How to make shadow puppets of family members

Research shows that sharing family stories is just as important as reading to children and benefits them in multiple ways (see Further Reading). In this tutorial I will show how you can act out family stories with shadow puppets, created with silhouette photos. Making puppets to act out family stories is a fun cross-generational family activity. With the right preparations, it will keep children busy during holiday gatherings and reunions, and may result in a family performances with a simple desk-top shadow theater.

Example: a puppet of my father

Shadow puppet of man watching art with photos that served as example
My father visiting Dutch art museums in real time and as a puppet

My father Paul van Rossum, a great lover of art, graciously allowed me to use his image for this tutorial. My Dutch siblings and nephews regularly take him out to a museum, resulting in priceless photographs in which my father, crooked with age, studies art works with the support of a nature-made cane.

Making silhouettes using a photocopier and scissors

The information below is about making puppets with the help of profile photos, as well as photocopier, computer, tablet, or smartphone. If you don’t have access to any of these to create a family member’s face, don’t worry! You don’t need look-alike puppets to act out family stories. Just knowing who a puppet represents is enough for a successful family performance.

If you do want to make a look-alike puppet based on a silhouette photo without the use of a computer or mobile device, you will need access to a photocopier that can reduce and enlarge by percentage. You may find these in your local public library, or in a printing and photocopy shop.

  1. Make a profile photo of your family member, or find one in a photo album. Enlarge the photo on a photocopier, then trace the profile with a black marker, and cut it out.
  2. Measure the width from the tip of the nose to the back of the head in centimeters. This will make it easier to calculate the reduction percentage to get it to the right size (5 cm).
  3. Calculate how much the profile should be reduced. If the head of your image is 12 cm, divide 5 by 12 to find the reduction percentage required (5:12= 0.4233, so the reduction required is 42%).
  4. Make a new photocopy of the profile with the reduction percentage that you found. You should now have a profile that is 5 cm wide (slightly below 2″).
  5. Make a few photocopies of the same head in slightly smaller sizes, in case you will find that the head is too big when put together with the body.
  6. Demonstration how to cut out a silhouette by taping it to poster boardCut out the profile with plenty of white space around it, and stick it to a piece of black poster board with double sided tape, or a piece of folded painter’s tape.
  7. Cut out the profile and the contour of the eye. Separate the two pieces of paper and take away any remaining tape in the poster board profile.
  8. Adjust the poster board profile if necessary. You can tape a tiny piece of black paper at the back of the eye to make an iris.

Free online tool to make a silhouette: YouDoodle

If you have access to a mobile phone or tablet, you can use the app YouDoodle to turn a photo into a silhouette. The developer (Jeff) has put a video tutorial on YouTube how to trace a profile and fill it with the same color. You can find a summary of  the instructions in the image below (read from 1 to 4).

Annotated screenshot of a YouDoodle app summarizing the steps to make a silhouette from a profile photo.
Annotated screen shot of You Doodle app. For developer’s tutorial view
  • To trace the profile choose a clear contrasting color. In his video tutorial Jeff chooses white, because he uses color photos. In the above example I used pink instead.
  • If you find it difficult to trace the profile with a finger, it may be easier to use a stylus.
  • Don’t forget to outline the eye. You can add an iris later by sticking a piece of black paper at the back (see example in step-by-step guide).
  • Make sure that you don’t leave any gaps in the trace. When you press “fill” and the whole screen fills up rather than just the profile, this means you left an opening in the tracing line.
  • When you are satisfied with the profile save the image as a JPG or PNG file (go to File in the top right corner, choose Share as and save to a place that you can access when using Google Drawings (for instance iCloud or Dropbox).

Using a free online background remover for a profile photo

After this tutorial was originally posted free online tools were developed to remove the background of any profile photo. The instructional film below, which shows how to create a pattern of any historical character, can be used for family members as well if you just scan or make a photo. To make children the appropriate size compared to puppets of adults you can use this visual.

Instructions how to create a puppet of a person using a profile photo, free online patterns and Google Drawings.

Turning pixels into centimeters and inches: Google Drawings

Online images are measured in pixels, not in centimeters or inches. You can use Google Drawings (part of Google Docs) to get your digital silhouette to the right size: (you will need to have a Gmail address for that).

Annotated screenshot summarizing how to turn pixels into measurements using Google Drawings
Annotated screenshot of Google Drawing document (read from 1 to 5)

Open Google Drawings. An untitled page appears (the checkered pattern means the background is transparent).

  1. (Top menu) View: show ruler (in the example I kept my default in inches).
  2. View: show guides–>choose “add vertical guide” and do this twice. Drag them 5 cm (slightly less than 2″) apart with the help of the ruler.
  3. Insert: insert image –>upload from computer (find your silhouette in iCloud or Dropbox where you saved it).
  4. Drag your silhouette between the two rulers so that the tip of the nose touches the first ruler. Adjust the size of the silhouette by dragging a corner to make the back of the head touch the second ruler.
  5. Do the same with the head to create slightly smaller sizes, as you may find that the 5 cm head is too big when put together with the body (see example below).
  6. File: Save the document and print it.
  7. To cut out the profile on poster board, follow step 6-8 in the above “Making silhouettes using a photocopier and scissors.”
Different sizes silhouettes in Google Drawings
Try out smaller head sizes in Google Drawings

How to make the body

For more elaborate instructions please consult my  Step-by-step guide to making a shadow puppet from templates in the Printable Library

  1. Choose an image in the in the Printable library section Puppet templates to use with profile sihouettes, or use another template from the Printable Library with a body that comes closest to what you need for your puppet.
  2. Adjust the size of the body where necessary using a pencil. It is also possible to make adjustments by copying the PDF image and pasting it into Google Drawings (drag the border to make the image smaller, narrower, or wider).
  3. Cut out the body parts and trace them on your black poster board. Adjust clothes as needed.
  4. Connect the body’s legs and torso with metal brads. Don’t connect the arms just yet, you will have to connect them with the head.
  5. Compare the puppet’s body with the heads that you printed out and choose the best size of the head. Cut out the head following steps 6-8 above.
  6. Punch a hole below the neck where the metal brad will connect head, body, and upper arms. Connect the parts with a metal brad.
  7. Turn the head forward and backwards to see if any paper of the part below the neck will rise above the shoulders. If so, cut that away with your scissors.

Finishing touches

Reverse side of the puppet's head showing how glasses made of wire are taped to the back. The paper cane is supported by a piece of barbecue skewer.
Reverse side of head and cane

I made the cane by taping a piece of barbecue skewer to the posterboard using black painter’s tape (any other tape will do!).

You can make glasses by using a piece of beading or memory wire, and taping it to the reverse side of the head. For more instructions check out my blog about Sojourner Truth, showing  how to make glasses .

For questions please contact me or place a comment below. To keep updated about new puppets or posts sign up for our mailing list or Follow us on facebook!

Family storytelling: further reading


Tutorial how to make shadow puppets of family members using silhouette photos



Helene van Rossum

Author: Helene at Past Times

Helene is the founder of Past Times and a crafter, archivist, and children’s book author. Her passion is bringing history to life for children, classrooms, and families through imagination and play.

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