Introducing: House Portrait Silhouettes!

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Framed house portrait silhouette depicting a three-story duplex home with the label "Arlington, MA" underneath, white and teal artwork in a black frame

I’ve been working behind the scenes for the last year or so to develop a new style of house portrait. Introducing, the House Portrait Silhouette! I’m doing this for a few reasons:

  • Sometimes simplicity is the best way forward! My 3D House Portraits have only gotten more complex as I’ve fine-tuned my ability to make tinier and tinier details out of paper.
  • Variety is the spice of life! Each 3D House Portrait takes hours and hours and hours and hours of work, and I find myself craving novelty (and burning out).
  • I feel bad about taking so long! I know there are folks who’ve been waiting for a chance to order a house portrait for a while, or who might purchase if the timing/pricing were less complicated. House Portrait Silhouettes will have a faster turnaround time, and will be available for purchase at your leisure. No need to set any alarms or rearrange your schedule.

I am still making 3D House Portraits! I’m catching up on my queue and fitting in a few projects for family this summer. I will reopen orders later in the summer / early fall of 2021. As always, the best way to stay informed of all house portrait details is to make sure you’re on my email list.

Framed custom house silhouette depicting a 2-story house with double garage, front porch, and sidelights around the front door

The Details

Your House Portrait Silhouette begins with a clear photograph of the home or building you’d like me to work with. I then carefully trace the outline of the structure. I draw in details like windows, doors, shutters, and other architectural elements that help describe the building. After you’ve reviewed the drawing and chosen a background color (there are 38 to choose from!) I will turn my drawing into files for my computerized cutting machine to cut. I use a computerized cutting machine so that everything is super accurate. My machine can cut straight lines, smooth curves, and beautiful details! With cut pieces in hand, I attach the detail pieces to the background, carefully lining things up to match the photograph, then frame it up and ship it to your door.

House Portrait Silhouettes are:

  • 11″ x 14″ and arrive framed and ready to display
  • Available in your choice of 38 background colors
  • One layer of paper in the foreground depicting the silhouette of your home, one layer of details glued to your background paper
  • Three rounds of design revisions
  • $264, including shipping within the U.S.

Simple and Modern

House Portrait Silhouettes are a beautiful, minimalist depiction of the essence of a house. Working from a photograph, I carefully trace the important details to make sure that all of the perspective lines are spot-on. This then allows me to create an image that subtly depicts implied architectural features like the bay window at the front of this Newbury Street house, or the deep front porch of the (above) gray background house with that gorgeous arched attic window.

Three years of Custom House Portraits

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In March of 2018, I was really burnt out from a busy holiday market season that happened immediately after several months of working full time while gutting and rebuilding our new kitchen and then moving to our new house. After running at over 100% capacity for something like 8 months, I decided to take some time to play, experiment and breathe. I made paper out of other paper! I painted pictures on paper for no reason! I slept in! I cooked dinners and breakfasts! It was glorious.

I haven’t been able to take time like that since, though, because the other thing that came out of that quieter season was the beginning of the custom house portraits! Based on a custom project I had finished for a friend in mid-2017, I stumbled my way through creating the first house portrait, a model of our little house in Arlington, MA. I shared the process on Instagram as I solved fun challenges like “the angle of the roof is NOT what I expected it to be!” and since there seemed to be at least a little interest, I decided to give it a go.

Abigail holding her first paper house portrait

I used the photos of this house portrait to list my very first “Custom House Portrait” in my Etsy shop for $50. I limited this pricing to 5 orders, since that would easily cover the cost of materials and shipping, but it wasn’t too much for what was essentially an excuse to learn and experiment.

A few brave souls took me up on it, and I embarked on this weird journey of figuring out things like “How do I give depth to a roof that you can’t really see in the photo?” and “How do I get the roof and floor of a porch to actually line up with the porch columns?” and “Just how thin can I make this sliver of paper before it disintegrates?”

I thought these first house portraits were SO detailed! I thought there was no way I’d be able to fit more detail into something like this! I did eventually have to move to a larger format (11×14 inches instead of 8×8), but still, three years ago me had no idea how far this was going to go.

