Silhouettes – Old and New Technology of Portraits


by Heather Pang -

In August, while I was thinking about for a simpler laser cut project to teach Inkscape and the laser cutter in my 8th grade history class this year, I happened upon two things at about the same time. One was a blog post by Sylvia Martinez about starting the year with making ( and the other was the image of a page of silhouettes of the family of John Quincy Adams (yes, the one who became president).  So I decided start with the students themselves, using new tools to create an old-fashioned silhouette or profile.

I used my own children to test the work-flow, and it was not difficult to do. The process starts with a backlit photo (taken in a dark room against a light curtain, I taped paper on the window in my classroom). The photo needs to be edited it in the basic iPad editing software to make it a black and white image against an even lighter background.  This introduced the students to the photo editing tools they all had on their devices, but many had never explored. 

Importing the photo into Inkscape, using the paint bucket tool to fill the shape of the head, and deleting the fill leaving only the stroke line creates a clear vector line for the laser cutter.

The students enjoyed creating their profiles, even as they expressed some frustration with the tools (Inkscape is sometimes difficult to download and install on a Mac, and if the image is not dark enough the shape is not clear, but these challenges allowed for some useful discussion about how to figure out what had gone wrong, and how to trouble shoot our technology and our projects).  They learned several of the editing tools in Inkscape, and they will be well prepared to do more complicated projects using the software later in the year. These are all things I expected to come out of the project.

What I was not so sure about was how well they would see the historical issues involved, but I should not have worried.  I showed them the John Adams profiles and several other late 18th and early 19th century examples, and then we talked about what it cost to have a profile cut (25 cents for two copies in 1808, according to one source I had found), and why these images were so popular. They could clearly see how important it would be to families to have an image of a loved one, especially if part of the family were moving away, or going to war. They talked about how many photos we have today, and how different it would be not to have those images to look at. We also talked about when photography was invented, and when it became available to ordinary people. In the course of a short discussion we covered economics, settlement patterns, and the human desire to have images of ourselves. Not bad for a simple laser cut project.

I hung the silhouettes on the wall of the classroom, and the students had fun recognizing themselves and their friends. At back-to-school night the parents loved seeing their own children, and I had to laugh at the sight of them using their smart phones to take photos of the silhouettes, somehow bringing the idea full circle, and proving the point that today we cannot possibly have enough images of ourselves.