Gesso for Gilding

Raised gilding with gesso is one of those things that really takes scribal work to a new level. Most of us do either flat gilding or use a modern PVA liquid as our gilding base because they’re easy options. Paint it on, wait a few minutes or hours, breathe, pop the gold down, and you’re done. Gesso seems to live in the realm reserved only for in-depth competition projects where every element is historically correct. I get it. Gesso is incredibly sensitive to humidity, so it behaves perfectly one day and is impossible the next. It requires some solid time with your mortar and pestle or muller. There are weird supplies. It’s a diva of a material.  In spite of all that, you should give it a chance. (Note: gilding gesso is NOT the same thing as the gesso used to prep board or canvas for painting.) There’s no other way to get the perfectly smooth, shiny gold that looks like it was poured liquid onto your page. These are from a Knighting scroll I did a few years ago.1517528_10202111416080702_1633011969_n

 

Every time I use a period material, I find that it answers the question: “Why can’t I get my work to look like the historical work?” Period materials behave differently and give different results, resulting in work that looks far more medieval. IMAGINE THAT. Modern materials are generally more convenient and have a shallower learning curve. That doesn’t mean they do the job better. They just make it easier. If you’ve ever tried to replicate raised gilding with modern liquids, you are familiar with surfaces that dent or cave in or have a crepe-paper texture. They don’t look anything like the high, even pillows that we see gold laid on in manuscripts. What gives? These acrylic or plastic-based materials don’t have anything to hold up that raised pillow. The water evaporates out as it dries, the blob collapses, and you’re left with an uneven surface. Gilding gesso has a base of plaster and animal glue, so as it dries, there are little particles of rocks holding everything up nice and high. No collapse. And because it’s made out of rocks and glue, you can work with the dried surface to polish it gently, giving the gold the smoothest possible foundation. The smoother the ground the gold lays on, the shinier and more reflective it appears. The mirror shine people talk about with gold? This is how you get it. It’s hard to photograph, it’s so shiny.1546353_10202111450841571_649675377_n

 

You’ll play with your gesso some, figure out what tweaks are needed for your general climate, and will be good to go. I was good in Texas, where 90% of the state is of similar humidity for most of the year. It was easy to make the stuff, it worked beautifully, and you could even share it among friends to cut the cost and labor. I live in Savannah now. SAVANNAH. It’s a marsh next to the Atlantic Ocean, where the humidity ranges from 50-100%, often in the same week. Atlanta is about 200 miles away and has humidity around 30-40% on the same day that I have 60-70% humidity. When we’re talking about a recipe that you adjust based on your local weather over the next three days, gesso suddenly became tricky. Gesso I had moved with me stayed so tacky that it came through the gold leaf and stuck on the backing paper and glassine. I had to start re-learning something I thought I knew. The only way is trial and error.

Below, you can see some gesso that’s been laid and had a chance to dry. It hasn’t been polished yet, so you can see tiny bumps and imperfections. In the diamond at the top, you can see a tiny air bubble that didn’t get pricked. All of those things can get smoothed out with a glass marble or an agate burnisher. You could patch a little crack with some animal glue and put another skim coat of gesso over the whole thing. Is your gesso too dry? Add a drop or two of honey. Too sticky? Add a touch more plaster. Too crumbly? Add a tiny bit more glue. Cennini offers a recipe that can be adjusted for climates that are more or less humid. There’s definitely a learning curve, but it’s a really adaptable material that’s worth getting to know.16142359_10210097490447570_2480518043413486875_n

