Taharqa Meets Wacom — A Case Study for Taharqa Gate and A Wacom Intuos Pro review

Jan 15, 2020

Written by Dominique Navarro, artist at the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

The North side of Taharqa's gate in the morning light (Photo by Dominique Navarro)

Documenting Taharqa Gate

Within the Medinet Habu Temple complex in Thebes, just north of the Small Temple and near the Sacred Lake, is an unassuming monument standing alone among the remaining rubble of an ancient mudbrick wall. Referred to as “Taharqa Gate,” the structure would have served as a gateway entrance to the Small Temple during the reign of the ancient Egyptian Twenty-fifth Dynasty pharaoh Taharqa (690 BC to 664 BC), and credited to him despite all cartouches (names of the king) being thoroughly destroyed by vigilant ancient hackers.

Ground plan of the Small Temple at Medinet Habu in the Ptolemaic period

Reconstruction illustration appearing in OIP 41. (The Excavation of Medinet Habu, Volume 2: The Temples of the Eighteenth Dynasty by Uvo Hölscher, The University of Chicago Press, 1939.)

Along with such rigorous hacking, the sandstone monument has suffered thousands of years of deterioration from wind, sand, water (humidity, moisture, and occasional rain), ancient religious graffiti, pilgrim or fertility gouges (scrapings of the walls for good luck), and the devastating disintegration from soluble salt in a high water table rapidly destroying the integrity of its bottom-most blocks, and leaving the entire monument vulnerable and contorting, the western wall especially askew in a precarious tilt under the weight of its heavy lintel. Modern climate change and tourism has taken its toll, as with all the monuments.

Thus, Taharqa Gate’s raised reliefs and hieroglyphs are grievously corroded and fractured, and at first glimpse, retain little of the artistry and craftsmanship of the skilled hands which carved it. It is desperate for documentation and conservation.

Photo by Dominique Navarro

On behalf of the Epigraphic Survey, beginning in 2017, I began the epigraphic drawings to document the entire Taharqa Gate. By 2018, I had completed the penciling of both sides of the monument — identified as MHE 85 (North) and MHE 86 (South) — using the Chicago House method, penciling at the wall on photo enlargements at a scale of 1:4. Each side of the Gate was broken up into 6 different drawing panels, thus creating 12 separate drawings for the entire monument to be rejoined later. The enlargements were printed from silver nitrate negatives of the gate photographed in the 1930’s. The earlier the photograph, the less damage to the gate, and indeed, the old photographs retain more reliable detail than the structure itself does today.

Detail from Taharqa Gate  MHE 86 (south-east lower section); 1930’s silver nitrate photograph next to a contemporary photograph (2017, by DN), next to the digitally inked drawing (by Dominique Navarro)

Due to the extent of the damage to the monument, and the preservation of detail in the historic photographs, my penciling and recording of detail relied heavily on the older photographs, including the angles of blocks and architectural lines. Whereas blocks have corroded and shifted, and perpendicular angles have been altered in the present structure, photographs from the silver nitrate negatives retain the true stature of the monument.

Tracing paper over the photograph was also extensively utilized throughout the penciling stage. At times, figures and hieroglyphs were so drastically deteriorated on all sides of the structure, that it seemed that lines and shapes were impossible to distinguish. Yet, the gate uses the repetition of hieroglyphic scenes and phrases in such a way, and with such excellent craftsmanship (shape and dimensions are nearly identical or similar) that one can easily trace a figure or hieroglyph, flop it (reverse it), move it to the opposite side or scene, and find traces of a similar figure or hieroglyph almost mirrored in the midst of deep damage. In this way, going back and forth from the east side to the west side of the gate, and the north side to the south side, I could establish accurate details throughout, which were otherwise challenging to distinguish by naked eye alone.

1930’s silver nitrate photograph of Taharqa Gate MHE 86 lintel, south-eastern side, showing the extent of the damage. 

Taharqa Gate MHE 86 lintel drawing (without damage, plaster, or graffiti detail): western portion of the lintel in blue line and flopped, with the eastern portion in black line, to show the mirroring effect and how figures and hieroglyphs are carved in nearly similar shapes and dimensions.

During the summer of 2018, I was able to complete traditional inking of MHE 85, the north side of the gate, using Rapidograph pens and ink directly on the penciled photograph enlargements. (In a later stage, the photograph is “bleached” leaving just the drawing on the paper.)

