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How to do a gravestone rubbing
class notes and demo, using castings from gravestones
©2004, by Aisling D'Art

typical casting from a Colonial gravestone

Gravestone and momument rubbings were once very popular, and a common field trip activity for schoolchildren. Today, many of the stones have been damaged by overzealous rubbing, as well as the natural decay from the elements and from years of acid rain.

If you are going to do rubbings on actual headstones or monuments, be sure to check the laws in your state or area before you start. In many states, particularly in New England, it is against the law to make rubbings on gravestones.

In the UK, there are centres set up specifically for making rubbings, using replicas of the original monuments and plaques.

For this reason, in my classes we capture these eerie and Gothic images by working with castings and polymer clay replicas of the original stones.
Supplies: You will need paper - thin is better than thick. Many people prefer newsprint, but some use heavier paper. You will also need something to rub with. There are wax crayons made specifically for this purpose, but you can also use pencil, crayon, pastels, oil pastels, or conte crayon. If you use pencil, you'll also want a kneaded rubber eraser.

If you are working on a large piece, you may want masking tape to keep the paper from moving. If you are working outdoors, you may want some water and paper towels, to clean the surface that is the subject of your rubbings. (Do NOT use soap of any kind.) If your art may smudge, you'll want a spray fixative to protect it.

1. First, cover the image with paper. If it's a large piece, you may want to use masking tape to prevent your paper from moving. (This demo shows a rubbing with a casting from the gravestone of Mary Nasson of York Harbor, Maine.)
2. If you're using a pencil of any kind, hold it almost flat against the paper as you rub. If you're using a conte crayon or pastel, hold it flat against the paper.

Pressing gently, rub over the image until an outline starts to appear.

3. As lines and features become clear, continue rubbing with an emphasis on the areas where lines are already visible.

Continue rubbing, covering the entire image. Continue to apply the most color to the areas in which you expect lines or features.

4. When all of the image is visible on your paper, you've finished. Usually, the image will not be clear or crisp.

For this demo, I used a pastel pencil because it shows clearly in photos as I'm working. However, other rubbing materials work better on this kind of image. See examples, below.

If you're using a pencil, you can pinch your kneaded rubber eraser to remove shading in small areas, and create a more distinct image as you "clean up" the rubbing.

rubbing with pencil

same image with conte crayon

Here is another casting, and the resulting rubbings. From left to right: The original casting, a rubbing with pastel pencil, one with blue conte crayon, and a pencil rubbing.

Choose your rubbing subject and supplies according to the result that you'd like. Pastels tend to be more murky, and smudge easily so they will need spray fixative before moving the rubbing. Conte crayon and pencil are more crisp and less likely to smudge, but they can both abrade the original image, if you're working with antique or fragile headstones or architectural details.

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