Why the sudden resurgence of interest in gesso? I had signed up to teach gesso gilding at Midwinter A&S. There was a deadline for me to get gesso sorted out in Georgia. I sort of failed. I don’t think that it’s possible to make something that works in Savannah’s marshy climate and in the foothills of the mountains in the northern part of the state. I made and remade gesso. I made batches that were too sticky for me, but did alright in Atlanta. I made batches that worked fine for me and were very difficult for participants to get activated and sticky in Atlanta. I had wanted for everyone to leave with a magnificent golden letter and a heart full of gesso love and confidence. What we got was a bunch of people getting to go through a troubleshooting and usage session. Most everyone left with something successfully gilded, though the work required varied. I was pleased that I could offer people a chance to test the material and learn how rough they could be and have personal experience of what it’s like when it’s too dry or too sticky. It will make their home experiments more successful, but it made for a slightly less successful day. Want to try it at home? Here’s my handout, complete with a non-toxic recipe that’s been passed around the SCA for ages, resources, and tips – Period Raised Gilding with Gesso

How gesso is made: What we’re working with is a mixture of slaked plaster/lime/chalk, hide or animal glue, sugar or honey, some water, and a little coloring. Slaked plaster has had its pH neutralized from the slightly acidic state it comes in (and you know acid is bad). You wash it in water, let it settle for a few minutes, pour off the water, add more. Repeat until neutral, drain, and dry. For the glue, you can use hide glue, rabbit glue, fish glue, glue you made from boiling down parchment scraps outside. The coloring helps you see where you’ve put it and works like underpainting to mask areas where the gold is thin or got rubbed. Armenian bole is traditional, but other red or yellow earth pigments or gouache work fine.

You warm the liquids by letting their bottles sit in a bowl of hot water for a few minutes. Then, pop everything in in your mortar and pestle, and begin the slow and gentle process of thoroughly combining them while trying not to incorporate any air. This part takes 30-45 minutes. You want it to be about the thickness of pancake batter. It should never be thinner than Elmer’s glue. It will make a sort-of gross sticky sound. Recruit friends or children or spouses. Bribe them with baked goods. Or do it all yourself and feel like a morally superior art purist. Whatever makes you happy. I just want you to be happy and make pretty art. You’ll get the very best and silkiest gesso if you can use a muller and big marble or thick sanded glass tile. If you have that, go for it. If not, a mortar and pestle works perfectly fine. You might just have to spend a little bit more time refining the dried gesso with your agate or glass that you’re using to polish it. Since a nice-sized muller is about $75, and ceramic lab-grade mortar and pestle sets are about $7 on Amazon Prime, I’m willing to spend a little extra time refining.

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New Scrolls

I’ve been getting comfortable with perg, which is a vegetable-based parchment substitute. It takes paint very differently than either animal skin parchment or paper, is very sensitive to moisture, and has a definite learning curve. But I like it! The learning curve has been about paint consistency and how it gets laid on the page. If you make a puddle and spread it around for nice, solid coverage, the perg buckles and cockles horribly. Thin, dry coats is the way to go – more like acrylic painting than watercolor.

This has been an opportunity to play and get comfortable again with fine detail work. Surgery seems to have left me only very slightly less coordinated, and then, only when I’ve probably been working for a little too long. My hand isn’t shaky or anything. Not bad! I’m terribly in love with the funky mermaids and their hand mirrors that turn up in the margins sometimes. I freehand drew this and knocked it out in a couple of evenings. Not sure what award it should be for yet, though obviously not something for children, because underboob.15541883_10209839163509558_2438745129623375024_n

