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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Offhand flourishing lesson

In my long-term Spencerian lessons, we’ve covered all the letters of the alphabet by now and are on to the more advanced stuff. We just had our last lesson for 2013, and the focus was on flourishing. You want to talk about things that look effortless and turn out to be hard? We can talk about flourishing. The good stuff is a graceful, airy bit of pizazz. And then there’s what I do – leaden, sad, and hopelessly awkward. It’s just unnatural. I’ve known flourishing was coming, and I have been scared. Especially when your teacher spins out something like this in a few minutes, as if pulling this off would be way easier than picking up a notecard at the store:

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Basic flourishes are an integral part of Spencerian. It’s frilly. But hey! Spencerian offers up the magical world of offhand flourishing! Offhand flourishing is the ultimate decorative skill you can learn with a pointed pen. It’s daunting to look at a whole page of fanciful animals, feathers, floral sprays and swirls and think you’ll be able to figure out how to do it. Check out some of Jake Weidmann’s amazing work. Yeah… I’m supposed to be figuring out how to do that stuff.

Fortunately, it breaks down to rather simple elements you already know how to do, and the challenge is putting them together in one coherent whole. The little bits are the strokes I already know how to make for the most part, only more controlled, more precise. As it turns out, it’s a fabulous exercise to practice the pressure control on your pen without having to engage your mind in the business of letter-forms. After a few hours of sitting there doodling, we came to the conclusion that this is a splendid way to start practice sessions – very meditative.

20131118-174919.jpgThe big sprays and birds are super cool and very dramatic, but they’re not very practical for most applications. I’m a practical calligrapher, especially when it comes to how I plan to use Spencerian, which is for invitations, weddings, envelopes, and the like. Ain’t nobody got time to be making fancy turtle doves snuggling up on one of 200 envelopes…

So I got comfortable with something like this – extend some of the basic flourishes on the initial capital, then use that as a base to do something quick and small. Little floral things like this are quick. So are things that look like wheat, feathery things, and an underline that looks like a little pine bough.

Something tells me everyone is going to have very fancy tags on their Christmas presents this year…

 

Art breaks!

I’m trying to have more balance in my life, and art breaks are a part of that. It’s not a break if you just do a different kind of work for a bit. Stopping to sketch, do a zentangle, letter a little, embroider or whatever engages my brain in a totally different way. I have sketchbooks at work, at home, and usually in my purse. Try it out – doodle, grab a coloring book, have a little handwork project, and do something creative with your afternoon cup of tea.20131008-162415.jpg

I try to take at least one art break a day at work. Since lettering in a square involves at least minimal design and thought, I’ve decided it qualifies to meet my challenge of making a few small pieces a week for my art journal. There’s definitely more design in them than writing lines of alphabet necklaces and quick brown foxes. I did a page of them at work over a few days and brought them home to cut out and mount in the book.

All that smudging? That’s what happens when you spray fixative on them without checking to see if they’ve smudged even a little in transport. Fixative makes any penciled lettering much darker, so suddenly a “nobody will notice that little mistake” thing becomes prominent. Glad I learned it now instead of on something I spent a lot of time on…

The nice thing about fixative sprays and doing fine lettering in pencil is that the darkening works on colored pencil as well as graphite, meaning you can keep your hairlines and not have to go over them to add weight for readability. So far, as long as it’s been pretty readable, the coat of fixative has made it pop just enough to push it where I wanted it to be. Oddly, the watercolored part beneath doesn’t seem to get darker along with the pencil.

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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Monoprinting

I take calligraphy lessons in one three hour intensive session a month. Inevitably, I do my homework diligently for the first couple of weeks, then kind of taper into not remembering to do it at all by the time my next lesson rolls around. To combat that – and the drudgery of doing lettering drills for an hour or more a day, every day – my teacher has asked me to start keeping an art journal where I cut out the best letters from my practices, make small free-form pieces, and generally experiment. Even if it is one more thing to do, it is a GOOD thing and one I should have been doing all along. Seeing your progress really does bolster and inspire you in your art.

To kick off the journal, we did a watercolor monoprint, let it dry, and wrote on it using a pencil. Pencil is actually a grand practice tool for pointed pen calligraphy since it lets you focus on just forms and keeping a light hand without having to think about ink, pressing, releasing, pen angle, and all that. You can go back through and draw in the thickened areas when you’re done. The monoprint I did was just a couple of colors smeared onto wet glass, covered in a sheet of watercolor paper. No big deal. It looks something like this when it’s done, and then I can letter on it, add layers, whatever. If I had wet the paper well first, the paint would have flowed and absorbed better, making each section far less distinct.

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Here’s another one I did in the same session with lettering on it. The paper was wet when I laid it down this time. The lines that are darker are because I ran them into the paper with a blunt object while everything was still really wet. I used the end of my paintbrush, but a reed pen works better. The surface is, in effect, bruised – the ink pools there, it’s darker. You can even scratch in words, almost like a watermark.

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Today, I was thinking about monoprinting, never having explored it before, and realized that there’s a lot of potential for putting layer on layer. In googling techniques, I found this:

 

Pretty cool, huh? His treatment of layers, of additive work and gentle building of texture really spoke to something in me. There’s such possibility in layering printed or decorated tissue over the print or layers of cellulose etched and treated to build a final scene. I’ve resisted making modern art for a very long time, preferring to press into the warm bosom of historical techniques and tools. But this? This is finally inspiring me in a way I haven’t been in a long time.

 

 

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…