Blog Archive

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

First "Black Hours" piece

It's time for me to gear up for an artistic challenge: a scroll done in the style of the Sforza Black Hours.

In case you're wondering "What's a Sforza Black Hours?", I will tell you that there was a short-lived fad of conspicuous consumption among the filthy rich of the Flemish courts in around the 1480s, wherein their Books of Hours were made on pages that had been dyed black. The lettering, rather than being done in ink, was made by gilding with silver and gold. The paints were accented with more of the same; the effect was striking, especially to the modern eye.

Because of the way that black Books of Hours were made, most of them deteriorated badly within a relatively short time; either the vellum disintegrated as a result of the dye used, or the page was blackened with carbon instead, and this caused the paint to flake off. There are now only seven extant examples of black hours in existence, and all of them are damaged. One, the "Sforza" Black Hours, was in such poor condition that the book was dismantled completely, and its pages preserved between sheets of glass, in order to save it.

Here are three examples of Black Hours books: the New York Hispanic Society Black Hours, the Morgan Black Hours, and the Sforza Black Hours. (Several more images of the Sforza are also available here.) They are all noticeably distinct from one another in their border decoration, which means that as an artist, I have a lot of room to play if I decide I want to work on a black ground to create a piece. Ultimately, I chose to attempt to imitate the Sforza Black Hours, because it's got more range of color than the others.

This scroll is going to be an overdue award for a lady in my SCA kingdom, which means that certain wording is required, which means I need to test the text out and make sure I get everything to fit in the text block. Here's a test of the wording and the first mockup; I ended up doing three mockups before I was really satisfied with the spacing.

Next, it was time to test the gilding on the black vellum. I'm not really worried about gold sticking to my gilding size, but this particular sheet of vellum is a little "waxy" from leftover fats from the vellum-making process, and I wanted to be sure everything would still look good. I also wanted to make sure I could write with the gilding size and not have it come out too blobby or unreadable because it's too thin compared to my usual inks.

Test writing with the gilding size

Here it is, gilded with 12-karat white gold, and I think it looks all right. I could wish for a little cleaner thin lines in the letters themselves, but all in all this is definitely workable.

Finally, it was time to test the paints themselves and make sure that they would show up against the black, and also make sure I could get the style right. With vine work, I have a tendency to think everything is overcrowded when it's really not, with the result that my stuff ends up being too open. This time, though, I think I got it just right.

The only trouble I had with paints was with my first blue choice, which was too dark and didn't show against the black. Adding a smidgen of white to brighten it was all I needed to do.

The gold and silver here are mica-based paints from Coliro, formerly known as Finetec. They sell individual colors for about $5 a pan, and have a broad palette of metallic and pearl colors in most shades of the rainbow. Most SCA scribes are only interested in their silver and gold, of which they have several shades, but I do know of one scribe who creates her Black Hours scrolls entirely in metallic paints in multiple colors, for effect.

So, that's the past several days of preparation. Today I went ahead and prepared the sheet of vellum for writing, trying to get some more of that waxy residue off of it, then marked my margins and lines for the text block, and gilded my first bit of text.

That looks pretty promising to me, what do you think?

I look forward to your comments and questions!

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Some fun initials

Hello all,
I'm working on another calligraphy project, but I'm not sure how many photos I'm allowed to share of it. I couldn't resist a little, though, so here we are.

Back in 2015, I participated in a collaborative project called "Calf to Codex", along with about 75 other poets, flax growers, parchment makers, chicken farmers, a silkworm farmer, calligraphers, pigment grinders, illuminators, bookbinders, and leather workers; we took about five years from start to finish altogether, and successfully crafted a beautiful book of stories and poems from our Society's history.

This year we're beginning Codex 2, which will actually comprise two slim volumes. Unlike the first codex, these are being written on handmade paper from Twinrocker Paper in Brookston, Indiana. The style of the first codex was modeled after the early 1400s, while this one is mid-1500s Italy.
Since the book isn't finished, I'm not sure what I'm allowed to share yet. But I figured it wouldn't be a breach of privacy to show you the whitevine initials from a few of the pages.

You'd think I'd be sick of gilding after the previous project, but I still enjoy it... especially in the smaller doses that today's gilding presented. It's just so much fun to go from this:

... to this!

Following that, as always, comes the paint. Unlike a lot of other illumination styles, whitevine is actually more complicated to draw than it is to paint. Once you've got the vines figured out, all you have to do is color in the areas around them to help them stand out.

Outline in blue, fill in with red and green...

And you're almost done. Once these are dry, I'll probably go back and soften the larger areas with little white dots arranged in triangles. Then there's an optional step where you shade the vines to give them a little more depth, which I'm thinking about skipping... but knowing me I'll probably do it anyway.

