An archaeological illustrator

 4 April 2013

As a specialist archaeological illustrator, Tanya Berks creates artistic reconstructions of archaeological sites, but also assists with land surveying, technical drawing, and conservation. She spoke about her career journey.

Tanya's work mixes heritage conservation with technical skill and artistic creativity.
Tanya's work mixes heritage conservation with technical skill and artistic creativity.

"I work for a small archaeological trust in North Wales as an archaeological illustrator and surveyor. Although these are my primary roles, I also take part in excavations, archiving and the conservation of excavated finds.

"My main reason for working in this job is that I enjoy creating visual representations of the past. These allow the general public to gain an understanding of their heritage.

"Through my work, I create permanent records of artefacts, sites and buildings which otherwise would be lost forever."

Building artistic skills

"Ever since my A level history tutor told me about her illustrator husband, I dreamed of becoming an archaeological illustrator. He would often spend time in Italy drawing ancient artefacts.

"I create visual representations of the past, allowing people to gain an understanding of their heritage."

"I thought this sounded fantastic, but I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would actually make it as an illustrator.

"I did as many short courses in digital illustration as I could, and I networked any chance I got.

"Because of my efforts, a lot of people knew I was keen to get into illustration, and so any opportunities that came up were often passed my way."

Starting out in archaeology

"I studied Archaeology as a degree and then became a field assistant. I've always been a keen artist, and my skills were soon noticed by field directors.

"I continued to do City and Guilds courses in Computer Aided Design (CAD) and similar design packages, as well as Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

"This led to a vocational postgraduate degree, and the opportunity to work for the graphics team at Oxford Archaeology where I was able to take courses in-house. After working for a variety of companies, I ended up in north Wales."

Working as an archaeological illustrator

"My days are quite varied, depending on whether I’m on site or in the office.

"Site work includes building surveys, site surveys, excavation, and so on. In the office, my time is divided between illustration, conservation work on any finds we have excavated, and general administration work.

"It is difficult to get a break in this field. All jobs ask for experience, but how do you get it?"

"I’m always inspired by the illustration skills of our site assistants, who managed to create plans that I can digitise in the most horrible weather conditions.

"Sometimes in this sector, the acknowledgment of our skills can be limited. Archaeological illustrators are quite low paid. This is an issue which the Association of Archaeological Illustrators & Surveyors (AAI&S) is often concerned with.

"Archaeological illustrators are skilled members of an archaeological team. We have advanced greatly over the years, moving away from pen and paper to digital illustration. It requires a great amount of training and dedication to be able to create the types of illustrations expected from us in the commercial world.

"It is difficult to get a break in this field. All jobs ask for experience, but how do you get experience if no one gives you a job?"

3 tips for a career in archaeological illustration 

  1. Know your imaging software
    "I found that any courses you can do give you a start, but you really need to buy the packages and practise using them. At the very least, you need to be able to work with Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and CAD (Computer-Assisted Design).
    "It's always of benefit to have completed courses that build the relevant digital skills, including CAD, GIS and even web design."
  2. Build a portfolio of your work 
    "If I were recruiting an archaeological illustrator, I would look for someone with at least a degree in a relevant field, and at least six months to a year's experience of illustration work.
    "It's also important to aim to become a member of the AAI&S, as they will assess and accredit your work."
  3. Network persistently
    "Never stop networking! One day you’ll talk to the person who will give you your break.
    "Try to attend conferences, too, particularly once you've joined the AAI&S. This is a great way to find out what is going on in archaeological illustration and meet lots of people who will give you advice."

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