University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Illustrating History: An Interview with John Pearson


August 1, 2018

Journey through Ur
Hand drawn animations depict a journey through the ancient city of Ur.

As I walk down the street, I pass donkeys carrying food in saddlebags and children making their way home. They weave through tight streets and around dogs laying in the middle of the path. Birds flit through the sky. As I make my way toward the ziggurat, a crescent moon begins to rise over the city…but I’m not in the ancient city of Ur. I’m at the Penn Museum, viewing an illustrated projection of a journey through the city of Ur.

The stunning visualizations in the galleries were created by the team at Haley Sharpe Design (HSD)—namely, John Pearson, HSD’s in-house illustrator. John graciously shared his creative process behind the development of the art for the Penn Museum’s Middle East Galleries.


John Pearson
John Pearson, in-house illustrator at Haley Sharpe Design, created the illustrations in the Penn Museum’s Middle East Galleries. Image courtesy of John Pearson, Haley Sharpe Design.

Question: What sparked your interest in art?

John Pearson: From an early age I was interested in art. I attended many exhibitions, both museum and fine art in London. At art college I developed my interest in watercolor painting and illustration.

Q: What led you to create design work for cultural institutions?

JP: I began working as an archaeological illustrator at the Museum of London where I illustrated both Roman and Medieval finds from various archaeological digs across the city. This lead to creating reconstruction drawings and paintings of Roman and Medieval London. I have continued both as concept artist and historical illustrator throughout my career.

Q: Can you explain your creative process in making the illustrations for the Penn Museum’s Middle East Galleries?

JP: All the illustrations started with a pencil rough. At this stage it is an exploration to choose a viewpoint or composition that fully describes the brief. A dialogue was established between myself and the Museum staff at Penn so that reference could be provided, and progress of the drawing discussed. Once the composition is established a series of drafts are produced which gradually refine the drawing and detail.

Initially the drawing is scanned and a Photoshop file is produced as the working draft which builds towards the finished artwork. Details are added or amended in this draft process. This is a flexible drawing method that I find invaluable when working on images often with many different elements to them.

Once the drawing is agreed upon, I can then move to finish the work, adding tone and/or color in transparent washes.

Q: What medium was used? Do you typically work in the same medium?

JP: I use line and watercolor wash as a chosen medium for this work. The transparency of the medium is ideal for this type of illustration where the emphasis is on the drawn content. The wash can be both tonal or full color.

Q: Some of your artistic renderings in the Middle East Galleries include splashes of color (especially gold) and others are solely in black and white. How did you make the decision to use black and white versus color?

JP: At the outset the illustrations were to be a series of tonal drawings, however, as they progressed it was generally agreed that some should have color wash to emphasize certain objects and areas or create the whole scene in more detail.

Warrior's Grave Illustration
An illustration of a Warrior’s Grave from the ancient city of Ur uses color to emphasize objects from the grave that are on display in the Middle East Galleries. Image courtesy of John Pearson, Haley Sharpe Design.
Warrior's Grave Illustration in the Middle East Galleries
The Warrior’s Grave illustration can be found on an interactive screen next to the objects from the grave.

Q: Can you explain the idea behind using a sequence of static images rather than moving images for the journey through the city of Ur to the ziggurat?

JP: The journey through Ur was initially created as an exploratory story board to find the best route to describe the city as a whole. This involved many rough sketches until the route was decided upon. Key stages along the route were drawn to show the different areas as we walked from the trading post to the top of the ziggurat. By using key locations along the route, we could draw on the historical evidence and leave out areas which were less known about.

Despite the fact that each individual image was a single frame they were not static as such. Each frame was a collaboration of effort from storyboard, historical reference, discussion, and then the final drawing which, in turn, was sent to the animation team. Each frame was comprised of many individual drawings. Each object, figure, and building were drawn separately and compiled to make the scene. This enabled the animator to move the figures slightly and move into the space of the drawing beyond what would be considered to be the picture plane [or surface of the drawing]. Tone on buildings, deep shadows, and dust, were all painted and added at the end of each image.

Personally, I feel that a lively drawn image is more interesting than a full-scale animation which would leave less for the viewer’s imagination and investigation.

Journey Through Ur Storyboard
Storyboards were used in the development of the journey through Ur sequence. Image courtesy of John Pearson, Haley Sharpe Design.

Q: How did the project evolve as you worked on it?

JP: Inevitably with a project of this scale and scope there is a certain amount of exploring to find the best way to create the illustrations through getting to know the Penn team and understand the specific requirements of the brief. Having worked on several historical projects prior to Penn I am familiar with the approach, however, each project has its own identity and the drawings should reflect this.

As the project progressed I set up a dialogue with members of the Penn team who, in turn, provided me with reference folders which were constantly updated. This was crucial for the content of each drawing. I gained detailed knowledge as the job progressed so one drawing would enable another to start.

Sealings and Illustrations
Illustrations by John Pearson depict the creation of the adjacent sealings, used by early farmers to protect baskets and bags of goods.

During your next visit to see Queen Puabi, watch the journey through Ur to be transported back to her city, and play a game of “I Spy” to see how many of John’s other illustrations you can find throughout the Middle East Galleries. Hint: they are found on the walls and the interactive screens. Looking for a way to explore the galleries from home? Check out this video series about the making of the Middle East Galleries.

Photos by author, unless otherwise noted.


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