Thursday, May 28, 2015

Picture This: A Spanish Colonial Family, Part 2


In my last post, I showed you the concept sketch for the illustration I'm working on, a painting of a Spanish era family at Santa Barbara Presidio in the late-18th or early-19th century.  That sketch was approved, I've now completed the finished drawing and am getting ready to paint it.  Here's how I got to this point.


A lot of research goes into a painting like this - that's a large part of why I like this work so much.  I seem to have a passion for finding out about what most people find irrelevant.  


For example, I include in this drawing a little boy learning how to ride on the back of a sheep. Last time, I included a casta painting that shows a boy doing this in 18th century New Spain (Mexico) and mentioned that this was the practice in early California as well.  A writer can just stop there and go no further, but as an illustrator I've got to draw that sheep. So what kind was it? 


Most scholars tell us that it was the churra sheep, first imported to the New World in the 16th century. They are now called churro in the United States and are raised to this day by the Navajo People in the American Southwest and by others who appreciate this historic breed (


I love how they look - half wild, their wide range of colors and the fact that both males and females have horns. The males' horns are, however, more impressive - much larger and often in multiple sets.  I've chosen to show the boy on a shorter-horned example, perhaps a ewe or young male. I'll also paint the sheep a tan color with brown face and legs, like ones on the left and right sides of the photo, above.


I'm not much of a gardener, but of course the produce shown in and around the older boy's basket has to be as authentic to the place and time as I can make it. Luckily my client, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, put me in touch with Jerry Sortomme, professor emeritus of Santa Barbara City College Environmental Horticulture program and project manager of La Huerta, the historic gardens at Mission Santa Barbara (  


I made a point of visiting La Huerta on a recent trip to Santa Barbara and Jerry was also kind enough to send me a list of historic varieties of fruits and vegetables grown at the mission garden. I had to assume that similar plants were found in the nearby presidio's gardens, too.  With that list, I went looking for period images of produce. Not surprisingly, casta paintings from 18th century Mexico were a tremendous help. 


I was pleased to find that some varieties grown in Mexico today are not that different from those seen more than 250 years ago.  For example, the pumpkin or squash seen in the casta painting above, resembles this one: 


And the corn (maize) this Baja Californian raven is eating, in a c. 1765 painting by Father Ignacio Tirsch, is similar to yellow corn today.  


The smaller fruit on the ground are prickly pear fruit, called tuna.


I included photos of ceramic bowls and pitchers last time, examples found by the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation. Now I needed a basket.   The Spanish probably did not make their own since all around them lived the Chumash People, Native Americans who wove superb baskets.  I chose as my model a simple flat-bottomed burden basket that is in the Ventura County Museum. 


In my next post, I'll describe my painting process and discuss the physical appearances and the clothing worn by my Spanish colonial family. 

A., B., and F. This is how my final drawing looks on the board.
C. This cartoon from the New Yorker magazine (2015) sums up how I imagine some people might view what interests me.
D. A churro ram I photographed some years ago at La Purisima Mission State Historic Park in California.
E. "Rick Scully and his flock of Navajo Churro Sheep" from "Navajo Churro Sheep," Wikipedia,
G. De Indio, y Mestiza. Coyote. Unknown artist, ca. 1760-1770. Philadelphia Museum of Art. From, Ilona Katzew, editor, New World Orders; Casta Painting and Colonial Latin America. New York: Americas Society Art Gallery, 1996.
H. Casta painting by Luis de Mena, ca. 1750. Museo de América, Madrid. From Ilona Katzew, Casta Painting; Images of Race in Eighteenth Century Mexico. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004.
I. This variety of Mexican pumpkin resembles one grown there more than 250 years ago.
J.  Watercolor of a raven on an ear of yellow corn, c. 1765. From Doyce Nunis and Elspeth Schulz-Bischof, The Drawings of Ignacio Tirsch; a Jesuit Missionary in Baja California. Los Angeles: Dawson's Book Shop, 1972.
K. The fruit of the prickly pear cactus, called tuna
L. Chumash burden basket. From, Travis Hudson and Thomas C. Blackburn, The Material Culture of the Chumash Interaction Sphere, v. 1, A Ballena Press/Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Cooperative Publication, 1979.

1 comment:

  1. The details are fascinating! I greatly appreciate the scrupulous research it takes to create an authentic representation of colonial life. Keep up the excellent work and thanks for sharing.