Anatomy of a Drawing: Fort Duquesne

Today's post is a little longer than usual-- this drawing took a week to do, and I thought I'd offer a more in-depth look at the process involved.

I've broken it into parts for easier reading: Part One (Inspiration), Part Two (Research), Part Three (Acting Out), Part Four (Putting It All Together).

Lots of good stuff here if you want a real "behind the scenes look." Forts, landscapes, costumes, acting! Read on!

PART ONE: Inspiration

So, way back in January I began by reading Gretchen's text, and considering what to draw in the approximately 5 X 8 inch space offered me on the page.

[Tamaqua's] rough hand scooped ground corn from [the] clay vessel. Gold meal seeped between fingers of his powerful fist. From this passage I sketched the first idea-- Tamaqua's clenched fist (right).

But another passage suggested an alternate image: four Lenape Indians looking down on Fort Duquesne from a high bluff. Shingas, Tamaqua, Wynonah and Shshash 'drew nigh the place where the engagement happened' The author and I both agreed the fort was a better option.

The 'engagement' was the Battle of Monogahela, a.k.a. Braddock's Defeat, near the forks of the Ohio River and modern day Pittsburgh, PA.

So the imagery was decided. The next arduous task was to research all these things-- what did the landscape of the battle look like? How was the fort built? What did the Indians wear?

Months of research would ensue. Seasons would shift, literally.

PART TWO: Research

One of the first things I learned was that the battle did not take place near the fort at all, but rather in the forest ten miles to the east.

I wanted to keep the original idea while remaining true to history-- more on that later.

One of the most complicated things to do was to search through old records and imagery and to reconstruct my own version of the fort for reference.

I did this using 3D computer software as seen in the color image to the right. The 3D construction allowed me to study and understand Fort Duquesne from all angles.

Google Earth was very useful in helping me visualize the fort in its original landscape context.

Second-to-last practice sketch of fort: this is exactly how I will draw the final. Sort of.

Another major task was getting the costumes of the Indians right. I wanted to avoid the common mistake of portraying Eastern Woodland Indians as Plains Indians (with large feather headdresses, etc.)

The final costumes are based on what I learned from various books and online resources.

The Lenape in 1750s America are wearing items which blend American Indian tradition with English and European influences. Some clothing is made of buckskin, other pieces from traded cloth. Shingas wears a colonial waistcoat.

Metal jewelry appears on several of the figures. The men carry hunting bags or bandoliers. Wynonah, the healer, has a medicine bag attached to her sash.

Wynonah wears her hair in a bun behind her neck; Uncle Shingas and Father Tamaqua wear theirs in an older style for men, shaven from the forehead to the crown and pulled back. Young Shshash simply ties his in a tail.

All these things were researched and drawn out in great detail before being simplified for the final drawing. Why? It is possible to abstract something only once you understand it fully. Otherwise, as an artist, you are "working blind!"

Researched details were recorded in sketch form which do not appear in the final image

So once I had a good understanding of the landscape, the fort, and the clothing of the characters, I had to do some acting. I had to get into the characters' heads... what could they be doing besides just standing there?

PART THREE: Acting Out

I tried several rough sketches with the result the same: characters just standing there. So I consulted the text again and found inspiration in two passages:

“Sun cuts slanting arrows through Clouds,” remarked a somber Tamaqua. “It will draw Rain to wash blood from soil.”
“No savage should inherit land!” Braddock stormed. Shingas slashed the air with his fist. “If we have no liberty to live on the land, we will not fight!

So, say you are Shingas. You've just gone on a diplomatic mission to offer aid to the English against the French and to secure land for your people in return.

You even put on your best English waistcoat.

How does it go? Not well. The British commander calls you a savage and says he doesn't need your help (wrong, by the way).

What might you be thinking?

I decided to portray Shingas apart from the group, head hanging low, brooding, pondering his next move.

Brother Tamaqua on the other hand has become philosophical, and has chosen to take the sun rays as a sign of hope or peace during this setback. Wynonah and Shshash are attentive, looking in the direction of Tamaqua's gesture.

Tamaqua points out the sun rays which will draw rain to wash blood

In this version Wynonah points while Tamaqua smokes

Some "pointing" gesture drawings

In the end I had to make sure not only to have each character in character but also to have each silhouette expressive of their state of mind. Lastly all four bodies, taken together, had to make a composition pleasing to the eye.

I came up with this:

Why are they naked? And why are artists always drawing naked people? These are questions that commonly pop into the minds of non-artists. The answer is simple: clothing reacts to what's under it. Sure, I know what clothing each character will wear-- but how will that clothing hang on bodies in these poses?

The correct approach is to draw the body first, then drape it, which is exactly what I did.

Incidentally the figures were drawn from this great website which allows artists to study human anatomy in three dimensions. Much less awkward than asking friends to pose in their underwear!
The next step was to take the costumes, which until now I'd drawn only in a very flat "paper doll" fashion, and apply them to the figures. I simply placed tracing paper over the figures I'd drawn and clothed them.

Shingas, Wynonah, Shshash, and Tamaqua in clothing with both European and traditional American influences

PART FOUR: Putting It All Together

Alright, so I know how everyone is posed and clothed: I know what the landscape looks like in which they stand, and I can see the fort that they can see, almost as well as they can see it. Am I done? Not quite.

It is now time for the elusive "compositional" skills to come to work. How do I make all these ingredients-- people, fort, setting, mood-- "sing" nicely together?

I know that I want a vastness of space to be apparent. Contrast might help me accomplish that task, with things nearby being darker and contrasty, and receding things like mountains to be pale and low contrast.

Value study: reminds me what to keep light, and what to make dark

I know also that I want the figures to be "readable" in silhouette without distraction. Maybe it will be good to have a large, pale, empty space behind them-- the river? The river reflecting sun would allow for whiter paper.

I know that I want sun beams (the ones Tamaqua is pointing out)-- this works well with the date (July 9, 1755)-- a humid July day in Pennsylvania would make nice sun beams. I also know that the beams must radiate from a single point (the sun).

OK, so that means I should position the sun above the river to cause a light reflection behind the characters-- and the beams must radiate from the same spot. Since people read left to right it makes sense to make the beams radiate the same way. Also this causes Tamaqua to point eastward-- and he, like the beams themselves, points in the direction of the battle (I told you I'd come back to that!) which is ten miles off the right edge of the paper.

This is all working nicely... time to begin the final drawing. I guess you know what happens from this point onward-- pencils, paper, erasers, lots and lots of hours spent at the drawing board, tweaking things, and trying to remain true to all those sketches-- are the costumes right? Is the sky light enough? Are the shadows deep enough? Do the gestures "read"?

I hope so. 

One last point-- keep in mind that all this work contributes to only one single illustration-- and there are forty pages to illustrate! This gives some idea of the behemoth task of illustrating Buttons & Beads. Many Duquesne sketches were omitted from this post as well.
If you've read this far you are a trooper-- like me! Thanks and have a good day. And buy the book once we announce purchase information, for goodness sake.

BONUS SECTION: More Sketches

This sketch, drawn directly on the manuscript, was useful in gauging sizes of things

How far was Ft. Duquesne from the rivers? About this far.

Fort layout. Also a note about what lies beyond: corn fields, forest, and bark cabins for soldiers

Bark cabin-- appears as a speck in the drawing. Ottawas, Ojibwas, and Potowatomis (French allies) lived in various kinds of housing outside of the fort.

Ojibwa style tent

Studying sun beams from my own yard