Party Portrait

Last year, Megsy Caddy commissioned to make a silhouette illustration of her D&D party, for their Christmas present.

The party’s name is either The Chosen Ones or Val’s Vanquishers, but in either case they’re on twitter as The characters are Fable (Jenn), Val (Serena), Jeb (Michael), Veritas (Ted) and Aana (Meg).

Character illustrations are great fun — trying to catch all the details of a written description plus a sense of the personality of a character in motion in their story (here are some I did for Garth Nix).

Doing it in silhouette, however, adds an extra level of challenge. Making a character identifiable in silhouette is an important and useful part of character design (I touched on it briefly in the post about my art checklist, but searching character design silhouette should bring up ample material relevant to your medium of choice).

Changing a written description to a silhouette character representation is, however, a different process. It isn’t just about making them distinctive in silhouette, as separate from other characters. It’s about trying to get all those details in.

And because they aren’t in a scene, in motion, engaging with the world, which most of my silhouette pictures are to some degree, I can’t rely on those clues either.

The first time I tried this was for Trudi Canavan, and the release of Successor’s Promise.

A D&D party portrait, however, adds an extra layer of complexity in that the characters are designed by very different personalities, and described in correspondingly different language.

Additionally, it was a group portrait, which meant I had to include just enough character interaction to link them, while keeping it relatively static. Illustrating a particular scene would have required different exclusions and inclusions.

Here is a glimpse of the process — integrating fairly organic/medieval lines with arcanomechanical details presented a challenge best overcome by harassment with a beribboned lute.


The final silhouette. I scanned it, tidied it up into a solid black image digitally, then added the dash of texture and, behind the details, blue that you can see in the image at the top of the post.

The next bit is for three reasons: (1) my continued attempt to unite principals of writing and illustration; (2) we make the students come up with writing exercises in one of the subjects I teach, and I figure I oughtn’t to make them do anything I’m not prepared to do myself; and (3) occasionally I teach workshops and this is me thinking out loud. If anyone tries or likes or hates either exercise, I’m interested!

Art exercise

Get someone else’s character description from a book (or fan site, or jot down a description of a friend as if they were a book character) and then try to render them as a static silhouette portrait, including as much relevant information as possible.

Writing exercise

Describe a character (your own, or someone else’s, or someone you know) solely in silhouette. Imagine they are stopped for a moment in a doorway with the light behind them. How do they stand, what does the light do to the fine hairs around their neck, what about their clothes or attitude or profile makes them instantly recognisable, anywhere in the world?

(This used to be an occasional discussion in my family (I don’t know why!): If we were separated for decades, by which mannerisms would we recognise each other?)