This page is about the many materials and methods I offer for making a personalized book for the client who wants the most special and ecclectic of personal items. This book is named for the client, who's last name is Schiff. He wanted a book done in the style of French/Flemish book arts of the end of the 15th century. The subject matter is biblical, and you can see some of the major illuminations on my Illuminated Manuscripts Art Page. The book is 5x7 inches, Gothic bound in hardwood boards over dark blue goatskin. The pages are all genuine goat parchment, written in medieval inks and illustrated with genuine gold & silver leaf, and pigments made from plants, animals, minerals and chemistry. The binding was hand sewn, carved and tooled, and features hand-made metal bosses and clasp.
I am also currently writing a book on how to make a medieval book, entitled: Secrets Of Forgotten Masters: A 21st Century Artist's Exploration of how books were made in the Middle Ages. That book will be a comprehensive visual exploration of the materials and techniques used by medieval artists and craftsmen to produce entire books. It will feature sections on tool making, materials collection and manufacture, color making, and binding. Each section will be fully illustrated with photographs. The information will be documented from extant sources and treatises from the medieval period.
The Schiff Medieval Illuminated Manuscript Book
Copyright 2011 Randy Asplund
5x7 inches. Medieval paints, gold and silver leaf, and oak gall ink on goatparchment. Brass hardware over dark blue tooled goat leather.
The first step in making a medieval book is gathering the pages to write upon. These were usually made from parchment, and later paper. The parchment is made from the skins of goats, sheep, and calves. I use both parchment that I have purchased and parchment that I have made. Above is a pool of a dozen and a half goat and sheep skins soaking after being flayed. I am removing the dirt, feces and blood from the pelts before I process them.
I made a fleshing knife and this is me scraping the raw flesh from the inside of a skin. The next stage will be to soak it in a lime water solution for over a week, then scrape off the hair, and then soak it a second time in lime water solution.
After soaking, the skin is stretched on a frame and scraped very smooth with a crescent shaped knife called a lunelarum. I am pictured here in 14th c. costume using a reproduction lunelarum. The next step involves drying, sanding with a block of pumice, and then smoothing the skin until it is perfect. See the Ecclesiastes article for preparation of the pages.
I write using a goose quill pen and I hold the parchment flat on my 15th c. type writing slope with my 15th c. type of pen knife. I make these tools to get a more authentic method in order that my work looks more correct.
This is what the finished calligraphy looks like in the Schiff book. There are fine ink rulings using my home-made brazil wood ink, the dark blue is coarse ground azurite and the pale blue is fine ground azurite pigment that I made. The red is vermilion, and the dark brown/bladck ink is oak gall ink that I made.
After the calligraphy comes the illustrating Illustrations are called Illuminations because the gold brightens the page with light, but it generally refers to the painting. The design is drawn with a lead/tin stylus known as a plumet that I made, and it is then inked with dilute oak gall ink. Then I erase the plumet lines with a wad of bread. This illustration is the Covenant Between Johnathan and David full page miniature in the Schiff Book.
The gilding follows the underdrawing after its contents have been inked. I make a gesso ground from a red clay called bole, some chalk for a bulk former, a few drops of honey, and some hide glue. I apply this wherever the gold will be. After it dries I breathe on it to bring up a tack, and then lay genuine gold leaf on it. When it is dry enough I burnish with a burnisher that I made from the tooth of a dog or from another agate burnisher that I made.
Burnishing with an agate burnisher that I made
Making Medieval Paints
These are justa few of the many colors that I make for my Medieval Manuscript Illuminated Books. We have verdigris on a copper plate, and next to it are yellow orpiment, iron oxide, calcined chicken bones, azurite, yellow ochre, chared bone, vine and wood, red lead, malachite, and lapis lazuli. I also make pigment from insects, other minerals and chemicals, and a lot of different plants and even gall bladders of fish and cows. The colors are made into paint with the addition of sap from acacia, cherry or plum trees, and I also use the fluid left after I beat egg whites. The later is called glair.
I process the petals of cornflowers, irises, violets, poppies, the berries of buckthorne, elder, and european bilberries and many more plants to extract vibrant hues. While not lightfast for display in a frame, they last centuries when used in a book.
Ultramarine was collected only in Afghanistan during the middle ages. It is mined today as it was back then, with pick axes by hand. From there it travels by mule and camel, always in danger, and the caravan must pay off warlords, bandits and pay government taxes before selling it to the middleman who brings it to New York and whom I buy it from. In the middle ages it was sold to a Venetian, who shipped it to Europe. I select only the very best pebbles, but even the deepest blue stones are loaded with white calcite and pyrite in the matrix. This must all be removed, so I use the materials above to clean it. Here we have bee's wax, gum mastic resin, turpentine (sap of the larch), and potash lye.
The first step is to mull the lapis lazuli grit as fine as possible on the slab. Even then, there will be a lot that is not fine enough, so I use a medieval water levigation method to extract the fine from the coarse, and then I mull the coarse grit until it is finally all perfect.
The powder is melted with the wax and resins, kneeded like a putty, and then put in a bowl of lye and worked with skicks. The blue comes out in the lye and leaves the impurities in the putty. When the fluid is poured off, it goes into a hollowed-out non-vitrious brick that pulls the lye out and leaves only the ultramarine on the surface. The powder is collected and can be mixed with binder to form paint.
In this reproduction 15th c. pot I am brewing weld plant tops (aka dyer's weed) to make a yellow paint called Weld Lake, or in Italy, Arzica. This beautiful yellow is a dye being extracted with hot potash lye. Then the dye is stained onto chalk with alum. I collected this weld from the sea shore in Sweden and I also grow it here in the USA. I washed the sticky brown soot from the bottom of the pot with more lye and made the pigment Bistre from it. Bistre is a warm, dark chocolate brown.
This is sap green being made from buckthorne berries collected from my yard. The darl purplish blue berry juice becomes a rich green when mixed with alum in the presence of calcium such as sea shell.
Illuminating The Book
I use shells as my palettes, just as was done in the middle ages. The colors are mixed to general hues and values in single shells, and in the renaissance a large shell or slab of ivory was used for the fine mixing necessary for naturalistic painting. here are yellow ochre, cochineal and lapis lazili being used to make the background panels in the border. They are shaded with red ochre, less tinted cochineal, and woad. This is the John on the Isle of Patmos full page miniature from the Schiff book. I even went so far as to find a picture of the view outside the cave where John wrote the Book of Revelations.
I am using genuine vermilion over yellow made from buckthorne berries to make a wreath around an illumination of a skull in a mirror. The image of death reflected in the mirror (memento mori) was a common medieval image to remind us that we are all mortal. The flowery script is decorated with cadel pen work.
The strawberry on the full page tromp l'oeil illumination of David in his Penance is laid in with vermilion in this washes, and the green is a combination of malachite mixed with a brilliant buckthorn yellow. The yellow ochre background has been stippled with genuine gold paint to make a shimmering effect.
The image comes to life as shadow tones are applied, and red ochre seed holes are dotted with genuine gold paint.
The Final Illuminations and the Binding