James G. Mundie's Cabinet of Curiosities






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Every museum started with one person's desire to gather together examples of objects that interest them, and then to display those to others out of pride or a desire to educate. This urge to collect and organize things is a common one that we see in many people's enthusiasm for baseball cards or rare coins. People of extraordinary means might have focused instead on art or archeological artifacts, while the objects of primary relevance to this discussion came mostly from anatomists and surgeons. All collections bear the mark of the collector, who may have carefully chosen their selections, or obsessively grabbed every example they could find regardless of quality.

It is when the collector decides to show their collections to others that things can get really interesting. Sometimes the collector was attempting to assert their own importance, and the mark of that ego is everywhere. My favorite museums are often those that were built around a particular theme or vision and where the quirky intentions of the original collector remain intact to some degree. If that collection is housed within a magnificent building where the display cases and architecture engage the visitor, all the better. For this reason, the context and environment of the objects displayed interests me, and I try to preserve as much of that as possible in my depictions.

The first step I take before I decide to bring out my cameras or sketchbook is to walk through the entire collection. As I do so, I am noting those objects which interest me, but also assessing which may make for an interesting drawing or photograph, considering which angles will show them to best advantage, or what appears near them to provide additional context. If I have several hours — or even better, days — it is an opportunity to consider the changing quality of light (if the space has large windows) through the course of the day. Depending on circumstances, I might decide to postpone photographing this or that object until the light shifts, or photograph it now and later for comparison. If I do not have the luxury of that much time, I need to focus on what can be achieved in the time available. After making the initial circuit, I decide which objects I want to draw, and which I want to photograph.


The first step is to solicit the permission of the museum curator to take photographs. Many collections do not allow photography generally, though many visitors try to sneak shots on their cell phones regardless. My intention is to honor the wishes of the collections with which I seek to work — some of whom have complex legal or societal concerns about depicting the objects they display. For this reason, I will not take photographs unless permitted to do so and opt instead to stick with drawing.

I generally will take a first pass through the collection with my digital SLR camera. This allows me to quickly document the objects of interest (if for example, I want photo reference for later off-site drawings), but also to test lighting conditions for optimal exposure, angle, and glare. It is also an opportunity to photograph display labels, so all of the information about that object is available to me later. Generally, all of these objects appear under glass, so there is glare from existing lights or windows and reflections to be dealt with.

When working in any museum, I am photographing only with available light and preferably handheld, only resorting to a tripod when necessary. I try to be as unobtrusive as possible and not block another visitor's access to any object, so there may be a great deal of waiting on my part until others move away from the case that interests me. After a first pass with the digital camera, I may bring out one or more film camera if the lighting and/or focal distance will support it. I generally travel with a 35mm camera and one or more 120mm cameras, one of which allows me to compose multiple exposures. When I am shooting film, I obviously need to be more judicious before I click the shutter and will not see the results under much later.


I usually travel with several sketchbooks and watercolor blocks of various sizes. I prefer to draw directly and quickly in ink without first resorting to a preparatory sketch in pencil. I find that when I do not have the option to erase, I am much more deliberate and intentional in my markmaking — a focusing effect similar to the difference between shooting film versus digital mentioned above. These onsite sketches generally consist of line with minimal shading through quick vertical hatching. Depending on the complexity of the object, I may spend 15 to 30 minutes on the drawing before moving on to the next subject.

If the situation permits, I like to work ink wash into some of the drawings (hence the watercolor paper) — but this requires the luxury of time, access to water, and a surface to set a palette down upon so is not often practical. In some cases, I will make the initial line drawing on site with the intention of laying in the tonal washes later (this is where the digital reference photos often come in handy). I lean toward monochrome ink washes in shades of of brown (walnut, sepia, etc.), or contrasting washes of a warm brown with a cool blue.

I also enjoy using my photo references for more complex drawings in black and white ink on grey or brown paper. No longer pressed for time during the onsite visit, I can spend more time on these and focus on greater detail and shading, but I am still working directly in ink without pencil or eraser.


The majority of prints I have made in this series thus far are woodcuts. For these, I tend to use the onsite pen sketches described above as the simple line work translates well to the woodcut medium.

I will usually make a photocopy of the original drawing, adjusted to whatever size I want the woodcut to be. I then glue the photocopy image-side-down onto the wood block with spray adhesive in a modified version of the hanshita method used in traditional Japanese printmaking for transferring the keyblock design. Once the glue is dry, I peel away the excess layers of paper by rubbing gently with a moistened finger until only the lines of the drawing remain (now appearing backward). I then cut away all the non-printing areas using a razor blade around the edges of the lines and a series of gouges to clear away the waste material in between.

After the cutting is complete, I will roll up the image with oil-based ink, lay a sheet of Japanese washi on the block, and transfer the image onto the paper by rubbing firmly but carefully with a flat bamboo spoon. I then peel the paper away from the block and inspect the print. At this point, I can perform any additional cutting I might deem necessary or note adjustments in my inking and printing technique. When ready, I then re-ink the block, apply another sheet of paper, rub as long as needed, and repeat until I produce the desired number of prints for the edition.

I have plans to revisit some of these museum objects in monotype. This is a printmaking technique more similar to painting. One can work additively or subtractively into an inked metal or plexiglass plate, then transfer the image onto paper by rubbing by hand as described above, or using an etching press. As hinted at in the name, the technique produces a singular image rather than a repeatable edition — but it is possible to work back into the original “ghost” for related but equally unique prints.

A further intended option is to produce etchings and mezzotints. These are intaglio processes — as opposed to the relief methods described above — in which lines and textures are made in a metal plate (usually zinc or copper) to hold ink. In etching, lines and textures drawn through a wax ground are chemically etched into a metal plate using an acid solutition. In mezzotint, a special tool called a rocker is used to impress tiny uniform divots into the surface, then one draws in the highlights by smoothing down that textured surface with a burnisher. In both techniques, ink is then rubbed onto the plate and wiped away until only the desired amount of ink is retained. The image is then printed onto specially prepared dampened paper under the pressure of a press and can be repeated as often as necessary to create an edition of identical prints.


All Images and Text James G. Mundie