Digital vs. Hand Illustration

The Importance of Hand Illustration in a Digital Age

There are several reasons to illustrate artifacts by hand rather than rely on photos:

a. A camera can only reveal what is exposed to the lens; if there’s a shadow, it will obscure important details.

b. Drawings can depict hidden, as well as visible surfaces; they show an object as it exists, rather than as it is perceived by the camera. For example, in illustrating a grave with only partial bones visible, the artist can “fill in” the missing bones.

c. A good drawing represents an artifact in the most favorable conditions of light and darkness, with no detail obscured by shadows or obliterated by harsh lighting.

d. Lithic analysts continue to prefer illustrations instead of photography. This is due in part because many stone tools are highly reflective or even translucent.

e. Hand illustrations are also preferred to digitally created drawings. The difference in quality of a hand-drawn illustration supersedes a computer generated one.

Archaeological illustration is more informative than a photo. As the artist, you control what you want the viewer to see by focusing on the areas that have been worked by humans.

One does however, recognize the need for photographing artifacts, especially in museums for keeping a digital inventory. In archaeology, researchers are now creating amazing 3-D images that enable the viewer to see different angles of an artifact. And, a microscopic photo that shows texture and color is often important to include in analytical reports.

Unlike other professions where digital technology has replaced traditional methods, researchers in archaeology still rely on the detailed drawings that an illustrator can produce. Just open an archaeological report, magazine or book, and you’ll find the majority of stone tools and pottery are shown as hand done line drawings – along with the photographs.

Stippling the side view of a mano.

Instead of pitting photography and digital technology against hand illustration, the general consensus in the field of archaeology is that hand-drawn illustrations complement digital imaging and vice versa. Having both – provides a complete analysis and a better representation of the artifact.

I often use Photoshop to clean up my drawings to prepare them for publishing. Photoshop and Illustrator are great tools but as Henry Thoreau stated, “Men have become the tools of their tools.” With that said, let’s not become a tool of our ‘technical’ tools. Have you ever listened to the sound of stippling? Can’t get that with a computer. …

Below is a pictograph from a Chumash cave in the Simi Hills area of Ventura County, California that I turned into a digital painting using Photoshop.

Chumash Ceremonial Site, Burro Flats – Digital Painting



About the Author: Native to San Diego County, Donna Walker earned her AIS Certificate (American Indian Studies) from Palomar College in San Marcos, CA where she also majored in art and history. Donna has been a contract artist for UCSD for the last several years, specializing in pottery/ceramic illustrations. She also teaches archaeological illustrations for various colleges, archaeological societies, and at the San Diego Archaeology Center in Escondido, CA. Her work appears in professional archaeological reports and presentations. She can be reached by email at: to schedule a class or one-on-one lesson.

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