Timelapse silhouette cutting

Here’s a little process video of me cutting out the bagpiper illustration for “Undine Love” on Tor.com, a story related to Flyaway, in which bagpipes also make a significant appearance.

My last post was about the process behind cutting silhouette portraits of characters for Chain of Iron, and involved a lot more steps. Because this bagpiper was for my own story, you can see in the video I skipped a lot of those stages, and simply sketched the design straight onto the back of the black paper before cutting.

My fingers supporting a cut-paper illustration of a girl with a ponytail and bagpipes beside a wire fence under a gum tree
Should have used a sharper knife — I’ve finally ordered a stack of Excel blades which are much nicer than what I was using.

You can see the other illustrations and read the whole of “Undine Love” over on https://www.tor.com/2020/06/11/undine-love-kathleen-jennings/) — and read an excerpt of Flyaway while you’re there, and/or buy a copy through all good bookstores!

The Australian and US covers of Flyaway, with a pattern of branches and birds growing out of a heart

Art Process: Chain of Iron silhouette portraits

Cover of Chain of Iron, with a girl with long red hair and a yellow dress
Chain of Iron cover art by Cliff Nielsen

Chain of Iron is out in stores! (These photos were taken in Where The Wild Things Are, because my copies are still somewhere in the international postal system and also it’s a great bookstore.) You can get Chain of Iron through all good & usual bookstores, and see all the illustrations in the Collector’s First Edition.

Silhouette portrait of a man tipping a hat, with an oval frame surrounded by flowering vines, a spear, a newspaper, a dagger, and a bottle

This edition has 10 silhouette portraits by me. It was a really lovely commission to do, and interesting — trying to work spears into circular compositions and distinguish flowers in silhouette and hint at bottles when working in cut paper… and that was just this image.

To begin with, I had a wish list from Cassandra with all the characters and a selection of moods and elements. I got out a stack of folded drawing paper (I cut A3 paper in half lengthwise then make it into little 4-page accordion-fold A5-sized booklets).

I began with some very preliminary sketches, sorting through some of the possibilities for combining a silhouette portrait and a frame. This stage is just me thinking through the pencil, watching what happens on the page, getting a feel for what is interesting and plausible.

Several tiny pencil drawings of head-and-shoulder faces in profile, with scribbly frames and a globe pendant, etc
This is actually one whole 4-page sketchfold pieced back together after I scanned it

At that point I was pretty sure of the rough dimensions of the frame, so I drew a template on the computer, printed it out, cut it out, and used it to trace little page outlines that I could use for my thumbnail sketches.

4 photos, cutting, tracing and drawing in an oval template

Here I was working through several different frame treatments for various characters — flowers growing from a central oval frame, from a rectangular outer frame, various patterns of growth, etc.

Four tiny pencil sketches of framing arrangements, very scribbly

Once the appropriate style was decided, I enlarged the chosen thumbnail sketches and developed them into clean pencil drawings. I scanned those in for minor adjustments, and so I could send them for approval. Here they are all stacked on top of each other in Photoshop, before I flipped them for printing.

Illegible stack of scribbly lines

I printed each sketch larger than my original pencil drawing (I work small!). Then I printed them again because I forgot to flip them! Because I’m working on the back of the black paper, everything has to be reversed. Then I taped each printout to a sheet of 80gsm black paper. I have to be careful to make sure the tape doesn’t go over the area that will be cut! Especially here, where the image runs nearly to the edge of the paper.

I put white graphite paper in between the drawing and the black paper. I used Royal & Langnickel white graphite paper, which smells like a drawer of tailor’s chalk, if you’re into that.

As you can see here, the line is a tiny bit fuzzy because the copy paper diffuses the pressure of my pencil. Also I’ve used the graphite paper before, and the white has worn off in some places. All to the good! Everything gets refined further as I cut.

9 photos of stages of positioning, tracing, and cutting silhouette elements

Then I work around each image, section by section, until it’s all cut out, and then I lift the excess paper away (carefully cutting little threads and sections I missed).

Here is the back and front of an image before I cut it out. (I actually cut this design twice — there were some composition issues that only really showed up once it was actually in silhouette, in spite of all the pencils and emails and tracing — possibly I could have corrected it in Photoshop but it was in fact easier this way, and good to have another go at some of the more complicated sections of e.g. necklace chains.)

