When Shape Is The Thing… From Matisse’s Cut-outs To Silhouettes

I’m not going to get us bogged down in a discussion of negative and positive space or whether the artist is a “mark maker” or a “shape maker”—because among artists that can call for more than one bottle of wine to resolve.

But there are times when the shape is the vision. These artists are drawn to the silhouette. They are compelled to capture that edge and what is confined within it or excluded from it, at exactly a moment in time.

Cut out shapes

Cutting paper is something most of us have done from a very young age. I remember fondly the strings of cut-out people holding hands or the “snowflakes” cut from paper in elementary school.

The French artist Henri Matisse (1869–1954) started the “cut-outs” part of his career later in life when his health prevented him from traditional painting. As someone driven to produce (which is a curse or gift of most great artists, I think), he sought an art form that suited his then-physical aptitudes and abilities. He took scissors to paper and created imaginative, colorful cutouts.

The themes were built on ones he was familiar with in other media (nudes, patterns, faces, natural or organic shapes, etc.) But the interpretations were vastly different because the cut outs initially caught the eye through the silhouette—the shape—of the piece of paper. His work is huge and diminutive. Some pieces interpreted into massive tapestries and into the embellishments for churches or giant walls of enormous dancing shapes.

An excellent blog post, “Matisse’s Cut-outs as Environments” discusses a major exhibition of Henri Matisse’s cut-outs which had been at the Tate and is now at the Museum of Modern Art through February, 8, 2015. CBS “Sunday Morning” recently aired a story on the exhibit.

Charles Kessler, a former art historian and critic and the blog post author, says, “Until fairly recently, this late work of Matisse’s… was wrongly belittled as the frivolous art of an old man. I’ve long believed, however, that Matisse’s innovations are similar to, and at least as radical as, what the Abstract Expressionists were doing at the time; and that Matisse’s cut-outs should be considered among the greatest work of the twentieth century. They certainly are among the most joyful art ever made.”

I agree. They are unique, experimental brilliant, joyful, and appear spontaneous. To clarify—the cutting of them appears spontaneous. When you see pieces in person, the speed at which things were cut is apparent through the rough edges, the clunky curves or uneven “zigzags.”

Large piece of contemporary art with stylized images of flowers and a line drawing of a face.



From the National Gallery, Matisse’s “Large composition with Masks.”
Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.
No alterations to the image.

Yet, as the master he was, there was great precision and mulling over the exact way the pieces should be mounted or amassed to create the effect he was striving for in the ultimate composition. On some of the pieces, there are often many if not hundreds of pinholes indicating a repositioning of the piece as a part of embodying Matisse’s vision.

A collage of cut-out shapes in various colors and pasted on a white background.
A Matisse Cut-out. Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia. No alteration to the image. 

In the blog post, Kessler continues, “Matisse described his new medium in a 1952 interview with André Verdet (Pretiges de Matisse): ‘… drawing with scissors on sheets of paper colored in advance, one movement linking line with color, contour with surface.’ Cut-outs are simultaneously drawing and painting.”

For most of us to really “see” the silhouette, the outside shape, is challenging. Things are always moving. The color of the world is distracting to “reading” the edge. We cannot separate the foreground from middle ground and background. So I am constantly astonished by the exacting and stunning work of a good friend of mine, Joy Yarbrough, who among other things, is a silhouette artist.

She describes how she sees her vision to work on a silhouette of a person, “I block out details and see the basic outline of the person’s profile…much like a person’s shadow. When I am cutting a silhouette of someone, I am trying to capture a bit of their personality, like how a shy child holds its head, or a proud lady.”

“My paper art is chiaroscuro …a study of light and dark contrasts. Technically my ‘drawing’ with scissors is creating a ‘contour’ drawing by cutting freehand a shape with scissors of black paper, and mounting it on white. Whether cutting a portrait of paper or cutting a delicate feather, the outline shape is the beginning of the silhouette.”

Black silhouette of large bird's nest atop telephone wires.


Cut-out silhouette
© Joy Yarbrough

And, just so we are all clear here…. she doesn’t draw anything, and doesn’t use a traditional set-up we may have in mind of a strong light to cast a shadow. She “freehands” cuts by holding the paper and the scissors in the air while looking at her subject. She cuts the silhouette with very sharp surgical “iris” scissors and archival black silhouette paper.

Standing violin player in silhouette (c) Joy Yarbrough.
Standing violin player in silhouette
© Joy Yarbrough

Even with wiggly children, she cuts freehand. And, she has cut “en plein air,” which means outside in the atmosphere, the wind, mist, blazing sun, and deep shadow. With a smile she says, “I’ve cut en plein air unless the wind is really strong, and even in the rain (under a tent) but that isn’t ideal either!”


Cut-out of a feather (c) Joy Yarbrough.
Cut-out of a feather
© Joy Yarbrough

Papercutters around the world

Joy describes meeting other artists who use paper as an artistic medium, “Belonging to the Guild of American Papercutters, I have met artists from many countries.” Americans are most familiar with German or Swiss Scherenschnitte, but many cultures do some form of paper cutting.

An example of Polish papercutting from the collection of the Lynn Museum & Historical Society, Lynn, MA.
An example of Polish papercutting
from the collection of the
Lynn Museum & Historical Society, Lynn, MA.

An example of Polish papercutting from the collection of the Lynn Museum & Historical Society, Lynn, MA.
An example of Polish papercutting
from the collection of the
Lynn Museum & Historical Society, Lynn, MA.

Polish Wycinanki, Japanese Kiri-e, Spanish Papel Picado, Danish Papirsklip (the link is a YouTube video with a song in Danish about papercutting!), Chinese Jianzhi and the Jewish paper cuttings of Mishrahs and ketubot.

“Visiting China and Poland, I tried their techniques and tools firsthand, using scissors from China which can cut many layers of tissue thin paper, and cutting with sheep shears in Poland!”

Another contemporary American artist who uses silhouette is Kara Walker. Her graphic images boldly present her comment on social injustices.” (The link is from a 2007 exhibit at the Walker, Minneapolis, one of my favorite art centers.

In her YouTube video, “Silhouettes and Pastels” Yarbrough demonstrates her technique and presents examples of her exquisite silhouettes. On her website, Joy Yarbrough Fine Art, she features a portfolio of her work. Her art has been exhibited throughout the US, including the Pittsburgh Center for Contemporary Craft, PA; St Louis Artist Guild, MO; Highfield Hall & Garden in Falmouth, MA; and the GAP National Museum in Somerset, PA; Worldwide, she has had her work exhibited in Germany and China and it is held in private collections all over the world.

(See LeftBankArtBlog.blogspot.com for more art posts. Also, read the intro to the exhibit on the respective museum landing pages for more about the exhibit. To contact Ms. Yarbrough about a commission, contact her via her website: joyceayarbrough.com)

I am dividing this blog on Silhouettes into two parts. The second will follow in a few days.


1 comment


  • Mary M

    Fascinating information about Matisse whose images always make me feel so happy. Joy Yarbrough’s work is amazingly detailed. What an amazing art form. Thanks for the information!


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.


Print this page | Special disclosure about our blog posts