Illuminating Ingenuity – making illuminations

Published on behalf of Sarah Graham

The exhibition Ingenious Impressions will be opening on the 27th February and I have been helping prepare some of the beautiful manuscripts and books that are to be displayed. In my previous post Gilding from the Upcoming Exhibition, I looked at different examples of gilding that will be displayed and prepared the materials to recreate two illuminations. Sp Coll MS Hunter 282 is a parchment manuscript with gilding raised by the use of a bole and Sp Coll Hunterian By.2.3 is a paper incunabulum with flat gilding using a size.


Part 2: Making the Illuminations

Illuminations have to be planned before gilding and painting as there is little room for correction. There is a really lovely example of a monk getting creative in a 15th century sketchbook from the Bavarian State Library. This not only shows popular subjects for illustration but confirms the method of production.

As parchment comes from the skin of animals, it has a flesh side and a hair side. MS Hunter 282 has been gilded on both sides but the illumination I am copying is on the flesh side, so I will do the same. The design is usually drawn out, painted over in watercolour and then the drawing is rubbed out. This means the design can be changed until considered perfect.

‘Then take a little bunch of feathers, and sweep the whole drawing free of charcoal. Then take a wash of this ink, and. . . you come out with such a handsome drawing, in this way, that you will make everyone fall in love with your productions.’(Cennini, p75).

bl2;1As I am cheating, I have traced the outlines and transferred the design using powdered red bole rubbed into tissue paper, then painted over the loose powder. The difference between parchment and paper is already apparent. The porous structure of paper allows the paint to sink in and be absorbed whereas paint sits on the parchment’s surface. We have a digital microscope in conservation which shows this clearly. Below left, there are areas of homogenous paint which rests smoothly on the parchment surface. In the paper sample, you can see the uneven paper fibres under the paint.

Bl2;2Rabbit Skin glue was used as a size (adhesive) for the flat gilding and gold that has been beaten into thin sheets applied on top. Parchment and paper are highly sensitive to water and so it is not possible to use water to reactivate the rabbit skin glue and bole. The bole for the raised gilding was a little more complicated. It needed to dry really smoothly, be burnished and then remoistened. The advantage of parchment is that, when you get frustrated it is possible to scrape the all the surface decoration away and start again.

Bl2;3Once the bole has dried, the excess gold was gently brushed off and trimmed. I left it a couple of days before burnishing the gold as it can lift off when being rubbed with the agate burnisher. It just about worked but I will not need to distress it any further to make it look old!

Bl2;4I used watercolour for the painting and the Göttingen Model Book demonstrates clearly how layers of paint were built up from a base colour to the last final details. The examples I have choosen have separate blocks of colour rather than layers of shading or detail. To break up the colour, the manuscript has groups of little white dots. In both the parchment (MS Hunter 282) and paper (By.2.3) examples red, greed and blue were predominately used and have painted black lines around the gold to make it look a bit brighter.

Bl2;5I think it has been possible to create something resembling the illuminations from the exhibition with materials in the conservation studio but it would take a lot of practice to acquire the skills of an illuminator. The colours I used are too bright when compared with the originals and I forgot to gild the boarder of parchment. A very fine brush was needed to paint the parchment, even in the larger areas, so that the moisture in the paint did not make the parchment warp. This is not so crucial with paper as it was good quality in the 15th century and less responsive to water. Unfortunately with paper there is less margin for error as you can’t scrape the paint off and start again.



Cennini, C. ‘Il Libro dell’ Arte’ (New York, 1933)

Categories: Special Collections

2 replies


  1. Illuminating Ingenuity – Gilding from the Upcoming Exhibition | University of Glasgow Library
  2. Exhibiting Ingenuity: Design and Construction | University of Glasgow Library

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