Front and back of Anna & Ariadne picture (woman in dress on balcony, woman in suit reaching up to her, with frame of ivy, roses, necklace, top hat, sword, snake). On the back, white tracing lines are visible.

They are quite fragile once freed from the backing! I put them in plastic letter sleeves for scanning. Then I clean up minor corrections and run it through a vector program — this preserves almost all of the little wobbles and angles and personality of the hand-cut line, but it gives a really strong, clear, neatly resizeable silhouette that the publisher can wrangle into position.

4 photos of a hand holding silhouette elements: spider and web, cogs among geraniums, old-fashioned car, skull

Most of the individual silhouettes were separate from their frame, for this ghostly one we reversed the centre, to give a ghostly/negative effect (and funnily enough, keeping the centre of the flame solid seemed to effectively change a regular silhouette candle into a silhouette of a black candle).

Portrait cut out of black paper (so it is white on black) surrounded by thorns, a coffin, comb, sword and candle

You might have noticed something missing! That’s because I hand-lettered the names. I printed the pencilled names all out on one piece of paper, put that on a lightbox with clean paper of the top, and lettered it with a dip pen and ink (Hunt Crowquill 102 nib and Winsor & Newton black ink).

I usually have to do some names several times, to get them to work the way I want.

Pencilled and inked loopy writing of character names

Then I scanned those in too and cleaned them up, and sent all the art off to the art director (the excellent Nicholas Sciacca).

I really enjoyed this project. It was an intensive process, because the paper cutting is fairly physically wearing. But there were so many beautiful and intriguing images to play with, and technical challenges and new approaches — how to put a spear into an oval frame? How to convey fictional personalities through only head-and-shoulders silhouettes? — so it was both pleasing for the sake of this project and as part of being an illustrator trying variations and solving puzzles.

(The originals for these have been claimed by the appropriate people, but there might still be a few City of Bones and Clockwork Angel drawings available at Book Moon Books in Massachusetts.)

Let me know if you have any process questions!

You can get Chain of Iron through all good & usual bookstores.

Also, if you’re into supporting artists and art and posts about it: Supporters on Patreon got some sneak-peeks of this and other projects (and process posts) — I’m at www.patreon.com/tanaudel, with levels of support starting from US$1/month. Or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and when cutting out this many silhouettes, I get through quite a bit of coffee).

Silhouette card: A 21st Dragon

White card with a black cut-paper silhouette of a dragon holding a ring of keys that spell "BEN"

This is the 21st-birthday card I made for my oldest nephew (and godson), who is… somehow 21, and delightful, and very very tall.

I always have a crisis about presentation for these little silhouettes: are they part of the card or a separate gift? do I glue them down, or attach them loosely to the card, or…

Lately I’ve taken to doing the following:

  • Cut a separate piece of heavy paper down to be smaller than the folded card but (barely) larger than the art.
  • Put the art onto the paper but do not attach it.
  • Put the art and backing paper into a cellophane art bag.
  • Tape the bag tightly back, trapping the art against its backing paper.
  • Use two strips of double-sided tape to attach that little parcel to the folded card.

This sort-of frames the picture, while protecting it, and also leaving it unglued, in case someone wants to mount it properly on a backing (or frame it, or put it in a folder, etc).

There are probably simpler ways to do this.

Below is a work-in-progress shot. I sketched the dragon directly onto the back of the paper, and refined it as I cut it out. I did check the keys spelled out his name correctly by holding it up to a mirror first, though!

Fingertips and point of knife cutting out dragon.

Cover Reveal: A Skinful of Shadows

A book cover, with writing in Hebrew. The background is red, the writing is white, and a large silhouette image of a bear with trees and figures on its head (dogs, ghosts, girls, a comet) form the main image.

Utz Books have just announced their translations of Frances Hardinge’s wonderful A Skinful of Shadows (here’s an English link, too, although with the original and wonderful cover art: A Skinful of Shadows)! But for this translation, the art is by me, with cover design by Dor Cohen Studio.

It’s a cut-paper design, to match my previous covers for The Lie Tree and Cuckoo Song — and I will put up a process post soon.