I did four initials today, and have three more to go. I'd have liked to do them all today, but being on loose book pages means I have to let these letters dry, so that I can flip the paper over and work on the other side. Here are pages 1, 3, 6, and 8, all together:

The text exemplar is a writing manual originally published in 1522, which is currently available as a PDF. It's a new script for me and has been fun to learn; the biggest challenge has been getting used to writing the letters on a slant, instead of straight up and down like I'm used to with every other alphabet I write. Love those flourishes, though!

As always, I welcome your questions and comments. Cheers!

Friday, April 12, 2019

County scroll, part 18: final

I admit, it has been a bit since my last post; other commitments, plus a bit of unwillingness to sit at the table, kept me from getting any work done. But! Over the past two or three days, I've finally gotten back into it, finished the outlining, and purchased the semiprecious gemstones that will go in the four corners of the figure. All that is left for me to do is glue the stones in place, and I will be finished. 

First, I needed to finish coloring in the right hand border. I used strips of every color in the palette, but the palette was so limited that I ended up repeating a couple of colors. After that, I worked the outlining in stages over a period of three days. Every bend in every knot, every bit of gold, silver, or copper, it all got outlined. And to be fair, it was less of a slog than I feared it would be, but I'm still glad I broke up the work. 

It's always so neat to me to see the way each step of the process adds a little bit more to the overall effect of the piece. 

Here it is with the border about halfway done. You can zoom in and compare the left side to the right, especially on the knots, and see the difference the outlining makes in sharpening everything. 

Above, a pic of the whole piece at this stage. Below, a little up close detail: 

And some more, again you can see the difference between left and right with the figure's hair: 

The one problem I experienced was that the white paint I used was a different formula from everything else (Doc Martin's Bleed Proof White, if you're curious), and the bleed proof nature of the paint made it actually resist the outlining and any attempts to paint over it. Remember earlier, when I accidentally painted white over one of the eyes? Yeah. Trying to correct that was surprisingly difficult. If you look closely at the left eye you can see where the line is a little ragged. That's from the brown paint physically beading up rather than going down in a nice smooth line over the white. 


Once again, a well behaved brush makes life so much easier. Also good paint consistency, because you really don't want your paint to suddenly blob all over the place. I was well pleased with how both behaved, even though it's looking like this brush may need to be retired soon. Its point is developing a bit of a curve, which I can still work with, but I'll have to keep an eye on it in future. 

Middle Kingdom seal. You can see where the outlining around the eye gave me a bit of difficulty. Again, the paint not wanting to behave on top of the white. 

Finally, it was time to go to the local treasure house that is Von's Beads and Gifts. They have the largest collection of glass beads in the Midwest, and the largest collection of stone beads in the continental United States. There is an entire room devoted to freshwater pearls, and another set aside for tumbled stones and crystals. If you are ever in the area and decide to go there,  be sure to bring a chaperone. Just to give you an idea...

That's a 350-lb. sphere of smoky quartz, next to a number of carved stone chess sets. Yes, it's for sale. Von's is awesome. 

But back to the topic...

I wanted amethysts originally, because the recipient's heraldry includes purple as its main color, but in the end I went with polished ametrine, a blend of amethyst and citrine which is a yellow or orange stone. The ametrine just happened to be a bit clearer and darker purple, on the day I went shopping. You can see a bit of yellow on the tip of one of the stones below. These were just about three dollars apiece: 

I haven't glued the stones down yet (I'll be using a flexible superglue called E6000), but here's a tentative placement of them on the scroll: 

I'll probably change the angle of the top two stones so that they point inward, like the bottom stones are doing. But this gives you an idea of what the finished piece will look like. 

And that's it! I'll likely go to the copy shop and get a copy of this for my portfolio, then glue the stones in place, and then it will be ready to deliver for signatures from our area "king and queen". After that, it will be handed off to the recipient, hopefully during a "royal court" so that more people can see it in person. 

Thanks to everyone who has offered questions and comments on the piece throughout the entire process! I've appreciated your company and encouragement. 

My next posts will probably be about the next Calf to Codex project, "Codex 2," for which I will be doing some calligraphy and a very little illumination -- just some capital letters, one on each page. After that, look forward to me attempting not one but two Black Hours scrolls. 

Thanks again! 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

County scroll, part 17

Painting continued yesterday and the day before, and is now almost complete. First, though, here is a picture of my assistant, Misty, who occasionally gets up in my lap if she feels I'm not giving her enough attention. She enjoys watching me work, and I enjoy her being far enough from the table that she can't bat at my tools and paints.

Most of today's photos are just stages of color being added in bit by bit, including the purple I'd mentioned and was so excited about. I'm also pretty excited about how well my brush behaves. Get yourself a brush that comes to a needle sharp point, and you'll be able to manage terrific detailing like this:

Those tight places around the fingers were a bit of a challenge, but my brush was up to it.

