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).

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!)