Stretching Scribal Boundaries

So, over the Christmas holiday, I had the opportunity to go to an event in Meridies (hi Thor’s Mountain!), and I seized the opportunity to sit and do some art while I was there. I wasn’t sure what kind of art that I wanted to do, and I was kind of flying on what I had, and not what I should have used (because literally flying and limited space blah blah blah). But, with a bit of thinking and a few moments on my phone at my event (sorry!), I started working on a challenge piece for me.

Thanks, Santa Jeff, for capturing this photo of me at work on this piece. You can see that I’m working out of a wire-bound sketchbook, and not my normal pergamenata for scrolls. It’s a practice piece, after all.

So, carrying in my already filled palettes and a bit of paint that I was able to put in my luggage to the event, I started working on a piece that I thought would stretch my abilities – squashed bugs. Squashed bugs, of course, isn’t the period name, but it’s one that we as reenactors and recreationists have saddled with this overly realistic, trompe l’oeil style, featuring botanicals and insects, with most exemplars coming from France and Flanders around the early 16th century. The pieces seem realistic, complete with shadows and highlights, usually with a shell gold background, with a fantastic example being Les Grande Heures d’Anne de Bretagne, which the Bibliothèque nationale de France has digitized and put online for research purposes. Of note, there are several botanicals in this particular exemplar. Some of those botanicals, I joke, might put you on a watchlist because, well, whee cannabis. (Also, as I was telling my coworkers at my modern job: “15th CENTURY GET LIT!” I am a bad person.)

Les Grande Heures was painted by a miniaturist named Jean Bourdichon, and it took him about five years to complete the book. There are numerous portraits (my current favourite game on That Other Social Media site is to take a part from one of these miniatures without context, and ask people to caption it. My friend Anna at Anna’s Rome and I have really gotten into this. It’s bad, y’all), and these numerous portraits are finely detailed.

So, I started, using this particular exemplar, which had violets and a dragonfly. One of the reasons I went with this one, was because of the transparency of the wings, the delicate gradients of colour, but also because the extant wasn’t that large. This particular book of hours is a decent size, being about 300 mm x 190 mm (11″ x 7.4″) on each leaf. I could isolate the botanicals and use the rest of my small page (I had a 5.5″ x 8.5″ Strathmore mixed media sketchbook with me) for calligraphy. So, I also got out my FineTec palette, got it ready, and started work.

Now, admittedly, a lot of the work got done at Holly and Ivy. I have a bit of a heavy hand when it comes to filling in my large swathes of colour, and when the FineTec palette is hydrated nicely, you get these really creamy paints that deal well with a lot of coverage. But also, I was left to my own devices at the event and that’s also good. Before long, I’d gotten quite a bit of work done on it, and all that I needed to do was detail work, which I used my beloved 20/0 brushes (and a new 30/0 brush) to do.

I’m going to take a break from the how I did this to add something about how I don’t know how to teach people how to do this. I’ve been doing art since I was a young kid, and the best thing I can say is practice. I assure you, I still make stuff that’s terrible and that I’m not happy with. I have mountains of sketchbooks filled with failed drawings and paintings. In fact, I can name an SCA scroll in recent memory that I went through at least three failures before I finally got it to a point where I liked it. This particular piece was done to stretch my abilities and to practice techniques. Am I particularly chuffed that it turned out well? Absolutely. Am I afraid that I won’t be able to catch lightning in a bottle a second time? You bet.

Back to the project.

Once my layer of gold paint was down, I started working on transparency portions. The wings of the dragonfly, especially, were a bit difficult, but by watering down some Daniel Smith Amethyst Genuine watercolour where it was barely picking up pigment, I could paint the wings to look like there was diffused light turning into shadow, much like in the extant. Now, because this is a traditional transparent watercolour, it has the ability to take on these nearly transparent washes, whereas gouache would have a more difficult time given the finer grind of the pigment. (It’s possible to have no problems with watering down gouache, and I’ve had decent luck with my M. Graham gouache, but if you’re trying this out for yourself, experiment first.) I also found that using the Daniel Smith also made doing the shadows on gold easier, as the purple and gold would cancel each other out enough (yay complementary colours!) and would create this lovely dark brown. Of course, these shadows were not as dark as I wanted, and I had to break one of my cardinal rules with using black (black often overpowers, which is why I use it so very sparingly), but when watered down, it covered exactly the way I wanted.

