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Materials for Scribes on a Budget

Eager to create your own illuminated manuscript but unsure of where to begin? No worries! In entering the art myself, I've had a chance to explore a vast array of options when it comes to figuring out what materials to use. More experienced scribes naturally invest in more natural, high-quality materials to maximize the verisimilitude of their work. Despite the tempting allure, purchasing vellum parchment made from genuine animal skin, creating homemade gesso, and mixing homemade tempera paint can prove considerably tedious and pricey to any beginner! As such, I've compiled a comprehensive list of what I've found to be high-quality, affordable, and accessible materials for those entranced by the illumination process yet overwhelmed by the notion of determining what it requires.

Begin with Choosing a Style

Given their prevalence throughout the Middle Ages, illuminated manuscripts come in all varieties, differing both in type and across historical periods. Their categorization includes but is not limited to Late Antique, Carolingian, Ottonian, Romanesque, Gothic, Late Antique, and Renaissance manuscripts. With such a wide array of styles to choose from, I would suggest exploring the history of manuscripts to discover what particular collections capture your attention.

In my case, I've absolutely fallen in love with The Book of Hours. a Christian collection of prayers popular during the Middle Ages and the most common type of surviving medieval manuscript. Its beautifully illuminated pages included prayers for specific hours of the day, days of the week, etc. Although sharing one group of devotions, no two Books of Hours are alike.

The prominence of such manuscripts emerged in the first place given that the printing press hadn't been invented yet, thereby requiring manuscripts to be copied out individually by monastic scribes. The production of the Hours' richly illuminated miniatures, ornately decorated with floral borders and vivid illustrations, were naturally costly and usually reserved for royalty. Within the scriptorium of a monastery, monks could sit and spend hours working on manuscripts commissioned by wealthy patrons.

In consideration of the variations of the Books of Hours, the work of the Limbourg brothers in their Très Riches Heures holds unparalleled beauty in the world of manuscript illumination, sometimes even being referred to as

"le roi des manuscrits enluminés" or "the king of illuminated manuscripts." Commissioned for the Duc de Berry, a royal bibliophile and avid collector of illuminated manuscripts, Les Très Riches Heures feature a calendar the Labors of the Months, a 12-month scene cycle exhibiting seasonal, harvest-related activities. Above each miniature is a breathtaking archway housing its corresponding zodiac sign.

But Les Très Riches Heures isn't the only collection out there. For those aspiring for a more ancient style, the Lindisfarne Gospels and Book of Kells prove equally as majestic and intricate in nature. Regardless, determining what style and level of intricacy you seek to pursue can prove quite helpful as you assemble your materials.

Put It On Paper

First things first, you have to determine your ideal medium.

Medieval manuscripts were traditionally written on parchment or vellum (calfskin). The terms are oftentimes interchangeable, however, "parchment" refers to any animal skin once it has been prepared for writing whereas "vellum" explicitly derives from calfskin. The preparation of parchment is an arduous process, in which the skin is soaked in lime water, stretched across a frame, and scraped to remove any remaining hair. When properly prepared, however, parchment far surpasses any paper as a writing medium in both its longevity and unusual working properties, creating a raised bed upon coming into contact with the paint. Regardless of your skill level as an artist, I would recommend beginning with paper as an easily accessible and affordable alternative to parchment, at least until one has become familiar with the process of making a manuscript.

Now, there are specialized forms of paper depending on what type of paint one uses (which I'll elaborate on later). Whether one uses tempera, watercolor, or gouache paint, I would recommend using hot-pressed watercolor paper for this project. Most watercolor paper is made of 100% cotton, providing a consistent painting surface and proving less susceptible to warping. The terms "cold-press" and "hot-press" distinguish between the paper's surface finish or texture. While cold-pressed paper proves more absorbent and textured, hot-pressed paper allows for more time to adjust the paint while drying and is less absorbent, thus mimicking the nature of "parchment."

For my manuscripts, I've been using Arches' 140 lb. Hot Press Watercolour Paper. Other fellow scribes have also recommended Canson's Hot Press Heritage Watercolor Paper, however, it's often pricier and rougher in texture. Having used Canson's watercolor and mixed media paper over the years, I've found Arches' hot-pressed paper to be unparalleled in quality at its price range. Its texture is smooth, resembling that of cardstock while nevertheless still retaining the versatile qualities of watercolor paper.

