Friday, January 30, 2009


Being that I was tied up quite a bit around the holidays with a freelance project that I needed to finish before the end of the year, I have had quite a few questions lately from friends and family as to what exactly I do when I say I am a technical illustrator of artifacts, so I thought that I would try and explain it.

I have a Fine Arts degree from Kent State University with a concentration in metal smithing, so you can imagine that such a degree didn’t exactly prepare me to jump out into the wide world with a great understanding of what I was suppose to do in order to make a living. I was warned by multiple family members that I would never be able to survive as an artist, but since my graduation I have always made either all or part of my salary working as an artist. So a great big “HA!” to all the naysayers. (Oh, that felt good! Thirty years of pent up ‘I’ll show you!’ released at last). It hasn’t always been very lucrative or easy, none the less I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have wanted to do anything else. And it helped that the internet came along in the 1990s allowing floundering artists a chance to tout their talents as web designers, which I also do, but I want to talk here about my hand drawn illustration work.

Much to everyone’s surprise, as well as mine, my first position out of college was as an actual silversmith with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation which then led a year later to a career with the museum as a technical illustrator in the archaeology department. (And to those wondering, yes, I did wear a costume to do my silver smithing in – see photo as evidence. The lace on the sleeves of my dresses caught fire quite a lot).

It was famed archaeologist and author Ivor Noel Hume who gave me “my big break” as an illustrator. He is an extremely interesting and prolific writer, and for those unfamiliar with his books, I would highly recommend you give him a read if you have any interest in history or archaeology, you won’t be disappointed. He, together with his now departed wife Audrey, headed up the Department of Archaeological Interpretation at CWF and I was hired to illustrate the seventeenth century artifacts discovered at Martin’s Hundred on the James River. A subsidiary colony of the Virginia Company and neighbor to Jamestown, Martin's Hundred was effectively destroyed by an attack by the Powhatan tribe in March of 1622, leaving it a virtual time capsule as the result of having been abandoned not long after that. Its dead and much of their material culture lay forgotten beneath the fields of Carter’s Grove Plantation until 1976 when archaeologists discovered it once more. By the time I joined the department the digging at the site had been completed and the artifacts were waiting to be drawn; an entire room of them. I spent nearly three years at the task and learned so much from the Noel Humes of value that I count it among one of the greatest highlights of my career.

After finishing up the Martin’s Hundred artifacts, I spent a year working at NASA learning how to use the revolutionary new machine called the Personal Computer. There they sat in a room all by themselves with the only two guys willing to give them a try and me. It turns out that learning to use a computer was far easier than I would have imagined, even though it was during a time when Windows yet hadn’t been invented and each command was typed out in dos. (I am so ancient!) For a year I created schematic CADD drawings of the space shuttle. Cool, huh? Plus, I now had a skill set that few at the time possessed, computer literacy. Okay, all you young things probably cannot remember a world without computers, but I assure you, it existed and there was resistance in some quarters to the change brought about in the office environment, so anyone willing to learn was of great value at the time.

An opening for an illustrator in a different part of the archaeology department at Colonial Williamsburg opened up and back I gladly went from space shuttle to the 17th and 18th centuries again where I worked happily for nearly ten years illustrating artifacts and mapping dig sites. In the mid 90s budgets at the museum were cut and so was I, but I have worked for contract archaeologists and museums on a full-time or freelance basis ever since, the longest running being with The Corning Museum of Glass in New York. I have worked with the curatorial department there for about ten years and have completed the illustration of literally thousands of complete artifacts and fragments of artifacts, most dating from the first, second and third centuries. These illustrations have been published in books by David Whitehouse, curator of the Corning Museum of Glass. To those interested, links to these publications can be found here

So what does it take to illustrate an artifact? Well, first is the ability to be able to properly handle an irreplaceable and delicate object. As has been mentioned in several previous blog entries, I am a total klutz, BUT am still able to be trusted with a two thousand year old fragile, paper-thin, piece of glass. This is because, number one, I was taught by the best; Ivor Noel Hume and the curatorial staff at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and two, because when I am handling an object that is ALL I am concentrating on, I am fortunately not distracted by small children, beasties or what ever else usually causes me to miss a step. I remember when interviewing with David for the first time he asked me if I was comfortable handling the glass. I told him that “Yes, I am confident doing so and that though I am extremely careful in my handling of artifacts of any kind, it does not make me nervous to do so.” He later told me that if I had said that it did make me nervous that he would not have hired me.

By remembering a few simple rules one can, in most cases, keep precious objects safe. Tables where artifacts are handled are padded and sometimes have little walls along the edges to prevent things rolling off. When moving an object, it is kept as close to the table as possible so that should it fall, the distance would be short. Elongated bean bags are used to help prop up and cushion objects. In the case of metal artifacts, cottons gloves are worn so as not to deposit oils from the hands which can be corrosive to metal. Most importantly, objects should be handled as little as possible, the less you touch it, the less opportunity for accidents.

I live in Virginia, The Corning Museum of Glass is in central New York state, artifacts of course do not come to me, I must go to them. So, for the last ten years I have traveled to Corning to visit my friends at the museum and draw until my fingers are numb...literally.