Here we are with the purple complete, and some yellow detailing added on the birds and around the knots:

I finished out the day with white, and made a small mistake that will be covered up later, so that the figure now looks like it is winking at us:

So that was Thursday.
Friday, before I started, the sun was coming in my window at just the right angle so that the colors actually showed up on my camera in their correct hues, rather than being so dark that people keep complimenting "the black" which is actually green. So now you can finally see what I'm talking about!

I also took a pic of my palette, showing some of the colors I'm using, in an attempt to get the colors rather than the super darkened versions you see every time I try to take a picture with all that reflective gold around.

This is a palette I reuse a lot, so it's got those blue shades I won't be using on this scroll, but the orange was mixed up fresh just for the occasion. Here it is on the piece.

I'm especially pleased with how well it showed up as detailing against the green:

And finally, for Friday, I added the red and then stopped, because I wasn't feeling well:

The recipient had red hair at the time this award was originally given, and was known as the "Archer Queen", which is why the figure is holding an arrow instead of St. Matthew's book and crozier in the original image.
When I'm feeling better, I'll come back to this piece and do dark brown or black for the shoes and facial features, and then it'll be time to outline everything. Outlining is usually my least favorite step, not because it doesn't make things look good (it really makes them look terrific), but because by the time I'm ready to outline, I'm usually tired of the piece and ready to stop, and outlining often goes slowly because there's a lot of territory to cover. So it feels like a slog, even though it's necessary and important.
That's it for today! As always, thanks for the suggestions and comments.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

County scroll, part 16

At long last, the gilding was completed and I started painting today! All I had left to do was touch up some bare spots and mottled areas, like this one: 

The differences are subtle on this camera, partly because of the lighting, but I'm really pleased with how much cleaner everything looks now. 

At long last, it was time to say goodbye to and put away all these tools: from left to right, my agate "dog tooth" burnisher, one of the brushes I used for painting miniatum, my soft brush for getting rid of excess leaf, and my reverse elbow tweezers for handling leaf. They are all resting on a glassine envelope, which is used in burnishing as a barrier between the leaf and the burnisher so you don't rub the leaf right back off the page, and surrounded by my bottle of miniatum and three scrap containers full of copper, 12-karat white gold, and 23-karat gold. 

Even though I was ready to paint, first I had some debate about what colors to use before I could start. My source materials are not at the best resolution, nor, I suspect, at the best color faithfulness to the original manuscript. I've seen the same St. Matthew page in several different brightness levels across the internet, for example, and sometimes his robe looks red and other times more of a burgundy purple. I had to settle on a green shade, and I had to talk myself out of using any blue, because the sources didn't have any. (It was really tempting to use anyway because it would have looked excellent next to these metals. Oh well.) 

Instead I got to use a nice obnoxious pink. 

In all the photos that follow, my colors look artificially dark, due to the camera dimming the exposure because of light reflecting off all that metal. Here's what the pink and green I did today actually look like (yes, those are seashells, long story) : 

Compare that to how dark the green is in these close ups, where it can be mistaken for black if you didn't know any better. 

I promise, it looks better in person. You can see how filling in the bodies of the critters makes all that knotwork suddenly make sense, though. And the kingdom seal is going to look nifty done in this style. 

Just about the only photo I got that even comes close to showing the colors accurately was of the right hand border around the text, where I'm using color to help the knotwork band stand out a little. 

Man, that is a bubblegum pink, isn't it? In addition to these colors, I'll be using an equally obnoxious orangey yellow, reddish orange, red, the burgundy sort of purple I already mentioned, white, and brown. It's a very limited palette, with no shading to speak of. For the most part I'll just be filling in the colors where they belong, adding minor detail in only a few areas, and then outlining. The outlining will probably take longer than the painting itself. 

Still, I'm happy to have put gilding behind me for this piece! As much as I enjoy gilding ordinarily, and as much as I've learned from this go-round, this step has gone on long enough. 

Thanks as always for your questions and comments, whether it's here on my blog or via Facebook, Tumblr, Discord, or any of the other places I share these posts. I appreciate the chance to talk about my work. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

County scroll, part 15

The main gilding is finished! Finally!  

Here's the before and after pic for today's work. The first is the adhesive I laid down...

And the second here is all the gold laid in...

There are still a few bare spots to touch up, but overall, I'm quite pleased. And of course, I have some mottling to deal with, where the silver stick to the copper, or the gold stuck to the silver. The worst of those areas is up here on the top right corner: 

But I can deal with all of that tomorrow and finally be ready to paint! 

I can identify very well with the scribes of old who wrote complaints and comments about their work into the margins of the old manuscripts. Deo gratia, deo gratia, et iterum deo gratia, indeed. 

