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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Thumbnail Sketch, A Jeweler's Stone: My afternoon at the Archaeological Illustration Workshop


Presented by Stephen Crummy and Criag Williams, illustrators, British Museum
February 15, 2013


It’s been an Ice Age-tastic couple of weeks: The incredible Ice Age Art exhibition opened, Jill Cook gave her curator’s introduction, and this past Saturday, I was able to attend an all-day Ice Age Art Study Day featuring six world-class researchers presenting their work. I’m afraid the whopping 38 pages of notes I took that day aren’t really amenable to a blog post, but I’m sure I’ll have plenty of opportunity to cite things I learned.




And about two weeks ago, I spent an afternoon at my first-ever British Museum workshop, an Ice Age Art-inspired program on archaeological illustration. So, even though I’m kind of dying to get back to my study of the Ur artifacts in Room 56, I decided to wait another week while I continue to explore the Ice Age.


I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from this three-hour workshop, but I figured it was a chance to channel great archaeological illustrator (and my favorite historical girl crush) Katharine Woolley, so I was in. I gathered with my fellow illustrators in Room 2, and the first delightful surprise came when I realized we were being led to the employees-only area of the Museum. Woot! I'd never been back there before! Unfortunately, I was too shy to whip out my phone, but I can tell it you it basically looks like the guts of every old municipal building you’ve ever seen, with harsh white walls, ancient industrial light fixtures, and old glass-front bookcases lining the corridors. Still, I liked it.

We were led to a large room in the Department of Pre-History and Europe where we were introduced to our instructors for the afternoon, Stephen Crummy and Criag Williams, both archaeological illustrators whose work is featured in the Ice Age Art exhibition and catalog.

Mr. Williams explained the purpose of archaeological illustration, which is not to make an exact copy of the artifact, but to call attention to features of the object that do not photograph clearly, are hard to see with the naked eye, or need to be highlighted for some other reason. Archaeological illustration can also help show what is believed to have been beyond the broken edges of a damaged piece. 


Handouts provided to show us various types of archaeological illustration.

Mr. Crummy explained that we would be drawing from casts of the original artifacts, which is how archaeological illustrators generally work. This is not, however, license to manhandle the models; we learned that the casts have value of their own because they accurately record the condition of the artifact at a specific point in time. For example, many of the casts we used were made in the late 1800s -- the artifact might have degraded or been damaged since, but thanks to the cast, we still know exactly how it looked back then. So, even when working with casts, the rule is to handle the item as little as possible.

Crummy said offhandedly, “I assume most of you are artists . . .” and I felt a small wave of panic. Really? Another lady and I both stuck our hands up to say we, in fact, were not artists, and Crummy laughed and assured us we would be assigned “easy” pieces. I felt a little better.

And then it was time to take to our desks, which had been nicely stocked with all the supplies we would need--paper, pencil, ruler, caliper, pens  & ink, a good eraser, and a powerful adjustable desk lamp.



Williams came around handing out casts, giving me a simple one as requested and making sure I was comfortable with it before moving on. The piece was a cast of a bone carved on both sides. One side featured what I guess are a couple of deer (though they kinda look like unicorn goats to me).




The other side was FAR COOLER, depicting a dude with a spear, apparently fighting horses and snakes! Yes!




Sadly, I was forced to admit that The Awesome Side was a bit beyond my capabilities and decided to stick with the deer.

And, so, there wasn’t much to it. You start with a pencil sketch and, when you’re happy with it, you fill it in with ink. For the sake of simplicity, we were drawing on a 1:1 scale, so the first step was to lay the cast on our paper, trace around it with dots, and then sketch out the shape of the piece. After that, you just start drawing, using the calipers, ruler, and your eye to make the drawing as accurate as possible.



Measuring an ear.

One thing I noticed was that, despite my best efforts, my deer looked considerably better fed than the originals. After checking my measurements repeatedly, I decided that perhaps the problem was the flattening effect achieved when you make anything 3D into 2D. This is basically why we all look fatter in photos. I don’t know if that’s really to blame for my incongruities, but that’s what I’m going to say.


Thin little deer up top, fat little unicorn goats below.

Also, I should note that this work makes you feel like you’re going to go blind from eye strain. There’s a lot of staring hard with one eye squeezed closed, looking back and forth between your drawing and the cast, measuring and measuring . . .

As we were sketching, Crummy announced that Ice Age Art exhibition curator Jill Cook had dropped by to say hi and check on our progress. When I looked up, she was directly over my right shoulder, smiling happily at my sad little piece of work, and I was reminded of the time I eagerly agreed to sing backup during my friend’s gig at the 40 Watt only to later discover that Michael Stipe was in the audience.[1]  Cook said she was “admiring everyone’s achievements” and proceeded to make her way around the room, engaging with the attendees. I thought that was pretty awesome. (FYI, Michael was nice, too. Also awesome.)

Once we’d finished our pencil drawings, it was time to ink them. There were various possibilities. You could ink directly on your pencil drawing, which is what the pros usually do, or you can ink the drawing on tracing paper, which allows you to preserve your original work in the event you screw up with the ink. I decided I’d best go with the tracing paper.

We also had a choice of using a dip pen or a felt-tip, and Williams encouraged me to try the dip pen, saying that tool allows a really good variation in line width, enabling you to show the variations in the original carving.

Yeah. So, my lines all kinda came out the same.




Williams suggested I try again with the felt pen, saying it allows a really good variation in line width, enabling you to show the variations in the original carving. ;-)

Again, my skills confounded the capabilities of the tool. And this time I got streak marks, too!



Nevertheless, Williams offered a generous assessment of my work, saying that it did “exactly what it needed to do,” giving an accurate representation of the carving on the original.



OK, so my drawings weren’t so great, but emotionally speaking, I seemed to have a much easier time than the artists in the room. Many of them complained that this utilitarian style of drawing kept them from producing things as beautiful as they would have liked. Fortunately, I had no such problem.

So, I’d call my first experience with a British Museum workshop a success. I had a great time and learned a lot, and now I’m eager to try out others. There are two additional Ice Age Art-themed workshops coming up,[2] though I wasn’t quick enough to secure a spot in either. Maybe I’ll try my hand at the mosaic workshop being run in conjunction with the Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition opening March 28.

Oh my gosh! Pompeii is only a month away!? Best. Spring. EVER!


[1] For what it’s worth, “sing backup” is an enormously liberal description of my duties. My only job was to talk/sing “Ah, ah, I am a bug. Ah, ah, I AM A BUG!” at one point during a single song. But I promise you, dear reader, that I did so with all the passion and enthusiasm that such a line deserves.

[2] Just as an aside, is anyone else confused by the upcoming Ice Age Art Mammoth Ivory Carving Workshop? I mean, if I’ve learned anything from years of watching the American version of Antiques Roadshow, it’s that the modern ivory trade is legally dubious at best, so what’s the deal?  If I made something there, could I even take it back to the States? Where did they come up with piles of “real piece[s] of mammoth ivory”? And even assuming there are exemptions for scholarship, how does one become a master ivory carver these days?  I honestly thought about plunking down my 35 quid and dragging my artistically talentless self to the workshop just so I could ask this stuff, but it sold out before I made up my mind, so we may never know.

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