With the quick flick of his wrist and intricate snips of his scissors, silhouette artist Karl Johnson is able to create a one-of-a-kind portrait in a matter of minutes.
The process is done freehand, as Johnson, a third-generation silhouette artist, uses a pair of surgical scissors he received from his father more than 30 years ago to cut the likeness of his subject in archival, recycled paper.
“With this there is no denying that it’s an artist cutting it and freehanding it,” Johnson said. “I think a lot of people respond to that now because it harkens back to a simpler, more real notion of having something made of your children.”
The European art form dates back to the mid-18th century when families would hire silhouette artists to create hand-cut portraits of their children when they could not afford to commission a painting.
“A lot of people don’t realize that the name dates back to the finance minister of France, Etienne de Silhouette,” Johnson said.
In America, the art form was popular in the years before the camera was created—from 1790 to 1840—when artists could be seen cutting portraits for families or on beach boardwalks.
Today, Johnson is one of dozen professional silhouette artists nationwide who have mastered the art form. His skill was evident as he cut portraits of children and adults in 5-minute time slots at The Open Book in Valencia Friday.
“If I slow down I’ll mess up,” he said. “It’s a bit like music playing where you have to keep a certain tempo or you’ll overthink it. You have to stay with a certain beats.”
It took him years to build up the speed that he now works; however, he grasped the concept of creating silhouettes quickly due to his blindness in one eye.
“When I was born I had an eye defect so I was born blind in one eye. I see two-dimensionally in a way,” he said.
Johnson said he honed his skills as a professional silhouette artist in the 1980s when he was a starving artist creating silhouettes for tourists at Dollywood in Tennessee.
Over the years Johnson has garnered national attention for his work and is known as the silhouette artist to the stars.
He cut portraits at the weddings of Reese Witherspoon and Drew Barrymore and at the birthday parties of Jennifer Lopez and Tom Cruise. He created a poster of President Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln which was gifted to the president at the White House.
“Spielberg sat for me once and he’s a big of a hero of mine,” Johnson said. “I geeked out a little.”
Despite his success, Johnson believes there is still room for him to grow and perfect his craft.
“You’re constantly improving over time,” he said. “Thirty years later I’m still improving.”
On Twitter as @_ChristinaCox_