Gravestone Rubbings – How-To

Halloween, ghosts, and cemeteries… they seem to go together.

Gravestone and monument 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.

Here are my best tips for successful gravestone rubbings.

typical casting from a Colonial gravestone

Before attempting rubbings on actual headstones or monuments, be sure to check the laws in your area. In the U.S., particularly in New England, it may be against the law to make rubbings on gravestones.  That’s because so many gravestones are fragile, and the pressure of rubbing can damage them.

In the UK, centres have been 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. And, a few friends have recommended those big fat kiddie crayons that Crayola and others make. Or, you could use one of those “make your own crayons” kits to design something better suited to your hand.If you are working on a large rubbing, you may want masking tape to keep the paper from moving. If you are working outdoors, water and paper towels, may clean the surface of a soiled headstone. (Do NOT use soap of any kind, and do NOT scrub.) If your art may smudge, use 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 horizontalagainst the paper as you rub. If you’re using a conte crayon or pastel, rest 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. 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 notbe 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

In the photos below, you can see another casting, and the resulting rubbings.

Clockwise, from upper left: 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 abrade the original image, if you’re working with fragile headstones or architectural details.

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