Gravestone Rubbings – How-To

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

Gravestone and monument rubbings were once very popular, and a common field trip activity for schoolchildren.

Today, many grave markers 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.

gravestone casting
Typical casting from a Colonial gravestone. It’s an alternative to putting pressure on the actual grave marker.

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.

(That’s why my students enjoy something different. They capture these eerie and Gothic images by working with castings and polymer clay replicas of the original stones. But that’s another topic for another day.)

If it’s legal to create gravestone rubbings, or if you’re working with replicas, here are some basic steps for success:

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.

Elegant rubbings with Renaissance Foil

Foil transfer paper can be used for very elegant and stylish rubbings.

Those foil transfer papers are used for interior decorating, and they’re sold in small amounts as “Renaissance Foil,” sold at Michael’s and other art supply stores.

The following illustrated instructions should help you use it effectively.

Above: Rubbings on black tissue paper, left to right:
religious medal — gravestone casting — MBTA subway token (2x actual size)

Supplies:You will need paper or fabric for your rubbings. If you’re using fabric, it should be very thin such as a lightweight muslin. If you’re using paper, it should not be stiff. Regular printer paper is fine, and–if you handle it carefully–tissue paper works well, too.You’ll need gesso, painting medium (gel or liquid), OR acrylic paint and water. (Gesso and painting medium are better than acrylic paint for this project, but it can vary with the brand of paint.) You’ll need a brush to apply the gesso, medium, or paint.

You’ll also need a textured surface as the subject of your rubbing, and a hard rubbing tool such as the side of a pencil.

Finally, you’ll need a gold foil product sold as Renaissance Foil, that you can find at Michael’s in the same section as their gold leaf products. This foil is sort of like carbon paper, except that the impression/rubbing sticks only to prepared surfaces.

1.Paint your paper or fabric surface with gesso, painting medium, or acrylic paint. A thin coat is enough, as long as the surface–where you’ll be rubbing–is fully and evenly covered.In this example, I’m using regular white printer paper, treated with black gesso.

If you use acrylic paint, thin it with water or painting medium. Paint can thicken the paper and prevent you from being able to highlight as many details.

2. When the prepared surface is fully dry, layer your supplies: Place the subject of the rubbing on the bottom. Then, place your prepared paper or fabric over it. On top, place a piece of Renaissance Foil,shiny side up.(In the illustration, they’re angled to show the layers. During the actual rubbing process, each layer is centered over the one below it.)
3.With the rubbing tool (I’m using the side of a pencil in the photo), rub firmly all over the area where you expect a design to appear. You’ll probably need to rub more than you expect to.If you lift the foil to see how it’s working, be very certain not to move the paper from its position atop the subject/rubbing surface. You can move the foil, but if you move the paper your image can be distorted or blurred.Continue rubbing until the image has transferred to the paper or fabric.

Save the foil. You can use it several times before all of the gold has worn off.

Two different rubbings are illustrated in the photos below. The left image is on regular printer paper, treated with black gesso. The rubbing on the right is black tissue paper treated with gel medium (matte); you can see a streak of gel medium that hadn’t dried when I began working on this sample.

The image on the tissue paper is clearer, but because the paper is so flexible, it’s easy to rub areas (and pick up gold leaf) where there are no lines or designs. The contrast in image on the printer paper isn’t as clear, but the image is sharper.