4. Proportion - some history
If you've ever heard of A5, A4, A3 etc, you will know they are paper sizes.
If you fold A3 once in half you will get A4 sized paper, A4 in half for
A5, etc. This system that we are familiar with today is based on Medieval
MS', which in turn depended on the size of the young calves' skins that
vellum was made from.
Some books on Illumination will tell you the size of the "leaves" (pages).
However, due to floods, rising damp and the like, some original MS' have
had their page edges cut back where the vellum curled, or the paints have
run. Another concern for us is the tendency of modern books to supply
pretty pictures of Illuminations without showing the page edges. It is
very important to leave lots of space at page edges (margins) for framing
purposes, and to add to your work's appearance.
Proportion - an example
The proportions used in Period MS' are not metric, nor are they symmetrical.
They are the reason I specified a calculator in the Tools List! Here's
an example of typical "good" proportioning in a MS:
For further reading on Proportion, look up the Golden Rule or Section.
It was deemed the Classic proportioning system by the ancient Greeks,
and is still used today.
5. Calligraphy (BACK
After you have roughly worked out your Layout, you will need
to practice your calligraphy to evenly fill its allotted space. The Layout
may have to be changed a little to allow an extra line or two, or fewer.
***Make sure your final "good" work is on acid-free paper (or vellum of
recommend modern calligraphy pens for learning, and a nib and inkwell
for practice and the final work. I use Chinese Ink. It usually comes as
a stick of ink that you water down, but can also be purchased liquified.
For the beginning calligrapher, I highly recommend 'Medieval Calligraphy:
its History and Technique' by Marc Drogin, to learn how to do calligraphy.
Note that some alphabets have the nib held at different angles, varying
from 10 to 45 degrees. The heights of your guidelines are measured in
nib widths, with space for the ascenders and descenders.
is best to start with lots of x's and m's to get your strokes confident
and even. Then do a row of a's. Stop and compare your a's with the original
you're learning from, and underline your best 'a'. Repeat this for the
rest of the alphabet. The hope is that you will constantly look back to
the original letterforms and deelop an eye for it, improving your own
you make a mistake on your final 'good' work, try to leave the appropriate
space for the correct letters, and keep going. If you make more than three
significant mistakes you may wish to start anew. Otherwise, mistakes can
be covered with gouache the same colour as the page (like whiteout) or
if you are working on vellum, simply scrape away a layer of the skin (practice
on a scrap) and fix the mistake. Either way, its a delicate operation.
a) To keep your work as clean as possible, keep a folded tissue under
your writing hand at all times. Use paper to cover the rest of the page
b) When the time comes to tackle the "real"scroll, try to do it al in
one sitting. Handwriting can change subtly with your different moods.
Of course, avoid distractions (children, noise) at this time if you can
c) I personally don't affix my page to the table top while writing, as
I can push each line away as I progress down the page, helping to keep
the writing even.
d) be careful not to lean down on the edge of the table, as you might
fold your work.
e) Experiment. Using gold ink on black paper is heaps of fun!
for Left-handed Scribes:
a) Don't use left-handed nibs. They are often more trouble than they are
worth, especially if you are asked to write without notice, and handed
someone else's calligraphy pen.
b) Turn the page. That is, if you are having trouble with smudging, turn
the page at any angle that helps you.
c) As you follow the direction of each stroke in a letter, you may find
that you 'push' the stroke, rather than pull. If so, you will have enormous
difficulty using feather quills (you will have to re-cut the nib very
often). And do not use a right-hander's pen if it is really special to
them, or expensive (because you'll put pressure on the nib that may ruin
it). Happy Calligraphying!!!!!!
6. Illumination (BACK
At this stage you will have penciled in the basic guidelines
from your Layout sheet, and your calligraphy will be complete.
If you have not already done so, you will have to pencil in the outlines
of all your decorative elements and illustrations. Its best to work these
out on your Layout page, to avoid excessive erasing on your final work.
(This is where you use your tracing paper).
Step 1- applying gold leaf.
Note: you may consider having a raised gold effect on a capital letter.
This is the fun part! With a fine brush, paint the appropriate areas with
Gum Arabic. It's invisible on the page, so I recommend you add some gouache
to the solution. When finished, give a few breaths on these areas to increase
their stickiness, and press your transfer gold leaf onto the page, rubbing
the backing sheet with your burnisher. If you have gold leaf not attached
to a backing sheet, be extra cautious as it will fly off or crumple with
the slightest breeze. Next, pick up loosegold dust with a large dry brush,
and shake it off into a bottle. Use your burnisher (or fine silk cloth)
by rubbing gently over the gilded areas. This helps prevent tarnish, and
gives an extrashine to the gold. Agate is best, but other semi-precious
stones can be used (jewellery).
Gilding is the first step because burnishing can cause your painted areas
(gouache) to become shiny here and there, an undesirable effect.
Step 2- using gouache. (Pronounced"gw-ah-sh")
I believe that gouache is basically opaque watercolour. If you have watercolours,
(and don't want to buy gouache) try adding a little egg white to them
for a gouache substitute.
Gouache can be rehydrated and used again and again after it has dried.