One of the questions I get asked is some variation of “you’ve made a bunch of these, you must be so fast at it now!”, but because I’m a detail-oriented perfectionist, what I actually learn from each new house portrait I finish is how to pack even more details in so that it takes even longer to finish! I wouldn’t have it any other way, though, and I’m very fortunate to have the world’s most patient customers.

I created 17 house portraits in 2018, 34 in 2019, 22 in 2020, and 13 so far in 2021.

Looking ahead

In 2021 I plan to continue accepting orders in batches of 5-6 commissions, opening orders once every 2-3 months at a day and time announced only to those who’ve joined my email list. This is the best way I have right now of keeping my work queue manageable. At the beginning of 2020 I had an order queue 5 months long, it was incredibly stressful! I’m also trying to give a fair-ish chance to everyone – the day and time changes for each launch, to account for different time zones, schedules, etc.

This month’s launch will stay at my current pricing, but there will be an increase of some amount for the next launch (hopefully June or July 2021). I’m also hoping to upgrade to a higher quality frame and glass, either as a part of the standard pricing or an optional add-on.

I keep talking about carving out time to take another break like the one that started this all back in 2018, just some time to recharge and rest, but with everything else going on this last year it’s been all I could do to just keep going with the bare minimum. Making something that people want and want to pay me to make has been such a delight – after many years of struggling to make this business viable with products that just didn’t sell very well, being suddenly too busy is an amazing problem to have, but it still feels like a new problem that I’m actively learning how to manage!

House Portraits: It’s all in the (architectural) details

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Tiny architectural details fascinate me.

One of the reasons I love living in urban Massachusetts is the sort of details prevalent in neighborhoods full of homes that are over 100 years old. The more detailed, the better!

Do you like looking at old houses and hand-crafted details?

I sometimes get lost walking around my own neighborhood because I look up and around at the houses instead of down at the street signs and where I am going. It’s still dangerous for me to drive around in new areas because I really just want to stare at the houses! If you like looking at houses in your neighborhood, online, on TV, (This Old House, anyone?), or in any form of photography, you’ll know just what I mean.

The tiny details are the reason I kept creating house portraits

There is magic in the details, and bringing that to life is one of my favorite parts of creating an architectural portrait. I excel at picking out the details that make a home unique, no matter how small. 

Of course, your house’s design and the scale of the finished piece, how closely the proportions match the frame dimensions, and the quality of photograph all determine the level of detail that brings your home or special place to life behind the frame. But if there’s something special, like this weathervane, that makes the home yours, please make a note of it when you contact me! 

The artist's thumb and pointer fingers holding a tiny paper weathervane that looks like a bird in flight.

This weathervane is one of the microscopic details I’m most proud of. The bird is 0.34 in (0.86 cm) wide and 0.2 inches (0.48 cm) tall. The entire weathervane is smaller than my thumbnail!

Sometimes I get to fully build the details like this bird, but details with more dimension in real life force me to create some illusions. Take a look at the chimney below. Using 8 separately drawn and cut shapes of paper I created the illusion of depth using layering and subtle scoring and folding.

Detail of a custom house portrait showing a double chimney and how it attaches to the roof

It’s all part of the process

Hand-cut corners and lines also give miniatures the feel of the real place. This is where a house portrait becomes a house sculpture! The scrollwork on this roofline is all cut by hand. The detail is about half an inch wide and crafted from three separate intricately scrolled pieces and some shorter straight pieces.

Close-up of intricate scrollwork that will be part of a custom house portrait's roofline, with scraps and other in progress pieces in the background

What architectural details make your home unique? Be sure to point them out when you purchase a house portrait slot!

Join my email list to get updates on when orders open, and to learn a little more about the process. You can also visit my Etsy shop to see more architecturally-inspired paper art.

Celebrating the Family Home

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One of the things I love about creating house portraits is that it takes a beloved family home and allows you to carry it with you. Many of my clients commission portraits when they are getting ready to move, and particularly when they are leaving a childhood or long term home.

As parents get older, they often want to downsize to something more manageable—or just something that’s less work! Why not spend less time managing a property, and more time doing something you love?

