Mistress Rowan Peregrynne
As with costuming and other arts, many people produce scrolls which are pretty, but generically “medjeeval”, rather than of a particular style from a given time and place. I have to admit that my aim is to produce work which is so accurate, that it can be placed to (say) northern Italy in 1450. Not that it slavishly copies any specific piece, but rather it copies and reproduces the style to produce a new and original piece of work, perfectly in keeping with the originals.
This is easier to do with calligraphy than illumination. There are a lot less parameters, for a start. There are even many books around which explain various calligraphic hands and how to reproduce them. You can find specific instructions on how to letter Book of Kells uncials, or early Gothic or bastarde. The same cannot be said about illumination.
In order to provide a copy book calligraphic hand, a scribe has carefully analysed the style from original manuscripts, bearing in mind that different scribes have different handwriting, as we do today. Marc Drogin’s book on calligraphy is an excellent example of this technique. In the field of illumination, there is some detail in Johnson’s work, and George Bain has done much to document aspects of the Celtic style, but there is not the thorough analysis which you can find for calligraphy.
What are the features, both general and specific, which make a particular illumination style recognisable? Let me give you an example. When I was trying to teach myself how to do 15th C Italian vinework style, I looked at over 20 examples by different artists. They varied in many respects, such as whether the border was on the left only, or right around, or how many vines were intertwined. Some had putti (fat Italian babies) and some didn’t. Some painted wreaths pink and blue and some green.
But some aspects were constant. They all had white vines (some were lightly shaded with cream). They all only ever used red, green and blue, and in about equal proportions. They all had thin blue borders around the vines. They all had primary initials based on roman capitals done in gold leaf. They all had white highlights in groups of three dots.
The conclusion from this was that if I wanted to reproduce this Italian style, I should only use red, green and blue, gold roman caps, white vines, and so on. Analysing these features is the first step towards being able to reproduce them. Some people can do this unconsciously. I hope to show you a general method which can be used by anyone.
The ideal way to do this is to sit down with a number of examples of the style you want to emulate. They could be several examples from one book or by different artists of the same period.. So here is a summary of the sorts of questions you might ask yourself about a particular style.
In order to analyse the basic design on the page (and be able to come up with a similar design yourself), you need to start with the big picture…
Is the layout horizontal (landscape) or vertical (portrait)? Or two matched pages?
Are there any borders?
Are the any large graphic elements (capital letters, pictures, seals, devices, etc)?
What are the relative proportions of the top, side and bottom margin? Don’t forget that some manuscripts had the margins trimmed when rebound or for colour reproduction!
How much margin compared to text (relative text area and margin area)?
Now you can sketch in the basic frame and idea for your own layout.
If you are the scribe, you will then need to analyse the hand and style being used in this period. Even if you are doing the illumination, some of this will still apply…
Blocks of Text
How many columns are there? Is there a line or border between them? Are the lines justified? (does the text line up neatly on both the right and left)
Does it use justifiers? (small filler illuminations to make the lines even) What are they like?
Do words finish at the ends of lines, or wrap around? Are there hyphens?
The Text Itself
What is the size of the text on page – how many lines per page?
How big is the writing – how tall is an ‘o’?
How much space is there between the lines of text? Measure this between letters without ascenders and descenders.
What is the proportion of line space to letter height? The same? Twice as big?
What is the proportion of ascenders (the top bit of letters like l,k,f,b) compared with an ‘o’? Less? More? What about ‘t’ (often a special case and lower than the others)?
What is the proportion of descenders (the bottom bit of letters like p,q,g) compared with an ‘o’? Less? More? What about ‘z’ and ‘f’?
How much space is there between words, compared with an ‘o’? Less? More?
What is the proportion of pen width to letter height? Is an ‘o’ 4 pen-widths high? 3? 6?
How much space is there inside letters (between the strokes of an ‘m’, inside an ‘o’) compared with the width of the pen? Less? More?
