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 tr