Black Jack Battleground design workshop

The workshop took place at Walt Hunt’s shop in Lawrence, Kansas. All told, there were probably about fifteen of us, including four youth from a program called Van Go, a guy from Texas, a guy from Winnipeg, Canada, and myself. Our charge was to design a gate for the Black Jack Battleground. Black Jack was among the first forays of John Brown (of Harper’s Ferry fame) into violent abolitionism, and is disputably the first battle of the Civil War.

Peter Parkinson talking with some of the workshop participants.

First we watched a slide show from Terrence Clark as he talked about commissions he’s done and how he comes up with his designs. When he begins drawing, often he will place a printed photograph of the location under the design, through the vellum so he can draw the piece to scale in front of its final environment. He outlines the background on the final design for the client so they can see it in reference to the building.

Terrence showed us sketches, and lots of them. Drawing as many different permutations of your design as you need is encouraged. Creating a variety of sketches is very important to help you explore all options and work figure out exactly what you’re trying to accomplish.

  • Incorporate images that are important to the client as well as the shapes of the spaces and environment it will sit in — has to be complimentary, taking into account angles from which it will be viewed and what’s next to it.
  • The client probably doesn’t know what they want, but get a good idea of who they are for your design. When they see it, they will probably ask if you meant it to have certain symbolism. The correct answer is that of course you intended that.

John Brown and compatriot are fighting those damn Missourians!

Following Terrence’s presentation, we drove out to the Black Jack Battle site, heard the story from a couple of fun re-enactors, and took photographs and measurements. We returned to Walt’s shop and sat for a presentation from Peter Parkinson on his work. He introduced us to the idea of the conceptual drawing versus the design, by showing a photo of a sketchbook with a page filled with different concepts for tables — no drawing had more than a dozen lines, just stick figure tables with legs in all different configurations.

This led into a concept drawing exercise. “How many ways can you think of joining two bars together in a 90º T intersection? Draw them.” The ideas didn’t need to be well rendered, just enough to get the idea across.

What was really interesting was realizing that I use this technique sometimes, but not as consciously as I should. Being able to take ahold of and direct my creative energies will hopefully broaden the range of designs I can make.

A pile of our conceptual drawings.

Under Peter’s guidance, we collectively brainstormed a list of symbolism involved in the project, including emotion we wanted to evoke and physical symbols and images necessary for building the gate. From there we set about with the first round of conceptual sketches. After a short time we brought all our drawings together and decided what elements were best of all the sketches. We were instructed to refine our concepts taking into account the elements that we all chose.

Terrence really stressed the importance of starting with a scale drawing early on in the design phase. He explained that the simplicity it brought to further work was invaluable. What you see on the paper, all the proportions, is what you get in the construction of the piece. All you have to do is make what you drew.

Terrence working to combine our concepts into one cohesive design.

The second day we came back together with our designs and thoughts from the previous night. As we continued to work on the designs and refine what we as a group wanted, Terrence began to draw the final design. It’s going to come out fantastic, and I plan to drive to Kansas in May and help with the final building of the gate.

Other things I learned from asking questions that didn’t necessarily get covered in the workshop proper:

  • One school of thought recommends providing the client with one single well thought out drawing with shading and some watercolor, as well as scale figures so people would understand the real size of the design. That one single drawing, looking as good as you can make it, is, in your professional opinion, the best option. We do this to handle picky and indecisive clients.
  • For simple shading, decide on a source of light. use a thicker pen to go over the lines on the far side of each bar in your drawing.
  • If you have the option of taking a drafting class — do it!

First draft of the Black Jack Battleground gate design.

It was the sort of weekend that I will continue learning from for years as I utilize things I heard and saw there. I am looking forward to May, when we get to build the gate, assuming the funding is settled. If you want to donate to a good cause, please visit the Black Jack Gate blog.

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