A silhouette is the outline of a subject’s shape with the interior of the outline filled in. The most common type of silhouette art is the profile of a person's face cut out of black paper. A silhouette artist is the person who creates this likeness of a person’s profile.
Traditionally, the silhouette artist works freehand and is able to quickly cut out a person's image just by looking at his or her profile. The artist typically cuts the shape out of thin black cardboard known as French silhouette paper. Often, the silhouette is then mounted on a lighter colored background.
While there are still artists that work freehand, some silhouette artists work from a photograph of a person’s profile. Others position their subject against a backdrop with a bright light and trace the shadow of the profile to create a pattern. The silhouette may be completed in various colors and use numerous materials. Also, it may be drawn or painted instead of cut from paper. Purists maintain that silhouettes should be created using French silhouette paper and the artist should be able to complete a portrait within 90 seconds.
The word silhouette comes from the name of Etienne de Silhouette, the French financial minister in 1759 under Louis XV and possibly the world's first silhouette artist. He enjoyed paper art and cutting out paper portraits in particular. In the time before photography, these portraits provided an inexpensive alternative to sculptures and paintings and a more practical way to create a person’s image. His name became synonymous with the paper images. The phrase a la Silhouette also came to mean any sort of cheaply done art.
Silhouettes were quite popular in the second half of the 18th century and first half of the 19th century. In some ways, the invention of the camera brought an end to the widespread appeal of silhouettes. As photographs became more accessible, silhouettes were no longer considered necessary. Many silhouette artists continued to work at fairs and carnivals, creating quick pieces of art for visitors.
Modern silhouette artists may create mementos to mark weddings, birthdays, or nostalgic portraits of children. Silhouette artists often can be found working at amusement parks or fairs. The largest number of silhouette artists are employed by Disneyland®, Disney® World, Tokyo Disney®, and Euro Disney®.
There is no formal training to become a silhouette artist. Many learn the skill on their own or are taught by a relative. Often, a person can apprentice with an experienced silhouette artist to perfect the craft.