Prick up your ears

June 25, 2009

Before the age of photocopiers and scanners, how did you make a copy of an image? In a sense, you didn’t – prior to photography there was no means to make an exact replica of a drawing. This doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of copying done, though, and many techniques were developed to improve on the results you could get by replicating an image freehand. Tracing through a translucent sheet is one obvious example; another is the technique of pricking. This is as simple as it sounds: you take a pin – which, by the way, was a staggeringly common thing in the days before zippers and staplers, because that was how you kept your clothing on and your documents together – and make tiny holes along the main lines of the design.

It’s often difficult to see pricking unless you are looking closely, but here is a drawing from the collection of the Soane Museum where you can see the holes quite clearly.

It was originally drawn in the 1690s by Nicholas Hawksmoor as a scheme for the royal hospital in Greenwich, and altered several times as he kept working on the plans. The pricking is probably for transferring the drawing on to a plate so that an engraving could be made.

Once the holes were put into the paper, the image was “pounced,” meaning that a coloured powder was sprinkled over it. The pounce would sift through the pinholes, making the redrawing of the image as simple as connect-the-dots. This is a technique used often in embroidery as well as sketching. Here is a purpose-made pounce bowl, probably made in the seventeenth century. You can see that the bottom is fitted out with a pierced copper plate that let the powder through. (Pounce was also used to dry ink on written documents.)

Pricking is used in some surprising contexts. For example, ink painting in China and Japan has a reputation for being very quick and instinctive. What we tend to appreciate in such a painting is the brushwork. Yet Asian painters relied extensively on models (called fanban in Chinese, funpon in Japanese) which they copied, both as a way of learning the skills of painting and in order to “mass-produce” images that were particularly popular. Sometimes the model was pricked and pounced, transferring the image to a new sheet of paper or silk, and then the painting was made using the dots as a guide.  (A great book on this subject was recently published, entitled “Copying the Master and Stealing His Secrets.”) At left, below, is a funpon inspired by a famous painting entitled “Hawks and Pines” by the 16th century painter Sesson.


While the funpon is valuable mainly as a document of professional painting practice, the original (on the right) is an Important Cultural Property in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum.

The best pricked image I have ever seen is right here in the V&A: a “drawing” consisting entirely of pricked lines. It’s actually a reversal of the usual routine. For this image, probably made by an amateur as a domestic accomplishment, an outline was made using a pencil and then the detail was done with a pin. Hope she had a thimble handy.

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