How I Create My Illuminated Calligraphy

How I Create My Illuminated Scripture Calligraphy

Often, people have asked me how I create my illuminated scripture calligraphy. The following describes my creative process.

I keep a list of scriptures I would like to do. It is a long one, and maybe I won’t be able to do them all. When I decide on the scripture quotation I wish to do, the next step is to make a rough, some might call it a “cartoon.” This is not the usual meaning of the term cartoon—comic figures, etc.—but the more obscure and specialized one that means a full scale preparatory study.  In my case, it is a full scale study that I use to work out the design.

The cartoon (or rough) is done on 10 X 10 (100 squares to the square inch) graph paper, usually on an 11” by 17” sheet. First, I rough in the letter forms. It may surprise people to learn that I usually do not use the standard calligraphic technique of writing the letters with a special pen. Rather, each letter is carefully drawn by hand. This ensures accuracy and helps me to get letter forms that are more to my liking. It is slower and more tedious, but the results are usually worth the effort. I have used the other method in time past and it is possible that I may do so again, but, for now, I prefer to carefully construct my letters by hand.

The lettering styles are my own, being variations of antique hands like Italian Round Hand. I never use Old English because I simply don’t like it that much. I usually like rounded letter forms more than the spiky forms of Old English and related scripts. I have a natural preference for elegant rounded forms instead of spiky angular ones. Legibility is also another reason I avoid these forms. It is important to me that my text be both attractive and easily readable.

Laying out letters on graph paper helps me to gauge the general appearance of the text. I am very careful as to where and how I split sentences, and I almost always avoid breaking a word with a dash. It is important to the impact of the text that attention is drawn to the key phrases, especially those at the beginning.

As I lay out the text, I am careful to leave room for other aspects of the design that will follow: the borders, decoration, and initials. Initial is the term for the large decorative letters at the beginning of a sentence or phrase. Some pieces will have two, rarely three, such initials. Most have just one. Smaller decorative letters are sometimes called versals. They often have very little or no decoration around them and are usually colored differently than the text.

After making the text letter outlines in pencil, I will go over them in pen, sharpening up all the refinements of the letter shapes. Attention is given to “hairlines” (thin lines projecting from letter shapes) and flourishes. I use flourishes very sparingly.

The next thing I do is design the outlines of the initials and versals. At this stage I am only doing an outline drawing and have not yet begun to select colors. Only when the cartoon is almost done will I add some notes about colors, if I do so at all. Sometimes I color in portions of the design in order to get an idea of the eventual color scheme. Color always comes last.

I select a border design, usually one from my vast catalogue of these. There are actually thousands of them and they are numbered. Also, I give some attention to other kinds of decorative elements, such as vine designs, which are found in all of my recent work. I keep a catalogue of vine designs as well. The vines tend to act as a foil to the straight-edged geometric shapes. Another thing I plan is naturalistic elements: snails, birds, flowers, tree branches, ferns, and other things from the natural world. Some designs lack these elements, but even the most abstract will often have something like a beetle, snail or butterfly perched or flying around in some part of the design. This can sometimes take a little research. I consult picture books and my large picture file for help in drawing animals and plants. The preparation of the cartoon is where the real creative work is done. Sometimes I don’t like it and will make changes. There have been times when I have not used a particular cartoon because I wasn’t pleased with it. Often I will choose not to use a portion of the design and draw out another section on a smaller piece of paper. This correction will be traced after the master design is traced.

The cartoon stage may go on for several days. When it is complete, I trace it lightly in pencil on the paper that will have the finished work. This usually takes two to three hours. I use a light table for this, which is a box with frosted glass and florescent bulbs inside.

When the piece is traced, the next stage is to ink in the text. I always do this first, because if I make a mistake at this stage I will have to begin all over again. Usually lettering the text will take four to five hours of work. It is slow and very tedious. Only the minutest mistakes may be safely corrected, so I proceed very slowly with my letters.

After the letters are added, it is time to work on all the design elements. This is what takes most of the time. From the time that I finish the text to the time the entire piece is done may be two to three weeks. It is slow work that can never be rushed. Bas relief geometric elements are usually the first thing I work on after the lettering. For these I use what is called a grisaille technique. Grisaille (pronounced gree-ZAI—ai as in eye) is a French term which signifies a method in which shading is added before color. The color is simply layered on top of the monochromatic under-painting.

Much of the work is done using water-soluble colored pencils. After applying the pencil shading, I go over it with a wet brush that produces the look of watercolor. Frequently I will use colored pencils for certain selected details, or I will go over brushed-over areas with pencil to give them more color saturation. It is a complex process and takes time and planning. An artist who works with fine detail must plan his work very carefully. There will always be corrections: things like shadows that need strengthening, or highlights to be made, sometimes with white gouache (opaque water-based paint). If the planning goes well there will be less need to make many adjustments.

The most important element of all is prayer. I pray for the Holy Spirit to direct me, especially when I am uncertain about what to do, which is often. Color is always a difficult matter. The colors must fit the piece well. Sunny warm colors work best for some pieces, and more somber shades for others. It is the most subjective decision of all. I have some idea of color relationships and how well different hues combine together, but, for all my knowledge, there are times when I get stuck and cannot decide how to fit my colors together. I try not to follow formulas that cause me to do the same thing every time. It is important for each work to have its own unique personality.

To make a work of art is always a difficult matter. It takes time, planning and prayer. I am very conscious of God’s help in the work I do. He helps me over the rough parts, prods me in certain directions and blocks me from missteps. I would not say that I am divinely guided all the time. It is not like that. I make frequent mistakes and sometimes my personality determines what I do more than God’s direction. Yet, more and more, I am aware of how He guides my hand and how the work seems to flow with a natural easy grace. And when I have done something well and am tempted to indulge in pride, I pass the glory on to Him and thank Him for the gift He has given me.