Blog Archive

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Gilding experiments

Re-establishing my scribal kit after the fire is going to take time, but I've been doing it in stages, bit by bit, over the past several weeks. Some of the parts I've replaced have been my gilding supplies. I've always enjoyed gilding, as I know you've read if you follow this blog at all, but most of the materials I've used have been fairly modern. I have had varying degrees of luck using anything period, but I think I may have finally hit the jackpot on a material that's as close to period as I want to get.

This stuff is a recipe for gilding gesso (not the same thing as painter's gesso) made by Jerry Tresser and available either at his website or through John Neal, Bookseller. It is based off the period recipe in Cennini's "Il Libro dell' Arte", but replaces the highly toxic white lead of that recipe with non-toxic titanium white. It goes on nice and thick and dries raised, as it is supposed to. However, in the teardrop above (less so in the leaf below), if you look at the center you can see a bit of a dimple where it shrank somewhat as it dried. Sigh. With a lot of gilding materials, this is a flaw in the material itself, but I will confess that it's also a flaw in my own technique. I tend to "glop first" and put all the gesso down at once, and hope for the best. This is not the best. Still pretty good though! Apart from the dimple, this gesso did dry smooth and not wrinkly like you might recall the miniatum does that I used in my last big raised-gilding project. Gold leaf is thin enough that it will show every flaw and texture in the surface below it, which can be fun when you're flat gilding on paper and the grain shows through, but less so on raised gilding where you're hoping for a mirror-like finish.

Even so, I do like how I'm able to tease the gesso into corners and sharp points, as on the leaf above.

Here's a picture of the teardop and a dot after gilding; the flaw in my technique meant that I didn't wait long enough for the gesso to dry, and had to burnish very gently and carefully. The edges of the gesso were dryer than the center, and would not take the gold as well. Another probable cause of the problem was my refusal to paint a thin layer down first, allow that to dry a bit, then paint the thick layer over it. Again, this is more of a flaw in my technique than with the material.

Even with those flaws, the gold is still smooth and shiny, where it did stick.

So above, here's the same card a day later. I wrote dates next to each of the samples, and made a second attempt at gilding the older ones, labeled 4-28. Taking more time to allow the gesso to dry completely, burnishing a little harder, and taking a little more care gave me good results! There are still dimples, but with this particular gesso I likely would have been able to smooth them out with a scalpel if I had tried it. For the 4-29 samples, however, I painted a thin layer of gesso, let it dry for an hour (it darkens somewhat as it dries and goes matte instead of shiny), then went ahead and painted the thicker layer over the top. This is probably still a little impatient on my part, because the advice I've heard is to allow many thin layers to build up, rather than glop it all on as I prefer... but darn it, the technique this time worked beautifully. No dimples, although for some reason my second dot dried less as a rounded dome and more as a disk with raised edges. I'm still happy with it. The teardrop was great and the leaf made me happy as well.

Now for the magic part of this material:

You can burnish the gesso. Look at the teardrop above, which I burnished, compared to the dot and leaf which I didn't. Just look at how shiny that thing is! Can you guess how amazing that finish is going to look with gold on it? I got very very excited, and had to show the picture to everyone on Facebook, and the card to everyone in the house, here in quarantine lockdown.

Gilding all three new areas turned out to work better than the first attempts, too. I let them all sit overnight to dry, at least twelve hours I think, but less than twenty-four, and had zero problems with the gold not sticking to the edges. Whether that's because it was a rainy day, because I had painted a thin layer down first, or because I was able to press the gold down a little harder, I'm not sure. 

I still want to obtain a hollow reed "breathing tube" so I don't risk dripping saliva on the page or touching my lips (and their greasy lip balm) to the artwork. But that's for later.

And now for the comparison. Look at the drop on the left, which was burnished, and contrast it with the one on the right, which was not. They're both shiny and satisfying, I'm not at all unhappy with either of them! But the one on the right has an ever-so-slight grainy look to it, a bit like velvet almost, while the one on the left is extremely smooth. That's the difference that burnishing makes. Ideally, you should be able to see your reflection (albeit distorted) in a finished piece of gilding. You're also supposed to be able to burnish the gold directly rather than through glassine paper, to achieve the highest polish possible. 

I've never achieved either of those until the day I did these. I could literally see my face in the upper leaf on the left. Of course, something like that doesn't photograph well, so you'll just have to take my word for it, but it was amazing and I was thrilled.

Finally, I had one last experiment I wanted to try. I've done tooled gilding before, but that was over miniatum. That medium dries sort of soft, and was relatively easy to poke dimples into with a stylus. I wanted to see if it would be possible to tool gesso that had dried for two days and was hard, or if I would need to work it while it was still soft (and then have to figure out when was the right level of softness so as not to ruin it). I haven't replaced my styluses yet, but I did have a mechanical pencil that I decided to use to test the effect. The drop on the right got a row of dots courtesy of the end of the pencil (no lead), and they took surprisingly well. The gesso seems to require harder pressure to get the dots to go, which was about what I expected, but it did not crack or flake off the page as I feared it might.

