Sunday, February 3, 2008

digitally created silhouettes

eva silhouette

I love silhouettes. My husband has one his preschool teacher made of him when he was about four, using the now old-fashioned method (which I presume was ultra new-fashioned at the time): she used an overhead projector to cast a focused shadow of him on the wall, where a piece of black construction paper was waiting. He (I can only guess) was a very patient preschooler and stood mostly still while she traced with a pencil, then later cut out the silhouette and glued it to a background piece of paper.

family silhouettes

I can see the appeal of that method, I really can. Or better yet (given that my impatient toddler is not yet a relatively patient preschooler), I thought I might trace around a photo. However, based on my love of messing around with image manipulation software and my lack of a really solid pair of left-handed scissors (or confidence in my xacto skills), I decided to do it digitally. I concede, it might lose some of the charm this way, but nonetheless the method suits my needs. If you are similarly inclined, here's the method I used. (Note that this particular digital method preserves the hand-drawn nature of the older methods; I tried to generate an automatic selection through a series of adjustments to curves and thresholds and fuzzy selections, but try as I might, the results were choppy and unnatural looking. For me, (digitally) hand tracing the outline proved faster overall and produced a more friendly result.)

Take your photo
eva profilePhotograph your subject in profile, framing tightly (say, from the bottom of the neck up). As much as possible, make sure your subject is in full profile and not somewhat turned toward or away from you. Also, it is best if the camera is level with the person's head so that you don't get a funny high or low angle. More than you would expect, the expression comes through in the finished silhouette, so aim for a natural expression rather than a scowl (produced, perhaps, by a somewhat uncooperative model's exasperation with your need for one more shot). Bonus points if you can find a contrasting background -- if you have black hair like I do, a white background would be preferable to the background of dark trees I managed to put behind myself.

Prepare the image
add new layer+ Open the image in a photo manipulation program (I use the GIMP which is open source and freely available; Photoshop would also work. You know... I hear it's a good product, too.)
+ In your Layer dialog, add an alpha channel to the background (and only) layer.
+ Add a new layer, selecting "white" as the fill type (I called mine "silhouette"). Move that layer down, so that it is below the photo layer. This is the layer on which you will draw the black silhouette.
+ Change the opacity of the photo layer to something around 65% (adjust to your liking). This enables you to see the photo and what you are drawing on the silhouette layer at the same time. Handy.

Outline the silhouette
+ Select your brush -- I used the 11 pixel circle, but you could go smaller if you wanted finer details; just don't use one of the fuzzy circles. Make sure you drawing (foreground) color is black.
+ Zoom in on the image so you'll have better control over your pen. (In the GIMP, you just hit "+". I'm sure most of this stuff is the same or very similar in Photoshop, but I haven't used that in a while and can't remember exactly.)
+ In the Layer dialog, make sure you are on the silhouette layer (so you don't draw right on your photo). In fact, stay on this layer for the duration; the photo will only be used as a visual guide.
begin outlining+ Begin to outline the silhouette of your subject using the basic drawing tool. Keep in mind that you want to keep the entire width of your pen inside the profile (unless you want a slightly extra large nose or forehead). Tip: Rather than draw in one continuous line, you may find it helpful to draw in shorter strokes (just pause and let off your mouse button once in a while as you draw). That way, if you go slightly off course, you can just hit "undo" to remove a short bit of errant drawing, rather than have to pull out the eraser or redo a long line.
+ To check your progress as you go along, just turn off the photo layer and you'll see your black lines on the white silhouette layer. This way, you can get an idea of exactly how much detail (say, on the hair) you'd like to include.
outline complete

Fill in the outline
annoying white dots+ You can try to use the bucket fill tool at this point to fill the area inside your outline. However, you may find that you end up with a little halo of white dots between your black outline and your black filled area (see right, click to see larger photo -- those dots are small). To avoid that, try this little trick:
+ Undo your bucket fill. Select the fuzzy selection tool, and click on the white area inside your outline to select that area. Before filling the area, you need to "grow" your selection so that that ring of white dots is included in the selection and thus will get covered up when you fill. To do this in the GIMP, under the "select" menu, choose "grow". In the dialog box, specify the number of pixels by which it should grow -- just enter something smaller than the diameter of the brush you used (my brush was 11, so I entered 7).
+ In the bucket fill dialog, select "fill whole selection" rather than "fill similar colors" so that it uses your fancy new selection when filling. Now you're ready to fill your outline. Hurray! A nice clean silhouette.

