Tag Archives: America’s First Great Cities

Rocks and the Ancient Inca

Before working on BURIED I really didn’t know much about the Inca. I knew they lived in Peru, in the high mountains of the Andes, and I’d of course seen lots of dreamy photos of Macchu Picchu and llamas with tassles. Oh, and of course there’s that Disney movie. Kronk was surely based on a historical figure, right?

But after months of research there’s one thing I now know for sure: above all else it seems the Inca were big fans of rocks. Big rocks, round rocks, square rocks, little sissy rocks… pretty much any kind of rock. They dragged rocks over great distances to build their homes, they hauled rocks up steep mountains to build castles and temples, they carved rocks to match the silhouettes of mountains of celestial significance, and they did all of it–all of it!!– without iron tools, draught animals, the wheel, mortar, or a written language. Their rock building techniques are still something of a mystery to modern day archaeologists.

Inca Walls at Sacsayhuaman near Cusco, Peru

 

NOVA even put out a short documentary in 1997 called The Secrets of Lost Empires (Disc 3) that explores efforts to replicate Inca building methods by leading researchers in the field. According to the film, how did the ancient Inca carved 15 ton boulders? With a great deal of patience, human labor… and more rocks.

Inca 1: How are we going to carve this giant rock? All we’ve got is wood, bone, and rock.

Inca 2: Hey! I know! Let’s use this other rock!

The Inca were clearly doing something right; the walls that survived the Spanish conquistadors have withstood dozens of earthquakes in the last 500 years (while the colonial buildings on top of them have repeatedly collapsed. Ha! Take that, Spanish conquistadors!) Archaeologists have an idea of Cusco’s original layout, but, like the present-day city of Alexandria, there’s very little to show for its original splendor.

Inca walls still standing in modern Cusco, built without mortar or the use of iron tools.

 

Now part of my job as the illustrator for BURIED is to do a spread that depicts ancient Cusco. And for someone who needs to draw a recreation of the original city, a simple archaeological map of scattered foundation lines isn’t all that much to go on. I thought that perhaps I might track down an ink sketch or two from an artistic conquistador’s journal, but the only source image of the city on record is this painting by a Spanish monk, completed after the earthquake of 1650 about 100 years after Pizarro conquered the Inca. In other words, this doesn’t look much like Cusco as the Inca knew it.

Earthquake Painting in Cusco's Cathedral, Peru, from 1650.

 

The only other illustration leads available to me were the existing foundations of the Temple of the Sun at the Coriancha. Plated in with hundreds of sheets of gold and home to Inca kings and priests, the Coriancha sat at the heart of Cusco and was of course Pizarro’s first place of pillage. Today the foundations of the Coriancha still stand and bear the weight of the Church of Santo Domingo, and (luckily for me!) is the site of ongoing restoration inside the walls of the Church. Between tourist photos online and an archaeologist’s recreated drawing, I could begin to conceive of what this small part Cusco might have originally looked like.

Coriancha, the Temple of the Sun. The original foundation is the dark gray stone beneath the modern church.

 

Recreated drawing of Coriancha from the book ANCIENT CUZCO: HEARTLAND OF THE INCA by Brian S. Bauer

 

First I used the photos and the drawing above to make a quick clay model to draw from for my roughs (it’s terribly useful to turn a model in space, and it’s also a welcome break from sketching!) The drawings themselves were easy, but I was quickly frustrated by how un “city-like” the Coriancha appeared. The small handful of steeply sloped buildings felt terribly underwhelming compared to the vast expanse of Copan or Tenochtitlan. (In the case of Copan, the city was abadoned to the jungle, and in the case of Tenochtitlan there was indeed an artistic conquistador on the scene. No such luck with Cusco.)

Clay Model of the Temple of the Sun.

 

Sketch of the Coriancha.

 

Sketch of the Coriancha.

 

Sketch of the Coriancha.

 

In the end I chose to shift the angle of the drawing, focusing on the view of the Coriancha from below. A little wisp of smoke and some sun breaking through the clouds in the final drawing will help increase the drama of the scene, and I’m much happier with the city spanning the full width of the page spread. And look at all of that beautiful Inca rock that I get to draw for the book!

Final Sketch of the Coriancha.

 

Coming soon: more on the Maya! Stay tuned!

