Procreate and the power of visualization tools

Reconstruction has always been part of the practice of art historians, archaeologists, and artists. Even as far back as the 16th century, European artists and architects endeavored to imagine and depict the appearance of ancient Rome through its ruins – as this anonymous Italian artist did sometime in the 1550s. While these illustrations may not qualify as reconstructions – recreations of a lost original artifact or building based on archaeological and historical data – they do illustrate the deep-seated need for visualization tools that has existed since early times.

Lambert Suavius, after a print by Italian anonymous, Building [Aerarii Publici Rome] from the series ‘Ruinarum variarum fabricarum delineationes pictoribus caeterisque id genus artificibus multum utiles’ 1554, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In recent years, digital tools have gained immense popularity among both archaeologists and historians. When I became interested in incorporating digital reconstructions in my own research in 2020, I experimented with several resources such as Illustrator, Photoshop, Sketchup, and others. However, I discovered I felt more at home with the software that I had been using for my artistic practice all along: Procreate.

Procreate is a raster graphics editor app that enables users to recreate various styles of drawing and painting directly on the screen with the aid of a stylus pen (although a finger can be used, it lacks sensitivity and accuracy). The app is only available for iOS and iPadOS, which is one of its drawbacks, as it is inaccessible to non-Apple users. Nevertheless, images produced in Procreate can be saved in raster format (such as JPEG, TIFF, PNG, GIF, etc.) and can be used in other PC-friendly software. Here are some useful features of Procreate for digital reconstruction.

The Drawing Guide

This feature consists of a grid overlaid upon the blank canvas. It is particularly useful in the reconstruction of architecture, as it assists with precision in drawing straight lines and with measurements. There are four types of grids available—2D, isometric, perspective, and symmetry. The 2D and isometric grids can be adjusted in size depending on the requirements of the drawing, and the perspective grid can have up to three vanishing points. The symmetry grid is especially useful for drawing plans or facades that have a regular set of architectural elements, for example a colonnade. The four types of symmetry grids available are vertical, horizontal, quadrant, and radial, each of which can be a rotational symmetry, a useful feature in the creation of repetitive decorative motifs, especially those featuring plants and flowers.

Hypothetical reconstruction of the façade of the Jandial temple, in Pakistan, drawn with a vertical symmetry grid.

Isometric drawing of Kizil Cave 171 with the paintings added in the back room.

Layer manipulation

Similar to many illustration and graphic design software, Procreate is equipped with layers. Consequently, it is very easy to superimpose photographs and trace images to quickly create line drawings. I have found this feature to be an incredibly helpful tool in assessing the damage inflicted in more recent times upon objects for which we have historical photographs. While a verbal description of the damage is usually sufficient, the superimposed images are frequently more visually compelling—making them better suited to presentations at conferences, for example—and are a quicker means of identifying breakage patterns. In certain circumstances, fragments can also be digitally reassembled, which is particularly advantageous if an object no longer exists, and we possess only photographic evidence of it. 

Fragments of a sculpture from Hadda, Afghanistan, overlaid on an early photo of the same sculpture.

Image selection and distortion tools

Another method I have employed in Procreate for photo manipulation in my reconstructions is the ‘distort’ and ‘warp’ tools located under the ‘move’ function.

The ‘distort’ and ‘warp’ tools in Procreate.

This has been particularly useful in my work on the Buddhist caves of Kizil, in Xinjiang. I have been able to digitally recreate the physical environemnt of mural paintings that have been removed from their archaeological and spatial context, thus recreating a sense of the original experience of the caves. Once a photo is imported into Procreate as a layer, it can be manipulated in various ways: it can be stretched, distorted, curved and even placed into a spatial perspective. For instance, I overlaid the photo of the Buddha’s nirvana in (now in the Museum of Asian Art in Berlin) on a recent photo of Kizil Cave 171, from which the mural was extracted. To accurately recreate the pictorial program, I stretched the photo of the nirvana to align it to the proper perspective.

The rear chamber of Kizil Cave 171. In the picture on the left, the photograph of the detached mural has been overlaid on the original photograph (right).

There are a multitude of digital tools available and choosing the right one can be a daunting task. However, if you, like me, prefer a more hands-on approach to reconstruction that is akin to drawing, Procreate is the ideal software for you.

* All reconstructions and drawings in this post were made by me, unless noted.

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