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The Art of Illumination

The art of the illumination manuscripts and the decorative elements within them can be traced as far back as the Egyptian Book of the Dead made in 1310 B.C.


Kings, Emperors, and the monasteries of the Middle Ages thru the early Renaissance periods.

In the begin most Medieval most manuscript was made by the same individual, usually the monks of the monasteries. Later on in the 14th and thru the 15th Century spectacularly illuminated workshops began to appear and to produce the large manuscripts took a team effort. A manuscript book could take one to five years to create because it was all done by hand.


By the late 15th Century the artisan workshops artist rarely signed their work. Tax records in these shops have historically shown that women made up a large portion of the artisans that were employed there. Christen de Pisan was one of the first known women to earn her living as a calligrapher and illuminated artisan. She illustrated the cause of women who were female warriors, wives, mothers, politicians, and inventors.


The important heads of state used these illustrated documents to record their history, primarily in monasteries and royal courts commissioned these illuminated artisan studios to create their own personal history and spiritual manuscript books. Without the calligraphy and the illustrated scenes that showed the spiritual beliefs, history, and culture the very existence of the Greek and Roman cultures might have been lost forever.


In 1450 Gutenberg invented a movable type press and the handwritten manuscript books became a thing of the past because they were too time-consuming and expensive. The ring press took the cost way down so even the middle class could afford them.


The skills of the artist began with a very Flat Stanley look about them in the middle ages. By the beginning of the Renaissance, the perspective became more realistic though still not fully developed by the middle of the Renaissance painting period when oil portraits began to appear.


The following outline steps show the amount of detailed labor that was involved to create just one page in an illuminated manuscript:


Any handwriting in an illuminated manuscript was done by calligraphers called scribes who would make the inks and cut their quills at various points and state edges to form the letters that made up the sentences.


The spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and content of the story on the page had to be 100% correct before the pages were handed over to the Illuminated artist. Imagine if an artisan spent weeks on applying for the beautiful artwork and applied all the gold only to find out that it had to be redone all over by hand again because the scribe had made a mistake, that would have made no sense at all. They

had to do all their work by hand and there were no computers or spell check. When I do my work it is all done by hand. I have written it out on a separate piece of paper and practice how the calligraphy is going to look before I even work with them on parchment, watercolor paper, or on gessoed beach board. I use rulers, a t-square, a compass, and artist triangles to get all my calligraphy aligned

on my paintings.


  1. Silverpoint drawings of the design had to be planned out and drawn onto the parchment. I use a graphite pencil with a very low led base so I can either erase or sand off anything I need correcting.

  2. Once the Calligraphy and the drawing have been applied. it is time to add the gold leaf. A water gilding method was used back in history to apply the gold leaf. A glue called size while it is wet has to be done on a flat surface until it is almost completely dry. Once dry the gold leaf is applied to the area that has the size. It takes at least two hours before the size sets up. I look for a slight tackiness or a slightly sticky feel. I test this by using just the tip of my finger. Then after I have gently applied the gold I use a tool called a burnisher to further push the gold into the glue size. This is known by many fine artists as an archival technique which means it will last historically and maintain its brilliance.

  3. The next phase evolved the making of the paint. I use the same paint that was used to render the illuminated manuscripts with color. Watercolor was tried first which was made from the flowers or minerals found in nature. The artisan of the time needed thicker-based paint so they went to their kitchen. They use the egg whites, yolks, oils from nuts, and water that helped give the original watercolor more body and staying power on the surface of the parchment paper. I hand make some of my own egg tempera paint. Usually with the brights reds, blues, greens, pinks, and purples.

  4. I have to pre-draw and then water gilds the gold leaf all the elements that will go into my illumination before I add the egg tempera paint because the gold leaf will stick to the paint.


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