Queen’s Blade of Honor

I’m working this up in a hurry for Queen’s Champion this weekend. Calligraphy and illumination aren’t usually arts people get to see being done, so here’s a peek at how I do original works. Different people work differently, and there’s no right way to do it.

First, I find a design for decoration. Sometimes I trace from a manuscript, sometimes I draw my own totally from scratch, or a mix of the two. (The N on this is from a scribe’s sketchbook.) Whatever I’m using, I get out the tracing or typing paper and make sure I have a clean line drawing I can trace with my light box. Photoshop can help with desaturation and contrast to get this. Size it to what you need for your layout. Place it where it’s going to be on the backside of the paper and secure it with some drafting tape.

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If you prefer to do the illumination before the calligraphy, now is the time to trace it lightly in pencil and go paint and gild. If you’re a calligraphy first person, your next step is to draw the lines for the text. I make up guide sheets in Photoshop for various nib widths and x-heights. I hate drawing and erasing lines, so I do this. Tape into place on the backside of your paper, slap it on the light table, and do the calligraphy.

Then you trace your decorations, pencil in lines, whatever. Now you have this (forgive the sad calligraphy, but it was a bad calligraphy day and this was the fifth try of the night):

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Start with the gilding – and that goes double if you’re using gold leaf, since it will stick to the gouache. This is Schminke gold gouache, and it’s very pretty. Gold always needs outlining, so it’s ok if it’s not perfectly crisp and defined. Next, paint. I start lighter and work in darker washes to shade. It looks a little funky at this point, and I want you to know that’s normal.

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Outlining, shading, highlighting, and a little touching up can absolutely transform the letter, even if what you’re doing is subtle. Here’s the final outcome, finished at the event. I think this whole thing took 5-6 hours, plus another 5 spent screwing up the calligraphy four times. Lesson learned: when you’re in a hurry, stick with a hand you know how to do well.

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Instacoll Gilding

20131003-172632.jpgLook at this fancy A just waiting to be covered in gold leaf. No, it’s not made out of caramel. It’s a gilding size called Instacoll, which can be used alone within a fixed window of time, or as part of a two step system that lets you activate the size at any time. This is a favorite material of some very big name calligraphers, so it seemed like a good place to go after my experiments in gesso went so poorly. All of the examples were done on calfskin vellum.

I’m using it as a one step process, sans activator. Since this is a thick letter, I let it dry for as long as it wanted, then painted a thin, watered down coat over it, let it dry maybe 30 minutes, then gilded.

The Good: I like the Instacoll a lot. It’s easy to work with, already comes tinted this yellow ochre color, and cleans up well. It activated easily with the breath. In the areas that aren’t the A (see below) and weren’t so thick and big, it behaved perfectly and gave lovely, smooth as glass surfaces to work on. They make a version that’s thinned to an ink consistency for lettering, which is nice, as this is too thick to letter wigilded ath. If you want to do mostly flat gilded lettering, I would recommend ordering the Instacoll ink rather than trying to thin this.

The Not Exactly Bad: It doesn’t offer any stunning improvements over any other modern size when it comes to building up big, smooth pillow letters. Gesso still wins on that front. This one didn’t crater like it would have with PVA, but it settled a little, drying to a fine, leathery texture. Watered down coats filled it in well enough, but it took several of them and never did wind up as smooth and lovely as it looked before it dried.

What I Learned: Next time I work with it, I may burnish the Instacoll a little with agate to see if it smooths out. Or, for these kinds of puffy gilding surfaces, it may be better to build them up slowly over several days with thin coats, then use the activator.

…and then I painted it in with my homemade paints. In a fit of being overly-confident, I did the lettering without making sure it all actually fit on the page first. It was in iron gall ink I made with friends a few weeks back, which is great stuff that stands the test of time. How? By eating into whatever you’re writing on. oopsThat means I couldn’t wipe it off. I tried to scrape it off with a scalpel and was doing well taking down the thinnest layers of vellum until I scrubbed at it with the blade and went right through the paper. Ugh.

Good thing I’m researching period materials and methods for this year’s Kingdom A&S competition, as I can use this mistake to have learned a number of lessons and practice the art of removing mistakes from your vellum with it.

 

Making Medieval Paints

I went to the Known World Heraldry and Scribal Symposium last weekend, which is the international conference on heraldry and scribal arts for the SCA, a medieval recreation group I’m heavily involved in. It just so happened to be in San Antonio, so how could I pass up the opportunity? I was one of the people selected to teach and gave a lecture on working with quills – factors that affect performance, how to start using them, how to troubleshoot your work with them. There were some wonderful classes for all levels of expertise, and one of the most exciting for me was one on making your own paints. This has been on my list for a while, and then my mom cleaned out her studio and gave me a big container of dried and ground pigments. Clearly, it’s a sign.

The process is pretty easy. Pigment + egg + a little water = paint. You can make two kinds of paint with eggs: a shiny, permanent tempra paint with the yolk, and a watercolor style paint with glair (something you make from the clear part of the egg white). The glair watercolor can be reconstituted with a wet brush and/or a little more glair, much like the cakes of paint children use. The basics really are that simple. However… we’re going off of instructions that are a few hundred years old and sort of in shorthand. There’s room for some clarification and definitely room for some experimentation to see what gives the best result. Take eggs – unrefrigerated fresh yard eggs vs. free roaming happy chicken but refrigerated eggs vs. cheap watery store eggs all perform and taste very different in cooking, so I’m guessing they make a different paint product. The yolks go from thick and almost orange to thin and watery in that order, so the paint would be very different, I would think. Starting with the best ingredients always makes getting good results easier, so I’m on a mission to find out what works and why. Since I’m trying to learn to work with exclusively medieval materials and would really like to take this in to do a visual comparison on manuscripts at the HRC, I’m working on calfskin vellum that has been prepped for manuscript use.

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Take the glair, for instance. You are instructed to “foam” the eggs well, until no liquid remains, then let the stuff sit for at least 24 hours. Scrape off and discard the remaining foamy scummy bits, then save the liquid egg weep that has come out of it. This is your glair and will keep for a very, very long time, particularly if you didn’t get any of the milky bits or membranes into it. Kinda gross, really cool. Unlike plain old egg whites, it is not a slippery, slimy mess that doesn’t want to mix nicely. It makes a slick, lovely paint in seconds. It’s a revelation in comparison to my experiment making ink, which just said to mix soot and honey with egg white and water (think about trying to write with scrambled eggs. ew).

Anyway, foaming the egg is vague. Is it just kinda foamy? Approaching a soft meringue? Hard peaks? Logic says this is doing something to the proteins, so surely the amount of mixing matters. Maybe foaming an egg was a medieval shorthand anyone would understand, the way we can say “soft peaks” and know when to stop the mixer. I understand the imprecision because I cook. Ingredients vary in flavor, juiciness, sweetness, size seasonally, and it takes experience to know the subtleties and how to work around them to get consistent results.

My dad might have pulled my husband aside and told him marrying an artist was expensive, but something tells me he forgot to mention the part about tiny jars of weird, gross, and very possibly dangerous stuff everywhere…