Sun Worship and Sacrifices

Lately as I work on the sketches for BURIED I’m struck by the sheer volume of sun-worship and sacrifice across cultures. Growing up going to Sunday school gave me a disconcerting familiarity to Judeo-Christian sacrifice—of course lambs and first born sons should be slaughtered on altars to appease [the sun] god!—but somehow it’s never really sunk in that this tradition is true for every other religion. Building by building, city by city, the Maya, Inca, Aztec and Mississippi peoples all oriented their architecture towards celestial events as places of sacrifice. The sun rises behind this temple, venus rises in front of that one, and in the case of the Mayan Kukulcan Temple in Chichen Itza, a hand clap directed towards the stairs will echo back as the call of the quetzal bird, the embodiment of Kukulcan himself:

For as long as there has been religion priests have used these kinds of special effects and hocus pocus to validate their tribute demands from their people. This application of astronomy and architecture doesn’t prove or disprove anything about the existence of god, of course, but what amazes me is just how similar the ideas are across all cultures around the world. Wrong or right, religion of any kind does make us feel part of a bigger picture, and if we link ourselves to things beyond our control then we have relief from and less responsibility for our own destiny. I know nothing has really changed—the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. lines up with the sunrise, too (implying a great deal about the religion of capitalism, no?)—but it seems like maybe once upon a time someone out there would have had different ideas.

Or maybe they just had that guy killed?

Study for the Mayan game of Pok-ta-Pok which celebrated the celestial movements of the gods and ended with sacrificing either the winner or the loser.

 

Study for the Aztec New Fire Ceremony wherein priests kindle a fire in the chest of a sacrificial victim and passed torch by torch to every household in the city.

 

On a completely different note, a little update on SHARK: I’ve finally purchased plane tickets to fly out and do some first-hand research this fall! Thanks to the enthusiasm and generosity of several scientists and Farallon experts in the Bay Area, I will be spending several days on the water in early October to witness great white shark tagging and get a water tour around the islands. My foul-weather gear is ready, and Dramamine is at the top of my packing list; fingers-crossed that the sharks put in an appearance while I’m there!

Horses, Battles, and a Couple of Moose

Yesterday I spent a few hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, surrounded by kids and tourists as I drifted from room to air-conditioned room. My goal was to do studies from battle scenes, to draw horses, peasants, and armor as illustration reference for my Mesoamerican BURIED BENEATH US book with Macmillan. But of course I love just being at the Met too; each and every object feels full of life and presence. Thousand year old jade combs and 18th century portraits of children. Someone wore this. Someone made this. This is what someone left behind.

The Aztec and Incan empires fell at the hands of Cortez and Pizarro, respectively, so before I left my apartment I looked through my roughs of page spreads that demand drawings of Spanish conquistadors to see what I needed. The museum’s European political paintings and various on-location works by the Impressionists were especially helpful in giving me ideas for poses, composition, and general stylistic approach. I’m not sure quite how this book will hang together yet–right now I’m trying to take each section at a time–but going to the Met gave me a much fuller sense of what is possible. I hope to pay many more visits over the rest of the summer.

Also I completely forgot to post this last month but I did this moose sketch while at the Museum of Natural History, too. I love the pose within this scene! So much emotion between the two animals. They’re fierce and majestic, fragile but strong… can’t wait to get back there again soon, too. I love living in New York!!

Museum of Natural History

This Sunday found me at the Museum of Natural History in NYC drawing Mayan sculptures and pottery. After many days spent indoors working on my BURIED BENEATH US book I thought it would be fun and helpful to go get a look at some source material. At first glance the Central American wing is a little disappointing: it lacks the dioramas, reproduction clothing, educational videos and drawings curated for many of the other civilizations. But at closer look there’s much to see, and the time that I spent there gave me some new ideas for the book.

From the towering reproduction stelae (above) to the tiny figurines, the museum’s collection of Mayan figures wear a dizzying alphabet of marks and lines to describe their clothing, hair, and ornamentation. While this stylized short-hand doesn’t quite compute for modern viewers, it’s a terrific jumping off point for an illustrator. With my walnut ink washes and black line work I focused trying to draw “from the inside” of the figures, looking for gesture and anatomy within the different clay portraits:



My giant Moleskin gave me ample room to play, and I’m already looking forward to my return. In the meantime I may take a trip down to China Town to draw in the markets, the closest stand-in for village life that I can think of in New York City (but I’m open to suggestions!) In other news today I signed the gigantic beast that is my contract for SHARK. I’m a real author!! Huzzah for Macmillan!

