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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Weaving is hard, and I am not good at it

Weaving looks easy on videos. Just pass the shuttle back and forth, raise and lower the warp to create a shed between each pass, and magically fabric appears. Truthfully, the actual practice of doing the weaving isn’t hard for me. It’s relaxing.

Warping the loom is a different story. I have two looms: one with a bunch of horizontal pegs mounted to a perpendicular board (like an inkle loom), and a hybrid loom that I had custom made a couple of years ago, where the warp threads are wound around opposing cylinders that can be locked in place. Both looms are pretty portable. The first is easier to warp, since the threads stay under tension as you wind them around the pegs. Unfortunately, I’m limited to the length proscribed by the number of pegs. It’s long enough to trim out a neckline and two sleeves, but that’s about it. The hybrid loom lets you have a warp as long as you want, which is great. But to wind that up, you have to be able to keep a large number of threads from getting twisted and tangled in the process. This part is harder than it might sound…

loom 1Yesterday, I spent almost all day trying to warp the loom with a simple design. I carefully worked with the string going through the cards in small groups. I made sure there were no twists or tangles. I wrapped the long ends of the thread up carefully, to keep them from tangling. All the way across the loom, bit by bit, I tied my cards up and attached them to the loom. I began turning the handle to wind up the warp at one end, and tangles start appearing at the other. Awesome.

The more I try to smooth it out and figure out what’s going on, the more tangled things get. Threads that were cut with precision to equal length are suddenly several inches off for no apparent reason. What. The. Heck. It’s like I’m only capable of making this work badly. Every thing I do that *should* help makes it worse. So I decided to cut my losses and cut off this crazy mess at the bottom, and just re-tie the little thread groups. So I lose a foot or so of weaving. So what?

SO THAT WAS A BAD DECISION. I turned the little wheel back the other way, to find a good even spot to start cutting the warp. And somehow, that was like back-combing the straight even part. The tablets slide back, and it poofs up into a rat’s nest just like hair. And then the cards started flipping and dropping in random clumps while I’m trying to do that. And then, all of a sudden, we had this salvageable mess. I shoved it under the coffee table to sit in time out for a while, until I can determine if it’s actually a loss or not. I’m pretty sure I would pay for two new things of crochet cotton if it means not having to comb out this mess of snarled thread and try to re-thread the cards with it.

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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.

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.

Greenland Gown – Sleeves

Soooooo I got bored of yards of double herringbone and decided to do one of the sleeves for an excuse to do something different while still being productive. I needed to have a sleeve sewn up to attach into the main body and one panel of side gores to even try the thing on. It would have been smart to do that before embellishing. I was feeling brave, having done a great deal of measuring to pattern the thing, and somehow the sleeves wound up about 4 inches too long.

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20131008-163436.jpgThere’s nothing to do but chop off this beautiful sleeve, learn my lesson, and do it over. That’s ok by me. The wavy lines were totally freehand and got more inconsistent than I felt good about. Maybe the new ones will be big enough to do a little cluster of three glass beads inside each!

The good news is that the 2/3 of the dress I have stitched together and can try on seems to fit and hang very, very well. This is something of a miracle because I have an awfully hard time sewing for myself and having it come out right. I always doubt the measurements, make it bigger, and then wind up looking like I’m swimming in ill-fitting clothes that once belonged to a larger version of myself.

This dress seems like it will be pretty, comfortable, and free me up to wear fewer layers when it’s warmer here.