All in all, this entire experiment was a success at every step. I learned a lot about how the gesso behaves, and got better results with it than I have with any modern recipe raised gilding medium, ever. I did also buy some of Mr. Tresser's flat gilding size, but I haven't tested it yet. I look forward to seeing how it behaves! In the meantime, it's been a week and I'm still glowing with how well this all turned out.

I hope you're all enjoying your quarantine, or the relaxing of restrictions depending where you live. Be safe, and be creative!

Friday, April 10, 2020

Online calligraphy and illumination class

It's been a bit since I posted. A house fire will do that, disrupt your routine a bit until you can get your feet back under you again.

But! I'm not here to talk about that. I'm here to talk about a thing that is happening now that my feet are mostly back under me again. I've restocked my art supplies, I have a little table space, and with the COVID quarantine, I have an excuse to teach an online class. In a way, if all goes well, this should work even better than an in-person class, since you all will get to watch over my shoulder while I work.

On Saturday, April 18, 2020, starting at 2pm Eastern time (US), I will be hosted on the Facebook page "RUM Community" in a three-hour demonstration of how to lay out an SCA scroll from start to finish. If all goes well, I'll actually manage to mostly finish the scroll in the allotted time frame! (Odds are actually slim, but I'm going to try!)

If you choose to follow along, we'll be creating a piece in this style:

The class will cover layout and margins, how to use a lettering guide, a bit on left-handed calligraphy, and we might go into selecting a good alphabet for your scroll. Then we'll cover this surprisingly quick illumination style from the late 1400s, some recommendations on tools and materials, and finish with the importance of outlining even though it's tedious.

If you want to follow along, you'll need:

  • Paper, any size, preferably heavy paper like "Bristol board" or heavy watercolor paper. I'll be using 11x14 inches, but a lot of scrolls are done in 9x12, or even 8x10, so don't fret too much about that.
  • Pencil
  • Ruler
  • If you own a lettering guide, I can show you how to use it.
  • For the calligraphy, a pen and ink; whatever size nib that is reasonable will be fine. I'll be using a Mitchell 3.5
  • Ideally also a pointy-nib pen like a crow quill or "mapping" pen for outlining stuff later.
  • For the illumination, definitely red, blue, and green paint, probably also white, a little bit of yellow might not be a bad idea, and then something gold and shiny if you have it.
  • A fine small brush, but don't go overboard. A 10/0 is overboard. You'll want something that will let you do all the fill in work as well as all the detailing. A 0 or even a 1 would work well. I'll probably try and get away with a 3 or a 4!
There are tools I still haven't replaced quite yet, so some of what I discuss will not be demonstrated, but in three hours I hope to be able to take you from start to finish on a piece this size.

The class will be hosted on Zoom, and hopefully also Facebook Live assuming the tech behaves. I'm also hoping that my setup will let people see my work and not just the top of my head while I work!

Watch this space for more information about another, shorter class to be held on Wednesday, April 29 at 7pm. That one will just talk about acanthus leaf illumination, and be done on a single Artist Trading Card.

Hope to see people in about a week's time!

Saturday, December 14, 2019

A smaller Black Hours style painting

In September, a colleague of mine in the SCA earned our highest service award, the Order of the Pelican. She received a lovely official scroll through the usual channels, but I wanted to give her a gift anyway. And since I'd been on a bit of a kick with Black Hours pieces, I decided to go with that style for her present. 

I ordered a small piece of black vellum from my supplier, only 4x6 inches, and got to work. 

The pencil marks below probably don't show up very well in this lighting, but I promise you, I did start with a sketch. 

The gold and silver Coliro paint behaved beautifully. You may notice gray smudges on the surface above; that's because I opted to pounce the vellum to remove any excess oils that it might have picked up from constant handling, and the pumice powder I used did not entirely wipe off. I was a bit disappointed, but the surface still is plenty dark enough to provide good contrast with the colors. 

I was also especially pleased with how the wings on the pelican came out. (Yes, I know it looks like a swan. Medieval depictions of pelicans often did.)

After that, it was just a matter of adding in the colored areas, bit by bit. The red is above, and below are the blue and then green. 

After that, it's time to highlight things, first with gold on the red, then with silver on the blue and green. I also added in one more blue flower that I'd missed on the first pass. 

I love the definition that the highlights give! 

And now it's time to fill in the fiddly bits, almost entirely in gold this time. 

And finally, I outlined the border in silver, then signed the piece. The back of this piece of vellum was quite fuzzy, so I opted to sign on the front.

