Shadow Art

Blanche Turns makes gifts that keep on giving: custom silhouette portraits.

By: Amy Brummer



photo by Amy Brummer

Blanch Turner will create custom silhouettes at the Mercer Museum Shop in New Hope and the Mercer Museum in Doylestown.

   When Etienne Silhouette was the French minister of finance during the late-18th century, he earned a reputation as a miser. As a result, his surname became synonymous with frugality. Inexpensive items were described as being á la silhouette.
   Artist Augustin Edouart attached this term to the solid black profiles he created, commonly known as "shades" or "shadows," advertising their modest cost. The name stuck, and eventually all work in this fashion became known as the silhouette.
   A shaded profile painted or cut to give the most basic features of the sitter, the silhouette can range from the most basic outlines of a face to full-body constructions. Sometimes they are highlighted with white or bronze to provide shading or indicate details such as hair or clothing.


   In the case of cut silhouettes, two methods predominate. The hollow-cut type is cut from white paper and pasted on a black surface so the negative space becomes the image. In the cut-and-paste type, the artist makes a sketch of the face and uses that template to create a profile in black that is pasted to white paper.
   This is the method employed by silhouettist Blanch Turner, who will return to create custom silhouettes at the Mercer Museum Shop on the Canal in New Hope, Pa., Nov. 29, and the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pa., Dec. 6, 13 and 20.


   Ms. Turner has been cutting silhouettes for 30 years, producing uncanny likenesses of her sitters with precision and speed. A member of the Pennsylvania Guild of Crafters in Bucks and Montgomery counties for paper cutting and porcelain doll making, the Abington, Pa., resident has tried her hand at a variety of media over the years but always comes back to this pursuit.
   "I love the silhouettes because it is instant gratification," Ms. Turner says. "When I do other kinds of artwork, it usually takes a while to create, and with this, it is over and done in 15 minutes. Each one is a little challenge, which is fun."
   Ms. Turner has been cutting paper all of her life, much to the consternation of her mother, who would ask, "Are you making a mess again?" But those experiments taught Ms. Turner the delicate skill needed to master this medium. After taking up silhouettes, she also became proficient in scherenschnitte, the German folk art of paper cutting characterized by lacy, intricate designs.
   As an homage to her childhood diversion, she still uses her mother’s embroidery scissors. With a good sharp edge and sturdy construction, these scissors allow her to snip away with confidence, shaving off slivers of paper to bring out the unique characteristics of her sitters.
   Ms. Turner prides herself on her ability to carve out those details, a skill honed by studying portraiture and creating miniature porcelain dolls. On a white square of paper, she quickly sketches a profile, lays it on top of a black square and cuts out the rough shape. From there, she refines the image, paying as much attention to the angle of the chin as to the curve of an eyelash.
   In the case of a full-body composition, she fully completes the head, then makes a sketch of the body to finish at home. The finished work is mailed to the client.
   While sitting for a portrait may seem like a trying experience for youngsters who have a hard time keeping still, you would never know it from Ms. Turner’s work. Children stand in charming, placid poses swinging a doll, holding a book or having their hair braided. Women hold babies in a serene maternal caress, conveying surprising emotion and tenderness in a minimalist shadow.
   "There was a woman who had a silhouette done when her baby was just 9 days old," Ms. Turner says. "That baby had the fattest cheeks, and it was such a delight getting that into the silhouette."
   Ms. Turner also has the ability to create silhouettes from photos if a person isn’t able to attend a sitting or if someone is interested in having a silhouette made of their ancestors.
   Additionally, she is available for commissions at clients’ homes, but does so only under the guarantee that she will create at least 10 portraits.
   "It’s a lot of fun," she says. "People round up their neighbors and we have a little coffee klatch. I love seeing the expressions on people’s faces when I’m finished."
Blanche Turner will be creating silhouettes at the Mercer Museum’s Shop on the Canal, West Bridge Street, New Hope, Pa., Nov. 29, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., and at the Mercer Museum, 84 S. Pine St., Doylestown, Pa., Dec. 6, 13, 20, 10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Portraits cost $20-$35. To schedule an appointment, call (215) 862-4216 (New Hope) or (215) 345-0210, ext. 30 (Doylestown). On the Web: Ms. Turner can be reached at (215) 884-7541.