Friday, March 15, 2019

County scroll, part 14

Not much happened today on the gilding front, but I'm happier with the results than I've been for quite some time. I only laid the miniatum adhesive in on these areas:

I tried something a little different this time; where in previous gilding stages I had tried to lay the gold down quickly in an attempt to avoid bare spots, I had unfortunately ended up with the adhesive shrinking a little as it dried, leaving the gold above it with minuscule wrinkles in the finish. Miniatum advertises a "mirror smooth" finish if it's done right, but my impatience has really affected that.

So today, I slowed back down a little bit, and gave the miniatum more time to dry. A couple of hours, I think. But I also went back and "reactivated" it by breathing on it really really heavily, like fogging a mirror, prior to laying the gold leaf down on top of it. I had been remembering to breathe on it in previous sessions as well, but either I wasn't doing it enough, or I was moving too slowly and letting the fog evaporate before I could get the gold laid down. In any case, that was how I was ending up with bare spots. Today, however, a combination of the ares being both smaller and easier to mask meant that I could fog them thoroughly, lay the gold down in one go, brush it away, and have almost no bare spots to speak of.

I'm actually really happy with how today's work turned out:

The only real downside I see here is that, to my eye, there is a noticeable difference in brightness between today's gilding and the areas I'd done previously. It's not horrible, and since I didn't let the miniatum sit overnight, it may still wrinkle a little further as it finished drying, in which case the areas will all match.

But I'm so close to being done! All I have left to gild now is the outer border, and then go back and touch up some of the white gold and copper, where they've gotten mottled by other metals. After that, I'll be ready to paint, which I'm really looking forward to.

As always, your comments and questions are welcome and appreciated. Cheers!

New developments

If you've been following the blog recently, you may have gotten used to me updating every couple of days as I work on the "County scroll" that is my latest scribal assignment for the SCA. If that's the case, you've probably also noticed that I haven't updated in a few days. That's because I haven't worked on the scroll since this past weekend... and that is because I got sidetracked by another project that I'm getting more and more excited about.

The Art Museum of Greater Lafayette offers classes to the wider community, and as of yesterday, I've submitted a proposal to present a once-a-month, single-session, three-hour workshop on basic calligraphy and illumination. Their summer session starts in May, and if there's enough demand, I'll be presenting the workshop in May, June, July, and August. I've spent the past week preparing that workshop (instead of gilding), and an additional course which I may teach in the fall, if there is enough demand.

The workshop itself is pretty straightforward; participants will learn the basics of calligraphy and one alphabet, select a quotation they like (I'll be supplying quotes from Walt Whitman, but they can choose anything they want), and write that on a bookmark. Then they'll paint and decorate the first initial of the quote, for an introduction to illumination. The class will be open to anyone ages 13 and up, with a minimum class size of three and a max of ten, so that I can be sure I'm able to devote my attention to everyone who needs it.

Here's an example of the alphabet, and the illumination style we'll be looking at:

And don't worry, we will be using gold paint instead of actual gilding supplies, and high-quality calligraphy markers rather than dip pens or quills. This is an introductory workshop, after all! No grades, no pressure, just hopefully a good time and a little bit of learning.

I'm not a professional, certified teacher; I didn't go to college for an education degree. But I do at least know enough about this topic, and have enough experience with public speaking and demonstrating in multiple disciplines, that I should be able to keep the workshop engaging and accessible for everyone.

I know at least one person who has promised to sign up, which is also exciting! Here's hoping I get more. 

As for the county scroll, I'll be back to that this weekend, no worries. 


Sunday, March 10, 2019

County scroll, part 13

This weekend didn't allow me to gild as much as I could have (but the two hour trip for good coney dogs was worth it), but I still made good progress today on the yellow gold border. I'm beginning to run out of things to say on the topic, though; I mean, there are only so many ways to talk you through the process. Still, here are some pictures. 

Adhesive painted down. I'm still figuring out the best drying time for this stuff. I'm working with such small amounts at a time that the instructions to let it sit for a few hours just don't seem to be right at all. I keep ending up with bare spots to repair, like this: 

... and that was with only a half hour drying time. Still, the repairs are easy enough; I just wish I didn't have to take that step every single time. 

Main gold finished, adhesive painted in for the dragon at the bottom. 

The top dragon is silver (white gold), but this one will be part of the kingdom seal that makes the scroll official, so I thought yellow gold would look better. Also the background of the seal is white, and yellow gold will give better contrast. 

This time, I barely let the adhesive sit five minutes before coming back to lay the gold down, and it went much better. There were still a few bare patches, but they were much easier to deal with.

And finally, here's the entire piece so far:

I anticipate the rest of the gold going down much more easily, since it will all be straight lines and much of it will only have another metal touching it on one side, rather than being surrounded. But that will have to wait till Wednesday, since Monday and Tuesday are music days! As much as I enjoy gilding, I'm definitely looking forward to moving on to the next step. 

Thanks for your comments and questions!