You can likewise use any high-quality watercolor paper you have at home, whether hot-pressed or cold-pressed, but may not produce as accurate a result in replicating a manuscript.

On the topic of paper, it might also be beneficial to purchase tracing paper. I've found it to be extremely helpful in producing a sketch with the right proportions, especially considering the level of detail one encounters throughout this endeavor.

I've been utilizing Bachmore's 50 GSM Tracing Paper thus far and have found it to be extremely high-quality. It's lightweight while still thicker than most tracing paper, thereby preventing any piercing as you trace.

Inking It Up

Often overlooked, quills are actually the most basic and essential component of producing any manuscript.

In fact, they often serve as the symbol of the scribal trade.

Medieval quills were traditionally taken from the first five flight feathers of large-feathered birds (often geese or swans) and were then stripped down until solely the shaft remained. Scribes then used a penknife to cut and sharpen their quills; the knife could also be used to scrape away any mistakes.

For advanced scribes looking to take a more traditional route, acquiring a goose quill would be well worth it. As some collect plumage when their birds molt, affordable feathers can be found at various craft stores and online marketplaces (Etsy, Craiglist, etc.). Precut quills can also be purchased from notable scribal businesses, including the Scribal Work Shop or John Neal Books.

I would recommend, however, steering clear from any quills marketing as "calligraphy quills" that come in prepackaged kits. Though they often have an aesthetic appeal, the quills are mostly decorative in nature and thereby hardly functional for long-term use.

Upon acquiring a suitable quill comes the selection of pigmentation in a form of none other than iron gall ink. The standard for writing ink from the 5th to 19th Century, iron gall ink is a permanent blue-black extracted from the tannic acids and iron salts of gall, a growth off of oak trees. Iron gall ink gained its notoriety given that when exposed to air, it soaks well into the parchment as opposed to carbon inks which rub off easily. Well-prepared iron gall inks can be found at various craft stores or on Etsy.

For those who may find going down to your local goosery to acquire a quill quite daunting or "archaic," I would recommend Sakura's Micron Fineliner Pens, which I have used with many of my quick manuscripts thus far. These pens are perfect for scribal work, calligraphy, and outlining artwork! The tip sizes are quite thin, however, I find that they provide one with the ultra-precision necessary for a manuscript.

Whether you choose to use a quill or pens, a pencil is practically a must-have as you sketch the outline of your text and illustrations.

Choosing your Paint

It's time to choose your paint! A manuscript's "illumination" stems not only from its characteristic gilded gold but equally from its vividly colored illustrations. Egg tempera was a widely used painting medium throughout the Middle Ages, as well as paints made from glair (beaten egg white) and gum arabic (watercolor). Made through the mixing of dry pigments with fresh egg yolk as a binder, tempera paint is traditionally applied to a prepared gesso surface, however, stretched + hot-pressed watercolor paper will work just fine!

Tempera paint holds its advantages in being non-toxic, water-soluble, and permanent, thereby not yellowing over time. And though egg tempera can be a difficult medium to work with at first, given its quick drying time, experienced painters can come to harness its unsurpassed luminosity. With dozens of layers able to be applied in a single painting session, the medium allows for meticulous detailing and precision.

If you choose to use tempera paint for your manuscript, here are a few key tips to note:

  • Keep in mind that tempera dries fairly quickly; moreover, blending proves more difficult than with mediums such as oil paint

  • Egg tempera works best when painted on rigid surfaces (e.g. wooden panels, stretched paper)

  • Tempera painting surfaces are traditionally prepared using chalk gesso, a form of plaster

  • It can be difficult to blend as well as oil paint

  • One cannot paint thickly with tempera paint or it will crack, therefore only use thin layers

Now, where to acquire tempera paint? The Scribal Workshop has some wonderfully prepared dried earth pigments that merely have to be "hydrated with water and mixed with egg yolk" to produce tempera paint. Such pigments can also be purchased at various craft stores or online.

