Comments on My Illuminated Calligraphy

About illumination in general, and my artistic philosophy and methods in particular

              First, I would like to discuss illumination. It is an artistic term that may be unfamiliar to some. Calligraphy is best defined as “beautiful writing” or, perhaps “artistic lettering.” In the Western artistic tradition, up until the Sixteenth Century and the onset of the Renaissance, hand lettering was the only method for producing books. By the High Middle Ages, just before the invention of printing, books of all kinds were produced in great quantities by scribes who usually belonged to guilds. In earlier ages books were mostly made by monks, but by the beginning of the Renaissance most scribes were laymen who worked at it as a commercial trade. Today, when we think of the books from this period we think of the most decorative and artistic ones that are reproduced in art books and may be seen in museums. Most of the books produced were not of such high quality, but the many ones that were have become well known for their artistic perfection.               

The invention of printing, of course, changed the making of books, and hand-lettered books slowly began to disappear. In the books produced by scribes, along with the lettering, there was decoration. The decoration of a hand-lettered page is called illumination. Before the invention of printing, calligraphers and illuminators often worked independently. One person would do the calligraphy and another person would do the illumination. Illumination is not the same thing as illustration, although book illustrations were often done by illuminators. After the invention of printing, many printed books were decorated by illuminators. There are many fine examples of illuminated printed books from this period. Some of the best ones were produced in Italy, and represent the most sophisticated development of the illuminator’s art. Gradually, as printing became more pervasive, rapid and efficient, illumination began to disappear as an art form. Over the intervening centuries since the Renaissance it has emerged again. Illuminators and calligraphers are still to be found, but they are usually much less concerned with making books and more concerned with presentation pieces: things like certificates, awards, decorative art pieces, and commemorative scrolls. The craft is still somewhat the same, but its objectives have changed. While there have been a few modern calligraphers and illuminators who have produced entire books, such as very elaborate and decorative Bibles, most practitioners of the art of illumination are not interested in creating hand-lettered and decorated books.

                This is a very quick overview of this ancient art form and certainly an incomplete one of a very complex subject. As an illuminator I am interested in making highly decorated Bible verses as display pieces. Calligraphy and illumination are usually regarded in this modern age as fine crafts rather than fine art, but I have always regarded it as fine art and have had the attitude that an illuminated Bible verse or saying should be treated as something on a par with painting and sculpture. Thus, what I do I regard as art and not a craft.

                Now I would like to say a few things about my personal approach to this art form. It is a very eclectic one, borrowing from the decorative traditions of various ages and cultures. At the same time, it incorporates elements which are somewhat unique to me, particularly my use of geometric patterns. Modern illuminators sometimes use vellum, gold leaf, and quill pens cut from feathers. I do not do this, but use more easily available materials. My reasons for avoiding vellum, gold leaf and quill pens are both practical and aesthetic ones. It is not what suits either my taste or my means. I do use smooth Bristol paper (Bristol is a generic  term , not a brand name), disposable pens with permanent ink, watercolor, and colored pencils, especially water-soluble ones. A few years ago I worked a lot with tracing paper. I would apply ink to the front side of the paper and use colored pencil on the reverse side and let the color show through. This reverse-side technique gave a softened effect and it seemed to preserve the integrity of the ink lines so that they were not obscured by overlaid color. The Illuminated works I did, using this reverse-side coloring method, were Luke 6:38, Galatians 6:2 & Romans 15:1, Philippians 4:8, and  Philippians 4:13 (all of these are in Gallery Two). In Gallery Three, there is one secular illuminated piece, The Boston Saying,that was done this way. A similar method was to do an original either on tracing paper or Bristol, photocopy it, and then color in the photocopy. This meant that I produced an uncolored master as well as a hand-tinted photocopy. Pieces in which I used this photocopy technique are Psalm 27:1, in Gallery One, and, in Gallery Two: Matthew 6:33, Matthew 7:12, and 2 Timothy 1:17. In Gallery Three, this technique was used for the Te Deum, the Serenity Prayer (both Christian illuminated calligraphy pieces), as well as the following Secular Calligraphy pieces: the Emerson Saying, the Disraeli Saying, the Lincoln Saying, the Nixon Saying, the Popularity Saying, the Homer Saying, The Apache Wedding blessing, the Teacher Saying, and “Any man can be a father…”

                By the end of the 1990’s I had concluded that the reverse-side technique and the photocopy technique were no longer what I wished to do. They were a means of producing work more quickly, in many instances, as commissions. Using these methods meant that I could deliver a piece that was either an original reverse-colored work or a hand-tinted photocopy to a client. That was good for then, perhaps, but now I felt that it was time to go on to more refinement of technique, using the brush more than the pen, and working on heavier and sturdier paper. I became aware that I could not produce my best work on tracing paper. An example of this was Philippians 4:13. Although this work has appealed to a number of people who have seen it, it demonstrated to me, through its lack of crispness and faint delineation of form, the rather severe limitations of working in this way. I now wish I had done this work on Bristol paper. This would have overcome the problems that I have just mentioned. This work, more than any other, I think, made me realize that I had to go to heavy paper and more reliance on watercolor than on colored pencil.

                It has also demonstrated to me that an artist, particularly an illuminator, must be wary of the trap of expediency and speed of execution. Better the slow and sure technique and the careful attention to detail that is rendered cleanly, precisely and crisply. The best illuminated work of the past has always been, in my judgment, that in which details were rendered in this way, using strong vivid colors. The artist who works on a small scale, as illuminators usually do, is forced to err on the side of precision, strong high-saturated color, and careful attention to the precise and elegant rendering of forms and shapes.

                For all these reasons, I feel that my best illuminated work has mostly been since I decided to put more time, effort and trouble into my work and follow these time-honored working methods. There is no fast and easy route to artistic perfection. That is a foundation stone of my artistic philosophy.