Conny Lahnstein’s silhouettes

Dutch artist Conny Lahnstein cuts silhouettes from paper— she even created some silhouettes of inspiring women for our 2021 Diary. But how exactly do you cut such a portrait? We asked her three questions:

How did you start cutting silhouettes?

As a child I loved to craft, and I especially loved making things from paper, because I quickly discovered its many possibilities. My love for paper grew stronger and stronger over the years, and when I was seventeen, I got a pair of silhouette scissors. Books about paper-cutting art were very scarce at the time, but I still managed to find something with black silhouettes that appealed to me, and I was particularly drawn to the shadow images.

I taught myself the techniques through a lot of trial and error. At the age of 23, I was asked by the Volksuniversiteit Den Helder (Den Helder People’s University) to teach courses about the subject, and gradually I put together my own method in a textbook, which was published a few years later.

How did you teach yourself?

I used to draw a lot, especially people. When I discovered paper cutting, I made many depictions with people incorporated in them. I noticed that I had a talent for cutting silhouettes. I ‘cut’ lots of relatives and friends to master the finesse, and I was surprised that almost all of them came out well. Obviously, they weren’t as refined and as fast as I can cut them now, but everyone was always very surprised to see the resemblance in their silhouette.

I created a character for myself called Madame Silhouette, the ‘wife’ of the real-life 18th-century French finance minister Etienne de Silhouette (the namesake of ‘silhouette’). I started being booked by event agencies to come and cut silhouettes at events, and I was performing on a regular basis both at home and abroad. I also joined En Profil, a group of portraitists in the broadest sense of the word. I performed more often, which meant I became more refined and faster at cutting silhouettes. And if something didn’t work out right away, I worked it out later in my studio to perfect it for the next time.

Can you give us a step-by-step description of how you work?

Well, for starters, you need good-quality materials:

  1. A sharp pair of silhouette scissors on a cord
  2. A piece of black paper with a light backside
  3. A passe-partout into which the silhouette is pasted

In my role as Madame Silhouette the silhouette cutter, I ask my subjects to stand opposite me with their face to the right, so that I can see their profile properly. I start cutting at the height of their breastbone, and I keep going until I reach past the back of the head. Then I start on the back and I cut until the silhouette falls out of the paper. I alternate looking and cutting very quickly; my eye-hand coordination is highly developed. Sometimes I close an eye to avoid seeing depth, because the silhouette is actually a flat representation of the profile.

When the entire silhouette falls out of the paper, I focus on the very fine details such as mustaches, beards, fine peaks and curls. Then I paste the silhouette into the passe-partout. This entire ritual lasts a maximum of eight minutes and depends on the amount of details that I have to cut.

  • You can see more of Conny’s work on her (Dutch-only) website.

Interview Bente van de Wouw, Translation Julia Gorodecky, Photography Madame Silhouette