While it’s understandable, downsizing can be bittersweet for everyone involved. An architectural portrait preserves not just an image of a home, but the physical proportions and feel in a tangible way. 

Art to Remember a Family Home

When a good friend’s mother decided to sell her childhood home and move down south, she was beside herself. She knew it was the right thing for her mom, but the home had been in her family for over 100 years. She wanted something to commemorate this big change, so she turned to art. 

At first, she commissioned a photographic family portrait in front of the home, but the family members covered up key architectural details. She also realized that a photograph, while lovely, reflected the weather and season just as much as the house. She wanted to be able to take the architecture with her and capture the details she loved. 

I sent her some of the images of past house portraits my clients commissioned for their parents. Each of these gifts evoked special memories, and one family was so touched they decided to commission a second copy.

House Portraits to Celebrate Home

The gift tag on this home says it all:

“Mom and Dad, we wanted to give you something to remember the house where we grew up and have so many wonderful memories.”

Finished house portrait wrapped with brown kraft paper and baker's twine with gift note on top

I shipped the completed house portrait directly to the parents after they moved from their longtime home (the left side of the duplex below), so I worked with their children to make sure that the unboxing and unwrapping experience would be special.

Hand holding a finished, framed house portrait on a light gray background.

Of course, you don’t have to wait for your parents to downsize to celebrate the place where they raised you. The house portrait below was an extra special milestone birthday gift from a daughter to her father. 

Finished house portrait on navy background in black shadowbox frame
Paper house portrait with navy blue background on top of scraps from the design process.

This next house portrait was also a birthday gift from kids to dad. This home hosted extended family for countless occasions ranging from Sunday dinners to the birthday party where dad was gifted this portrait.

Completed house portrait, framed, with an orange background.

I accept new house portrait commissions every two months or so. You can find more details on the House Portraits page, or join my mailing list to get more information on the house portrait process and how to prepare photographs of your house, you’ll also get updates in your inbox when orders will open again.

Architectural Portrait Profile: One Family Vacation Home, Two Keepsakes

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One of the best parts of creating architectural portraits is hearing the stories that go along with the homes I’m depicting! This is the first in a series of blog posts sharing some of these stories.

This week I’m profiling vacation homes I have worked on, in particular one family vacation home that became two keepsakes to share. While many people choose house portraits to celebrate their first home, as a first anniversary gift, or to celebrate the end of an era as a downsizing gift for parents, these two homes honor the shared connection of living family history. 

When a pair of sisters spotted my work at a craft fair in Somerville (if you’re in the Boston area, see where I’m popping up next!), they knew that a house portrait would be just right for their parents. When I saw the house, I was excited to get started—with lots of interesting architectural details as well as a beautiful tower, this house is a looker!

Original photograph of family vacation home that was turned into a paper house portrait

When it came time to start the illustration, I asked for as many photos as they were able to source—the house was far away, not something that could be easily reached to take specific photographs. Fortunately, since it has been in their family for a very long time, they were able to find photos showing the house from a few different angles, and some more recent photos that showed clearer details.

The finished architectural portrait only includes the details I’m able to see, so it’s important for me to be able to have clear, high-resolution photos if at all possible, but I can typically work with what’s available to create the closest possible portrait. Since windows and porches are often the most time-consuming part of my work, I knew that it was extra important to get them just right in the illustration. 

This sprawling castle was lovingly added on to and renovated by each generation, resulting in a completely unique structure. The house has also changed significantly over the years, and it was important to settle on which version the family wanted to capture for their paper heirloom

One house, one family, two keepsake portraits

The first cottage was completed in March 2019. The sisters reported back that their parents were blown away!

Low-relief paper sculpture of family vacation home made of white paper on a light gray background in a black frame

In fact, the family loved the result so much that they requested a second portrait. The second version was completed in January 2020. 

Since I had already built this house once, the second edition of the architectural portrait was far less intimidating. Compare the two towers below:

Artist holding a tower, part of the house portrait, with the rest of the house portrait components in the background
Artist holding a tower from the second version of the house, with the rest of the house portrait components visible in the background

Despite hand cutting some of these tiny details, they are virtually identical. It takes practice and patience, but each of these paper objects is worth it. 