Then, in early 2019, I was officially trained by the Epigraphic Survey in digital drawing, and it was determined that I would transition the Taharqa Gate epigraphic drawings into a hybrid: using both traditional and digital methods for the final drawings. MHE 85 inked drawings and MHE 86 penciled drawings were all scanned at 1200 dpi and prepared as Photoshop tif files. I also scanned all the photographic negatives and brought them in as layers on each of the Photoshop files, requiring me to resize and fit the photos to the line drawings. 

MHE 86 was digitally inked in the summer of 2019. The entire monument is now fully documented but is currently being digitally corrected and altered to attain cohesion throughout all the drawings. The next steps will be the Egyptologists’ epigraphic checks for accuracy, further corrections, the director’s check, and final publication.

Wacom Cintiq 22 HD Tablet versus the Wacom Intuos Pro Tablet

My digital training was performed using a Wacom Cintiq 22 HD Tablet and the standard tablet used at the Epigraphic Survey. Personally, I have been using a Wacom tablet since 2012, yet even I had to adjust to the Wacom Cintiq; I was not used to drawing directly on a screen, had never utilized hot keys, and had never produced precision line drawing artwork digitally like this before. But I am patient when it comes to adapting to new technology, and I committed myself to 3 months of diligent training on the Cintiq 22 HD until I was producing digital artwork that would meet the high standards of the Epigraphic Survey.

However, with the end of our winter work season in Luxor and the arrival of summer, I returned to my home and no longer had access to the Wacom Cintiq 22 HD, and needed to come up with a solution to complete my summer work digitally. Due to some personal unforeseen circumstances, I suddenly had precarious, transitional, and limited workspace, as well as power issues. Therefore, I could not simply borrow a Wacom Cintiq from another colleague, or have the Epigraphic Survey purchase me a new one. I considered options such as Astropad on my iPad (Apple Sidecar was not yet available). Instead, I returned to a familiar old friend: the Wacom Intuos Pro Tablet.

Photo by Wacom

Without a display-screen surface to draw directly on, the Wacom Intuos Pro tablet requires that one relies completely on eye-hand coordination, drawing on the tablet while looking at the monitor, which in my case was my MacBook Pro screen.

Using the Wacom Intuos Pro since 2012 has thoroughly developed my eye-hand coordination so that it has become second-nature. Curious at the challenges for a beginner, I asked a colleague who has never tried it before to test the tablet for her immediate reaction. She found the eye-hand coordination less difficult to manage than she had assumed, but where she became disoriented was learning to use the Wacom pen as it relates to the tablet: the hovering mouse cursor on the screen when the pen is held above the tablet, the physical distance from pen-tip-to-tablet (about 1/4 inch to a few millimeters above), and how it all relates to actually drawing a line on the screen. These are all minor discomforts that lessen with greater use and familiarity. She found drawing a straight line or creating a smooth curve challenging, but I explained that for every difficulty she encountered, there are personalized settings, tips, tricks, and shortcuts that can accomplish the desired results effectively, using a combination of customizable features in both Wacom and Photoshop. As with anything, it is a matter of familiarizing yourself with the tools you are using. 

Like the Cintiq, the Wacom Intuos Pro tablet has numerous customizable features for its Express Keys, Touch Ring, and Radial Menu, and I used the same settings recommended by the digitalEPIGRAPHY website manual.

But what makes the Wacom Intuos Pro my preferred tablet for uncompromised quality?

Whether you are using the Wacom Intuos Pro or the Wacom Cintiq, there are certain standard features you are guaranteed. Perhaps the best is the patented Wacom Pro Pen 2, which Wacom is known for. It is a highly responsive pen with little noticeable lag, excellent pressure responsiveness, and gives precision control to your drawing. It has tilt recognition and 8,192 levels of pressure. It is battery free, light and slim, featuring a nib and eraser, and a two-button side switch, all which can be personalized with settings and shortcuts.

Aside from the budget-friendly, reasonable price (from $250 to $500 depending on size: small, medium, or large; I prefer medium), Wacom Intuos Pro has unique particulars that Cintiq simply lacks:

Portability: My medium size Wacom Intuos Pro is 338x219x8mm (13.2x8.5x0.3 inches), and weights 700 g (1.54 lb), making it easy to transport and flexible to work with in different office, studio, or workplace situations. 

Power: Unlike the Cintiq which requires its own AC 12-volt power source and multiple cables, the Wacom Intuos Pro can be powered directly by the computer using one USB cable, or no cable at all using Bluetooth connectivity. This was essential for me, as I have often found myself with power issues that make it challenging enough just to power my computer. 