Marc Drogin demonstrates this text analysis very well in his book on Medievel Calligraphy, and shows several examples of the same basic hand. Now you can plan your calligraphy – how many lines and how they are spaced.
Now for a detailed analysis of the actual illumination style. Ready?…
Is there an illuminated border?
How many sides are bordered? What variation is there in this?
What is the width of the border compared to the margin and text? How does the border interact with the primary capital? Whith the secondaries? With the text? (Are there any twisty bits which join them together…)
Is any foliage used? What type? – anacanthus? vinework? Gothic?
What are the standard features and patterns in the borders?
Is there an illustration (like a picture)?
Is it before or after the capital? At the bottom of the page? At the top of a column? Scattered around the page? What proportion of the page does it cover? Is it separate (in a frame or border) or just figures on the page itself? What are the standard features and pattern in the illustrations?
Is there a much larger initial capital?
What proportion of the page or column does it take up? How many lines of text?
Does it extend into or become part of the border?
What is the basic letter form – Uncial? Roman capital?
Is the letter itself flat colour or decorated? In what way?
Is the space inside the letter decorated? – historiated (with a little picture inside)? Foliated (with leaves)? Diapered (patterned background)?, Knotwork? Vinework?
Is the inside decoration attached to the letter or separate? What are the proportions?
What are the standard features and pattern in the Capitals?
Secondary or Paragraph Capitals
Does each paragraph start with a fancy capital?
What proportion of the page or column does it take up? How many lines of text? Do they extend into or become part of the border? What is the basic letter form – Uncial? Roman capital?
Are the letters flat colour or decorated? In what way?
Is the space inside the letters decorated? – historiated (with a little picture inside)? Foliated (with leaves)? Diapered (patterned background)? Knotwork? Vinework? Plain colour?
Is the inside decoration attached to the letters or separate? What are the proportions?
What are the standard features and pattern in the capitals?
Does each sentence start with a fancy capital? The capital form of the text? A bigger version of the lower case letter?
Is there any text treated in a special way? – someone’s name, a date… How is it treated? – Rubricated (written in red), Gilded, Centred on its own line, etc
Is there any metallic gold or silver? Note that silver leaf turns a dark grey blue – after 500 years, it won’t look like silver any more! How is it used? Capital only? In the border? In the diaper? In the initial? Minor capitals?
Use of Colour
What are the main colours?
What are the proportions of these colours (eg about half blue, equal red and gold, less green…)
What minor colours are used? Is there any pink, orange, purple? How and when is it used?
Are the colours used flat and shaded?
If shaded, are they blended or layered?
Are the primary colours lightened with white? Is the green lightened with white or yellow?
Is white used as a highlighter? Are any other colours? How and when are they used?
If there is gold, is it outlined in black? How thick? Are there extra patterns in the outline?
Are letters and borders outlined in black? How thick?
Are figures outlined? How about their faces? What about diaper patterns? Are any other colours or outline patterns used?
Are there people inside the letters? In an illustration? In the border?
Is the style realistic or stylised?
If stylised, what are the features? How are the faces treated? The hair?
How is the shading done on all these features?
What about beasts, birds and insects? Are they real or make believe? What style?
And objects? Are they real? Are they ‘3-D’ or flat? Do they have shadows?
If there are any ‘scenes’ or illustrations, how are they treated? Do they tell a story?
Are there real backgrounds (with sky)? or a diapered background? No background painting?
Are these usually trees? Buildings? Grass?
Are the trees real or stylised? Is there an obvious ‘tree’ formula? How about the shading patterns, leaf sizes, fruit, trunks, groups…
Are the buildings real or stylised? Is there an obvious building formula? Are they pink?
How are rocks done? Water? The sun and stars?
Is the grass/hills/air/water darker at the back of the picture or the front? Is there contrast shading? How is it done?
And finally, you are ready to begin designing the details of your illumination and actually painting it. I find I cannot usually pick all these details up in one go. I try to keep the reference works beside me as a I draw and paint, so that I can check and compare exactly how specific bits were done.
It’s breathtaking when it works. Have fun!