Kathryn Finter - Contemporary Manuscript Illumination

How-to Guide

This section is a detailed behind-the-scenes look at how an illuminated letter is actually created. Since part of the magic is seeing something beautiful and complex appear from a series of rather simple steps, I've broken everything down into bite-sized steps. I'm rolling up my proverbial sleeves to show that there is nothing hidden; no leap of faith will be required. I'm hoping you'll be encouraged to try it yourself. With perseverance and practice, you'll get quite good at it!

The particular letter I've chosen is the "I" from my Decorated Letters gallery:

White vine decoration is a beautiful interweaving of vines with white stems and blossoms against a coloured background that creates a stained-glass effect with the colours of red, green, and blue. The white of the vine is the unpainted parchment with the colours painted around the vine to create the background. The white vine decoration was used in the 11th and 12th centuries, with a resurgence in Florence in the 15th century.

Materials -- for the design steps (1-14):

Materials -- for the preparation of the final steps (15-31):


The design is initially done on paper, and then transferred to the parchment for the final piece.

1. Use 2 sheets of design paper. Draw a rectangle of the same size on each. The first rectangle will be used only for the outline of the letter; the second rectangle will be for the design of the vine. Later the 2 sheets will be sandwiched together so that the letter and vine can be seen together.

2. On first sheet of design paper. Draw the letter in the centre of the rectangle just touching the top and bottom lines. The letter should have some thickness to it; it will be completed in gold leaf, paint, and ink at a later stage.

3. On the second sheet of design paper draw a spiral [where is the 2nd rectangle?]. Start at bottom right side of where the letter is and spiral inwards counterclockwise towards the centre. The spiral should not reach to the edges of the rectangle; there needs to be room for blossoms and leaves to be added later (in step 11). As the spiral curves around, try to keep the inner part of the spiral an equal distance from the outer spiral. [show both good and bad examples of spiral]. The centre of the spiral should finish by continuing beyond the spiral, like a branch as if a moving to the light. See the letter "M" for more complex double spiral.

4. Put in branches off the spiral. There are 4 branches -- 3 actual branches, the 4th being the central tip of the spiral. Arrange it so that 2 branches point to each side of the design.

5. Erase much of the pencil design so that it is very light. [Example shows a hyphenated line as light pencil lines don't show up well in reproduction]

6. Thicken the spiral line by adding a line on either side of the light pencil line.

7. Thicken the branches off the spiral as well. The branches should be a little bit thinner than the spiral branch. Add a rounded end to the thickened branches.

8. Erase completely the very light inner original spiral line so that you can clearly see what you're doing.

9. Sandwich the 2 sheets together with the spiral design on top and the letter below. Use the rectangles to line them up, and tape them together so they don't shift. You can see the composite design more clearly on a light table, or held up to a window. Keep the sheets taped together for the following steps. 

10. Work out an alternating under and over pattern of the vine in relation to the letter. Branches also have an under and over pattern in relation to the vine. Example shows that the vine crossing over the letter twice. Redraw on the top design sheet the letter with the under and over pattern worked out. This sheet will now become your main design sheet. 

11. Samples of blossoms, buds and leaves. Blossoms and leaves can be squashed, elongated or enlarged to fit any size of space. It's fun to practice these; doodle them as often as you can, and you'll soon be coming up with your own designs.

12. Add blossoms, buds, and leaves. Keeping blossoms within the bounds of the rectangle. Widen the base of the vine a little. Example shows the base is wider until the first leaf and then it narrows down.

13. Draw a line around the outside of the completed design following the contours of the blossoms, leaves, and the letter. The size of the space to leave between the design and the outer contour line should be roughly the width of the vine itself. The border creates an outside boundary, or frame, that once painted in will delineate the design and focus the eye.

14. Do colour assignment of the background around the vine. The outer border will be painted completely blue. Make red, green, blue pencil notation on the design. Try to alternate colors so that there are no two adjacent spaces of the same colour. With only 3 colours this is not always possible, but do your best to keep it balanced. The example shows that next to the outer blue edge, the next row of colour is alternating red and green. This completes the design stage.

Final steps: to be done on parchment or good quality paper.

15. Transfer the design to parchment. Prepare the parchment if necessary by sanding it down so that it will accepts the paint. Dirty the back of your design sheet by rubbing a soft pencil across it. Lay the design sheet on the parchment, and clip it in place so it won't slip. Now trace the design using a ball point pen, pencil, or stylus. Apply enough pressure so that the design is transferred to the parchment. You may need to add more pencil rubbings to the back of your design sheet if it's not dirty enough.

16. Apply the mordant to the parts of the letter "I" that will be gold (see section on gold/gold leaf/mordants). We are using a mordant of garlic juice (pinkish-brown in colour), which we lay down with a brush.  Do not apply mordant in the area of the vine that goes over the letter "I". (You can also colour the letter "I" using gold-toned paint, gold-toned ink, gold-toned markers or pens. In that case, skip to Step 19 after colouring in the "I" but leaving the area of the vine that passes over the letter "I" without colour.)

17. Lay gold leaf. (See section on laying gold leaf for directions on how to apply lay gold leaf.). Gold leaf gets laid over the entire letter "I". The gold will only adhere to the area that has been prepared with the mordant. I used 3 layers of 23K gold leaf in this example. The gold was burnished using a lipstick-shaped hematite burnisher.

18. Wipe off excess gold leaf with a piece of silk.

19. Indicate colour of the areas to be painted. Dot the areas with the colours chosen. This is your last chance to make colour changes.

20. Outline all the red areas to be painted before filling in with paint. Use red paint CR5.

21. Paint in the areas of red. Parchment is prone to buckle or cockle when moisture is added to it. To avoid major cockling, use small brush strokes and make sure the paint is not too watery.

22. Outline all the green areas to be painted before filling in with paint. Use green paint GR5.

23. Paint in the areas of green.

24. Outline the blue areas near vine to be painted before filling in with paint. Use blue paint UB5 (or B5 depending on which example is used for the final).

25. Paint in the areas of blue.

26. Paint inner and outer outlines of the blue border.

27. Paint in the area of the blue border.

28. Paint white dots on the blue border. Use Winsor & Newton Designers' Gouache - Permanent White. Example shows a single line of dots spaced equally.

29. Paint white dots on coloured areas. Example shows dots in groupings of 3 with occasional single dots.

30. Shade the vine with a light-toned wash (optional). Example shows shading on vine as if light source is from above and to the left. Skip this step if you decide not to shade the vine.

31. Outline in black can be done with pen and ink or with a fine brush and black ink or paint. Do outline in black ink of vine, branching detail and outline of outer edge of the border.