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News Uncovering ancient preparatory drawings

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Two pelikai attributed to the Villa Giulia Painter, about 450 B.C. On the left, 77.AE.12.1, and on the right, 77.AE.12.2, both J. Paul Getty Museum, Gift of Gordon McLendon.

​PSP student Sanchita Balachandran is using Reflectance Transformation Imaging to reveal the “first draft” drawings of ancient Greek vase painters. From Balachandran's blog post on her work as a Getty Conservation Guest Scholar:

The Getty Villa’s stunning new installation of the wares made by the potters and painters of Athens thousands of years ago showcases how expertly these gleaming red and black surfaces were made. But while most visitors come to marvel at the completed perfection that the Athenian craftspeople wanted their viewers to see, I am usually looking for what these ancient makers didn’t intend for us to see—their imperfections, and most especially, their first drafts.

The complex and finely painted images on ancient Greek ceramics might appear effortlessly made, but even the accomplished artisans of the Kerameikos (the Athenian potters’ quarter) didn’t just wing it. Behind, well actually, underneath those confident brush strokes are barely visible lines, traces of the preparatory drawings made by artisans as they sketched out the images they planned to paint on the still damp and pliable clay of their unfired pots. Made with a variety of pointed tools, these preparatory drawings range from scant lines, to ovals delineating heads and hands, to extensive sketches. And I’m starting to look for them everywhere.

​Details of Apollo’s face from 77.AE.12.1 (left) and 77.AE.12.2 (right). The top images are viewed in normal light, while the images below are viewed in the RTI software.

My research focuses on the production practices of the Athenian craftspeople making red-figure ceramics, the pottery that depicts red figures against a black background made between the last quarter of the sixth century and into the fourth century BCE. After three years of studying the art, science and logistics of making red-figure ceramics, I’ve started to explore questions of how many people were involved in producing these objects, and whether we can actually recognize the individual handiwork of different members of the workgroup across the thousands of ancient ceramics that are in museum collections. While much of the existing scholarship on Greek vase painting identifies artists by their painted lines, for me, potentially the most recognizable of these individual ancient traces are the preparatory drawings sketched in the clay over two thousand years ago that are still preserved under the existing paintings. But seeing these hidden lines literally requires examining these surfaces under a new (60mm) lens. And using a computer algorithm.

As a Getty Conservation Institute Guest Scholar in 2017, I worked closely with David Saunders, associate curator in the Getty Museum’s Antiquities Department, to study over forty red-figure ceramics using a computational photographic technique called reflectance transformation imaging (RTI). With a tripod, a camera, a flash unit, a computer, and some trepidation, I captured datasets of between 48 to 100 high resolution digital images of the same surface under different lighting conditions; these images were then combined using mathematical algorithms to create the sense of light moving across the object’s surface, revealing details that are difficult to see in normal light.

To read the full blog post, click here.

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PSP student Sanchita Balachandran is using Reflectance Transformation Imaging to reveal the “first draft” drawings of ancient Greek vase painters.

​PSP student Sanchita Balachandran is using Reflectance Transformation Imaging to reveal the “first draft” drawings of ancient Greek vase painters.

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489