Ottoman Laurel Scroll – The Beginnings

One of my very dearest friends, Mistress Behiye, got her Laurel a couple of years ago and has been patiently waiting for my wrist to heal and for me to get back to work. She is the queen of Ottoman studies, even learning Turkish to be able to have better access to research materials. She is ridiculous. And the best ever. Clearly, I can’t just make her any old scroll. Over the past 3-ish years, I’ve learned some about Islamic calligraphy and art, looked at miniatures, and tried to find a direction for the project. Earlier this month, I went through all the digitized Ottoman manuscripts (1300-1620) in the British Library. Obviously, there are a lot of religious texts that are beautifully decorated, but they are not figurative due to the restrictions in Islam about depicting holy figures. When there are people in manuscripts, they’re mostly manly men fighting battles or hunting or celebrating something. Sometimes, there are women, but they are generally concubines or from the harem. There weren’t a lot of men willing to let their wives be seen and painted by strangers. Most of what we know about the appearance of royal women in the Ottoman court comes from preserved garments in the Topkapi Palace collections, some descriptive writing, and some triangulation with images of concubines. We can recreate specific garments, but the total package is a lot of “we can’t be totally sure, but I think it might look like this?” educated guessing. Can you guess where I’m going with this?

OR 3714 in the British Library boasts a great many fine illustrations that depict the life of the Mughal Emperor Babur. The book was made in Turkey, translated into Persian in 1589, and the museum holds a Turkish imperial copy that was made over 1590-1593. There are 143 illustrations in all, and 1 illustration on f. 13v that features – wonder of wonder and miracle of miracles – the Emperor’s royal marriage ceremony! Complete with three whole noble women dressed for a royal occasion! YES! To make it even better, Behiye had never seen this image and was super excited to see it for art and costuming reasons. It’s a fantastic setup for a Peerage scroll, because it makes a great two-page spread with text on one side and illustration on the other. The ceremony was easy to tweak so that she is the bride being crowned with a wreath, and that the Emperor and his other person are the King and Queen. And the people standing around can be made into people who took part in the ceremony. Perfection!

I got to work immediately. May is totally dead at school and work, so I have time to spend on this. Getting it right will be a test, though. I got it drawn, started putting the flats in, felt good…….and then I went and looked at the original. Not only was my start at shading all wrong, but the source piece looks unlike any European manuscript when it’s zoomed in tight.

This is how far I got before I decided I should really look at something higher quality than my bad color printout. HEY! This is definitely not done in the European way…and I may be way out of my depth but can’t exactly give up on the project. NO BETTER WAY TO LEARN, AMIRITE???

The original has a lot more depth and detail and finesse than the earlier period and European sources I’ve worked from. The shading looks almost like fur! There are so many impossibly fine strokes in sheer layers of color that I doubt my ability to pull it off. This won’t be my first Ottoman piece, but it will be the first that utilizes the specialty techniques from Levantine miniature painting. These techniques are still in use through the Middle East, India, and Pakistan. I’ve been able to find a few video tutorials (with a little help!). None of the ones I’ve found in English have enough depth to help me feel confident, but watching people do the work, even briefly, has helped. The idea is to lay in flats and then shade over it with increasingly delicate strokes using a dry brush technique called pardakht. Not knowing it was A Special Thing until today, it used to be my main shading technique when I started doing scribal. Now, all I have to do is remember how to do it well (if I ever actually did it well!).

This may require setting up new palettes with gradients of each shade of paint pre-mixed so that I can do this consistently across an area. The special shading on something like those orangey barrier walls might take a couple of days, and the trees and grass will take even longer. Currently, I work dark to light, adding white or yellow or whatever to lighten as I work. This is probably wrong somehow. Palette setup isn’t something I’ve thought much about, but whatever I’m doing now isn’t working very well for this project. I’m not really sure what the right approach is. I hate not knowing how to do something right the first time I attempt it… #perfectionistproblems

Finished Viscounty Scrolls

I’m all done with the viscounty scrolls for Duncan and Violet. Now that it’s May, it should be warm enough to ship them to Alaska without anything horrible happening to them. I hope. They are based on an 8th c. astronomy book from Switzerland, which depicts constellations in this way and fills the bodies with text. Their charge devices, a sea goat and a wolf, lent themselves perfectly to the existing constellations. The book guided the positioning and calligraphy, but I took the liberty of using more complex and refined painting techniques, since the original was very plain and simple.