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).

A Pair of Russian Pieces

I’m doing two calligraphy and illumination pieces in tandem. Both on vellum with handmade period materials. Both with plenty of gold leaf. One piece is for me to use in A&S competitions and keep, and the other is the Rose scroll for HRM Joan of Ook, Queen of Gleann Abhann.

While I won’t show the Rose scroll in full until it has been given, I will show you details and be open with the work on its sister piece, which I’m keeping. It’s good to have a project like this, which has forced me to cut my whole goat skin that Himself bought me at Gulf a couple of years back. One goat makes quite a few authentically-sized scribal pieces.

It takes a lot of giant rulers to cut a rather small rectangle of vellum. Because science.
It takes a lot of giant rulers to cut a rather small rectangle of vellum. Because science.

The Rose scroll is due in October, but I’m trying to be good to my wrist and work in moderation. There’s a LOT of detail and pattern, which means lots of tiny brush painting. Plus, making a portrait that will need a bit of practice painting to make sure I get the look right. The next really big A&S thing is at the beginning of February, which totally gives me time to handle any gesso-themed catastrophes or order whatever the right pigment is for that particular shade of blue.

I love the sketching and portraiture I have planned for the Rose scroll so much that I’m thinking of doing the second with one of the prayers to the Blessed Theotokos. This is what the Orthodox call Mary, and it translates to “light bearer”, as in the one who has birthed the light of the world. I have had a long love for the Theotokos, and Orthodoxy has particularly beautiful prayers and hymns to her. This is the first Christian thing I’ve thought of to make that I truly want to have in my house because the subject is dear to my heart.

The basis for the pieces is Russian: a page from the Yuriev Gospel, ca. 1119-1128. It’s an unfinished page where the outline and patterns are drawn in, but nothing is painted. It’s very similar to pages from the Izbornik Sviatoslava, 1073. I plan to pull colors from there. Both pieces are the size of the original page: 20×24 cm, which is a little smaller than 8×10 in.

Yuriev Gospel
Yuriev Gospel
Izbornik Sviatoslava - 1073
Izbornik Sviatoslava – 1073

I traced the design and made edits for it to be better suited to having calligraphy in the center section. I’m pretty sure the three arches are meant to have patterns or maybe angels in them, with the central open area being for a larger painting of a complex scene. When I sat down with my light table to transfer the design to the vellum, I ran into a problem. The pores of the goat’s skin obscure the fine details and tiny, complex patterns in a significant way.

I traced the big shapes, flipped off the light, and spent an afternoon freehand drawing in complicated patterns with a very sharp pencil. It was a good thing for me to have to do this. I get so focused on trying to be perfect that I forget that I have the skills and experience to do this myself. I wound up altering some of the patterns to ones I prefer to draw, or ones based on Russian textile and jewelry finds that Joanie loves and sent to me for inspiration. The Russian aesthetic is heavily influenced by the Byzantines, particularly in treatment of religious imagery. This means that there’s an abundance of elegant patterns, a rich color palette, highly stylized treatment of humans and animals, and lots of gold on everything – my ideal scribal combination.

16th Century German Manuscript Research

I’m working on the custom award scroll for a court barony that was given in November 2013. I’ve had the commission for about a year, but it had to wait on my wrist to heal. I’ve spent a lot of time doing research to pick the right hand, design elements, and really get a feel for late 16th century German manuscripts.  The recipient is Very German, and he is a clever man who enjoys deep research, so I wanted to be certain that whatever I did was correct.

What’s happening in the 1590’s? The printing press had been around for about 150 years, and much of the hand-painted illustration that makes manuscripts so beautiful had been set aside for more economical woodcut prints. Sometimes these are painted with a wash of watercolor, but the quality is nothing like what you see in previous centuries. The good illustrations have taken full advantage of the Renaissance’s advancements in painting more realistic figures, textures, and perspectives. I’m not a good enough painter to pull that off, let alone in miniature. Seriously, go check out the Mira Calligraphiae.

Dig through a bunch of German manuscripts, and you’re going to see a focus on elaborate knot-work initials done in pen and ink, called cadels. This is from the French cadeaux, meaning “gift”. They’re much larger than the text, and there are tons of examples where the page orientation is landscape to give room for the initial to be in line with the text. The calligraphy has also gotten more elaborate and decorative. I think with printed books being readily available, pressure was off for scribes to make their writing ultra legible. There’s more freedom to put beauty before readability, which is fun for modern calligraphers.

Nuremberg, 1550-1599 New York, Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Plimpton MS 300
Nuremberg, 1550-1599 New York, Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Plimpton MS 300

These sometimes have fine pen and ink figures in them, and in a couple of royal cases, have illuminated gouache portraits of the king inside the letter. Here’s one from one of Henry VIII’s legal documents, 1529.

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I prefer calligraphy over painting, so I’m already excited about working with pens over brushes. The cadels are stunning and offer a chance to draw in little scenes or items of personal significance to the recipient, and I have one with some diverse and passionate interests. Done. I spent months trying to draw my own, but they’re really hard to do at first. I decided to modify an existing one so that I wasn’t fighting knotwork and proportions and trying to fit little people in there.

I came up with this as my draft. It’s already changed some to replace the grotesque at the top of the S with a mask and add in little extras. The little rapier guys will definitely need some practice sketches and a more specific wardrobe. The one on the left needs more aggression! He’s a bit nonchalant about his life being at stake…

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I sized it down a couple of times on my copier so that I could see which one works best with the amount of text I have and the overall size of the finished piece (11x14in). There will be more knotwork across the top, plus vinework between the rows of text, like this:

Calligraphy Letterform Album 'Kalligraphische Schriftvorlagen' (calligraphic writing styles) was produced in the 1620s in Germany by the scribe, Johann Hering.
Calligraphy Letterform Album ‘Kalligraphische Schriftvorlagen’ (calligraphic writing styles) was produced in the 1620s in Germany by the scribe, Johann Hering.

 

 

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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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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