Silhouette methods - painted on plaster

Photograph of a silhouette on plaster, made by Miers.SIlhouette on plaster by Miers.

More than any other technique, this method is associated with a single artist; John Miers. Miers was a prolific and highly accomplished artist active in the late-18th and early-19th century, who worked almost solely on plaster and who is responsible for the vast majority of such extant historic silhouettes. As a technique, painting on plaster enjoyed great popularity towards the end of the 18th century but died out fairly rapidly after 1800, and is rarely practiced today.

Miers was not the only artist who worked on plaster, however; other notables included W Phelps, Thomas Patey and John Smith of Edinburgh. However, Miers’ work is generally considered the most accomplished and his London-based studio was responsible for a vast amount of profiles. The technique for producing painted silhouettes on plaster was broadly similar for all artists. Most important was the consistency of the base; typically produced from chalk or plaster of Paris, it had to be smooth surfaced and evenly sized. Generally, artists working on plaster took their outline with a machine, traced onto rough paper then transferred onto the plaster. Due to the composition of the base, they were somewhat limited in their choice of paint. Traditional mixtures of pine soot and beer were a typical choice. This produced a very dense black, which could be thinned to show details of clothing or hair. Lacking in colour, the beauty of a profile painted on plaster comes from the skilful rendering of these details, from the curls of hair to the flow of veils – something John Miers was particularly skilled at.

Painting on plaster was very much a short-lived fad, which barely survived the death of Miers in 1821. As a technique it had some advantages; mainly that plaster was a cheap material to work on, and provided a good, white, contrast for the black of the profile. However, it has been almost entirely abandoned by modern profilists, who dislike the limitations of the format and fragility of the base over time.