Since the mermaid scroll and a quick Celtic one seem to have gone alright, I decided that it would be ok to start on a pair of viscounty scrolls for friends who moved to Oertha and promptly became their prince and princess. They have been awesome and understanding about my limitations. They have been patient. And my goal is to have these done so that they can take them home at Gulf. They asked for a paired set that would go together but be unique, came from early in period, be representative of them, and that whatever the final design was, it would be something I wanted to take on. After passing ideas back and forth for months, I stumbled onto a Swiss manuscript from 820-850 CE. The British Library has this wonderful book (Harley 647) that contains Hyginus’ Astronomica, complete with illustrated constellations where text and painting combine to form the figures that the constellations are based on. His device features wolves, which was an easy change from the dog in Canis Major. Her device features a sea goat, and I drew inspiration from Aires and Cetus (the sea monster) to create one that felt true to the original source material. I plan to do the calligraphy in the rustic Roman caps featured in the original. In Latin.
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The original, being about 1200 years old, is a little more rustic and funky than I wanted for a royal peerage. I opted to make them a little bit more illustrated than textual and spend more time on details and shading. I looked at a bunch of pictures of wolves in bestiaries and picked the fur style I liked best, then went from there. Fortunately, I have a dedicated team of friends who I can send progress pics to, so that they can tell me to stop before I overwork something. Overworking is my most flagrant painting sin and something I’m determinedly working at improving in 2017.

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Can we just talk about this sea goat for a minute, y’all? If you paint, you know that it’s really hard to get a green that has good coverage without it being that horrible pale pistachio green school walls used to be painted. I used to just make an ocean of paint and let it dry for true green color and good opacity. That does not work on perg. Oh no. There are many painstakingly thin, not very wet coats of green here. And then I thought I’d shade it with a little purple – because HE Violet LOVES her some purple. It wound up looking like a bad tie dye experiment because I used wet-into-wet watercolor techniques. There was despair. There may have been foot stomping. And then, Dr. Kate pointed out that the effect would be lovely with scales painted over it. SO I PAINTED SOME SCALES. I painted scales for hours and hours with the tiny magical model painting brushes my parents sent for Christmas. It looked good! Then, I realized that I should have done ALL of the shading first. I’ve added some since I took the picture below, and I think I’ll have to repaint some scales over the shading. I know that I am my biggest critic, but I swear to you that it looks like the neon people put underneath their tricked out cars. Only the tricked out car is a goat hoof and fin, and it’s underwater, where neon lighting is probably really dangerous because sharks might come eat you. (I may have been staring at this for too long…)

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A few new scrolls…

I have a new (temporary) job at a university that has a LOT of downtime. As long as I’m at my desk, I can kind of do what I want. This was delightful for war prep, since it meant abundant time for hand-finishing or fussy small tasks I’d lay aside in favor of more time at the serger, pedal to the metal. Now that war is over, I’m doing some tentative scribal work. The kingdom coffers are low. I have time…and after nearly two years of forced wrist rest, I could REALLY use the practice. (Wrist surgery is happening this summer!) Meridies had a crown that educated the populace about the amount of work and love that go into each award – and they talked about the sizes of period manuscripts! The kingdom largely hands out smaller pieces now. This is both really cool and an adjustment, since everything has to be scaled down. Also, award texts have to have information in them to make them legally valid (dates, signatures, etc.), and this nearly doubles the amount of text. The period manuscripts with beautiful illustration and illumination often only have 3-4 lines of text. Keeping the aesthetic while doing the text all on a 5×7″ sheet of paper is a little bit challenging when you’re used to having 8×10″ or larger.

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This is finishing out an example I started for my class on diapering and white work. The big shield is supposed to be left white, as the award is the Argent Shield. It’s one of the first times I’ve popped a grotesque into a blank space. As with all new things, I feel like it’s awkward. The whole piece hasn’t been highlighted yet, which always makes things look a lot better. Overall, I love this scroll. I tried a couple of more period approaches to painting that I hadn’t before, and they were easier and gave better results than what I’d done before. Calligraphy is really my thing, more than illumination. It’s a bit frustrating to see it a bit shaky and uneven after doing so much work to be able to write fluidly and evenly.  And why is it leaning a bit to the left? Stupid calligraphy.

 

There has been a specific request for masculine and early period scrolls. I immediately thought of the many, many fart and dick jokes on manuscripts.

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Like this goat farting on a squire…
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…and this dude pooping out a bunch of acanthus leaves…
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…and this guy who found a novel way to sound the trumpet.