The biggest question for the new version was which color background to choose! I shared digital mockups of the house on a handful of different colors, but we landed on this rich dark gray, and it really makes the house pop:

Low-relief paper sculpture of family vacation home made of white paper on a dark gray background in a black frame

It’s always a surprise to see what a pop of color will do! Despite being almost identical, the background color emphasizes different elements of each architectural portrait. The first one feels like you can walk into it, the second feels like you can see through it. Completely different emotions come up when looking at each of them. It’s a joy for the family to be able to experience both.

Vacation homes & family history

Vacation home portraits honor both extended family history as well as your own memories. The cottage above is shared among members of an extended family, and is used to remember a special place that’s far from them. This Maine island vacation house portrait, however, was gifted to the family that owns the island and it lives in the house itself.

Photograph of the Maine family vacation home

The Island House was built in 1878, and has been owned by the same family since then. It’s a unique Colonial that includes a widow’s walk, original details, and a long porch, all overlooking the ocean. 

Completed paper portrait of the Maine vacation home on a navy background in a black frame

The finished architectural portrait now lives with other house portraits in the house itself – a gallery wall to visually represent the house’s history, and show the passage of time. Each portrait represents the different styles of the era they were made in. The latest house portrait shows the Island House in a fresh, modern light. 

Finished house portrait in its frame on the wall of the house it depicts, surrounded by drawings of the same house

 If you would like to honor a place that’s special to your family, get in touch! Slots for house portrait commissions will reopen in May 2020, and my mailing list will receive first dibs. 

Reflections on a year of house portraits

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Porch detail of a custom paper house portrait

March marked the 12-month point from when I created my first paper house portrait. Since March of last year I’ve delivered 24 custom house portraits to art lovers in 7 different states. The commissions range from a famous church in Greece to a girlfriend’s childhood home in the Midwest, to a family’s vacation home in Florida, to a construction company’s office, and more. Several were gifted to clients or friends who just purchased a new home, or as a wedding, anniversary, or birthday gift. It has been remarkable to be a part of such momentous occasions in people’s lives, and be able to create an heirloom that will hopefully be a tangible reminder of the memories and relationships that center around these homes and spaces.

My primary observations after a year, in no particular order:

  • I’ve challenged myself to work larger. My original portraits were 8″ square, and lately I’ve been creating more pieces that are 11″ x 14″, and even one that’s 20″ x 20″. Working larger has allowed me to add more nuance and detail to the houses, since I’ve learned that one can only cut a piece of paper so small before it kinda just falls apart.
  • I’ve experimented more with using colored paper for different areas of a house, to add contrast between the roof and the walls, or the walls and the shutters. I look forward to exploring this more, and I’m currently trying to figure out how I can store more different kinds and colors of paper, so that I can expand what I keep on hand to include more colors that make sense for homes and buildings.
  • I’ve learned that porches are tricky to make, especially the kind with lots of posts and a roof. I can’t tell yet if it’s the sort of thing that will get easier with practice, or if every house portrait is so unique that every porch will be tricky. For one of my house portraits, I spent an entire day just trying to get the porch right. I may have to add an extra fee for houses with big porches, but I’m going to try a few more times first.

As I head into the summer art show season, I have temporarily shuttered my online shop so that I can focus on the house portraits already in my queue and spend some time coming up with fun new products (and hopefully making progress on organizing my workspace – it’s been a disaster for a long time). The shop will re-open mid-May, just in time for my first weekend of outdoor shows, the Bedford Plant & Art Sale and Inman Eats & Crafts.

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Paper House Portraits: A Story of Beginning

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A little over a year ago, August 2017, some friends asked me for some ideas for a special gift they wanted to give. Their old church was closing down, and they wanted something special to give to the pastor to remember and celebrate the community and the building. I totally winged it, found paper approximately the right color, and made this 3D paper construction that would fit inside of an off-the-shelf shadow box frame.

Custom Architectural Portrait: Church in Washington, DC

Then I spent the rest of the summer and fall moving, and the winter doing as many holiday markets as I possibly could!

