Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Trippin' with My Medieval Alter Ego

Okey Dokey. Here are some examples of my illuminations. Actually, these three are taken from a star book that is practically all I have left of my illuminations. I made the book just to experiment with different color combinations. Tell me which is your favorite!

Trying to overcome a distaste for brown. Sorta worked.

Monochromatic blues...yum.

Looks more Chinese than Celtic, but so what?

Here are directions in case you're feeling the desire to follow your inner medievalist.

1. Trace the designs (from a variety of sources...lots of copyright-free line art out there) onto 90lb hot-press Arches watercolor paper with a light table and a dip pen using waterproof India ink. If you don't like dip pens, you can trace with waterproof artist pens. But I like dip pens...they make me feel like a medieval monk.

2. Paint the design with Windsor & Newton gouache, which is opaque watercolor. (If you decide to try this, DO NOT go cheap on the paint. You will deeply regret it. Trust me. Get the W&N.) You'll need a couple of small round watercolor brushes for this. (Again, don't go cheap on the brushes...they shed hairs into your paint and make you swear. Get sable for life or plan on replacing the mid-price brushes frequently.)

3. Finally, go over the inked lines with a very, very tiny brush and black gouache to clean up the lines.* This was really hard and took a very steady hand. I practiced A LOT before I made this book. Fortunately, if you screw it up, you can paint over it again. Gouache is pretty forgiving.

Some designs are fairly simple and quick, and others are hugely complex and take days just to trace. My best project was a Psalter for my mother. I made a complex Japanese stab binding with mat board covered in black Canson paper and a recessed illuminated medallion in the center. I copied ten psalms in calligraphy using Carolingian lettering and embellished each with a different small illuminated knot and random little embellishments (such as a little lizard from the Book of Kells). It was the last calligraphy/illumination project I did. Took three months and by the end I really, really, really needed a break. I took up stamping, and the rest is history.

*Funny story. My mom is a serious watercolor artist who kept all her drawing and painting talent to herself and passed none on to me, a person who stoops to tracing on a light table without shame. When Mom saw my tiny, tiny outlining brush, she got all snooty about it, calling it useless. She deigned to paint an illumination with me and when it came time to do step three, she tried to use one of her larger brushes. It didn't work. She kept moving to smaller and smaller brushes until she asked to use my tiny, tiny brush. I may have gloated.


  1. These are all beautiful, but as I am fond of red, the last is my favorite. This is far too involved and detailed for me to ever try.

  2. I'm not certain I have a favourite. I've changed my mind about 12 times; scrolling up and down, discounting one in favour of another and then looking again and finding something I like about the one I just discounted...
    I like the brown for its richness and organic feel. The breaks in the circular lines are appealing in an odd way.
    The blues are lovely for the monochromeness(?)/monochromosity(?)and subtle watery flow. I really like how they break out of the internal white square while the external square is straight.
    The last one does make me think of either a Chinese gong or a Celtic-designed shield. The gold leaf or paint really brings it to life. Is that possible? You know what I mean, right?
    Hmmm...I am picturing the blue pattern in oranges and yellows or green and london fog grey. I hope I haven't caught an illumination virus.

    Thanks for sharing,

  3. Susan, I love all blues, so that one is my fave, but I really love the way the brown one looks too!

    I replied to your email - so happy I could help! :)

  4. Love these - also love your sense of writing style. Pretty much always brings a smile to my face ;-)

  5. I love Celtic knots and having seen the actual Book of Kells, I know how hard doing these must have been. I don't have the patience. I collect images of knots instead. Thanks for sharing them. I'm so impressed.

  6. Like the blue, love the brown. Beautiful work on all three. :)

  7. The third one is my fav but all are awesome.

  8. I, too, think I like the red the best, but the blue so reminds me of water. Gorgeous!

  9. Very beautiful, Susan. Thanks for sharing them and your stories about them.

  10. Your illuminations are lovely, Susan. Though I love blue, I think my favorite is the brown one. Very striking! I'm having a medieval moment of my own - re-reading a few of my favorite Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters!

  11. Thanks for sharing your illuminations. All of these are lovely, especially the blue. Have you convinced yourself yet to give this work another go? ;-)

  12. The blue one, absolutely! SO gorgeous - and I can imagine the amount of work involved. My neck hurts just thinking about it! ;)

  13. Without a moment's hesitation, my favourite is the blue one. Great story about your mother!

  14. Celtic knots are a favorite of mine and all three of yours are great, but I have to vote for the brown one.


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