old craft, then?
KJ: I'm just really old. (Laughs) Actually, my dad had always done them when I was a kid, and he learned from an immigrant from Austria years ago, so I'm sort of a third-generation silhouette artist. It's a skill that's passed down, and it was just inevitable that I would pick it up. I took to it really well because I can only see from one eye - I don't have binocular vision, so when I look at something, I can immediately see its shape in two dimensions. I really developed a knack for it right off, and started cutting very young.
S@H: When it comes to custom cut art, what are your clients looking for?
KJ: Now more than ever, they want to think outside the box, and this term “mod silhouette” has now entered the lexicon. Years ago, I would just do traditional sized silhouettes -- 5-by-7-inches -- and historically, silhouettes have always been done in miniature, in black, of just the bust, generally. Now, more than that, I do special requests in a variety of different colours and settings. People want to take a new spin on a really old art form, and I attribute a little bit of that to the recent iPod advertising campaign and some artists in New York who have played with the silhouette and revitalized the form a bit, like Karen Walker. I started pushing this heavily about three years ago, offering different kinds of silhouette art, thinking outside the box, it's really taken off.
S@H: You even make appearances at special events, working your silhouette magic at weddings and parties. What's that like?
KJ: It's always a big hit. Because it's something unusual that people aren't accustomed to seeing done, a line generally forms, and people crowd around and watch, and it becomes a bit of entertainment. It's nice because they have something to take home afterwards, and often the event will be reflected in some way on the mounting card for the silhouette. I did the American Idol wrap party here in Los Angeles, for example, and they had me make a black jacket on the outside of the mounting card with the American Idol logo on it, and the silhouette would be glued inside. It's always a lot of fun. Typically, I'll work from two to four hours -- and that translates into as many as 150 to 200 portraits. It takes about a minute or two per portrait.
S@H: 200 hand-cut portraits in under four hours… It sounds painful!
KJ: I could crush walnuts with my hands. (Laughs) Cramping isn't an issue for me at all anymore -- I'm 42 and I started cutting when I was 10, so I have a mean handshake. I do a show in the fall that involves 1,500 silhouettes across 10 days. By the ninth or tenth day, my hand is done. It's not a cramp, but I get a callus and pinch a nerve in my middle finger. It's just an occupational hazard. My scissors are custom-fit, with leather-wrapped finger holes, so they're comfortable in that respect.
S@H: The silhouette has been around for hundreds of years. What's key to its enduring appeal?
KJ: Even as we become completely overcome with technology, we'll always hearken back to the past, and think fondly of simpler times, and the silhouette really captures and reflects that. It's a very charming little keepsake of a loved one's likeness that can be passed down for generations. Parents, in particular, love to capture that sweet little profile of their children, and that's a big part of the appeal.