This lesson is aimed
at those who have created a few illuminated works,
and now wish to improve their skills in this area.
The objective here is an illuminated piece that is
so "right", and so similar to a period manuscript
you could well expect to find it reprinted next to
its period counterparts. Mind you, this is a very
high goal, so take courage.
To achieve this end,
there are a few common mistakes and pitfalls the
modern illuminator will grapple with at some stage
in their scribal careers. And one more thing; do
not confuse large painted portraits with our
subject, painted miniatures.
hands, feet (See Figure 2)
It does not matter if
your entire work is 100% perfect; if your central
figure is cross-eyed people will point and laugh!
The first thing we look at are faces because every
picture tells a story.
If you look very
closely at the faces and hands in your original
source, the first thing you will notice are the
bland expressions on their faces. You will rarely
see a laughing face or one twisted in torment
(although the latter can be found in depictions of
Hell!). You may also notice the faces are very
similar to each other.
On the few occassions
when faces are distinctive, it is to depict a very
important person, for example the Duc de Berry, in
the Limbourg Brothers' illumination for January.
Should you decide to tackle a portrait, don't just
copy a photo. Use it as a guide to remind you of
their features certainly, but beware harsh shadows
and the realistic drape of their clothing.
Avoid a cartoony style
by copying the look of your original source.
Remember, the illuminator (as with the modern
designer) is attempting to create a stylised,
beautiful picture of the world.
Small details can make
such a difference! For starters, the only clothes
your figures should wear are those of the correct
time and place. (Its ridiculous to see Henry VIII
in an arabic illumination!) And don't forget
accoutrements such as headwear, fans, daggers,
pouches, etc. Also, the drape and fall of clothing
should be appropriate to the style of illumination.
For example, early Christian figures had washes of
colour, overlaid with simple linework to describe
the drape (see fig 1). Whereas later figures were
more three dimensional, with combinations of
shadowing and highlighting (see fig 6).
Remember the world of
the painted miniature only portrays the height of
fashion. Therefore the human body is stylised to
new and interesting proportions! (fig 3) The stance
of your figures is also important.
The whole "attitude"
of each figure should be carefully worked out
before actually painting them to your final work.
Perhaps its fashionable for a Lord's hips to be
thrust forward (see fig4) or for Ladies to look
pregnant (fig 3).
Just say you are asked
to create nothing less than a masterpiece which
will include the following: a lion, some period
architecture, a few fleur-de-lys, their personal
heraldry, and an army on land and in
Yes it can be done. It
helps to find these items already illuminated, and
see how they were viewed through medieval eyes.
Animals are an
excellent example of this (medieval cats look
hilarious! see fig 5)
Herbs and flowers
often have symbolic meanings and some were used in
everyday life to relieve minor ailments. Armies are
simple once you learn the secret: one row of
soldiers at front, and the tops of helms behind, as
shown here (fig 6). I have also seen a mob of
Angels pictured where the front row is painted, and
many halos are seen behind, to give the impression
of a crowd. Cheating? Maybe.... but its
But remember that
armies - like everything - are depicted differently
from country to country and in different
Remember the list of
items from point 4?
Now that you have
found and chosen from your period examples, you
must somehow arrange them into a sensible
composition. Some items may look nice as part of
the border (perhaps the more simple elements),
which will reduce the number of elements to manage
in your primary miniature. Medieval composition
usually distributes the elements evenly throughout
an area. Trees and shrubs (outdoors) or columns and
walls (indoors) can seperate different scenes, or
can serve as a space filler. (Just whack in a shrub
to fill that compositional gap!!!) Perspective in
medieval art not only applies to architecture, but
also to people and animals - they become small.
Although children or servants are often depicted as
smaller people too. In my experience, it is best to
base your composition loosely on period examples.
To reproduce the above
miniature, I would start by painting flat colour on
the sky and ground (all background elements first).
Next, the houses/battlements would be coloured
several flat shades of grey (or other suitable
colour) to aid perspective. Then I would apply flat
basic colours the foreground elements (figures
etc). The fun bit comes next, with the finest
details delicately applied by...
gouache gives you lovely swathes of flat colour,
your miniature can look quite flat and cartoony. If
this is not the look you want, then limning is the
answer. Commonly used in miniature Elizabethan
portraiture, a cruder form of limning was used in
earlier miniatures too. Take for example the
close-up here (fig 8b).
Many very fine strokes
of differing colour creates a pleasing grass
effect, and adds depth to the gentleman's clothes.
This type of fine brushwork can often be found on
other areas such as: skies (fig 8c) -- shading from
deep blue to white, trees -- adding texture to
trunks and depth for foliage, faces, clothing and
many others. Be careful about architecture though.
Usually walls are flat areas of colour, although
sometimes they are treated to a little limning.
Anyway, these fine
brush strokes can be created br "dry-brushing".
That is, by using an almost dry brush (because the
gouache must be wet to be effective) but the brush
will be extremely "scratchy" and give you very fine
strokes indeed. These will be sharp, well-defined
strokes. For fine facial areas you can use fine
strokes of skin-greys for shadowing (subtly- using
very diluted colour), and slightly pinky-whites for
highlighting forehead, nose, lips and chin (little
dots of more solid colour). The diluted gouache
will give a subtle effect. And using your finest
brush loaded with WET diluted colour, you can
achieve a "soft" effect (as the wet gouache blends
with the pigment already on the page) like the
grassy look in figure 8b.
Plain determination to
"get it right" and accepting nothing less than the
best from yourself will certainly help. After
completing a work, there's always something you
wished you did better. If not, talk to someone
better than you, and they can help you find room
for improvement. (In a friendly way of course!) Or
if you truly have outdone yourself..... find a new
As they say: "The road
to Paradise is...Paradise!"
Calligraphers' by Marie Angel. Published by
Overlook Press, reprinted 1997.
Decameron' in the Illuminated Manuscripts series
published by Miller Graphics, 1978, printed in
Spain. (Over 100 miniatures!!!)
at the Court of France - 1310-1380' by Francois
Avril. Published by Chatto & Windus, London.
1978. (A big range of tiny illustrations) ISBN
'Debrett's Peerage and
Baronetage' published by MacMillan, London.
(reference books, heraldry)
If you can't find it,
you can buy it on the internet at Amazon.com
'The Illuminated Page:
Ten Centuries of Manuscript Painting in the British
Library' By Janet Backhouse, 1998. ($39.95 USA,
amazon.com) ISBN 0-8020-4346-1
"A History of
Illuminated Manuscripts" By Cristopher de Hamel,
1994. Phaidon Publishers. ISBN
Heidelberg, Switzerland ???
and their methods of work' by Jonathan J.G.
Alexander, 1992. ($30 USA, from amazon.com) Yale
University Press, New Haven & London. ISBN
in Manuscripts - Treasures from the British
Library'. Hudson Hills Press, New York, 1983-4.
ISBN 0-7123-0024-4 (out of print)
Manuscripts - The Book Before Gutenberg' By Giulia
Bologna, 1988 Thames & Hudson. (out of
'The Golden Age of
Anglo-Saxon Art - 966-1066' edited by Janet
Backhouse & others. British Museum Publications
Ltd. 1984. ISBN 0-7141-0532-5 (out of