I've mentioned before that this style actually goes surprisingly quickly once you've got any animals or hidden figures finished. Since this border really didn't have any, the total time from start to finish was less than three hours. I knew I'd be able to do it quickly, but not that quickly! 

Best of all, the recipient loved it. I was so happy to be able to make her happy. 

My next post will be, oh, possibly my artist trading cards, or maybe something else. We shall see.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Wedding gargoyles

So I was working on the piece shown in my previous post, and sending photos to the client so she could see my progress, when the lady's fiancee reached out to me with a request. She wanted to surprise my client with their combined heraldic arms in a "full achievement", which is to say the shield, supporters on either side holding up the shield, a crest on top, and a mount and motto underneath. She had a number of requests, all of which were meaningful to them as a couple, and asked if they're was any way I could pull it off. 

So I did.

First up was a mockup where I sketched everything in pencil, repeatedly, and then once I was satisfied,  outlined it all in sharpie. The circles will be flowers in the final piece, including the one where a helmet would go on the crest. 

Tracing the final design into my ground. I can't remember now whether I used vellum or perg, but I'm pretty sure it was vellum. 

Let the painting begin! What you're seeing is called "impaled arms", where you either split the two devices right down the middle and then stitch them together, as I did here, or you squish the two devices to take up half the space, but still show everything on each device. So you'd have a whole dragon and scroll instead of halves. 

I had a terrible time getting this flower to come out right, and I'm still not really happy with it even though the client loved it. This is just an in progress photo, though, so more will be added to it as we go.

I wanted to include this pic mainly to show the mixing palette in the corner of the photo. Color theory is kinda fascinating, and I'm really pleased with the gray I ended up with. I took two warm colors, an orangey red and another orangey yellow, but then a cool blue, and mixed them until I got a deep black. Adding white gave me a soft off slate blue-gray.

Side note: understanding color theory gives you so much more control over your palette! I don't usually like to mix colors from scratch, but i think I'll be doing it more often from here on out, because this worked so well. 

All the base colors laid in. Now it's time to shade and highlight the gargoyles. 

I was really, really pleased with how these gargoyles came out. I used a thin wash of a color I'd put together for the flower in the crest and applied that to the wing membranes, and it worked beautifully. I was so excited. 

Another side note: after my work on the heraldry was done, I switched to a size 9 brush. This is gargantuan compared to what scribes usually use, typically in the 0 to 000 range. But it gave me much smoother strokes and allowed me to work more quickly. 

I got bored and thought that the arms could use a little detail work themselves. This is known as diapering and was a traditional way to fill in large areas of color. 

Finally, it was time to outline everything and put the motto in place at the bottom:

The words are from their wedding vows, and come from traditional ancient Roman weddings.

All in all, I was happy with everything except the large flower at the top... but I couldn't figure out a way to make it look good without adding more and more to it until it turned to mud. I was better off stopping where I did rather than ruining it completely. 

The client and her wife loved it, regardless, and the looks on their faces were a joy to see. Plus we had ice cream together! So really, a good day all around.  

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Easy does it, continued

I hadn't realized I'd gone so long without updating the blog. I've certainly been busy scribing, but confidentiality and keeping certain pieces a surprise before they ate delivered meant I couldn't really post about my recent projects till now.

Here are some images from a project back in August. I think I'd gotten as far as the text, gilding, and beginning of the paint before I stopped posting about it. So here are the rest of the images: 

Vine work added in the border and between the columns. 

Filling in the green to add body to the vine work. 

Finishing the seal and heraldry, adding the whitework, and highlighting the vines with gold

Close up of the seal 

Text detail, with a bit of the vine work visible. I wanted to erase pencil marks, but the friction from the eraser caused some of the ink to smudge even though it had been dry for days. 

Whitework details

Further whitework details, because why not; also some decent close ups of the smaller capitals. 

The recipient's heraldry 

All in all, this was a nice, relaxing piece to create for my client, and she was really happy with how it turned out. 

Up next: the same client gets a surprise wedding gift from her wife. 

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Answering a question

I was thrilled to receive this question in my Tumblr ask box sometime last week:

anonymous asked:
Can you tell us about how you got into calligraphy and gilding? I find it really interesting but I’m not sure where to start!

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Easy does it

I've got another scroll commission, and the best part about this one is that it's not anything crazy! Don't get me wrong, I had a lot of fun doing those Black Hours pieces, and the fancy stuff before that. But it's nice to come up for air once in a while and do something that's not too complicated, something I don't have to worry about too much. 

This is a second scroll for a client, but all she requested was that I make it pretty to go with the first piece she had. I decided to keep the two column layout of her original piece, but a change in style meant that I had room to add more wording. 

I also got to employ a nice batarde script from about 1475 to 1490 here. I like it because it's fairly cursive and therefore quick to write, but still elegant. 