Leap of Faith

There is a moment that happens while working on any big art project that for me is full of electricity and magic. In a film, this moment would fall at the end of Act 1, about 25 minutes in, when the character makes a choice and crosses into the world of Act 2. It’s when Ripley and the Nostromo touch down to investigate the signal in Alien. It’s when John McClane decides to stop the terrorists in Die Hard. It’s when Joel gathers his things to erase Clementine from his memory in Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind. (Can you tell that I’m married to someone who loves to talk about story structure in film?)

But in art, in books, when working on a manuscript in life, this transition into Act 2 really does happen (which is why it works in stories at all). And for me the moment looks just like this: a tiny box divided in half full of scribbles that represent a page spread:

To anyone else this might look like the very beginning. After all, my sketchbook is empty, and I’ve made countless trips to the kitchen to avoid doing actual work. But usually months have already passed since the initial project discussions and I’ve been turning over the problems in my head for some time. I’ve met or spoken with the editor or art director at least once or twice, and I’ve done my reading, I’m doing research, and I am beginning to fall in love with the material and the context. Perhaps I’ve even started to doodle some characters. Anything (but not everything!) is in the realm of possibility, and I’m trying not to let my fear of certain failure keep me balled up on the couch.

Now there’s nothing left to do but to “start.” More and more I am learning to recognize (and have faith in) the threshold of Act 2. There is a beat, a breath, a pause… and the world goes absolutely silent. I peer into the abyss ahead, knowing that in six months or one year I’ll have completed the project, even though from where I stand I can’t see how it will happen. I pick up a pen and I take a leap of faith. It will all work out (or it won’t) but there’s not going back to Act 1!

Mesoamerican Research!

This week I’ve been stalking the shelves of the New York Public Library for visual resources to start on roughs for BURIED BENEATH US. Yay! So far the most useful finds have been the Discovery School Social Studies DVDs, which are sort of a mediocre version of something you might see on the History Channel. The stiff acting, repeated footage, and discussion questions are bringing me back to 7th grade, but aside from some inner groaning they’ve been ever so helpful in giving me context for the four cultures the book will cover (Cahokia, Aztec, Maya, & Inca). This week I’ve also been scouting neighborhoods in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens for our new apartment. Feel free to send good apartment vibes and leads our way for a June 1st move!

Huzzah! Macmillan Book Number Two!

There are so many things I love to draw: Nature. People. Architecture. Ancient civilizations. Llamas.

Did she say llamas??

YES!

With cheers of excitement and at least one bottle of wine, I am delighted to announce my SECOND book deal with Macmillan as the illustrator of BURIED BENEATH US by author/wicked-smart professor/Danny DeVito look-alike Anthony Aveni! From where cities come from and how cities grow, to daily life and the function of religion, this terrific and compelling non-fiction picture book focuses on life in four ancient American cities: the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, the Incan city of Cuzco, the Mayan city of Copan, and the mound city of Cahokia on the Mississippi.

The book will about 96 pages long and filled with dozens of my black-and-white illustrations, which will both help explain the information and reach a wider audience. The final art is due September 1st, and will be published with Roaring Brook sometime in 2013. A huge thanks and shout out to Deirdre Langeland, my soon-to-be editor for this fabulous book! Huzzah, let’s do it! Ready or not, llamas, here I come!

Over the spring and coming summer I will be up to my ears in research and graphite, which is the BEST kind of way to spend any season. In anticipation of this book I’ve already paid a brief visit to both the Met and the Museum of Natural History here in New York City to do a little preliminary visual research and refamiliarize myself with ancient American art. How I love the simple elegance and design of Incan fabrics, Aztec sculptures, and Mayan vases! Here’s a glimpse of some quick doodles from one of my (oh-so) high-tech sketchbooks. More drawing are sure to come this way soon:

In the meantime I have ONE MORE AWESOME BOOK that I’m already waist deep in the midst of illustrating. That triumphant announcement will be made this Friday; stay tuned for more news from my studio and mountains of roughs, sketches, and process work to come. Whew, what a busy year I have ahead of me!