Illumination – How to

Illumination is one of my favorite requests I get from clients. It’s so different than my normal calligraphy projects and I personally think it’s beautiful! I wanted to give you a peek into the process I personally use when I am doing a calligraphy project.

What you’ll need:
A letter or design
Pen/Pencil (I used a Micron pen)
Tape (to hold your paper in place)
Siena red powder (add a bit of this powder to the gesso so you can see where you’re applying the adhesive more clearly)
Fine paint brush
Gold leaf sheets (I use the 23k gold leaf and not composition but you can choose either)
Paint (I use Windsor Newton gouache but again you can chose which paint you want)

Okay, those are your supplies, here are my steps. First I draw the letter (or design) on whatever paper I’m using for the project. I prefer a heavier paper for illumination but you can practice on regular printer paper if you want. (ignore my thick and thin lines, I am retracing the thinner ones)

illumination sketch
After completing the drawing I then “paint” on gesso that I’ve mixed with Siena red powder which helps you see where you’re applying the gesso. The gesso is the adhesive that the gold leaf will cling to.

illumination tutorial process

 illumination tutorial
Once you’ve applied the gesso let it dry (I usually wait about 30 – 45 minutes) and then take sheets of gold leaf, lay the gold leaf side down on the gesso and rub your fingers firmly over the area that should be covered in the gold leaf. I usually take the non bristle end of a paint brush and rub it along the edges just for a finer line as well. The leaf will stay on the sheet where it is not touching the glue so don’t worry about it coming off all over the place. I just pick up the page and move it around until the glue is entirely covered by the gold leaf. Once it’s completely covered I brush off the excess gold with a clean paint brush but you can use whatever you want that won’t cling to the paper or remove the gold.

gold leaf illumination

Once I’ve finished applying the gold leaf I start painting. I personally use gouache on my illuminated letters. You can be as creative as you want with color combinations, have fun!

Illumination Process

That’s it, illumination isn’t nearly as scary as it can seem! I am still honing my skills and am in awe of illumination artists around the world but hopefully this encourages you to give it a go yourself.

And now for some finished illuminated letters!

illuminated manuscript letter

Illuminated Letter H - Polished Pen Calligraphy