As I recovered from that season, taking some time to rest and review and dream at the beginning of 2018, I thought back to that little paper church and wondered if that would be something with a broader appeal and market.

I first created a version of my own house, to test out the process, and put it out on Instagram to see what my online friends thought:

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Abigail McMurray (@yeioupaperobjects) on

It was pretty well-received, so I listed a trial run of 5 houses for $50 each in my Etsy shop, and figured that given the overwhelmingly positive response, they would sell pretty quickly. Three of the five sold in the first few days, and then, maybe because I stopped talking about them for a while because I was busy working on them, the last two orders took a while to come in. Since then I’ve sold a few at what I’m calling my normal price for now, $150, as well as some special commissions with colors and other details that for now I’m quoting on a case-by-case basis.

This has been such a fascinating process. It’s such a different kind of work – more like the graphic design work I used to do, where I’m working directly with another human being to make something that they hopefully find beautiful and meaningful – unlike my product design work where it often feels like I’m making things, throwing them blindly into the world, and hoping the right person comes along and buys them! I’m still processing that, and feeling out what this change means for me and how I work and how yeiou exists in the world.

Heading into the holiday season, I’m feeling a little uneasy about the new breadth of my body of work – I’ve also added one-of-a-kind framed paper pieces to my repertoire. They are a lower price point than my custom house portraits, and help me build my skills and invent new techniques for rendering architectural details in paper…and I think they’re quite beautiful, too! But they’re another “thing” that I do, and it’s all quite hard to explain to random people I meet without pulling out my phone to show pictures!

At in-person events these additions feel risky to me, because I’m still figuring out how to tell a cohesive story about my full range of work. In the past, the story my display told was about creativity and the therapeutic qualities and infinite possibilities of crafting. It was all “yay” banners and bright colors. Now, my display is still mostly fun and colorful and enthusiastic, but there are also a few one-of-a-kind pieces that tend to be mostly white-on-white and about details and subtlety, as well as information about custom house portrait orders! It’s a lot to process, and I realize that, and I’m just going to go forward with the faith that I will figure it out eventually.

Anyway, because I wanted to see them all together, and maybe you do, too, here are all of the house portraits I’ve completed so far, in the order they were created:

Windows: A riff on Victorian-era architecture

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I’ve been obsessed with houses and architecture since I was a child, always staring out the car/bus/train/plane window, paying attention to what the buildings look like where ever I go. I never actually studied architecture, though, so it just became an observational past time. When Brian and I moved to the east coast about 10 years ago, it was pretty mind blowing to suddenly be surrounded by historic homes and buildings, some of which pre-date the formation of the United States. Extra mind-blowing, there are buildings from that era that are used for things like housing college freshmen! Anyway, I love looking at buildings. When I started working on my paper house portraits earlier this year, I began by focusing on the big picture, figuring out perspective, and making sure the house ends up being the right shape—I added some details here and there, but it was mostly about the shape/form of the house and the dramatic shadows for the windows and other cut-out elements. With each piece I created, though, I found myself adding more and more little details, and wishing I could add even more! But when you’re trying to create a whole house in an 8×10″ or even 11×14″ space, there’s only so much detail you can add with bits of paper! As I’ve been observing all of the different architectural styles in my neighborhood and on trips this summer, I realized that one area where buildings really show their character is in their windows, so I decided I would experiment with creating pieces that show a window and really hone in on all the details. My long term plan is that by making larger versions of architectural details, I’ll be able to make them more detailed when they’re smaller as part of a paper house portrait, too. I began by researching Victorian era window styles*, and collected inspiration images from real windows as well as doll house window designs. Once I had my reference material, I designed the basic elements to create the multi-paned window, the moulding around the window frame and up the sides, and the decorative pieces above and below the window. I’ve been using those same building block pieces, and then adding additional pieces or modifying pieces, to create a series of Victorian-inspired paper windows. *To be clear, by “research” I mean I did a Google image search and collected some of the images that popped up with that search. I try to keep one or two of these in my Etsy shop, but since they’re all one-of-a-kind that can be a little tricky as we approach the end of the year. If you’re interested in a window and there’s nothing in my shop, email me and I will let you know what I have in stock, or make one special for you!