A lot of what we know from history has been written down, whether in letters, diaires, documents or books. These sources help us conjure-up imagery from the past and get a sense of what it was like living in those times. Nevertheless, the old adage that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is certainly true, especially when that picture is a result of thorough historical research to help convey detail from the time.
Matthew Ryan is a historical illustrator. His work is detailed and painstakingly researched. His drawing style is naturalistic and descriptive, giving both an impression of the historical event yet also the humanity and landscape behind it – helping the viewer feel part of the scene.
Here Matthew talks us through his creative process.
How much research is needed in historical illustration?
“Overall, half of my time is spent on historical research, and half on actually creating the art itself”.
Matthew has been interested in archery all his life, and even makes his own replica medieval and Tudor arrows. “Books are great for research, but making my own arrows is hands-on – it’s constructive archaeology. We don’t know how things were done back then, but by making the arrows you can rediscover techniques” – which helps him draw them more accurately.
“The arrows I make are based on the only known surviving medieval arrow, known as the Westminster Arrow as it was found in the roof of Henry V’s Chantry in Westminster Abbey. The only other near-medieval arrows are the many that were reclaimed from the Mary Rose shipwreck. Other than that we have archeology of arrow heads, several written descriptive accounts and various pieces of 2D and 3D medieval art showing representations of arrows”.
If Matthew is asked to illustrate a subject he already has knowledge on, he uses his own folder that is full of research and can generally get on with painting straightaway.
If it’s a subject he doesn’t know much about, Matthew gets information from books and other secondary sources, and also tries to find first-hand accounts used by historians. Sometimes he can even discover information from stylised manuscripts, which Matthew says can still reveal elements of truth in them, even in cartoon-style drawing. He likes to find out information on “what we know and why we know it”, and generally has a plan in his head of the scene he’d like to create.
When illustrating something like a town, Matthew can use maps, google or archaeological records from the time.
If illustrating a battle scene, he enjoys looking into the details, for example “what did the horse bridle look like?” and “what weapons were used and how?”. He even researches the ethnicity of the soldiers involved in the battles to get the detail as historically accurate as possible.
Producing medieval battle reconstruction paintings
“As part of my research into producing medieval battle reconstruction paintings I often study and draw military figures and equipment from manuscript art of the various periods” says Matthew.
“My love and appreciation for the various styles of this medieval art grew and it occurred to me that it would be interesting to illustrate specific medieval events in art styles that were contemporary to the period that I was illustrating”.
“My first painting in this technique was of the death of Simon Montfort at the 1265 Battle of Evesham” (a print of which is available to buy in the History Hit shop). “The style of art I very much based on the exquisite art found in the Morgan Bible, created in France, during the mid-13th century. This was layer used by Rick Wakeman for his album Softsword.”
“The mediums I use are a range of modern paints, acrylics, inks and enamel paint.”
“Since then I have used various other medieval manuscript-style illustrations to produce work for places such as The King Richard III Visitor Centre, The Tower of London for the Agincourt 600 Year Commemorations and the Royal Armouries Leeds.”
Do photographs from modern eras make historical illustration easier?
Time periods such as World War One mean there are photos and details of things such as the uniforms worn available, along with supplementary material Matthew uses for reference, such as catalogues that tailors would have used – aiding the historical accuracy in his work.
“In one way it’s a blessing…” Matthew says, “but there again it means you have to be even more on your game. The further back in time, you can often be more subjective”.
If illustrating an event from an era such as the medieval period, sometimes Matthew “just has to take a stand on how something would look like”, using the evidence he has available, as often things are not always clear-cut. “It’s similar to being a writer – you look at a painting as a book, but you’re using pictures to do it”.
While there may be various conflicting sources, Matthew describes his work as “more like working in television, in that you can’t say ‘there’s indecisiveness’ about an issue if some of the information about an event is missing. For example, ‘Henry V got an arrow in the face’ – we know it was removed from his face, but we don’t know by that description if he was wearing a helmet or used a visor etc. Things like this can cause controversy”.
Example: Palfrey horse artwork
To draw his palfrey horse artwork based on the Forester guards, Matthew referred to Chaucer’s Knight in a 1532 edition of The Canterbury Tales.
Matthew noted that the horses were drawn with one hoof always in contact with the floor – which identified them as palfrey horses, which he used in his own artwork.
This ‘breed’ (now extinct) were highly valued riding horses in the Middle Ages as they ambled rather than trotted, meaning they were able to travel for miles. As their movement was steady (and not as much an up-and -down motion like most horses), they were thought to be a comfier ride and were thus used by the nobility. Visually, palfrey horses looked closer to the ground, and are similar to modern Icelandic ponies.
Matthew was therefore able to convey this detail in his resulting artwork to add historical authenticity:
Despite conducting such thorough research, Matthew received comments about the piece saying the pony looked wrong and more ‘like a dog’, highlighting how people have a pre-conceived idea in their head of what things are like. Matthew sees his role as being to confront them with the historical evidence and educate people to help dispel myths.
What type of mediums work best for illustration?
Matthew starts with a line drawing, then adds colour using gouache paint. This paint dries instantly which means that unlike oil paint, he can build up layers easily.
“When acrylic paint dries it sets, but with gouache paint, you can re-work it (a bit like oil paint) and thus re-work a layer you’ve laid down. You can put a dry layer over dry layer – if the paint gets wet, you can brush it and reignite the paint and blend it more. For this reason, gouache paint is quick. You can do large, flat areas of bold colour. It’s also flat and matte, so when you scan the picture or take a photo of it you don’t get glare.”
The downside is the medium’s potential posterity. “Pictures using gouache paint are more prone to get damaged, yet old manuscripts were made from this, so they do last”.
Matthew likes using oil paints as well as they’re good for detail. He enjoys drawing the details and “putting humanity in the faces of the characters” so people can connect with the character more.
The finished work:
Illustrating the humanity in history
“People in history are human. Throughout history some things have not changed” says Matthew. “You can still paint nature with accuracy, such as trees and the different seasons. These people were real people, who had real lives, and similar thoughts to us. The human soul is the same as it was 10,000 years ago really. Times were different but fundamentally we’re the same. People still love their family, and have needs of food, shelter and warmth”.
Matthew explains how some illustrations and views of history talk about the people involved as if they were sub-human somehow – “they were not”. Matthew doesn’t want people to feel alienated by history. “Depicting history through art can help make it more approachable and accessible”.
Buy signed prints by Matthew Ryan
Matthew Ryan’s medieval battle reconstruction paintings in an early 15th century manuscript style are available to buy in the History Hit shop.
Each Print is hand signed by the artist. Battles decpited include the Battle of Evesham, the Battle of Crecy, the Road to Agincourt, the Battle of Agincourt, and As His Own Champion the Battle of Bosworth.
For more information on Matthew Ryan and his work, visit http://matthewryanhistoricalillustrator.com/
Main article image: Battle of Agincourt Signed Print by Matthew Ryan. (Image Credit: Matthew Ryan).