Instead of gilding, I opted to go with my Coliro/ Finetec metallic paint for all the initials and capitals. It saved a little time in the short term since I was able to skip a step (usually it would paint adhesive, then gild), but in the long term, I'm not sure it really saved me anything. Painting around gold is pretty easy because the metal resists the paint. Painting around painted letters doesn't have that advantage, so I had to slow down and make sure I didn't get sloppy. 

All in all though, the slowest part of this piece has been the decision making process! The vines I had originally planned were going took take up too much space and not really leave room for leaves, so I'll be changing styles a little from what my first vision of this piece was going to be. 

The new vines will be done in ink, with smaller, more delicate leaves. They fit the time period of the alphabet a little better, as well as taking up less room on the page. 

Anyway, there's where I am as of a couple days ago. I hope to get more time to work tomorrow!

I hope your days are peaceful and that you are surrounded by beauty wherever you go. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

My second Black Hours scroll

Now that it's finished and the recipient has seen it, here are progress pics for my second Black Hours piece. Like the first, this one is modeled off the Sforza Black Hours, and is on black vellum. Unlike the first one, though, I learned from my mistakes and did not try to gild anything this time around. All the shiny is done with Coliro/ Finetec metallic paints, including the calligraphy.

I still learned a lot, though. For starters, my shading technique when I first started out did not give me the results I wanted, at all. My acanthus leaves looked okay, but the brush strokes were much too robust on the figure of a mermaid in the border, giving her what looked like a hairy chest. 

Special thanks to phenomenal scribe Mark Calderwood for taking the time to chat with me, from Australia at odd hours, to teach me how to solve the problem. I had to completely scrape off this version of the mermaid and start over, with this as the result:

Obviously she still needs detail work at this point, but thinning the paint and letting it build up in opacity, as well as using much smaller brush strokes, gave me much better results than trying to shade everything with the paint at full strength. 

I also learned the value of pouncing my vellum to remove excess oils from handling, which were causing the paint to bead as the oils resisted it (as in the pic below). It was amazing the difference a little gum sandarac made when I ran into trouble... and the difference would have been even better if I had pounced before I even started. Lesson learned!

So without further ado, here come the progress photos...

Text mockup. I always do a mockup (well, almost always) to make sure the text will fit! 

Testing the Coliro silver on a scrap. It works great! 

The finished text block in silver and gold, and the main elements of the border penciled in.

Here and below, some close up shots of the various initials and capitals. 

Another mer-person in the border, this time carrying a sword and wearing armor. Not sure how that helps him swim, but okay. 

Another figure, riding a rabbit like beast. This one was also supposed to be shaded, but the vellum was resisting the paint badly enough that I had to add ox gall to it, and that erased all distinction in my brush strokes. 

The border with most of the silver laid in. At this point, I was discouraged enough about the hairy chested mermaid that I procrastinated taking any further steps for about two weeks. 

It's amazing how the border starts to come together with just the acanthus leaves added in. These types of borders actually go pretty quickly once they're sketched out. It's just painting in the flowers and leaves, shading, and then connecting everything with stems. After that, you fill in any empty spaces that are remaining with tendrils and other fiddly bits.

The blue and brown added, with the beginning of red. The mer-soldier's armor looks bronze; it's actually brown highlighted with gold. (Thanks to Mark Calderwood again for that tip.)

I don't often paint with brown, actually. To be honest, I rarely mix colors at all. So I'm happy with how this came out, especially on the rabbit beast. It's really more of a dark orange, made with yellow ochre and a warm red. 

The mermaid with more details added. Around her, you can see where the blue gave me trouble.

Red and green complete. Most of the area is filled in and now it's time to shade or highlight things with silver and gold, then play "connect the dots" with stems and vines. 

Ironically, in period many black hours didn't survive because the paint flaked off. I used a different green paint this time around, and it didn't want to stick. It dried, then cracked and tried to come off in several places. 

The silver has a tendency to glare under my lighting, so I've been taking pictures with the mermaid in shadow to let more detail come through. 

The award is going to a man who makes parchment. I spoke with him and got a general idea of what kind of clothing he likes to wear, then stuck him in front of a parchmenter's frame. He's holding a curved knife called a lunellum to scrape the hide to an even thickness. 

Here we are with gold highlights added to the red and brown. 

Adding the silver highlights. I really like the before and after effect here in these flowers. 

And once again, here is the finished piece. The empty roundels in the border will be filled with wax seals once the scroll is delivered. 

Again, using shadows to help show off details that would otherwise be obscured by the glare of the overhead lights. 

Of the two mer-people, I think I like the soldier's tail better. 

I'm not entirely sure the figure here needed as much silver added as I gave him, by he doesn't look bad, so I guess it's okay. 

Hidden bird says hello. 

And that's it! As always, my thanks go to everyone who has offered a kind word, either here or on Facebook, or elsewhere. I really appreciate the encouragement.