Basic Guide to
Calligraphy & Illumination

(First Edition, 1998)

1. Introduction
2. Tools of the modern scribe
3. Layout
4. Proportion
5. Calligraphy. a) Tips for Scribes.
b) Tips for Left-handed Scribes.
6. Illumination (in five steps)
7. Making vellum
8. Recommended Browsing list

front cover


1. Introduction
The purpose of this booklet is to finally put into writing the knowledge I have garnered from various sources over the past four years. It is not to be taken as a definitive work, only as a guide to the beginning scribe. There are still many things I would have wished to add in: how to cut a nib on a feather or reed, how to make your own pigments, etc, but due to space limitations, these may have to wait for later editions.
Happy reading.....

NOTE: MS throughout this booklet means Manuscript.

2. Tools of the Modern Scribe (BACK TO TOP)


Must haves

b) Gum Arabic
c) Gold leaf (or transfer gold leaf)
g) Pencil (HB)
h) Eraser
i) Pencil Sharpener
k) Ruler
m) Tubes of gouache
n) Palettes (sea shells are perfect)
o) Water in a jar
q) Fine paint brush
r) Tissues
s) Ink - high quality
t) Calligraphy pen and nibs
y) Set square
AND your acid-free paper or vellum

Other useful tools

a) Burnisher (agate)
d) Shell gold
e) Gold dust collecting bottle
f) Gold dust collecting brush
j) Scalpel
l) Calculator
p) Ruling Pens
u) Feather/s
v) Scribble or scrap paper
w) Calligraphy guide lines (goes under your page)
x) T-square
z) compass

Tracing paper comes in handy too.

3. Layout
The very first thing to do is look through a wide range of books on Illumination and choose one style to work on.
Within your chosen style you must accommodate the elements you will be working with. For example:

  • Do you need room for a wax seal?
  • How many illustrations must you arrange into a pleasing composition; three, four?
  • Do you have lots of wording, do you need one or two columns?

All these considerations must "mesh" with the style you have chosen to work in. Get creative.

The two keys to a successful Illumination are: Proportion and Colour. If you get these right you can't go too far wrong. Colour will be touched on in the Illumination section of this booklet. (Section 6)


4. Proportion - some history (BACK TO TOP)
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:

example of dimensions

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 TO TOP)


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 course).

I 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.

It 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 lettering.

If 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.

Tips for Scribes:
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 too.
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 help it.
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!

Tips 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 TO TOP)
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.

Handy tips:
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 ruler.

paint a stright line

How 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 and cartography.

Step 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.

How 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.

Step 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 whole work.
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 TO TOP)
From 'A history of Illuminated Manuscripts' page 84.

'There is a twelfth century account of how to make vellum in the De Diversis Artibus of Theophilus, probably written at Helmarshausen Abbey in north Germany.
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 long again.
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.

vellum tips

8. Recommended Browsing List (BACK TO TOP)

I 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.

books doodle

Calligraphy: 'Medieval Calligraphy: its History and Technique'
by Marc Drogin. New York: Dover Publications, 1980. ISBN 0 486 26142 5

Early: 'The Book of Kells' and 'The Carolingian Bible'

Mid: '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.

For close-ups: 'Gothic Illuminated Manuscripts:
69 Plates in Full Colour' by Emma Pirani.
Milan: Fratelli Fabbri Editori, 1966. ISBN 0 600 01250 6

Interesting Italian: 'The Visconty Hours'

Excellent Detail: 'King René's Book of Love'
(Le Cueur d'Amours Espris) New York: G. Braziller, 1975.

Renaissance: 'Renaissance Painting in Manuscripts:
Treasures from the British Library'.
New York: Hills Hudson Press, 1983. ISBN 0 7123 0024 4

Medieval Craftsmen: 'Scribes and Illuminators'
by Christopher de Hamel, 1992.
ISBN 0 7141 2049 9.