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DIY Painted Silhouettes Your Kid Can Make—for Father's Day or Any Day

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One of the greatest joys of parenthood is forcing your passions and interests on your children. I love making and looking at art, so for my son’s first birthday, I decided we should make a series of collaborative paintings to commemorate the milestone. Thankfully, he didn’t speak English well enough at the time to resist (he's one).

To capture both his image and his creativity, I came up with the idea of taping off his silhouette on a canvas and letting him finger paint around it. After he finished painting, I stitched around the edges of the portrait with embroidery floss to make it pop (but that part's optional). The finished product is both a sweet reminder of his precious little one-year-old profile and a piece of kid-made art that I actually want hanging in my home.

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Two-year-old Avery and one-year-old Will
Two-year-old Avery and one-year-old Will Photo by James Ransom

The days are getting warmer and you need to think of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day gifts for your parents, in-laws, and better half, so it’s the perfect time to try this with your own little ones. (And if you have nieces or nephews or cousins' kids you'd like to make silhouettes of, just find a pictures of them in profile to work with, paint it yourself, and send to their parents or grandparents as a surprise gift.)

Here's what you'll need...

  • camera (a phone camera works fine)
  • access to a computer and printer, plus printer paper
  • cutting mat or cutting board
  • X-acto knife
  • painter's tape and a bone folder to press down the edges
  • non-toxic, child-safe paint in a few colors, plus small disposable bowls
  • as many canvases as you want finished products
  • brushes
  • tarp (optional)
  • embroidery floss and needle (optional)

...and how to go about it:

1. Prepare your canvases and paints.

The key to having a finished product that works in your home is color selection; I recommend that you choose a color scheme that appeals to you and don’t let your child decide. Paint your canvases solid background colors and let them dry. (Go ahead and prepare more than one canvas because the more you make, the more likely you are to come away with a beautiful finished product.)

Canvas, paint, brushes, and tape, mostly.
Canvas, paint, brushes, and tape, mostly. Photo by James Ransom

Mix several paint colors and put them into small bowls. Prep more paint than you think you need to cover the canvases because your child will end up spilling most of it on himself. Keep in mind that the higher the contrast between the background color and the other colors, the more the silhouette will stand out against the background.

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2. Create your stencil.

Take a photo of your child’s head in profile. I know, this is easier said than done with little ones. Enlist the help of someone else to draw their attention in the right direction so you can snap a photo from the side. I ended up turning on the T.V. (screen time before age two, go ahead and judge me), and my son immediately became a good little forward-facing, perfectly-still zombie.

Upload the photo to a computer and blow it up until it is the right size for your canvases, then print it out. Secure to a cutting mat, and cut out along the profile using the X-acto knife, stopping a little below the shoulders (below left). To make a traditional silhouette shape, connect the back to the chest with a wave-like line.

Cut out printed silhouette (left), then use that cut-out to cut the same shape from a sheet of painters tape. Photos by James Ransom

3. Tape off the silhouette on the canvas.

On a cutting mat (or plastic cutting board, or the top of a large piece of tupperware), lay down long strips of painter’s tape side by side to cover an area slightly larger than your canvas (above right). Secure your paper stencil on top of this sheet of tape tape, and then cut out the silhouette carefully, just as you did before, using the X-acto knife.

Peel off the strips of tape that make up the silhouette and stick them onto a canvas. Then, peel off the strips that make up the negative space around the silhouette and stick them onto another canvas. In the first canvas, your kid’s painting will show up around the silhouette, and in the second canvas, your kid’s painting will be inside the silhouette itself.

Tape stencils, ready to be painted over.
Tape stencils, ready to be painted over. Photo by James Ransom

Repeat this process until you have taped off all of your canvases, then press down all the edges using your bone folder (or a butter knife). The more stuck down it is, the more likely the added paint won't seep underneath.

4. Let your little Pollock do his thing.

Spread out a tarp outside and set your unclothed kiddo in the middle. Surround him with canvases and the bowls of paint and set him loose. Watch as he pours, spatters, splashes, and smudges the paint around the canvas. When a canvas has an interesting combination of colors and is well-covered, move it out of reach and guide him towards a canvas that needs more attention. (You can also paint the canvases yourself, should this part sound more messy than fun.)

When all the canvases are painted or when your child starts to eat the paint, whichever comes first, head to the garden hose or the bathtub to clean up.

I should have found him a tiny beret.
I should have found him a tiny beret. Photo by Annie Colquitt

5. Peel off the tape.

After the paint has completely dried, carefully peel the tape off of the canvas to reveal the silhouette. If the paint on the tape itself is interesting, you can also stick the tape silhouette onto an extra canvas.

The paint will likely bleed a little bit beyond the lines of the painter's tape—you can either touch up silhouette using more of the background paint color, or stitch around it using a needle and embroidery floss to make it pop.

Left, painting (this is the step your child can do!); right, touching up the edges. Photos by James Ransom

The works my son and I made together now hang in our home, my husband’s office, and The Louvre. Okay, one of those might be a lie, but for my family, these pieces are priceless; they reflect and capture aspects of both me and my son.

The happy artist and one of his masterpieces, in our home. Photos by Annie Colquitt

Tags: silhouette, painting, crafting, DIY, kids