'Illumination and Decoration Techniques for Calligraphers and Artists'

Peter E. Taylor ©2004


I've started writing a book on illustration techniques.

The pictures and description that follow are a draft of instructions that will be provided for blending colours in leaves and borders. Though I'm demonstrating how 'medieval style leaves' can be painted, I'm sure creative people can use the technique for modern designs too.

It is probably suitable for children older than 11 and adults.

If you wish, please print this page.



This is my copy of a 14th century original - probably about life size. I will explain how gold is applied later.

I will show you how I work with colour to paint in this style.

All the colours I have used are Winsor and Newton gouache paints, which are really finely ground artist's quality 'poster paints'. They are water soluble, but much more opaque than water colours.

My personal kit of colours for most illuminating work that I do consists of: Permanent White, Lemon Yellow, Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson and Flame Red. The Lemon Yellow and Ultramarine Blue are blended to make green, and Ultramarine Blue and Alizarin Crimson to make purple. Alizarin crimson makes good pinks when white is added. Flame red is 'bright' red.

For painting little animals, birds and insects I also find useful: Ivory Black, Burnt Umber, Raw Umber and Burnt Sienna - the last three being brown colours.

I used to write and paint on vellum - calf skin - the traditional material. Most clients find that too expensive, so now I usually use 'hot pressed' watercolour paper.

When drawing a design, it's best to use a fairly hard pencil, an H or 2H, because you get a nice fine line and it doesn't smudge as easily as softer leads. I have used an HB pencil for this drawing, however, so that it shows up well in the photos - and you can see it smudging already before I've done any work on it. From the left side of the leaves, to the right side of the N, is 3.5 centimetres - about 1¼ inches.





Normally I would use gold leaf for the letter, but I will explain the technique for that in another section. The plan is to use Flame Red for the letter N because it was one of the traditional colours used to start a piece of writing.

This colour does not always cover over pencil marks, so here I'm erasing some of the letter to make it paler. My favourite erasers are the refils for Pentel 'Click Erasers'.

A small amount of red gouache is squeezed on to the mixing tray. (If you're making a colour as a mixture of two or more paints, make sure you make enough for the whole job - you'll never mix the same colour agian if you run out.)

Two or three drops of water are placed beside the paint.






Using a brush, the water is dragged through the paint. If you want to keep your brushes in good condition and able to be brought to a fine point, it's not a good idea to use them as though you were stirring ingredients to make a cake.

Water should be added to the paint until it will just freely trickle from the top to the bottom of the mixing tray. There should be no doubt that if this was held vertically, the paint would drip off the bottom.



I only use the finest sable brushes. They are absolutely essential for the finest work, and will last for years and years if cared for. The ones I use the most are Winsor and Newton's size 00. The Series 3A brushes have slightly longer bristles than the Seris 7 ones. 3A brushes I use for outlines and filling in leaves and letters. Series 7 brushes are particularly useful for painting animal fur and adding fine white dots to illuminations.

After loading these brushes with paint, they are scraped gently against the edge of the palette until they come to a point as sharp as a needle.













For long painted lines I hold my brush so that it makes a letter 'T' with my thumb. My hand is steadied by pressing my knuckles firmly against the paper.

The bristles of the brush are lined up in the direction of the line they will paint, and the brush is pulled smoothly along the line, and raised gently from the paper as the end of the stroke is approached and finally reached.

I paint outlines first, and then fill in the centre space.

The work is turned under my hand so that the bristles are kept in line with the pencil marks.







When paint needs to be washed from a brush, I try not to touch it on the bottom of the water container. I gently press the bristles against the side of the vessel as I stroke and raise the brush upwards several times.

Brushes must never ever be left standing with their bristles resting on the bottom.

The best brushes automatically come to a perfect point when the water is shaken from them, but they can also be eased to a point and shaped by stroking on a tissue or lint free rag.

Traditionally, many leaves in ancient manuscripts were painted in shades of blue or red / pink, with just occasional green or orange ones.

Where leaves will be blue or pink, I paint the whole area in Permanent White paint. For green and orange leaves, I use a dark cream.

I imagine the light coming from one direction from above, and add colour to the 'shaded' sides - in this case 'left and lower sides'.

Ultramarine Blue and Alizarin Crimson have been added to the white, and Flame Red and green made from Ultramarine Blue and Lemon Yellow to the cream.



The brush has been thoroughly washed, and some water removed on a tissue - though I often wipe my brush on my hand.

The aim at this stage is to have the brush just moist enough to be able to remoisten the white or cream paint. This is stroked into the solid colour, and back out into the white or cream until the area is blended from pale to dark colour.

If one side needs to be made lighter, it is usually sufficient to use a slightly damper brush on that spot so that the white underpainting will come through. If necessary, more white paint or dark paint can be added as required.

The leaves are next outlined. I will show you how to use a dip nib and paint to do this later. Most beginners find it easiest to use a 0.1mm permanent waterproof ink disposable technical pen. My favourite variety is called a 'uni-pin', made by Mitsubishi. Again, trying to emphasize the shading efect, try to get extra fine lines on the lightest parts of the leaves, and heavier and thicker marks around the darkest areas. If at any time the pen starts to clog with paint, immediately dip the point in water and scribble on some plain paper to start it again.

Add some pure white to the highlights. Using pure white is hard. Permanent White is the most opaque. I often stroke a wet brush on the white paint inside the tube, scrape the bristles on the top of the nozzle until they come to a needle point, and paint some test fine lines on a scrap of coloured paper. The paint has to flow out of the brush, but cover the colour that is under it. It takes practise to get the consistency just right.

Using the same method for mixing paint, fine white veins and dots are added to complete the leaves, and details added to the letter.

The finished design, on the left, below, is only a fraction over 3cm (an inch) wide, so the tiny wiggles on lines and roughness you see in the enlargement to the right aren't noticed.





Please let me know if you try this technique, if you find these instructions useful and if there is any part that is hard to follow.