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Table of Contents
Main Sections
I. Function of Books
II. Book Production
III. Book Structure
IV. Typology of Books
V. Book Illumination
    1-2. History, Artists, Works
    3.Techniques of Illumination
 
Back to the previous subchapter         V. Manuscript Illumination  Credits  
3. The Technique of Illumination 
in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance


As already mentioned, a number of techniques used during the work led to the early specialisation in various disciplines; different artists and craftsmen covered the technical preparation of parchment and ink, colours mixing, gilding, composition design and drawing of figures, painting colour by colour, filigree and ornament drawing, polishing, etc.  During the process of writing, the scribe left the place for the illustration and also prescribed its topic and composition in a form of small marginal notes. After the text was finished - the gatherings could have already been bound together - the sketch was carefully drawn in the given space by the master of the workshop  following the prescribed guidelines. The first step in the decoration was gilding.

The actual process of painting started with application of the basic colours and with outlining the original lines of the sketch. Afterwards, the shadows and darker tones were superimposed and  the whitening of light tones finished the modulation of the figures and space.

There is good evidence that compositions of miniatures could be literally traced from one copy to another using transparent carta lustra or carta lucida. They have also been duplicated by pouncing in which the outlines of the original were pricked with rows of holes and placed over the new page and dabbed with a bag of colour, such as chalk or charcoal dust, to produce a dotted outline. This would provide a sketchy outline, like the metalpoint drawings described above, ready to be strengthened in ink in preparation for colouring. Some pictures or initials in medieval manuscripts are formed only of drawing, especially in the Carolingian and Romanesque periods or in some scientific or practical books, but most decoration was intended to be coloured and it was often illuminated. Strictly speaking, an 'illuminated' manuscript contains gold or silver, which reflects the light. A manuscript with much decoration but in colours without actually having gold or silver is, technically, not illuminated. Members of the Cistercian Order were permitted to ornament their manuscripts but not to illuminate them as gold was thought to be frivolous and inappropriate to an austere way of life. Illumination with gold goes back into antiquity but is especially common in the later Middle Ages. Manuscripts such as Books of Hours are almost always illuminated. If gold leaf is to be applied to a design in a manuscript it is put on before the colour. This is crucial for two reasons. The first is that gold will adhere to any pigment which has already been laid, ruining the design, and secondly the action of burnishing it is vigorous and runs the risk of smudging any painting already around it.

At the beginning of the decoration of a medieval or Renaissance codex, the book was often still in separate sheets, but the writing of the manuscript had already been finished. The illuminator set out to decorate the blank spaces left out by the scribe for the purpose of illumination. In effect this meant that the subject, the location, and very often also the format was predetermined for the illuminator by the scribe. The parchment had been rubbed with pumice or chalk already before the writing in order to decrease its oiliness and absorbency. The scribe often left instructions for the illuminator. Within or near the space left out for splendid initials, often a minute letter indicated what letter should be included there. Occasionally, as in thirteenth-century Cistercian manuscripts which used a single color for initials, even a spot of paint was included there to give direction for the color of the initial. The names of colors were sometimes inscribed on the margin or within the design itself.

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This practice was especially widespread in twelfth- and thirteenth-century English and French codices. The illuminator began his work by laying out the design laid in leadpoint or graphite. When the underdrawing was completed, it was reinforced with ink. These drawings survive in great quantities in unfinished manuscripts.

They are usually highly complex, refined drawings, and by no means hasty sketches, but they were never regarded as finished products in the age. After the fourteenth century, the design was sometimes transferred to the page from another miniature or a previous sketch by the method of pouncing. Sometimes earlier miniatures were cut and reused for a new codex. In the late fifteenth century, even woodcuts or prints were pasted into Dutch manuscripts and colored by hand.

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When the design was finished, the parchment was coated with liquid size (animal glue dissolved in water). The size was often colored with green, blue, brownish yellow or pink pigment in order to create a tinted surface on which the gold and the brilliant colors were markedly set off from the background. (The same technique was also applied to paper ground, which was commonly used from the thirteenth century on, sometimes even mixed with parchment). In some early, sixth-century manuscripts (the famous "purple codices") the parchment itself was dyed, then decorated and inscribed with golden or silver letters. As has been mentioned, in the later Middle Ages the miniatures of a codex were often executed on separate sheets, and then inserted into the book and bound together. This was frequently done in the course of the decoration of Books of Hours. A special advantage of this method was that this way the finely prepared surface had to be applied to the illuminated pages only. After the preparation of the design and the surface of the parchment, the next stage was gilding, always executed before the actual painting. The gold was applied in extremely fine leaves to the specially prepared surface. The final and most important stage was the painting itself. The pigment was mixed in some sort of a binding medium that kept the pigment particles together. Until the fourteenth century the most widely used binding medium was glair, obtained from the settled juice of beaten egg whites (egg glair). Glair was an optimal medium for miniature painting, free-flowing and easily applicable, but was fairly difficult to prepare well. Besides, it reduced the natural saturation of colors, and was therefore sometimes varnished with honey after drying. After the fourteenth century glair was replaced with gum arabic (the gum of a domestic tree). Its advantages included the fact that it could be more thinly applied, thus the resulting colors were more transparent and saturated. The two types of binding media were sometimes used together or occasionally mixed with further types of binding media such as egg yolk, sugar, or ear wax. The technique which both the glair and gum arabic mediums encouraged was similar to tempera painting, that is, slow-paced, careful work with tiny, meticulous brushstrokes, creating clearly defined forms and homogenous areas of color. The painting was applied in numerous layers of washes, and the modeling was executed in darker or lighter tones. The use of very small brushes and the easily controllable, free-flowing medium was a prerequisite for the execution of the minute pictures that were usually rendered in great detail. When the book was still in separate leaves, the artist could work on a number of pages at the same time, and mix colors for use on more than one page. The whole process of book illumination was very time-consuming and costly, thus the illuminated manuscript was a luxury item for wealthy customers. With the advent of book printing, the sumptuous illuminated codices went out of fashion. Although the early printed books were often made to resemble illuminated manuscripts, by way of hand coloring, the art of book illumination gradually disappeared in the course of the sixteenth century.

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