Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Picture This: A Spanish Colonial Family, Part 1


I'm working on an illustration of a Spanish colonial family of the late-18th to early-19th century for the Santa Barbara Presidio State Historic Park in California.  The presidio, or fort, dates back to 1782.  The Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation commissioned my illustration for a new series of interpretive signage.  I thought I'd take this opportunity to explain how I approach an assignment like this. 

The purpose of the illustration is to show a more or less typical colonial family, each holding, wearing or doing something that tells us about their lives.  


So the mother, wrapped in her rebozo, holds her smallest child while saying goodbye to her husband, a soldier.  


Their daughter pours milk, that she collected herself, into a bowl for a cat.  Cats arrived in California with the earliest Spanish settlers and were valuable in keeping down the rodent population. 


The oldest son has a basket full of corn and squash from the garden plots outside the fort. 


And, my favorite, the youngest son is sitting astride a sheep, which is how families in Mexico and the Spanish Borderlands taught their children to ride.  

With the goal of the illustration in mind, I drew a concept sketch, shown at the top of this article.  I did not use models or other references for this sketch - it's simply based on my visual memory. The purpose of the sketch is to convey the poses, costumes, activities and mood of the illustration without going to the trouble of using models or finding other visual materials that might have to be changed if the client does not like my concept. Luckily, they did. 



I've now gone on to the "tight" drawing - for which I did pose models and found detailed references - such as the ceramic bowl and pitcher the girl will hold.  The Santa Barbara Trust's staff archaeologist sent me these photos - examples of things actually used at the presidio in the Spanish era. 

Next time, I'll show the tight drawing and some more of the research that went into it. 

*My thanks to Jarrell C. Jackman, Executive Director; Michael H. Imwalle, Archaeologist; and Anne Petersen, Associate Director for Historical Research, Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation for all their past kindnesses and their generous assistance with this assignment.

A. This is my concept sketch for the illustration, drawn in pencil and from the imagination - without models or other references.

B. Drawn by José Cardero in 1791, this detail from a larger view of Mission San Carlos (Carmel) in California shows a man - perhaps a soldier - talking to two Spanish women. This is one of my references for the clothing shown in my illustration, including the women's striped rebozos (shawls). Museo de America, Madrid.

C. Californio women are seen milking cows near the Presidio of Monterey, California, from a watercolor  made during the Beechey Expedition, 1826. Bancroft Library, University of California.

D. There are no contemporary images of gardens in 18th century Alta California, but here is a view of Mission San José del Cabo, in Baja California, 1767. The gardens are the fenced area to left of the picture.  Painting by Father Ignacio Tirsch, original in the National Library of the Czech Republic, Prague. See Garden History Girl,

E. A Mexican casta painting shows a boy learning to ride on a sheep. Nineteenth century eyewitnesses tell us that this was done in California as well.  See Ilona Katzew's Casta Painting (2004), Plate 167. Anonymous, Collection of Malú and Alejandra Escandón, Mexico City.

F. and G. Terra cotta bowls and pitchers. Though the pitchers are actually chocolate pots, their general size, shape and material match the one shown in fig. C., above.

According to the Santa Barbara Presidio website (,
"El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park is operated by the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation under an operating agreement with California State Parks.  The Santa Barbara Trust’s mission is to preserve, restore, reconstruct and interpret historic sites in Santa Barbara County.  It engages in archaeological and historical research and publication to expand knowledge about Santa Barbara's history. The Santa Barbara Trust works closely with California State Parks, the City of Santa Barbara, the County of Santa Barbara and various cultural and educational constituencies to attract and inform a broad audience through its restoration projects, exhibits, living history demonstrations, public events and lectures, and public school programs.  For more information about the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, visit its website at"

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