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!)

Inktober and triangulation, or: Nature LOVES a vacuum

Brush-and-ink and imitation-gold-leaf illustration of a hen looking at a radio.
“Radio” plus “The cowardly hero deceived the hen.” (This was VERY TINY and also a birthday card for my father and something of a riff on His Master’s Voice.)

I’m probably grossly misusing the word “triangulation” but it fits because it’s a process of navigation AND an indirect way of approaching something AND this is about using three elements.

So:

  • A structure can be used to attract a story (see: Narrative Theory 1).
  • External input — something from outside my own head — is very useful when creating my own work.
  • Limitations (e.g. of materials, format etc) are hugely useful for pushing against creatively — they enhance the creative force.

I find that two constraints can suggest starting-point ideas, but using three together fairly reliably creates things that feel like stories. It holds open a space for things to fill. (See also: Observation Journal — A Tremor in the Web for more feeling-my-way-towards-ideas and Observation Journal —improbable inventions for another three-things approach).

Brush-and-ink and imitation-gold-leaf illustration of a thief sitting on a tree root and looking into an enchanted mirror.
“Radio” plus “The evil thief sighed in the deep dark forest.” The “radio” here turned into a pair of enchanted communicating mirrors.

Which brings us to Inktober. I’m repeating my approach to it last year, using three main boundaries:

  • Prompt: I use the main/official prompts (there are many others), because that’s simple, and because where they don’t fit my personal tastes/interests (i.e. “radio”) it makes me work harder to come up with something that pleases me. I like using and fighting against external prompts and timeframes, and having to incorporate something that’s not entirely from inside my own head — that was the appeal and lesson of Illustration Friday way back when (and that tag is a deep dive).
  • Technique: Ink, obviously, but I further limited it to silhouette brush work because I want to get better at brush work and silhouettes seemed simpler (why I, of all people, would think that, but here we are), and incorporated imitation-gold leaf (because it’s pretty and I have a lot to learn).
  • Second prompt: I’m using tweets from Fairy Tale Fragments (@fairytaletext) on Twitter. This pulls everything into my preferred fairy-tale area, but involves some mental acrobatics to incorporate e.g. “radio” into that sort of setting.
Sketches for possible illustrations.
“Rodent” and the process of feeling out that day’s @fairytaletext tweets looking for things I wanted to draw
Brush-and-ink and imitation-gold-leaf illustration of a mouse on a wine bottle drinking out of a thimble.
“Rodent” plus “Once, there was a drunken thief who lived in a tall tower.”
Brush-and-ink and imitation-gold-leaf illustration of rats in a coat riding on the back of a wolf and pretending to be human.
The creative process illustrated, or: “Rodent” plus “The ugly servant saved the wolf.

Note: It’s tricky getting good photos of the foil, and impossible to scan usefully, but it’s got a lovely buttery-gold gleam under lights.

Badgers and Unicorns

Two family cards from September! Both ridiculously tiny, although in the first case it was because I started too close to the top of the paper.

Look at this tiny car!

Detail of cut paper silhouette of Badger talking and smoking a pipe, with toad driving a car and a galloping horse on the smoke.

The first is for my dad for Father’s Day. He was always a fan of Badger in The Wind in the Willows, and after illustrating Kij Johnson’s The River Bank, I still haven’t had enough of playing in that world.

Detail of cut paper silhouette of Badger talking and smoking a pipe, with toad driving a car and a galloping horse on the smoke.

The River Bank is a very good book, by the way — even disregarding the illustrations! It was one of the Washington Post’s 50 Notable Books for 2017.

I freehand-sketched the illustration onto the back of a scrap of paper, and then refined it as I cut it out.

Cut paper silhouette of Badger talking and smoking a pipe, with toad driving a car and a galloping horse on the smoke.

The second card was for my niece’s birthday. She is now two and likes unicorns.

Detail of fingers and paintbrush painting flowers and unicorn.

This time I sketched it lightly onto a piece of card, then darkened the main lines. Then I went over it with watercolours.

Detail of fingers and paintbrush painting flowers and unicorn.

I went with a more horse-shaped unicorn than my usual goat/borzoi hybrids.

Pencil and watercolour drawing of a unicorn on a field of flowers, with a garland of flowers trailing from its horn.

Observation Journal: The Opposite of Unicorns

(Flyaway is officially published tomorrow!)

This instalment of the observation journal includes a lizard, a very nice shade of green and the difficulty of scanning gold leaf — it’s also part of the series working out the questions to ask myself when I’ve finished a project. (See previously: Creative post-mortems.)

Left page: This was the splendid day a water dragon joined us in one of the university eating areas.

Right page: I was being fairly flippant, gluing scraps to the page, but in the process I discovered a question I want to add into my template of post-project questions: What is left out and what is left behind? What is excluded and avoided and skimmed over?

In relation to silhouettes., I often have wonderful ideas as I’m cutting things out — how to do a project differently, ways to treat branches, an image suggested by a shadow. But usually I forget afterwards. And on other projects, there are things that are often deliberately left out — characters who never appear on the page, or questions that are there but never directly addressed. So it’s a question that’s useful both for new ideas, and finding the edges of a project, and confirming decisions made.

This black paper offcut was the trim from a silhouette unicorn (for stationery for Patreon supporters). However mostly, for some reason, the leaf-shapes suggested pigs. I also tried stencilling with gold sizing and leaf, which was marvellous fun, the more so because it didn’t work at all.