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Closeup of my 30/0 brush. It’s tiny, yo. Also, you can see how the gold isn’t shiny from this angle. It’s very shiny when the light is right.

The biggest breakthrough I had was when I got my 30/0 brush. Not everyone feels like they need a tiny tiny brush, but I find that they’re helpful. With a light enough touch, I was able to mimic the fine lines in the extant. Like I said, not everyone feels like they need them, but I like mine. If you’re curious, it’s a Royal and Langnickel Monogram brush, and when it isn’t in use, it gets cleaned, dipped in gum arabic, and the plastic protective tube put back on to preserve the point of the brush, because 30/0s are pricy, even for inexpensive ones like this one. (And also, I don’t want to wear down this one as quickly as I do my 20/0s.)

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So shiny! Also, the finished product.

Once all of this was done, and any remaining lining was finished, I photographed it and put it online. (and then the SCA Social Media picked that up and it went sort of viral, so. uh. Hi.) Now, of course, it’s a practice piece, and as the artist recreating it, I am much harder on myself than perhaps everyone else is, but even with my mistakes, I’m proud of this. I have an idea of what to do next time, and I’m already planning for next time, with this adorable border of cherries from the same text (it’s on page 85r).

One of the biggest issues I think a lot of artists have is knowing when to stop. Self-editing can be difficult, but it’s such an important skill to learn to look at a project critically and stopping one’s self before it ends up getting ruined. There are still things I wish I could change, or wish that I had stopped myself on, but this piece is also a learning process. There’s so much more to learn, which is why I’m working on the border. I also discovered a few other things about this text that I’m excited to try out for next time.

So, while I was working on this one, I also was working on another one, but this was more or less a reminder to myself that just because I can, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Picture it, Sicil. . . I mean, the night before the event a blank border competition is held. No time to paint, but just enough time to try out another method that might have been another stretch of skills. I stumbled upon the concept of canivet, or paper cut to look like

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My finished piece.

lace by using either knives or die cuts, and a particularly spectacular example from the 1310s in a rather tiny book. While I was limited by size (I had to size up to make sure there was room for any text), I was able to cut my 11″x17″ pergamenata piece with the same general design as the extant in about 4.5 hours with my only injury being my slightly sore thumb from pressing too hard on my xacto knife. I did make a few modifications to my piece, with making room for a badge of one of our GoA orders, but on the whole, closely resembles the extant. Do I recommend doing stuff like trying to recreate a scroll the night before a competition in the future? No. Will I probably do dumb stuff like this in the future? Probably. Am I proud of my work? Yes. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely.

Lessons learned from my scribal scribbles from the past few weeks:

  • Do things because you want to do things, but also, challenging yourself is a good thing. It’s quite easy to hit the Easy Button and do things over and over. And there’s plenty of practice in that, but expanding views is also a way to do that.
  • Inspiration comes in some odd, but fun places. I am truly loving Les Grande Heures.
  • Using Tweets as documentation is fine under Chicago/Turabian citation, so go get your citations from your favourite museum (also, thank you, Walters Art Museum Rare Books and Manuscripts)
  • I stretched a lot of abilities on this piece, and I can’t wait to try it again.
  • Practice is absolutely a good thing (and I can hear my sainted mother laughing from beyond the grave over me saying this).

Go out there and show me your practice pieces! I can’t wait to see what you learn from your own practice!

One thought on “Stretching Scribal Boundaries

  1. Pingback: Creative Anachronism in the Time of Corona(virus) | konstantia kaloethina

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