Illustrating Concepts for Medal Projects

By Jamie Franki

In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt broke with U.S. Mint tradition by inviting an outside artist, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to design and sculpt a twenty-dollar gold piece. The turmoil and tribulation leading to the strike of the ultra-high relief coin has been well documented. The Double Eagle probably had more intrigue and complication in its history than most coins or medals. Historians tend to focus upon the back-story of the stormy relationship between Saint-Gaudens and Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber. Numismatists usually comment on the beauty of the finished strikes, or gravitate toward tracking the transactions of the relatively few Double Eagles put into circulation. Personally, I am most intrigued by the beginning of this storied coin’s history  ‘Theodore Roosevelt’s trust in Saint-Gaudens’ Vision and ability.

Augustus St. Gaudens’ preliminary design sketching on paper and on plaster for the US Mint

Coins and medals often originate with concept illustrations, created by the artist to demonstrate how subject matter will translate into relief. Saint-Gaudens’ loosely articulated pencil sketch of the twenty-dollar gold coin’s obverse was quite sufficient for President Roosevelt to understand and approve.After all, Augustus Saint-Gaudens was at the pinnacle of his career, and his outstanding reputation as a sculptor was widely known. Roosevelt trusted Saint-Gaudens. He did not need an exact schematic, or a labored trompe loeil rendering to make his approval. The drawing had no discernable lettering, and indicated multiple positions for the arms holding the torch and shield. It wasn’t even drawn in a true circle, or fully positioned on the paper. Remarkably, Theodore Roosevelt understood how a sculptor thought on paper. Saint-Gaudens expressed his ideas in loosely drawn preliminary strokes, which offered sufficient latitude for discovery and refinement to happen later as his design evolved in clay and in plaster.

A hundred years later in 2004, I spent two years designing coins for the US Mint. In 2006 I started to get requests for medal designs. My practice as a graphic artist informed the way I research and develop ideas for these projects. I’ve developed a method combining hand-articulated drawing and digital imaging. While each project has been a learning experience, I try to bring the sum total of what I’ve learned about coins and medals into every new design concept for competitions and invitations. While I’ve created designs for a variety of organizations, most of my projects have been American Numismatic Association convention medals.

Initial design schematic for ANA Philadelphia 2012 medal

What goes into designing an ANA convention medal? The first important consideration is finding the right concept. While creating art medals for personal reasons has infinite latitude for subject and style, a project such as this must conceptually address aspects of numismatics and/or the history of a convention host city. I try to address both imperatives, without duplicating previous medal ideas or designs from past conventions. My initial research is conducted online. However, once I uncover useful tangents, I’ve found libraries, museums and foundations help me find clear, authentic hardcopy reference materials and (when necessary,) assist in procuring rights for subject and reference use. Consulting with members of the ANA in the convention host city and at the Colorado Springs headquarters is very important. Over the years, I’ve spent many hopeful hours polishing ideas for client projects without prior consultation, only to find my solutions were conceptually off the mark. This is a frustrating experience for artist and client alike, and a poor approach to project time management.

Once I have ‘green lights’ on theme and rights usage permission for subject reference material, the design process begins. The process is not unlike assembling a jigsaw puzzle. If the medal is to be struck in a circle, everything I look at must be encircled to be compositionally informative. I place every bit of reference I have on a subject in circles, both individually and in a combined fashion. This helps me see which ideas and shapes stand alone effectively and which are conducive to juxtaposition and connections.

Overlays of 3D digitized scans of the medals onto their respective sources of reference

Some aspects of my medal concept designs are better articulated in pencil, while other steps in my design procedure are made more efficient by using a computer. My ‘thumbnails’ are created as digital collages in Adobe Photoshop, as it is a handy program to quickly layer together images and text. Photoshop is a great tool to manage and manipulate reference, and it is tough to beat for creating specialized type treatment ideas for bas-relief. While Photoshop may be convenient for preliminary investigation, I believe design juries respond to the artistry evident in freehand drawing. As such, I use Photoshop to organize reference and type into a design – and then use the digital layouts as another reference to draw from. In my redrawing, I translate photographic or painted references into simulations of monochromatic bas-relief. Localized color, cast shadow and depth structure must be adjusted to translate the artwork into something which looks like relief. I draw on midrange grey paper with black and white Prismacolor pencils. I aim for three discernable value schemes in my rendering; the midrange is the paper and highlight and shadow are drawn in black and white. Subject must be illustrated as honestly as possible. It is tempting to get impossibly dimensional with shadows, or to add details that won’t be seen in an actual size strike.

Once I create my conversion renderings on grey paper, I scan them and develop finished art in Photoshop. I use the computer to reintroduce geometric and text elements, as they are better managed digitally than by drawing. I do find myself ‘tweaking’ my drawings in Photoshop to make value adjustments and refine details. I proof the work through printing rather than on-screen examination. The monitor tends to lie, while a print really shows me where adjustments are needed. I’ll mark up my prints and use them as guides for final on-screen editing. I’ll reduce and print the designs to actual scale so I can see them in the size of an actual striking. I’ll send the work to myself via email as well, so I get an idea how my designs look in lower resolution. Every state of the process is saved in dated files, so I can dip into archives to edit work upon request.

Ultimately, I believe my concept art for medals has two functions. The first order of business is persuading an organization or design jury to select my speculative designs for minting. (Augustus Saint-Gaudens dashed off loose sketches, and his reputation could fill in the blanks. I am still emerging as a medallic artist, so my ideas require more complete articulation.) Additionally, the designs must be useful as comprehensive schematics, to supply art direction for an approved medal concept. The peculiar thing about these designs is they are not the finished art. They are the Mapquest, while the struck medals are the destination.

To illustrate what I do, this article includes some references and medal design ideas I’ve researched and developed in response to a recent invitation from the ANA for their 2012 annual convention to be held in Philadelphia. Ten artists (including several AMSA members) were invited to submit designs. This design solution commemorates David Rittenhouse, a Philadelphia astronomer who was selected to be the first Director of the United States Mint. The obverse portrait is informed by life studies of Rittenhouse painted by Charles Wilson Peale. His signature is adapted from a reproduction of a document Rittenhouse signed while he was Mint Director. Details in the obverse design are from an ‘Orrey’, a machine Rittenhouse created to track the orbital location of the planets in the Solar System. The reverse design combines the ANA’s ‘Lamp of Knowledge’ motif with elements from a coin designed by David Rittenhouse, the Nova Constellatio. As Philadelphia is known as the cradle of Liberty, I modeled the lamp’s burning light after the flame from the Statue of Liberty.

The final medal strike and patina 

I don’t know what the ANA will select for their next medal. One thing is certain. Researching speculative designs for ANA medals is a lot of fun and definitely serves to broaden horizons. David Rittenhouse is an interesting fellow. The next time I am in Philly, I’ll be sure to stop by Rittenhouse Square for some stargazing.

Jamie Franki is the Associate Chair of the Department of Art + Art History at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and currently serves on the AMSA Board. He has designed medals for two ANA National Money Conventions and three ANA World’s Fair of Money Conventions.