Cords of Wacom Cintiq 22 HD versus Wacom Intuos Pro Medium with Bluetooth connectivity (Photo by Dominique Navarro)

Screen Options: It is crucial to have an excellent screen image when drawing with the Wacom Intuos Pro tablet, and I completely rely on my MacBook Pro’s vivid retina display screen with IPS technology, 2560 x 1600 pixels, 500 nits brightness, wide color (P3), and true tone technology. However, one has the choice to connect a larger monitor, use dual displays, or find other solutions suitable to an individual’s needs. Personally, I prefer my MacBook Pro screen to the Cintiq display screen which I never really got used to, despite its IPS UHD high brightness panel and 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution.  

Physicality: Spending hours doing artwork, for weeks and months at a time, can be physically taxing on the body. I found working on the Cintiq 22 HD painful: leaning over a large screen, staring down with my head heavily tilted and my neck strained, my arm moving in large gestures across the wide surface. With the Wacom Intuos Pro, I have the freedom to find a number of positions to work. For months, I worked at a standing desk with my MacBook Pro elevated on a stand so that my head could look straight ahead with no pressure on my neck. The tablet was on the table surface at the right height to let my arm and shoulders remain slack. The smaller tablet surface also means I’m not doing wide gestures and movements across the tablet.

Multi-Touch Capability: Wacom Intuos Pro has an excellent multi-touch feature which allows you to quickly zoom, pan, rotate, and navigate the screen quickly and easily. Some Cintiq models also offer the multi-touch feature, but these are the priciest Wacoms on the market. I can live without this feature, but I prefer to have it. I find it essential to keeping a good pace to my work, moving faster and more efficiently when navigating around, and saving the slow, careful moments for drawing.

Dominique Navarro developing an inked line drawing for the Taharqa Gate using the Wacom Intuos Pro (Photo by Krisztián Vértes)

Other features: Built-in Bluetooth connectivity, compatibility with Mac and Windows, Texture Sheet options, Pro Pen nib options and pen varieties, and the option to switch orientation for left or right-handed users. 

Practice recommendation: use your Wacom Intuos Pro as an alternative to using a mouse for all your computer use. The more time you spend with the pen in your hand on the tablet, the more natural and faster you become with your eye-hand coordination. Eventually, you won’t want to do anything without your Intuos Pro, even for simple computer tasks.

Taharqa In Hindsight

In conclusion to the long learning curve of this documentation project —recording Taharqa Gate’s quickly deteriorating structure and carvings for posterity — it may have been more efficient to start these drawings as digital files from the beginning. Had I to do it all over again, I would have taken all photographs of Taharqa Gate, historical and contemporary, scanned them and created layers in a Photoshop file for each drawing, so that throughout the drawing process each photograph could easily be referred to for details. 

On site, I would have used Procreate on my iPad Pro using my iPen to produce the penciling layer. Penciling for me consists of a lot of preliminary sketching to find the right shape and proportions, before committing to a final pencil line that I will ultimately ink. Unfortunately, when penciling on the photo enlargement, there is a huge limitation to “sketching,” and the more one pencils and erases, the more the surface of the photograph is compromised and deteriorated, making a more vulnerable surface when you do finally apply the ink. Whereas, sketching on the iPad Pro in Procreate is a risk-free technique, and I have a freedom to sketch without fear or constraints, utilizing layers to turn on and off the photographic reference background. This ultimately leads to a final pencil line that I can feel fully confident in. Taharqa Gate is full of vague and obliterated details; I used tracing paper on the photo enlargements to find obscured details in the damage, whereas the same techniques could have easily be done digitally as a separate layer.

All my traditionally penciled drawings were scanned and prepared as Photoshop files, as well as the photographic negatives which were brought in as layers and resized to fit the line drawings. But my digital penciling would have been much simpler to bring into Photoshop and prepare for inking, saving me many hours without all the readjusting.

Finding the optimal technique for the most precise facsimile recording of ancient Egypt’s temple and tomb artwork and hieroglyphic records was vitally important to James Henry Breasted—founder of the Epigraphic Survey—even a century ago, and is part of his legacy. Today’s digital technology is rapidly and perpetually improving, and it is our duty as epigraphic artists to constantly adapt and strive for the best methods to create the most accurate documentation we are capable of.

Regardless of what I would have done differently, Tahraqa Gate is being preserved by the best documentation achievable. It has a long way to go before final publication; it must first go through intensive research and epigraphy checks by multiple Egyptologists, endure corrections until the final drawings are as accurate as possible, and meet the high standards of the Epigraphic Survey. I feel confident that Taharqa Gate is getting the attention and documentation it deserves, and I am so honored to be part of its fascinating history.

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