Secrets for Painting Silhouettes: 11 Expert Tips & 2 Easy Tutorials

The silhouette has long been part of our culture. Dating back to the 18th century, these images, representing a solid portrait, object, animal or scene, are a striking way to create art. As their popularity continues, you too can integrate this timeless classic into your painting. 

Read on to gain helpful tips for painting silhouettes that pop off the page.

Cat silhouette cut out of bristol paper

You can turn your favorite pet into a memorable silhouette!

What makes a good silhouette? 

Almost anything can be a silhouette, but before you transform it into one, consider how it will look as only the outline. Make sure there are some defining outer features — such as a funky hairstyle — that will make your silhouette subject instantly recognizable. If there isn’t enough visual variation in the outline, your silhouette might look like an amorphous blob!

When drawing a person or animal, a side view offers the most in terms of interesting characteristics. 

How to draw a silhouette

There are many different ways to create your silhouette. Two of the most popular ways are freehand or tracing. Depending on your artistic ability, one might be better than the other.

Freehand drawing

With this technique, you draw the silhouette, either by direct observation (looking at the person, place or thing) or with a photo reference. Personally, I chose to use a picture of my cat and carefully drew the outline on a thick sheet of paper. Then, I cut out the drawing to use as a stencil.

Tracing a picture

This technique is easier than freehand drawing, and it will ensure your silhouette is accurate and detailed. Find a photo reference and grab your light-box, tracing over the image with a sheet of thick paper. Again, you might want to cut it out to use as a stencil.

Be very careful when cutting out your silhouette: If it’s precise, you can use it for multiple artworks. Use a craft knife to cut around the intricate edges. 

Painting silhouettes with watercolors

Cat Silhouette in Watercolor

Tip 1:

Place your stencil onto the paper and use a finely sharpened pencil to carefully trace around it.

Partial watercolor around cat silhouette

Tip 2:

Use a liner brush to paint around the small edges.

Tip 3:

Fill in the background with one or many colors. Here, I’ve made my cat silhouette white with a blue background. If you are adding a color to the silhouetted subject (they’re traditionally black), figure out which pigment — background or silhouette — will be darker.

Tip 4:

Paint the lighter areas first. You can better correct any mistakes with the darker pigment. 

Tip 5:

Feel free to experiment with color and pattern within the portrait.

Finished watercolor cat silhouette portrait

Painting silhouettes in acryliccat-silhoutte-acrylic-4

Tip 1:

Because acrylic is opaque, you can paint the background first. Then, you can outline and paint the silhouette on top without a problem.

Tip 2:

Experiment with the color and texture of the background. A silhouette with a solid, contrasting color will pop against many backgrounds.

Tip 3:

Try placing your silhouette on multiple parts of your canvas to see what works best. 

Partially painted acrylic cat silhouette

Tip 4:

Fill in the silhouette with the acrylic pigment of your choice. Depending on the color, you might need a couple of coats to cover your tracing

outlining cat silhouette

Tip 5:

Errors are human! Don’t worry if your paint goes a little outside of the lines. 

Tip 6:

Use a small brush to refine the edges of your silhouette. Just dip the utensil in your background pigment. 

Finished cat silhouette in acrylic

Silhouettes might look simple, but they offer a lot of creative possibilities. Changing media can drastically alter their appearance. Just compare these two approaches, side by side.

Two cat silhouettes

Have you ever painted a silhouette before?

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