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Rubbing and Frottage

Navigate Rubbing & Frottage
Frottage and Chance
Charla Puryear


Introduction to Rubbing

There is a long tradition of reproducing carved or incised surfaces such as brass memorials and headstones by rubbing a covering paper with wax blocks or crayons of several kinds, such as artists' pastels. The goal in this process is accurate reproduction. In the world before photography and scanners, rubbing was one of the few ways to transfer some kinds of art and craft work from one medium to another.

Traditional Chinese stone rubbings, or "ink-squeezes", represent the most masterful development of rubbing as an art form. Long ago, an emperor burned all the books he could find. In response, for hundreds of years after, writers and artists engraved their work in stone, incising clear lines so the work could be reproduced indefinitely. This rubbing of stone engravings has affinities with the later European tradition of woodcuts.

Here is a link to a You Tube demonstration of this process in China.

For the past few hundred years, rubbing has also been a way to transfer patterns in nature to paper or cloth.

Gently rubbing a soft pencil over a paper pad to reveal what had been written on the sheet above has long been a standard detective story process, one many children are familiar with.

For artists, the difference between rubbings and frottage has to do with when the artist stops working. A rubbing, as described below, is a deliberate reproduction, and is finished when the rubbing is complete. In frottage, when the rubbing part of the process is complete, the artist then explores possibilities the rubbing calls to mind--in simplest terms, finding ways to play with, highlight, and extend the rubbing.

Either direction, frottage-style rubbing or reproduction-based rubbing, can yield excellent results. Unpredictable results, as in frottage, are exciting in making art; they can suggest new possibilities.

A Small Gallery of Traditional Rubbings

Lady Margaret Peyton, d. 1484,
medieval brass rubbing in wax
Lord and Lady Cerne
medieval brass memorial rubbing in wax
medieval brass memorial to a lapdog, wax

Winged face
on old gravestone,
rubbed with wax.

Man with Horse,
ancient Chinese stone rubbing, reversed
Lord Smoking Shell, Mayan temple rubbing from a stele, in pastels
Capital of gravestone from the Puritan period of colonial New England

Five Horses and Man, Chinese stone rubbing, reversed, Han dynasty
Simple, effective charcoal rubbing of a grass seed panicle
ancient poem stone rubbing
in early calligraphy

fantastic bird dogs, beaked and winged,
pull a chariot, ancient Chinese stone rubbing

Horse, ancient stone engraving,
rubbed and reversed
Wei Dynasty Scene on Silk,
stone rubbing reversed
Chinese acrobats, ancient brick rubbing
Ancient calligraphy stone rubbing,
master quan jun

Materials Note

Paper is most commonly used for rubbings. Most kinds can be used. Rag and rice papers produce superior results, although for school use any paper can do. Drawing paper is a good bet. Thick papers don't work well.

In the Chinese incised stone rubbings, dampened rice paper is used, which is tamped down gently into the original before inking the portion left raised. The result is a black background with white lettering or engraved lines.

Ancestry Graphics and Printing offer this advice on headstone rubbing: Use non-fusible medium weight interfacing. Interfacing is white fabric available for around $1/yard at fabric stores. Be sure to use the non-fusible type if you plan to iron your rubbing later to set the wax. (Fusible fabric sticks to whatever it touches when ironed.) Light weight interfacing is too thin and will tear when rubbed. Heavy weight interfacing is too thick to pick up all the fine detail on some headstones. One good brand is Pellon. Paper is easily creased; fold marks won't come out. Interfacing can be lightly folded or rolled up with no problem.

How-To Rubbing from Ancestry Graphics and Printing

The rubbings above were made with rubbing wax "cupcakes," available from from art suppliers such as Daniel Smith.

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