I may still do a fart joke scroll. But since you never know who it’s going to be for, and so many people have an AoA as the highest award they ever get, I always feel a little hinky about the only thing they hang on their wall being a butt trumpeting out part of the scroll text. WHICH IS AN AMAZING IDEA, BY THE WAY. You’re welcome. I might do it when I redo my husband’s AoA, because he would love a butt trumpeting scroll to no end. BUT. I decided to start with something early period and not girly.

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This is a mashup of the Lindisfarne Gospel, with some of the decorative motifs in the R are from the Book of Kells (plus a simple braid knot). My brain has historically been averse to drawing my own knotwork. It does not compute, not even a little bit. Not with a grid or with a squid. I do not like them, Sam I Am. So for this, I figured it out without benefit of a light box and tracing. It’s tiny and a bit wonky, but I did it all by myself. The patterning of the dots and shaped coloring in of capital letters came from the Lindisfarne Gospels. I’ve had the book for ages, and only this week noticed that they use patterned red dots to do simple knots and lattice patterns. That’s much more doable for me than a Kells carpet page of doom. Still debating how to fill in the R’s empty space. It would be cool to draw in a little Celtic dude with a coronet on his head…or maybe some crazy knotwork animal?

Russian Rose Progress

My rose scroll is getting close to completion! I haven’t shown a bunch of pictures, because progress has been slooooooow. I’m in major wrist pain again, and ten minutes of work a day does not make for exciting blog updates.

Here’s where it was last week:

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I took this right before my rapidograph technical pen started leaking  as I drew in the eyes, nose, and mouth, and ruined the face. My beloved rapidographs have itsy bitsy needle tips perfect for outlining. They don’t bite into gouache. The alcohol ink dries nice and dark and clean wherever I put it.The only problem has ever been with them clogging from dried ink, which is a little fussy to fix but not a big deal – and totally worth it since I usually sit down to do all of the outlining in one day, which isn’t enough time to clog. I had no idea they might start dripping, so it took me a second to realize what was happening.

I’ve been working on fixing the face and adding shading and filling in those empty circles this week. To give you an idea of scale, each of those rose roundels around the portrait, including the gold ring, is smaller than a thumb tack. I’ve never painted miniatures, so learning to adjust in these small areas has been an interesting challenge. Less is definitely more…

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The face is mostly fixed. I need to find my bag of cat whiskers and add a little detail on the lips and on the gold temple rings and on the veil band. Yes, cat whiskers. They’re shed naturally, and a couple of friends give me theirs. After that, it’s just calligraphy and framing.

Russian calligraphy is hard for me. Not only are the letterforms foreign to my eye, they’re a bit blocky, so I struggle with feeling like my lettering is graceful. I don’t speak Russian, so I’ll be doing a faux-Cyrillic calligraphy where the alphabet is juggled around to use the characters that look most like our Roman alphabet. Here’s the original from the Yuriev Gospel:

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I took a picture of my screen with my phone and have been looking at it a lot to try to get my eye acclimated to what I want the lettering to look like. This part is going to be an adventure… I have a scroll text that’s mandatory and only 2×3 inches (5cm x 7.5cm) to do it in. When I played around with a faux Russian font to get an idea of how big the letters can be and still fit on the page, it had to be at a 7pt font. SO. TINY.

The Gilding Begins

I got sick with a fever for a few days, so I spent some time getting started with the gilding for the pieces. If you’ve never worked with gold leaf, you may not know that gilding has to be done before anything else. Gold leaf sticks to everything – fingerprints, pets, gouache, ink… So gold goes down first. It’s one of my favorite things to do in scribal land, and it always feels like a reward after having to spend the hours carefully drawing on the design. Gold is pure transformative magic.

I had planned to start with gesso, in case it went spectacularly well, so that I could just use it on both. However, I don’t have as much gesso as I thought I did. Supplies will have to be ordered. Much time with the mortar and pestle will have to be put in. I am impatient. Instacoll happened first.