Chain of Iron (with illustrations) — NYT bestseller

It’s an illustrator’s prerogative to bask in some reflected glory, so here’s Cassandra Clare’s Chain of Iron, for which I made 10 silhouette illustrations, heading up the NYT Young Adult bestsellers!

Cover art by Cliff Nielsen

I’ll put up a proper process post soon, but in the meantime, here’s a behind-the-scenes shot of one of the more complex illustrations:

And here’s the full NYT list.

Art reveal: Chain of Iron silhouette portraits

Cover art by Cliff Nielsen

Cassandra Clare’s latest Shadowhunters novel Chain of Iron comes out very soon. The cover art is by Cliff Nielsen, but I had the enormous fun of cutting out 10 silhouette character portraits, to be printed in the first edition.

They will be printed in black on white, but for one online event they are also being printed on these rather resplendent dust jackets!

Exclusive dust jacket for FANE event

I will post more process pictures in due course, but here are a few to begin with!

This was to be a ghostly portrait, but translucency is an… interesting proposition for a cut-paper silhouette, so in the end I reversed it from the other images.
Spider!

(Some other illustrated projects that are available to pre-order are the new bind-up of Holly Black’s The Curse Workers, with three new silhouette header designs, and the limited edition of Angela Slatter’s The Tallow-Wife — and there are a few more coming soon, like the special linen-cover edition of Juliet Marillier’s Mother Thorn in April!)

Curse Workers — art reveal

Some more exciting news!

A new bindup of Holly Black’s magical con-artist trilogy The Curse Workers is coming out in November — and I designed a new silhouette chapter header for each book. It’s available to pre-order now.

(The cover design is by Michael McCartney)

They are great books, gritty and with a cynical enchantment. Much as I love Holly Black’s Elfhame and fae enchantments, I’m always so surprised and drawn in by the patina of her (almost) real-world settings — it adds such a salt-and-acid note to the sweetness (however decadent and cruel) of the more fantastic settings. And The Curse Workers is all that side of the story. It’s also a story of embedded rather than discovered magic, where it’s a (disreputable) part of the structure of technology and fashion, politics and society and organised crime.

(Another illustrated project that is available to pre-order is the limited edition of Angela Slatter’s The Tallow-Wife — and there are a few more coming soon, like the special linen-cover edition of Juliet Marillier’s Mother Thorn in April!)

Observation Journal: 20 ways with gold foil

Let’s get back to the making things type of Observation Journal page. The first half of this post is about the approach to an exercise, the second half of it is the resulting list of some possibilities to use foil on book covers.

Double spread from observation journal. On the left, five things seen/heard/done and a picture of a painting leaning up against a fence. On the right, a list of 20 ways with foil treatments, with accompanying drawings of a silhouette dog.

Twenty Things

I’m a fan of the twenty things exercise, either starting with an object and working out twenty uses for it (my dad used to make us do this on long car trips); or starting with a question and listing twenty answers.

I think it’s fun, and it’s also interesting to watch the process of ideas being pushed through different barriers — for example:

  • with the “twenty uses” version there’s often a point where the obvious gives way to the interesting and then to the ludicrous and then circles back to the intriguing;
  • with the “twenty problems” variant it loosens my grip on the first/obvious choice I imprinted on (even if that turns out to be the final choice, it’s usually stronger for a bit of objectivity).

This is also why I’ve kept the self-reflection panels on the observation journal pages. Not just to do the exercise, but to step back and watch myself doing it, and learn. You’ll see here I noted on the side that “20 really is the magic number. 11 is where I had to look further/do more research.”

“Twenty things” has shown up in the observation journal before, when I was working out the colour treatment for Lauren Dixon’s cover: Observation journal — werewolf conferences and colour treatments.

This page was also for a cover — in this case for Juliet Marillier’s Mother Thorn, for which we had the opportunity to use foil on the cover of the special edition (out in April). But I hadn’t designed specifically for foil combined with a silhouette before. So I made this list of 20 WAYS WITH FOIL TREATMENTS. (The activity is also great for tricking yourself into working on something.)

Handwritten observation journal page: a list of 20 ways with foil treatments, with accompanying drawings of a silhouette dog.

