Late last summer I agreed to take on a project drawing fossils at The Sedgwick Museum. I sketch my designs before I begin working with silver clay and admittedly I have made pen and ink drawings of the dog a few times but until this point I hadn’t really view myself as an illustrator. I don’t even have GCSE art. I was incredibly honoured and, if I’m honest, a little daunted by the idea of making accurate drawings of ammonites.
This museum, part of Cambridge University, is like an enormous cabinet of curiosities. There are 1.5 million fossils in its collection, from stromatolites, the very earliest traces of life captured in rock to a gargantuan fossil spider as big as a bull mastiff. (Megarachne – what a fantastic name). There’s an ichthyosaur found by Mary Anning and this is the welcoming party waiting near the entrance to greet every visitor:
I love how the collections are laid out – similar to how I imagine Victorian collectors would display their finds, only at the Sedgwick some of ammonites are as big as dinner plates and in display cabinets set into the floor there are entire plesiosaurs and, ahem, collections of sizeable dinosaur coprolites. Members of the public are encouraged to bring fossils they may have found to museums for identification. My task was to draw key specimens from ten categories of fossils from the Sedgwick collection as a visual aid to the classification of finds brought in by museum visitors. No pressure then.
Specimens were selected for me and placed into special handling boxes. I drew them with my fountain pen (note inky fingers) in a quiet collections room surrounded by boxes and drawers filled with fossils.
Perhaps my favourite group of specimens was the sea urchins and sand dollars (Echinoids) shown below. I adore the design and shapes of these fossils, their five lines of symmetry and star-like markings. I was particularly taken with the species of seaurchin in the centre of the image below, with its bulbous clubs used to fend off predators. I reminded me of Dave Grohl at his drumkit.
This illustration project was an absolute joy. It was a privilege to spend time with the museum staff and I admit to spending a fair amount of time simply communing with the contents of the cabinets.
This ammonite is bigger than my head
Both the process of drawing itself and the quietness of the museum were intensely relaxing – rather welcome, especially during the frenetic period just before Christmas. Working on this project was most definitely a good thing and it made me realise that I can actually draw. I’m making sketches as part of my Spring notebook at the moment. The fossil illustration project has made me a little more confident with my pen.
Note: I have listed several new workshop dates recently, including:
Beading workshop 8th June (2 spaces available)