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All the patterns haven’t been sketched in yet. Blame the fever.

Instacoll and Minautum are the two big modern gilding sizes that the big-time calligraphers use. They’re both great. When I ordered, they were out of Minautum, so I got Instacoll. The only thing I don’t love about it is that it transfers the texture of what’s beneath it to the surface once it’s dry. Thinning it out well and doing extra coats generally solves the problem (and makes for a prettier, domed gilding surface that reflects more light). I couldn’t do that on the arch border of |O| shapes because they’re too small to keep their definition and take multiple coats of size. So they’re slightly dimpled up close, since the texture of the vellum’s pores is transferred.

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I keep looking at it, trying to decide if I should scrape it off or leave it. Leaving it is probably the best idea. It’s not THAT noticeable if you’re not looking for it, and colorful painting will make it less so. And it’s small. That whole central arch from the portrait out to the |O| border is about 1.5×2″. (You guys know I have a perfectionism problem, so don’t act surprised…)

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Here it is with the first layer of gold on it, and it’s definitely better. A second layer of gold will go on when I’m less tired, and it will look better still. If I had to learn that this style of gilding isn’t suited to such small details, I’m glad I learned it on a tiny arch at the very beginning. This will let me work through the rest of the piece finding ways to advantageously combine raised gilding and flat gilding (painted-on shell gold or gold bronze powder are both period options that look great, though shell gold is WAY more expensive).

Russian Court Barony Scroll

The upcoming reign in Meridies is themed around all things Kiev Rus, and scrolls in this style have been requested. It’s been about a year since I got to do a whole scroll with painting and everything, so I thought I’d knock out one or two while I’m waiting on the Latin translation for my next Peerage scroll.

Russia has a lot of Byzantine aesthetic influence through the spread of Orthodoxy. That’s evident even today. Lots of gold, beautiful geometric patterns, lots of circles and roundels. I looked at a ton of manuscripts, found a resource that had converted some of the knot work and geometric designs into line drawings, and got to work.

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It’s turned out to be a great chance to try out my new Finetec gold palette! This stuff is fantastic – like Schminke good. Except for $5 more than a tube of gouache, you get four golds, a rose gold, and silver. Replacement pans run about $5. You should get one next time you put in an order at John Neal or Paper & Ink.

I chose a limited color palette based on the colors I saw repeatedly through manuscripts. There were some cool light verdigris greens and a wonderful purple burgundy and some dark grays, too. I didn’t use them because some pigments shift over time, so I’m not sure about what they were supposed to be originally without having to do a bunch of research. The gray looks fantastic to my modern eye, but I suspect it was vermilion that went to black. I’m in the outline and cleanup phase of this (still on the fence about white-work noodly bits on the blue…). Naturally, I forgot where I’d just outlined and smudged bits of black everywhere. I should have been patient and gone to refill my Rapidograph ink that dried up.

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I made up a faux Cyrillic alphabet for this. I know a nice one probably exists somewhere, but I didn’t find it. I’ll share it once I’m done and have had a chance to tweak it a little. It’s penciled in on the scroll for now. If you’re going to do a faux script like this, be kind to the herald and kingdom scribe – write out the text on the back of the thing for the herald and write out the a=? equivalent for each letter on the back so that the person who has to do the name and date can match it. If you’re extra kind, put what size nib you used.

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Peerage scroll completed

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My first peerage scroll is done and was given in court at Ansteorra’s crown tournament, so now I can show it to you! I made a knight cry, so I’m calling it a success.

The wolves turned out ok after I calmed down about them and spent a little bit of time with a teeny detail brush outlining in a furry kind of way. It was a good experience to do something so large and understand how long it takes me to do the work, what I wish to improve upon and should practice (shading and highlighting for the leaves and flowers), and what little things make a vast difference in the end, like laying down the gold, outlining, and putting in all the fine squiggles and details that help fill the space and unite the illumination.

