Tuesday, 2 September 2014

NRA Seminar 'Stories of Ireland's Past' Q&A

As part of the NRA seminar 'Stories of Ireland's Past' there was an exhibition of the artwork created by various illustrators for the NRA. An aspect of this was a series of questions were asked about my practice as an archaeological illustrator for inclusion in the exhibition. For the seminar because of space, the answers had to be shortened, so with permission of the NRA, I have included the longer answers to those questions, below for your viewing, along with images I illustrated for the NRA

Woodstown Viking Grave

How do you realise a vision of the past?

Realising the past is mostly from three avenues: research, reference, and imagination. Its a slow process, starting with the research, which entails the initial reading of reports, talking to excavators and reading more general background information about the site type and era. During the research phase reference is also sought from the site as well as reference of contemporary finds in Ireland and abroad. From there, sketches are created, this begins with just scribbling to see what comes out after the research, moving eventually to more cemented sketched ideas. Generally I try to come up with 2 or 3 versions of the scene and then picking one that really works. If time and budget allow, I create maybe another 2 or 3 alternate takes of that chosen version.

Sometimes I will sketch out specifics too that need to be worked out separately, like: posing, character design, architecture and environment design etc. I always want each aspect to feel as fully realised as possible, as that person is supposed to be a real person who has lived a full life and has a character of his/her own. Or that environment has been lived in for hundreds, or in a natural environment, thousands of years, so hinting at that complexity is important to giving an image gravity.

Then starts the drawing phase, which is where the final ideas, sketches, research and reference come together to create a final piece. I often look back to the research throughout but during the drawing phase I take a good deep look back on my research to make sure I haven't strayed too far. Once the drawing is at a good level and all aspects like; posing, costume, weaponry, natural environment etc. are worked out and the visual problems are solved like; leading the eye, visual interest, convincing values and good storytelling etc. I then take this final drawing and cement it by inking or painting.

Clowanstown Mesolithic Fish trap

What information do you need?

Archaeological evidence that is relevant to a visual reconstruction is the most important information . But also good interpretations from the archaeologist can be a big help in deciphering what is there in the archaeological record. Or even a few different intepretations to allow for additional paths to be explored. Besides this, evidence from the wider world at the time and knowledge of what could be there possibly like technology, structures etc. can help save time. Finally an opinion or an idea in what they are visually looking for, in part or in whole, is a good starting point, new or fresh ideas are always more interesting to test out in the visual medium.

Where does the excavation report end and the imagination begin?

I find the evidence and information a great boon to the imagination, not a hindrance to it. So the excavation report is always there, I often check back to it while creating an image, to make sure Im on the right track. Its the anchor to the piece really.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

The feel of the era. I read alot of archaeology, and I also create alot of illustrations from the different periods. So I spend alot of time thinking about the different eras, but also obsessing about them at times too. So for example when walking in forests I often think what it would have been like in the Mesolithic to live in such places, for that environment to be your whole world. Granted modern forests are not quite the wild ancient forests of the past, but its as close as one can get.Also when I get a chance I try to visit museums and draw finds from the periods, I think studying the tools or objects that were in the hands of the people from the time is a must. All these combined, means I have spent alot of time imagining, studying and thinking about the eras, and what it would have been like to have been alive at the time. Its not exactly a science but it creates a well of inspiration that I can pull from when needed.

Edercloon Ritual Tochar

What are the challenges in producing particular scenes?

I suppose the biggest challenge in archaeological illustration are the gaps. There are alot of gaps in the record and while in text having those gaps isn't as jarring, in an image, if you left the gaps where they were, you would have half completed images in the end. If you were dealing with the subject just as a creative avenue you would just fill in those gaps with whatever you imagine. But in archaeological illustration, you have justify your decisions, you need to do your research and base it on something. I think this is especially important with public consumption, as for some, the only experience they will have of that period is looking at that image, so you need to be careful what you're showing.

What is your favourite media?

My favourite medium is pen and ink, as I just love the variety of values (range of grey's between white & black) that can be used to create a compelling image without colour. The medium can pull you in and if the values are balanced right, it can create lots of different moods and really come to life. Its a great medium for texture and design, and I like how it can walk that fine line between just plain realistic and the artistic, and how both can sit in the same world without being jarring.

What role do reconstructions play in interpreting the past?

Reconstructions can play many parts in archaeology. One is to make clear, as some archaeological writings can be difficult to penetrate and it can be the job of the illustration to illustrate, or to make clear, what is there. Another is that archaeological illustration can offer a connection to the public with their past, to give them an impression of what could have been the world of their ancestors in a fully realised  3 dimensional form.

But also visual imagery can be part of the archaeological process, and not just for publication. The archaeologist can use it to test ideas out, to see what certain ideas look like and the problems attached with those ideas as all sorts of issues arise from the making of text into a 3 dimensional form. All these can be done without having to go to the trouble and expense of building it in real life.

Are there any pitfalls with reconstruction images?

Sometimes one can try too hard to be accurate and over reliant on accuracy which can sometimes create a stilted image. So sometimes decisions need to be made for creative reasons, in order to create more compelling images, especially if the image is used for promoting a site or find. So its a balancing act, keeping an image as accurate as you can but also compelling enough as well.

What interaction do you have with the excavator/director?

I believe the greatest strength of illustration is that its a collaborative process, between the illustrator and the excavator/client. An illustration can only get better being the production of a few different minds; their ideas, input and creativity. So I always coordinate with them on each step of the process; the idea/research phase, sketch phase, drawing phase and final inking or painting phases. Collaboration can also take the form of critique too, with the excavator making sure the image hasn't gone too astray from accuracy and the report. Also being so close to an image, sometimes an illustrator cant see the mistakes, and a second person can point out problems that the illustrator misses, making for a better illustration in the end.

How do you decide on the specific details of the scene – clothing, roles, activities etc.?  

Sometimes the decision as to what to include in an image is easy, as its found right on site. But after that you may need to include details from Ireland at the time, and/or abroad, to complete an image. Also sometimes what is possible with the technology can lead to some interesting interpretations. So for instance if razors are found at the time, that can lead to different possible hairstyles, or if tattooing was around, designs can be found in the rock art, pottery or metalworking at the time, that may also have been on the body. While activities are based on what is found at the site or elsewhere, but also from historiography or what is possible from the technology available.

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