Class with Patricia Lovett
Manuscript School London
June 23, 2005 Thursday


The medieval process of Medieval Painting:

1 Draw it out with a pencil

2 Redraw the lines with a watery minium (a lead red paint.)

3 Erase the pencil and get all the dust away from the page.

4 Apply gesso

5 Apply gold

6 Put on base colors

7 Some mottling of darker and lighter colors to show highlights and shadows.

8 Add white highlights.

9 Outline it all with black ink.


  1. Lay the gesso into the area you wish to gild using a pen.
  2. Wait for it to dry.
  3. Lightly scrape the surface of the gesso with a knife and then burnish it to make sure the surface is smooth and shiny. (Burnisher's agate head should not touch the table or human skin. Prior to using blow hot air on it, wipe down thoroughly with a silk cloth. When finished place the burnisher on its cloth bag. Any impurity on it's surface with mess up the gold, or cause the gold to come off. Clean it between each use with the silk, to prevent any gold or gesso dust from accumulating.)
  4. Get gold sheet ready (Transfer gold in UK, called Patent gold in US)
  5. With the mouth as close as possible to the gesso, blow 4 or 5 hot breaths onto it. The part of the breath that carries moisture is the very last bit that you can squeeze out of your lungs. So breath deep and exhale completely.)
  6. Place gold immediately on the gessoed area and press down with the ball of finger very firmly, making sure to get the edges of the "pillow shaped" gesso. (The gesso only remains sticky for 3 seconds after you blow on it. So you have to have the gold sheet ready.)
  7. Repeat this process several times to build up a layer of gold. She says that she usually puts down 2 or 3 layers of single gold and then 3 or 4 layers of double gold.
  8. After a moment, burnish it lightly with a dogtooth burnisher. Burnish it more strenuously later that day.
  9. Clean off any extra gold with a dry paint brush.

Some of her warnings were:

Recipe for Gesso:

Fold a piece of paper and measure the amounts in little heaps on the paper so that you can stop and count how many spoonfuls you've scooped. When it is the right number poor it in a mortar. Then measure the next dry ingredient.

Grind all dry ingredients with a pestle until smooth (Porphyry stone is excellent for grinding.)

Add fish glue to the mortar, wash the extra glue off the spoon with a pipet, letting the water drops fall into the mortar as well.

Stir with pestle until it sounds sticky.

Blob nickel sized blobs onto plastic wrap and let dry, or use as is. (adding water to reconstitute it.)

(Recipe is from Cennino D'Andrea Cennini in 1437.)

Changing the Recipe for the Weather

Under the Best Conditions:   Increase to 9 parts plaster of paris, leave other amounts alone. This will give a particularly shiny gold that burnishes up the best.

Under the Worst Conditions: Increase sugar and glue to 1½ parts.   This will make it easier to stick the gold down, but it won't burnish up as bright.

Period Notes:

Rconstituting gesso

Reconstitute gesso (gesso sottile) by putting a small amount in a jar, put two drops of water on it, tip the jar so the gesso and water are together and let it sit for an hour. Then add another couple of drops and carefully stir until it is like thin runny cream. Beware of adding air-bubbles. (The medieval remedy for air bubbles is to stick your finger in your ear, coat it with earwax and gently stir the gesso with that finger.   The modern equivalent is oil of cloves.)


What Feathers?

The first five flight feathers from the wing of any bird is appropriate to use for a pen.

Molted feathers are white at the quill end and very soft. They harden as they get older. (Store them in a bundle and hang them to dry. Or to cure them faster they can be heated in a dutching box.)

Right handed people need the left wing feathers, left handed people need the right wing feathers. (The feathers should move away from the body.)

Definitions of the Feathers:

Pinion feather- The first feather on the leading edge of the wing. The barbs are very narrow on one side, the barrels are short but tough. (The best feather for pens.)

Seconds- the second and third feather on the wing. They can be identified because they have a slight bluge of barbs growing where the pinion feather was covering them.

Thirds- The fourth and fifth feathers on the wing. They have longer barbs on the narrow side, longer barrels, but are weaker.


Cutting the Quill:

  1. Cut off the top part of the feather so that you have a pen 9" long.
  2. Remove long edge of barbs. Tear them off, but stop before you strip it close to the barrel and cut it off to prevent inadvertent weakening of the barrel.
  3. Use knife to gently scrape the waxy surface off the barrel.
  4. Cut tip off with scissors.
  5. •  Fish out any material that's in the barrel with the crochet hook.
  6. Soak quill end in water to soften it
  7. Take out a 1" section of the barrel, making the cut curve at the bottom. Start 1" from the tip, cut into the quill half way, curve upwards and cut straight out to the end.
  8. Halfway down the 1" slit, do the same thing again taking out another section.
  9. Put the front of the quill on a cutting board and cut slit in the center of the nib.
  10. Cut the top of the nib off to form a squared surface.
  11. Put the pen back down angled towards the cutting board. Take a bit off the tip at an angle to sharpen it.


Parchment and Vellum

Parchment and Vellum are used generically by academics to mean treated animal hides. By calligraphers they have specific meanings.

Parchment is sheepskin. It can be split into two sheets, it is thin and white. But is greasy and can't be erased. (Which is why it was used for court documents.) Goatskin can be used but is coarser and is used more frequently for binding books.

Vellum is calfskin. It provides the best writing surface. You can get finer sharper letters on it than on parchment or paper.

How is it prepared?

It is treated by sticking it in a big vat of lime for a few days and agitated frequently. (Sometimes they just buried the skins in the Middle ages). This causes the hair to slough off and the skins become somewhat gelatinous.

They are then put on stretcher frames and kept pulled tight. While they are stretched they are scraped with a half moon shaped knife to get a more uniform thickness.

The skin on the neck, tail and legs is thickest. It is also a bit thicker along the spine. When binding a book, you would not want to have the fold line on the animals spine because then the spine of the book would be very thick, while the pages were thinner. (The Lindinsfarn gospels were carefully cut so that they did not have the thick leather in the spine, even though that is not the most economical use of the hides.)

Vellum for meant for writing is bleached.

The two sides of Vellum

Slunk parchment

The term slunk parchment was originally used to mean hides from stillborn animals. It is very very fine. (However, this can also be achieved by careful scraping.)

Preparing to Write on Parchment or Vellum


L. Cornelissen
106 Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3R4
Phone: 020 7636 1045
Fax: 020 7636 3655
Good for Gold, quills, colors, burnishers

The Swanherd
The Swanery

Cowley's Parchment Works
97 Caldecote Street
Newport Pagnell
Berks MK16 ODB
Phone: 0198610038

Some of her Books:

Companion to Calligraphy, Illumination & Heraldry

Historical Source Book for Scribes

Tools & Materials for Calligraphy, Illumination, and Miniature Painting