For those seeking a more accessible route, gouache paint is an equally suitable alternative. Gouache was traditionally used in European illuminated manuscripts as well as Persian miniatures. A pigment consisting of gum arabic and white, gouache is a water-based paint, similar in composition to that of watercolor but modified to make it more opaque. Not to mention, gouache is rewattable and reworkable in a manner quite unlike other mediums. Moreover, in being water-soluble, it can be reactivated with a mere drop or two of water even after the paint has dried.

Thus far, I've been using HIMI's truly adorable set of 18 gouache jelly cups for my scribal work. The set also comes with three lovely blue paintbrushes as well as a convenient palette with ample space for mixing and holding paint. For beginners in the art of manuscript illustration, gouache paints are ultimately ideal in that they have a wonderful vibrance that resembles the essence of tempera paints while still retaining remarkable versatility.

As always, one can also use paints they have laying about the house (e.g. watercolors) but may not achieve the desired effect in their endeavor to replicate a manuscript.


Paintbrushes can have several uses when creating a manuscript. As with all materials, however, it can be quite overwhelming given the variety of brush sizes and hair types to choose from. Though the HIMI paint set comes with three of its own paintbrushes, I still wanted a larger set of paintbrushes with more variety, allowing for increased versatility and precision.

Making it Stick

There are three main ways I would suggest going about adhesives: using liquid gesso, gum ammoniac, or a general gilding adhesive. For more advanced and more experienced scribes seeking traditional means of gilding, I would recommend Golden Leaf Products' Plaster of Paris Liquid Gesso. Gum Ammoniac, a natural tree sap, is commonly used for fine detailing and precise strokes while gilding. Lastly, a general adhesive, which is on the cheaper side, allows for quick detailing at the expense of quality.

All that Glitters is Gold

Before painting the manuscript's outline comes one of the most enticing aspects of creating an illuminated manuscript: the gilding of gold leaf. A practice tracing from as early as 400 AD, the application of gold or silver leaf to manuscripts ultimately rose in popularity in tandem with the artistic exploration and technological advancements of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Accompanied by ornamental gold, the manuscripts' 'illuminating' miniatures foster an understanding of the text, the gold's 'enlightening' luminosity captures the movement of daily medieval life.

Regardless of varying gilding techniques, the traditional order of 'illumination' comes in three steps: applying an adhesive, laying metal leaf, and burnishing.

There are three main ways I would suggest going about adhesives: using liquid gesso, gum ammoniac, or a general gilding adhesive. For more advanced and more experienced scribes seeking traditional means of gilding, I would recommend Golden Leaf

Products' Plaster of Paris Liquid Gesso. Gum Ammoniac, a natural tree sap, is commonly used for fine detailing and precise strokes while gilding. Lastly, a general adhesive, which is on the cheaper side, allows for quick detailing at the expense of quality.

The application of an adhesive to the manuscript involves the application and burnishing of gold leaf over the desired site of illumination; the leaf is polished once dry with a burnishing tool such as agate stone or a bone folder. The goal of the burnishing process is to acquire a surface characteristic of a smooth, metallic shine.

A valuable tip to note is that one should apply the adhesive delicately with a thin brush before painting so as to avoid the risk of smudging surrounding work.

Scriveners, Assemble

Though a popular art between the 13th and 16th centuries, manuscript illumination naturally subsided with the invention of Gutenberg's printing press (c. 1440), propelling a rapid decline in the production of illuminated manuscripts. The literary world shifting toward the pragmatic practice of hand-binding books writing and painting them by hand, illuminated manuscripts became a splendor even further reserved for the wealthy toward the early sixteenth century.

Regardless, illuminated manuscripts remain treasured in their being the most common surviving items of Middle Ages and particular role in carrying forth the transmission of ideas through such illustrative means. The art of manuscript illumination hardly ends with the culmination of its practicality. In fact, the relevance of which still pertains to today in exploring the very development of art and literature. And as a manuscript truly comes to life with the incorporation of gold leaf, its luminosity similarly radiates the celebration of knowledge. The process of manuscript illumination thereby offers to modern scribes, fellow beginners, and those simply intrigued by the illumination process a glimpse into the motions and limitations of the past as well as the similarly impressive illustrations that skillfully bring words to life.

Happy illuminating,

~ Kimberley Dunn, owner of The Admont Library

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