Because of this, you should keep your artwork away from water (and out
of direct sunlight if possible). You don't need very much gouache to paint
a very large area. It needs to be watered down to exactly the right consistency,
slightly thicker than plain milk. Your painted areas should be flat and
free of streaks. When mixing colours, do so thoroughly to prevent streaks.
I use the following colours in the "Windsor and Newton" range of Artist's
Colours: lamp black and permanent white, primary yellow, cadmium red deep
(sometimes mixed with cadmium red light), purple lake, ultramarine, permanent
green middle, and burnt umber. Other very useful colours are flesh tint,
imitation gold and yellow ochre. On the back of these small tubes of paint,
you will see what Series they are (indicates price) and Permanence (light
fastness). Permanence AA is best.
When working on a project, you will have to look carefully at the colours
used in the original MS. Notice how the colours are evenly distributed
throughout the piece. (ie, not heaps of red in one corner etc, there's
an overall balance of colour) If you are working on a project with a coat
of arms, you should paint this first as it is a constant when choosing
how to colour everything, and keep in mind that most seals are made of
a dark red wax.
Step 3- colouring.
Assuming that you have decided on your Layout page what colour everything
will be, (I usually use colour pencils) you will paint the entire page
one colour at a time. If you are right handed, it is best to start from
the bottom left corner and work your way diagonally up the page. Left
handers start bottom right corner, and work diagonally back and up. This
is if you're paranoid like me, and want to avoid smudging the paint with
your hand while its drying. Then, do the next colour sweep, all the blue
on the pae, etc.
How to paint a straight line with a ruler:
If you are right handed, grip the ruler in you left fist, pressing firmly
onto the table with the ruler slanted and only touching the table along
one edge. With your right hand grip the brush with thumb and forefinger,
and curl the other fingers to slide along the ruler. Hopefully the only
variable here is your paintbrush as it slides along the length of the
to use ruling pens:
These are like a special pen with a nib on the end. (You can sometimes
get these in old second hand compass sets) You can use gouache in ruling
pans to draw innumerable straight lines of consistent thickness. These
pens often come in stes with compasses too. Extremely useful for charts
4- blending colours.
a) dry brushing. Incredibly fine, delicate lines can be achieved with
an almost dry brush. Going from extremely light to dark colours can be
achieved with these fine thin strokes. If you are adding depth to a face,
a series of differently coloured strokes can give shadow and highlighting.
b) rehydration. This involves having a clean brush, very slightly wet,
and mixing the colours on the page. You must keep the brush free of pigment
and not too wet, everytime you mix the colours of a new area.
to fix mistakes:
If you accidentally drop your brush and smear colour on the page, don't
panic. Get all the pigment off your brush, and wet the mistake whilst
daubing it with a clean tissue. Keep your brush free of paint, and try
not to over wet the affected area, as the paper may become rough and dirty.
5- finishing touches.
Outline your gilded areas in black (if appropriate to the style). I don't
know which is better, gouache or ink, but I prefer gouache. For this stage
either use a Crow's Quill (fine metal nib), or your finest paintbrush.
For the miniature, sometimes things are outlined in black, but usually
not. Have a good look at your original source. This is the final stage
so that any messy edges can be cleaned up, providing a sharp look to the
Don't forget to mark your work. These are usually a small squiggle or
letters that don't distract the viewer from your art. You might also write
your name and the date on the back, and any additional information.
7. Making Vellum (BACK
From 'A history of Illuminated Manuscripts' page 84.
is a twelfth century account of how to make vellum in the De Diversis
Artibus of Theophilus, probably written at Helmarshausen Abbey in
Skins are soaked in running water for several days. Then they are immersed
in a solution of lime and water for up to a fortnight. Then all the hair
is scraped off and the skins are put back into the lime solution for as
Next they are rinsed, stretched over a frame and dried in the sun, and
cleaned over and over again with pumice and water. Plenty of fresh running
water was crucial for vellum making.
8. Recommended Browsing List (BACK
strongly suggest going to second hand book stores in the heart of your
capital city. They might have an Illumination section, or you may have
to sift through the Art history area. My ideal book is one high in colour
plates, but small and easy to travel with. My very favourite book so far
is the Renaissance one below. It is excellent, but then, most British
Library books are.
'Medieval Calligraphy: its History and Technique'
by Marc Drogin. New York: Dover Publications, 1980. ISBN 0 486 26142 5
'The Book of Kells' and 'The Carolingian Bible'
'The Golden Age of English Manuscript Painting:
1200-1500' by Richard Marks. London: Chatts & Windus, 1981.
or 'Illuminated Manuscripts in the Bodlean Library'
Oxford University: Clarendon Press, 1967.
close-ups: 'Gothic Illuminated Manuscripts:
69 Plates in Full Colour' by Emma Pirani.
Milan: Fratelli Fabbri Editori, 1966. ISBN 0 600 01250 6
Italian: 'The Visconty Hours'
Detail: 'King René's Book of Love'
(Le Cueur d'Amours Espris) New York: G. Braziller, 1975.
'Renaissance Painting in Manuscripts:
Treasures from the British Library'.
New York: Hills Hudson Press, 1983. ISBN 0 7123 0024 4
Craftsmen: 'Scribes and Illuminators'
by Christopher de Hamel, 1992.
ISBN 0 7141 2049 9.