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.

20131215-180153.jpg

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.┬áKolner 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.

photo (1)

How I stopped struggling and learned to love Italian dresses

I love France and French styles, but I never really wear them. I started in the SCA largely because I wanted to learn authentic historical costuming so I could make sumptuous French gowns and have a reason to wear them. If you see me, there’s an excellent chance that I’m wearing an Italian dress, probably from the upper-middle class. Why make the move to a different country and a few rungs down the social roster?

I am terrible at pattern drafting. I blame never having taken geometry for this, but the real culprit is that 1) patterning is a skill, and 2) it requires everyone being brutally honest about measuring their bodies, which is hard. We’re not used to dressing in fabrics that don’t stretch and styles that fit close to the body. Patterning that means that you and a helper need to get really familiar with your body and all of its oddities. Bodies are weird, we usually hide our flaws well, and really getting in there to make proper medieval clothes demands a lot of vulnerability. Like maybe there should be a mediator and a therapist on hand. While there’s nothing like a perfectly-fitted self-supporting gown, they’re complicated, unforgiving, and use an obscene amount of fabric. They’re basically the worst thing ever for a novice to work on.

Enter Italian dresses and their blessed simplicity. God love my friend Behiye, Our Lady of Italian Costuming, and her intervention right before my first Gulf War. Here was a dress I could make with 3-4 yds. of fabric and 2-3 hours. It works well in hot Texas weather, and it’s easy to warm up with layers or a heavier fabric choice. Here I am not sweltering on a hot, humid day.

gr ital

In its most basic form, late-period Italian costuming for women is a sleeveless dress with a skirt gathered into the bottom of the bodice, worn over a camica. It laces at the front or the side(s). Sleeves can be tied on with ribbons, left off, or attached. Sometimes you see a partlet, sometimes you don’t. We’re talking about practical clothes for busy women with a lot to do. Like… work in the kitchen (Vincenzo Campi, Cucina) or run all over site being helpful!
Vincenco Campi-Cucina
There are paintings of women selling fruit from the 16th c. that perfectly show this look off (Vincenzo Campi, 1580, The Fruit Seller detail). There are also pictures of women working together in kitchens that show similarly dressed-down versions of this basic mode of dress.
Vincenzo Campi - The Fruit Seller detail

Simple updo. A pretty green apron with fancy trim. Narrow dark velvet trim around the seams on the bodice. A softly pleated partlet in plain linen, without beading or embroidery. These are simple details that you can get right and really nail the look. Now see how similar it is to this much more formal and luxurious dresses (Boltraffio and Kempener):

Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio 003

1532 Kempener Bildnis einer Dame anagoria

While Italian can be really ornate, it’s often a simple garment with luxurious trims or fancy fabric treatments, like the gold cord couched onto the gown in the Kempener portrait. Once you have the basics down, making luxurious versions is really only a matter of how much time you have for embroidery and how big your fabric budget is. Make the skirts fuller with cartridge pleating rather than box or knife pleating, make the sleeves massive and fancy, use tissue thin silk organza and work it with gold to make your partlet, then embroider the cuffs and neckline of your camica.

Here’s one that’s fancier that I put together out of rogue scrap polysilk, cheap velveteen ribbon to trim the bodice, remnant brown corduroy for the bottom guard, and scrap Chinese brocade for the sleeves. It started plain, had a failed set of bodice trim that stained the fabric and came off first washing (Heat and Bond can eat rocks and die in a fire), and I saved it with the velvet ribbon and an evening of hand sewing in front of the TV. The camica is plain muslin with fake blackwork (2 rows of a honeycomb stitch my machine has) at the cuffs and neckline. I tied some linen veils together to make a turban and went on down to the Known World Scribal and Heraldic Symposium this year. For coronation, I added a deep red polysilk long jacket over it that has big poofy sleeves and ruffles. This whole thing would look a heck of a lot better if I put on the hemp corset thing Behiye handed down to me, but I am lazy. And it was hot. And I am lazy.

peeps italian

Want to make an Italian dress? Here’s my pattern piece. That’s right – piece. As in one. The bodice can end anywhere from an inch or two below the bust to at your natural waist. The skirt length is from the bottom of the bodice to the floor (roughly 45″ for me at 5’7″) box or knife pleated into the bottom. As long as you have enough to go around you more than once, you’re good to go. I get a really nice full skirt at 2x enough to go around me. The skirt is just a rectangle, so if you hem it and add an guards you want before you pleat it in, it takes a fraction of the time.

italian patterns

You put the center of the neckline on a fold and make four of these (front, back, and lining for each) or you cut them out like they are and sew them together to make four equal pieces. I don’t add seam allowances so that when I lace it up one side, I can tighten it and make for a more fitted hourglass shape. If I were pregnant or nursing, I would make it a little higher waisted and put eyelets on both sides for lacing and the ability to expand the dress without it skewing weirdly to one side.

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.

Making Paints 1

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…