Tidy up and finish
+ Now is a good time to clean up any rough edges and refine the details. I found it helpful to change my drawing color to white and "shave" off any shaky bits that look untidy. Pay special attention around the facial profile; subtle differences (such as a slightly errant tracing of the curve of the nose) can affect the resemblance of the silhouette to your subject. Also, you can add or remove details as needed. (I always need to adjust a bit on the hairstyles. Not unlike real life.)
+ Rather than have the neck/shoulders continue all the way to the image's bottom edge, you may want to trim it at a nice jaunty angle, like traditional silhouettes. Just draw a white line at the angle you like (note: holding down shift constrains the pen to a straight line). Then, do the fuzzy select/grow the selection/bucket fill trick we used above (this time filling in white) to cleanly remove the, well, body from the head. (Ouch.)

Your silhouette would be lovely framed alone or in a set with other individually framed silhouettes. If you'd like to do a couple or family grouping in one print (so your silhouettes can chat with each other?), just create a new image with a white background large enough to hold all your silhouettes and copy/paste the individual silhouettes into it. I like to make all the silhouettes the same height -- all the better to compare the wacky differences in proportion of child and adult faces -- so before merging the images into one, scale each accordingly. Tip: crop each image so that the top and bottom of the silhouette precisely touch the image boundary. Now just scale each image to the height you want (say, the height of the smallest of your silhouettes), and they'll all be perfectly the same.

(Click on any photo for a larger version; the details are hard to see at this size.)

And there you have it, some lovely silhouettes to save for posterity. It would be interesting to do a silhouette of a child each year or so as they grow and their profile changes (okay, let's see if I can remember to do that...) If you know of clever uses for silhouettes, I'd love to hear them -- maybe embed wee tiny faces into resin buttons or something? In the mean time, I'll consider it a success if I remember to print and frame a more tangible version of these digital silhouettes. (Oh, the follow-through!)


Steph said...

Hi Kristy!

I found your blogs the other day by accident and have loved reading them both since!

I live in Bedford but am originally from Austin - we're there quite often.

Anyway, from one SAHM mom to another - I just wanted to say hello!

Kristy said...

thanks, steph, i appreciate it. bedford, mass by chance? because i used to live in massachusetts. i really liked it there and now am enjoying austin -- never expected to stay, but it's been over a decade already!

this SAHM needs to get off the computer and go redirect her child who is currently pulling all her clothes out of a drawer... eek!

Steph said...

Haha, I wish I lived in Bedford, MA! Actually, we live in Bedford, Texas. It's in the midcities area near DFW airport, in between Dallas and Fort Worth.

I should probably get off the computer too! My kiddo is taking her nap and I could be finishing up some laundry but I'm not of course!

JetsMama said...

Kristy, your work absolutely amazes me. Everything you do makes me want to do more. I can't wait until the summer when I have some time...before then, I'm going to have to organize myself and make a list of what I want to do. I like that you link to other sites (you do all the work finding them and then I can take adavantage of what they offer) so that I can see what's out there without taking up so much of my free time. I showed this entry to our art teacher today and she is going to use it for her photoshop class soon.

Kristy said...

thanks brandy. i know what you mean, the more i read and see of others' projects, the more i want to do myself.

that's cool about the art class -- i think high schoolers would think it was fun... and i bet they can even figure out different ways to accomplish the same result, if they played around some (this obviously isn't the only way to do it, just the option i figured out).

iHanna said...

Hey, just found my way here from a link on WhipUp and I must say you do have some great content and images on your blog. Why haven't I been here before - or, have I? Internet is so big that I sometimes get lost, but I'll be sure to bookmark you now so that I have a map back for next time!

This tutorial is great, your girl is adorable!

Kristy said...

thanks, iHanna -- i know what you mean, i get lost particularly on all the craft sites, never knowing where i've been before (using google reader helps me keep track these days, thankfully). i started this blog about a year ago, but only started posting regularly since the new year began. i'm glad you're enjoying it, and please do check back!

kim said...

love your blog, just found it I LOVE silohettes too and looked at your know how-i have a better trick in PS. using the magic lasso let it do the work for you. then change the light to all black and then choose the opposite of your selection and chnage light to all white, tada! :)

Kristy said...

i wonder if PS's magic lasso is better than in gimp, or if i'm just not that great at using it? i tried that first (seemed the easy way) but there were so many little jaggy borders i wanted to clean up, i found it easier to just trace by hand. probably because i'm a control freak. :) you make a good point, though.

Cee said...

I've been looking all day for a good way to make silhouettes and at 6 in the morning, I finally found this tutorial.
Thank you so much for writing this :)

Unknown said...

I accidentally found another way of making silhouettes of my children. I was taking pictures of them playing at the cottage. The sun's reflection was beginning to set on the water, casting the most lovely shades between blue and pink. The children appear nearly solid black against the beautiful background. Done this way, you can zoom in to have a silhouette of the profile of their faces....or magical action shots of happy little beings dancing along the shore.

April and Roel said...

Thank you for this "how to"! I just did my kids' silhouettes and I think I'm going to try printing them on scrapbook paper so they have have a cool background!

Saara said...

How amazing! :) I definately have to try these some day! :)