Monday Morning Art School: the silhouette

Want to paint like John Singer Sargent? Start by learning to draw like him.

Singer with a Glove, 1878, pastel, Edgar Degas, courtesy Fogg Museum

In Edgar Degas’ Singer with a Glove, above, the model’s hand has no volumetric form. There is almost no shading in that hand, merely a silhouette. Yet our minds can immediately decode the image. We understand it because of its context and the accuracy of its drafting. It’s a silhouette of a hand, and it illustrates an important point in painting. The accuracy of drawing matters.

In this painting—so remarkable in many ways—there is, in fact, a carefully-plotted harmony of silhouettes. There are the dark outlines of her cuff and bodice, the inverted triangle of her torso, and the long stripes of color in the background. In fact, very little of this painting relies on modeling; most of it is a series of shapes. Volume is secondary to that dazzling array of shapes and color.

The Valpinçon Bather, 1808, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, courtesy the Louvre

I used this painting as an example because it’s overwhelmingly obvious. However, in the context of painting, silhouette does not mean a solid shape of black. It means the major shape(s) within a painting. In Ingres’ The Valpinçon Bather, above, the body is the silhouette—solid and tangible. You could almost cut it out with scissors and paste it in a book.

To lead with silhouette, the artist must get the line as perfect as possible from the beginning. That means drawing a proper line, with all its jots and tittles. Want to paint like John Singer Sargent? Start by learning to draw like him.

W. B. Yeats, charcoal on paper, 1908, John Singer Sargent, Private collection.

The two ideas—volume and silhouette—are the fundamental elements of painting. The silhouette is simply the outer contour of the modeled shape. If you draw it perfectly, you can suggest the form with minimal modelling. But it’s through modeling that the form becomes expressive and we have a sense of reality.

In general, artists choose to emphasize either volume or silhouette, but they both exist in most paintings. You can see that co-existence quite clearly in Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding, below. It’s a positive cornucopia of dazzling shapes. Still, the faces are fully formed and evocative, and the figures have volume.

The Peasant Wedding, 1566-69, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum

It’s tempting to think of silhouette as intellectual and volume as intuitive, because in practical painting, that’s often how they progress. We work from big shapes down to little shapes (‘modeling’) and as we progress, we’re drawing more and more from our non-intellectual reserves.

This post was drawn from a long Facebook discussion between artist Tom Root and his friends. Thanks, Tom!