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In a previous life: drawing Prehistory

Updated: Jan 1

Illustrators various roles

Illustrators come in many different guises, but the common thread is usually that they are self-employed, and permanent job opportunities rarely arise. Flexible artistic chameleons like this do many different jobs, and so I plan on sharing some of the interesting jobs which illustrators may have. Read on to find out about my previous life as an archaeological illustrator.


How I stumbled into archaeology

I have done many things since leaving University as an Illustrator. I’ve worked in a design studio, taught Victorian games to children at the Bass Museum, been an art teacher, a community artist, and… worked as an archaeological illustrator. I have always been fascinated with history and archaeology, and so I found myself sucked into going digging on the weekends just before I finished my degree. Not the most appropriate time to get a new hobby, when you are meant to be honing your final pieces and preparing the most significant exhibition to date. But leaving the city for the middle of nowhere and seeing greenery was appealing, I craved the fresh air and the peacefulness of the site we went out to. It was a kind of escape and I learned loads of new things. I was also introduced to a new career; archaeology illustration.


As a student archaeologist

In this first dig we uncovered artefacts from an Elizabethan manor house in a field in Staffordshire, plotted its floorplan and discovered huge walls. Finding 16th century plaster friezes in old barns was amazing. Learning to survey with theodolites was new (I’m used to paints, I’m not an engineer), and using geophysics was like being able to see an x-ray of what’s under the surface. I was hooked.


The job

I was encouraged by friends to go for a job at the University of Birmingham, as an archaeological illustrator. My portfolio was that of an interested amateur. At the time I was working as a freelance illustrator painting seasonal designs and card artworks. So, I was hugely surprised to be given the gig!


Archaeology Illustration: What it is and why I love it

Like many things, it turns out you really can learn on the job. It helps that I am good at drawing in the first place. I found my feet drawing the many many pieces of pottery which any archaeological site unearths. At the time big developments such as the new BullRing were being planned and excavated. Small finds made of different materials were found and needed recording. This is where an accurate drawing is made, from different angles, using good line drawing skills. Cross-sections (sections) are also shown. The main purpose of these illustrations is for academic publications or grey literature (recorded proof of what’s been found). In place of photography, a detailed drawing and measurements can provide a clearer picture of what’s been found, a kind of distilling of the information, pictorially.


Touching history

What I enjoyed most about finds drawing was that you were often the first person to handle the objects since somebody had used it and dropped it, hundreds, sometimes thousands of years ago. I found it especially poignant seeing actual fingerprints from prehistory in the handmade prehistoric pottery. To search for an object’s best angle when drawing it, you must study an object closely, and inspect it. I got familiar with typologies and loved learning what I could from the specialists I worked with.


Other skills needed

Other aspects of archaeology illustration involve ‘inking up’ your pencil drawings digitally, creating detailed plans and sections, and maps of the sites which get dug. You can drop a place name into conversation with an archaeologist and they will generally be able to tell you they’ve ‘done a site there’. Everywhere beneath your feet in the UK has something of interest beneath it, and before any major development, planning must assess if there’s something significant that might get destroyed. That’s when archaeologists step in to record it.



Interpretation drawings

Another area of archaeology illustration which I particularly loved involved reconstructing the past, in a more illustrative way. Book illustrations and interpretation artworks were opportunities to paint and draw more freely, and I relished the opportunities to do this. There is a responsibility to show scenes with accuracy wherever possible. Using details from environmental reports and real viewpoints from the landscape are extremely important. An example of this was when I was asked to create interpretation signage showing how a Romano-British enclosure would have appeared at the far edges of Kings Norton, based on the archaeological evidence. This image can also be found in ‘A History of Kings Norton’ by George Demidowicz and Stephen Price, (2009). I also decided to illustrate the roman pottery finds from the site so viewers could understand how the vessels would have been used.


So, what next?

The experience gained from one role often leads to another. After this I was asked to do a book cover. I’ll write about more great jobs for illustrators in future blogs.



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