In deference to true heraldic artists

I recently stumbled upon A Message from Andrew Stewart Jamieson in which he contrasts true “heraldic artists” with “fraudsters, amateurs, and con artists who, calling themselves heraldic artists, offer substandard, commercial services to unsuspecting clients and patrons”. On the same site was a post titled Heraldic Art and Copyright Infringement, both of which are written on the premise of the existence of amateur hacks attempting to exploit the desire for heraldic designs.

Mr. Jamieson is the Scribe and Illuminator of HM Queen Elizabeth II, and has a well-documented career in heraldic arts. Given his reputation, I give much credence to what he has said in the aforementioned article. In it he stated he “began to notice a pattern emerging and to me it was a danger signal which warned of the very demise of the art form I love.” This was related to individuals on web forums offering services as heraldic artists, but without a background and portfolio of works commensurate with the services they were looking to charge others for. In Mr. Jamieson’s words:

Many of these amateurs have little or no idea of the craft of heraldic art or of its long tradition and development from the techniques of medieval manuscript illumination. They have no sense of design and, most importantly, they cannot draw. 

This statement, to me, sums up much of modern art, but I suppose in that realm I am just not cultured enough to appreciate it. Many an artist has splashed paint against a canvas and sold for profit what would earn my children a severe scolding, were I to find it on my own wall. Alas, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Mr. Jamieson’s heraldic works, though, truly are objets d’art.

In the past, an artist would master his craft by mimicking the works of those whom he admired, and spend many years working toward his own style, but as was stated in the articles referenced, modern technology has short circuited the process. One now only has to obtain a digital copy of an image to begin manipulating it to his own designs. With a little practice, one could become proficient in taking a cookie cutter approach to emblazonment, and output decent quality (digital) work. It is my uneducated opinion that a vast majority of heraldic consumers would never know the difference. With the anonymity afforded by the Internet, one could easily build a pseudo-reputation as an heraldic artist. And as stated by Mr. Jamieson:

These fraudsters are often retired or are employed and have careers and receive a regular wage; to them heraldry is just a sideline. I have seen young professionals for whom heraldry is their only career, fall by the wayside no longer able to support their families. This is morally wrong and it is delivering a death blow to this field.

The problem here seems to be whether a patron is willing to pay for true art put down on canvas by a steady hand in quality inks, or is the patron satisfied with a digital work? As an anachronist, I do not even consider the two to be on the same level. The physical artist makes an heirloom to be passed down for generations, the digital artist creates a work that lasts so long as it is electronically available[1]. One cannot be duplicated without retaining the hand of the master, the other can be duplicated en masse with the click of a button. Anyone can own a “Renoir“, but only one can possess the original[2].

So what of the aspiring heraldic artist, the rank amateur, or (in my case) the novice? Those of us who want to dabble in heraldic design and entertain ourselves with our handiwork? Mr. Jamieson has words for us as well:

There is, of course, no problem with amateurs and hobbyists doing heraldic scribbles for their own amusement. I positively welcome this

As illustrated by my assumed arms as emblazoned, I am amongst the ranks of heraldic scribblers. I think in putting my illustrations together I violated nearly everything spoken against in the two articles. First, I pulled down SVGs of heraldic examples from Wikipedia. I cut and pasted elements to suit my needs. I traced over jpegs of lower quality so that I could make scalable vector images. I did my best not to use copyrighted images, so as not to violate anyone’s copyright. I bought several books on heraldry and heraldic art so that I would have examples to follow, but I have not developed my own style, nor likely will I. I simply reached a point with my “work” that I was not ashamed to post it to my own website. I sat back, satisfied (but not content) with the “quality” of what I had created. Would I do the same for someone else? Sure. Would I charge them for it? Absolutely not. One should not pay someone else for amateur quality work. Would I ever endeavor to become a professional heraldic artist. Never. This is not my forte, and as quoted above from Mr. Jamieson, it cuts into the livelihood of true artists.

All this hearkens back to the notion that technology undercuts talent. We can call this luddism if we like, but the fact remains that skills are lost when the means of creation are taken out of human hands. This is especially true in the arts. Where once a musician was required to perform great melodies, nowadays, anyone with Garage Band and a sufficient supply of instrumental samples can put together a song. That song can then be replayed in its digital “perfection” as many times as the listener desires. Likewise, the Renoir referenced above can be reprinted to exact tolerances as many times as it can be sold, always “perfect”. And this perfection can be obtained in anything reproduced digitally, but the element lacking is “soul”: that imperfect and one-offness that can only be imparted at the moment of creation by a human hand. The fingers strumming a string or grasping a brush. The pressure applied by human hand to create that which is truly unique.

So back to the premise of supply and demand. Are we who desire objects willing to pay for the quality of masters, or are we satisfied with a third-rate knock-off? I fear I know the answer. Will we see the demise that Mr. Jamieson fears? Let those of us interested in heraldic arts hope not.


[1] I am purposely ignoring arguments for the loss or destruction of the physical work and I realize a digital copy may be archived, replicated, recreated, &etc.

[2] What if the artist created two originals? They are still going to be two unique works, and not identical.

[UPDATE: 22 July 2013]
Here is another example of a truly talented heraldic artist:

2 thoughts on “In deference to true heraldic artists

  1. While I respect your point of view and appreciate your insight and angle of perspective however, I believe there are different ways of looking at this issue which justify allowing for the process of evolution and “free market selection” to advance.

    If demand exists for sub par quality heraldry at a lower price, then suppliers of the appropriate skill (or lack thereof) will fill the niche and why shouldn’t they? Nature abhors a vacuum, but I believe she will utterly crush anyone who stands at that gates to bar entry to such a void. I fear for the careers of those who spend more energy on fighting competition than actually continuing to produce the finest art in their field.

    1. I would agree from the perspective of supply vs. demand, and I think the International Association of Amateur Heralds is an excellent marketplace for one seeking to procure heraldic design on the low to mid end of the spectrum. In full disclosure, I am a member of the IAAH.

      Since you mentioned free markets, I’ll draw and arrow from my libertarian quiver and misappropriate Gresham’s law with regards to heraldic art: bad art drives out the good. If the commodity of heraldry is only that a particular blazon is drawn in the lowest quality that I am willing to pay for, then what value is there to pay someone for a quality piece?

      To your comment on fighting competition vs. producing the finest art, given how small the market is for heraldry in the first place, and when a majority of heraldic consumers have settled for rubbish, what incentive is there for a master artist to continue producing fine art instead of moving on to a more profitable field?

      What I fear is Wal-Martesque cheapening of heraldic art via mass produced, cookie-cutter digital design. With little skill (and free software) anyone with a modicum of ability can throw together a digital armorial design. That’s what I’ve done for my own purposes and I’d do it for others who asked me to. Am I an artist? NO. I’m a geek that figured out how to use a graphics application and lifted a few vector images from Wikipedia. Does the amateur quality work I’ve done have the ability to impact a true artist who actually makes a living doing heirloom quality art? Possibly, because the demand by the consumer for quality is so diminished by the availability of mediocre work.

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