Here’s the list (excluding the running commentary to myself alongside). It’s project-specific and non-exhaustive:

  1. GOLD on BLACK (or colour)
  2. BLACK on GOLD
  3. Gold-limned silhouette on coloured ground (almost calligraphic)
  4. Gold base/border on coloured ground
  5. Foil highlights in silhouette design
  6. Above plus gold background (2)
  7. 5 plus flyaway bits in foils
  8. Fine foil pattern supporting coloured silhouettes
  9. Black on colour, gold lettering
  10. Gold support/background for lettering
  11. Colourised/textured silhouette with foil ornament bits
  12. 1 but with many cut-out details
  13. Multi-silhouettes, different foils
  14. Silhouette (black on colour) surrounded by drawn foil pattern
  15. Gold effect on blue texture
  16. Gold silhouettes, deeper-coloured shadow
  17. Black on colour. Only important details picked out in foil (e.g. figures, coins, birds).
  18. Border in one foil, title in another
  19. Foil silhouette on coloured ground with overlapping white title square
  20. Spot gloss blacks with foil lettering background

You’ll see that my terminology here is not particularly technical! That’s one reason for accompanying it with sketches. Ballpoint drawings aren’t hugely informative for foil/colour treatments but did help me to think through the practicalities, and whether an idea reminded me of something I’ve seen elsewhere, or made me feel (to quote) “ugh”, at least for this project.

The next step (square box on the side) was to do a test version, to run through a few of these.

6 variations of a silhouette illustration of a girl sitting in a tree, receiving mail from a dog on the ground and delivering it to a bird in the air. Some are coloured, some have gold elements.

The final cover used approach C, which was a combination of 11 and 5, although there was briefly a 19 in the running.

Writing/art exercises

  • 20 Things: Pick a handy object (or something you’ve seen today). Come up with twenty uses for it.
    • This could be as light-hearted as 20 Uses for a Plastic Fork.
    • It’s good for car trips and working out how your friends think, but it’s also good practice for just thinking sideways.
    • Afterwards, it can be useful to note where the ideas got more difficult, or sillier, or if you know where some of them came from. This is interesting, but you
    • It can also be useful for turning objects in a story into plot (or other things).
    • It could even become a project on its own.
  • 20 Ways: Think of an aspect of a project that you are stuck on, or something you’d like to play with but haven’t quite managed to, and list 20 Ways To Deal With It.
    • I find this more useful when the initial problem is narrower — 20 Ways to Tell A Short Story is fine, but I can get past 100 without breaking a sweat. 20 Ways to Tell A Short Story In An 8-Page Accordion Booklet forces more invention. (These examples are from current pages of the observation journal, and I’ll get to them in time!)
    • Like Ten Terrible Things, I find this lets me have fun exploring options without feeling like I have to commit to any of them, or abandon my early ideas. The list is the point.
    • Sometimes your first instinct will still have been right, but you’ll be more certain of it (and have stress-tested it, and maybe come up with some new ideas for future projects), and you’ll have released your stranglehold on it a little, too.

Mother Thorn — book trailer

From A Licence to Quill comes this book trailer for Juliet Marillier’s Mother Thorn, and other tales of courage and kindness, illustrated by me.

The Serenity Press hardcover special edition is out now, and the trade release of the linen cover is in April 2021. More on that as the date approaches!

Read and seen — December 2020

A photo of a hand holding a cut-paper silhouette of a woman dressed in a moth-costume.

A strong commonality among the December books was a twinned sense of costuming on the one hand, and becoming more who you are on the other. How that turned into a moth girl I’m not entirely sure, but that was where the associations started.

Books

  • Borrowed Dreams — May McGoldrick (romance, villainy, benevolent interference)
  • A Skinful of Shadows — Frances Hardinge (ghosts! the English civil war!)
  • Powder and Patch — Georgette Heyer (Georgian makeover montage — I always thought this was a silly book, and it is, but I liked it so much more on the reread)
  • Reading Like a Writer — Francine Prose (appreciating sentences)
  • Every Tool’s a Hammer — Adam Savage (this was about more than just fitting your studio space to the way you work instead of the other way around, but that was the main revelation for me)
Screenshot from the ebook of Every Tool's A Hammer with the following highlighted: "you don't want to just store stuff, you eventually want to retrieve and use it as well."
From Every Tool’s A Hammer: an epiphany

Other

  • The Happiest Season
  • Darren Hanlon’s Regional Xmas Tour — The Majestic Theatre, Pomona