Jill Thomas-Clark has been working with me for these many years and has become a good friend. Working with Jill is a true pleasure and I very much enjoy my trips to the north country. She gathers the objects to be drawn and pulls them from the collections. She assists me with interpretations of what I think I am seeing in a sometimes very worn or weathered object; she keeps track of the thousands upon thousands of objects, their numbers and where and when they were drawn. And generally coordinates all aspects of my trip, from the objects I will be drawing to my plane reservations. She is a wonder.

Once I arrive, I am shown to my little storage room where the glass awaits me in a very cold, climate controlled environment and I don my sweater and pair of magnifying glasses. Each object is divided into two halves in a drawing, on the left, in most cases will be a profile. This will show what the object’s thickness is as well as give clues as to how it was formed. The glass from this period is blown and to make a rim or foot it might have been folded back on itself several times, a profile will show this. It will show where the object is solid or whether there is space between its walls.

On the right side of the drawing will usually be the object as it appears on the outside. It will show its decoration should there be any. Some early Roman glass was decorated by molded, cut, scratched or applied means. The early Islamic glass that I am working on now is highly decorated, so in order to show a full view of an objects pattern a “rollout” is done. This is a three dimensional object’s decoration made flat (see drawing at right which shows the decoration on a large shallow bowl. Click on any drawing to see detail).

Each drawing is done to scale, which means, actual size. I have drawn large vessels that stand two foot high; they are drawn two foot high, as well as very small objects; at left is a wee bottle that stands only about an inch tall. (Is it not amazing how something so tiny and fragile has existed unbroken for two thousand years?). The finished drawing may be reduced for publication, but is shown with a scale so that those doing research can see what the objects actual size is. All measurements are as exact is as possible. If I can measure it, it is on the drawing. If, for instance, I have an intact bottle with a narrow neck and I can only really measure the top part where the bottle has its opening, then that is all that I can with confidence put on my drawing. I can make an educated guess, but I dash the line in to indicate that I am guessing.

I first make a detailed and measured pencil drawing with all the views that I plan on showing. This I do at the museum with the object in front of me. I also take several digital photos of each piece in case I need to reference it later, but I try to make my pencil “sketch” with as much information as I will need in order to complete a finished inked drawing. I will also have David Whitehouse’s excellent written description of each piece to reference as well.

I draw as many objects as I can in the time that I am at the museum, as well as talking with David and Jill if there are any questions about how something is formed and what needs to be conveyed visually. I then take my pencil drawings back home with me and do the final ink drawing on mylar film to be used in publication. The drawing technique I use for the final inked drawing is called “stippling”, which means that I use thousands upon thousands of tiny ink dots to simulate the varying degrees of shading in the object. Above you can see an example of a bottle with my pencil sketch on the left and the finished ink drawing of the same bottle on the right.

Many times there is only a small fragment of an object left in existence, this makes it no less valuable from a research point of view however, and these shards are also worth illustrating. At right is one example of a piece of decorated glass.

Oftentimes I am asked what the purpose of drawing these objects is when they can simply be photographed. Well, they are photographed, and beautifully so by Corning’s photographer. But a drawing can show parts of an object that cannot be seen in a photograph, such as its profile, insides, complete decoration, wear pattern or in some cases how it originally appeared. A good example of this is the bowl pictured at left. At some time in its history this glass bowl was in a fire hot enough to melt and change its form. The top drawing shows what the object currently looks like, the drawing below it shows an illustrated reconstruction of what the bowl looked like previous to the fire that altered it. And in the case of the rock artifacts below, the carving done by Native Americans can only be seen clearly in a drawing.

So that, in a nutshell, is what I do. I am so very grateful for the work I have had to date, it is always exciting and fascinating employment. I am thankful too for the many interesting and wonderful people I have gotten to work with and for the excellent experiences my chosen profession has allowed me. I have been privileged to learn from many of the finest minds in archaeology today and hope to continue for many years to come to do so. I have been honored to handle and draw such objects as first century depictions of saints Peter and Paul, possibly made during their lifetimes. Masterworks made by both famous and anonomous artisans. Personal objects used by both the wealthy politian and the humble slave. Bullets and weapons that have passed through living bodies and ended lives. I’ve drawn giant pieces of ancient machinery and tiny brass straight pins; animal bones and the bones of humans; pieces of history several millennium old as well as soda bottles from the twentieth century. I have even drawn Thomas Jefferson’s toothbrush! And though I have drawn many thousands of objects, I can still tell you, in most cases, where and when it was done and the objects purpose and place in history. It causes me pause quite often, to think when I am using an everyday item such as a cup to wonder: ‘Wow, in a thousand years will there be some archaeologist digging this thing up and trying to piece together the ways in which it was used?’ Or in the case of a particularly complex piece of equipment: ‘Man, I would hate to be the illustrator trying to figure out how to show this on paper.” I hope that this read hasn’t bored you and that you might look upon your humble belongings in a new light; every bit of material we live with and use is a piece of history and art in its own way, no matter how humble. Think of that the next time you brush your teeth!

©KKW 2009


Kim said...

Wow what an interesting career!

Kathleen said...

Wow, that is very cool. I knew you lived in VA because of the mailbox post - where in VA are you?

Denise said...

I am impressed!! We had so much fun on Saturday. I did a post with a slideshow of our evening. See you soon~