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Wolf problems

The super secret peerage scroll has to have wolves on it. I’ve never painted animals before, and wolves aren’t the easiest since it’s remarkably simple to nudge them into looking like a fox or dog. This wolf looks like his face has the wrong taxidermy form inside:

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The other one is better. He’s chasing a rabbit!

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Painting fur texture is a challenge, but it’s incredibly hard when the subject is so tiny. Those wolves are about an inch high and an inch and a half wide. I’ve been doing them with a 6/0 and a 10/0 liner. I can’t even imagine how people do true miniature painting!

Shhhhhh…. it’s a secret peerage scroll!

20131215-180036.jpgI’m working on a super secret peerage scroll right now for someone who has never gotten theirs. It’s my first, and I’m trying not to be too daunted by it. The biggest obstacle is me psyching myself out. That’s got to stop since I already have three more queued behind it! For now, nothing I can show you will have the calligraphy showing, since that would make it pretty darn obvious who it’s being done up for…

If this looks big, it is. In Ansteorra, these are supposed to be 16×20 inches, which sounds great until you get in there and figure out how many little decisions go into filling up so much space. This one has ornate foliage, the recipient’s arms, the figure of a knight, animals, and gilding. I’m doing it with gouache on an archival paper for mixed media, Best Bottle sumi ink because I loves it with all my heart, and plenty of 23K gold leaf.

This is the design that gets traced onto the final paper. It took me about eight hours to draw all the fancy spinach out and another couple to do the B with the knight and wolf. I still have more animals to work into the foliage, which should be exciting. I can re-size sketches in Photoshop and tweak them to fit, but drawing them in the foliage makes for awkward positioning, which makes my modern eye all twitchy. Animals are not my artistic thing, and I’m pretty sure I need to think of an appropriate sacrifice to the art gods. Or maybe I could, you know, practice painting fur so they don’t look dumb…

There’s a lot of gilding on this bad boy. All those dots with spider legs up there? Gold. That big old B? Gold. The foofy bits on the white belt and the bar and the frame and the everything? Gold. I desperately love gilded things. They’re amazing and show stopping, and if I am going to be horribly honest about this, I trust in the power of gold leaf to elevate what I feel I lack in subtle illumination skills. I can’t cram five more years of practice into one piece that’s due in January, but I sure can make it extra super shiny.

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This is about where I am with the painting. Base colors are down, shading is starting to go in, and I’m trying to take breaks to avoid over-working it and to give myself pep talks that it’s ok that it’s colorful. The colors are slightly darker in person, but it’s rather boisterous. Illumination is an area where I feel insecure, and it doesn’t help that my fellow Ninja Scribal ladies are both super good at painting. One of them has a degree in watercolor. I try not to feel like I make everything out of macaroni and glitter, but I have my days…

But let’s talk more about gilding, shall we? Gesso and I do not get along very well at this time. Maybe it’s Texas weather, maybe it’s missing some secret knowledge of the ancients, maybe it’s simple lack of patience. But if I need to KNOW that something will work, it’s not what I’m turning to. This isn’t an A&S project. Kolner makes two popular gilding sizes: Instacoll and Minatum. Minatum is great and comes in an ink consistency as well as a thicker one, but it has a short window for working with it.

On the other hand, Instacoll can be one step (put it down, let it dry until it’s juuuuust dry, breathe on it, gild), or you can let it sit indefinitely and activate it later. This indefinite thing is fun because it lets me get used to building up layers gesso-style for very pillowy surfaces. You can buy the activator, or you can do what I do and just apply another thinned down coat. I’ve used it to great success on vellum as well as paper, and I like it. It works well for big areas, too. As you can see, I’ve already laid the gold dots on the first round of Instacoll. They’re softly domed now, and will get one more coat when I’m ready to gild so that they’re rounded but not to the point where it will be hard to burnish them.

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