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July 2 - A Dragon's Heart and some whining

itA preface before I begin: Now that I have a Laurel, I get the impression that I'm expected to Opine About Things and generally behave as if my opinions carry weight, or at least more weight than they used to. So I will Opine now and tell you that, in my opinion, the way you grow as an artist is to step outside your comfort zone from time to time, try new things, and explore techniques and styles that don't just come easily to you already.

Stepping outside your comfort zone does not, however, mean that you're not allowed to whine about it. Thus saith the Laurel. (Thus saith this Laurel, anyway.) So today's post will be mostly educational and include pretty as usual, but you may run into an occasional bit of whining, as well.

Preface over, now for the educational bits: I've done a number of black scrolls for the SCA now, and they are generally a lot of fun and look great, while being surprisingly simple to pull off. I've generated and taught a few classes based off what I've learned from the Black Hours art style as well, but so far, all that knowledge has come from imitating the Hours of Galeazzo Maria Sforza. For the piece I'm talking about today, I decided to use a different source.

As it happens, there are only seven surviving black manuscripts in the world today, because the process of turning the pages black meant that they would deteriorate relatively quickly afterward. The Sforza Black Hours, in fact, is in such bad shape that it has been completely disassembled, the pages pressed between sheets of glass, and the entire thing vacuum sealed in order to keep it from disintegrating entirely. Nevertheless, we have digitized the entire thing, and there are pictures and full facsimiles of the manuscript available for purchase. Another black manuscript, the Morgan Black Hours, is available online in its entirety as well.

Pages from the Hours of Galeazzo Maria Sforza, "Celebration of the Mass". Images taken from Wikipedia.

Pages from the Morgan Black Hours, "The Flight Into Egypt". Images taken from Wikipedia.

For the scroll I was assigned this time around, I decided to go with a different black manuscript as my source. Below are pages from the Horae beatae marie secundum usum curie romane, aka the Hours of the Hispanic Society of America, a Spanish manuscript executed by a Flemish artist in probably about 1458. As intriguing as this manuscript is, for how different it is from either of the previous two exemplars, this is the ONLY image of the manuscript that I have been able to find online anywhere. It doesn't matter where you search, any website that includes an image of the manuscript uses this one:

Image taken from the Media Center for Art History at Columbia University, copyright the Hispanic Society of America. for more information.

I was worried that I wouldn't have a lot of time to complete this manuscript, and I thought that going with only gold and silver, along with just a bit of color for the badge of the award, would help me to complete it more quickly. In addition, the recipient is a fencer in the SCA, and often favors a later-period persona; while hunting for information about him to help personalize the scroll, a friend found a picture for me of the recipient wearing black and silver. I was informed by his spouse that those are pretty much the only colors he wears regularly, and that even his as-yet-unregistered heraldry was done in just black and silver.

I worried about the scroll border being done in black and gold, or possibly a combination of silver and gold, until my husband suggested simply flipping the colors, and doing the text in gold and the border in silver. I was admittedly reluctant at first, but then I considered how much the border would end up resembling the recipient's garb. There's also the fact that the silver paint is more translucent than the gold, which makes it sometimes more difficult to write with, but easier to shade with when decorating.

With those decisions out of the way, it was time to begin.

So many SCA scrolls begin with the capital right in the top left corner of the text. This is perfectly reasonable to do, but that isn't where it is placed in the source image, and I wanted to imitate that and play with it a little bit. Since this scroll was given out in a regency court (a kind of proxy court where the king and queen are represented by other parties, usually the prince and princess), it meant I could put a bit of preliminary text above the main body of the award, as follows:

As a side note, I also really like the shape of the capital B here, which is easier to read before it gets filled in with acanthus leaves.

Once the lettering is done, it's time to sketch the border; I noticed that the vine work in this piece was a fun combination of thick and thin, with thicker vines sprouting the acanthus leaves in the border, and thinner supporting smaller leaves and fruit. If you look at the vine in the top right corner, it's actually thicker in the sketch than I actually needed it to be, and I modified that once I got to painting.

When it comes time to paint, you always, always, work largest to smallest with your various elements. The largest elements on this page are the two animals, and the acanthus leaves. The goat is the primary charge on the recipient's coat of arms, while the peacock represents his spouse. Since I'm left handed, I often start in the bottom right of a piece and work bottom to top, right to left. I do, however, also rotate the page and approach from any angle that will give me better results.

When painting with metallics on black, you want to lay in a translucent under layer first. The less color you have, the better; you want just enough to sparkle and provide a base to build on. Here the goat looks a little flat, but that's simply because the layers of highlight haven't been built up yet. Compare to the image below, where he's nearly finished. I did "cheat" and come back in with black to increase shadows in place where I didn't think they were pronounced enough; in the image below, the black has been painted in but it's a touch too stark and obvious. I went back with a damp brush and blended the black, smoothing it out so that it looks less heavy. The black line along the near horn is about the result I wanted: something that darkened the area without looking like it had been painted in.

The award badge of the Dragon's Heart is pretty elegant and balanced; I wanted it to look nice and show color without being too bright or standing out too far amid all that black and silver, so I didn't color it in completely. You can also see a much better job of filling the acanthus stems in with just a hint of black, rather than going overboard. Subtle is the name of the game here.

I posted the above image to Facebook because I was beginning to get quite excited over how well the shading was going... and also to whine a little.

I mentioned in my preface that I reserve the right to whine about things if they're outside my comfort zone, right? Shading is haaaaaaard. The trick is to start with barely any color and build it up, working wet to get a smooth gradient, but then also add hatched lines once the areas are dry to help finish it. The thing is, I almost never work with that shading style, other than on black pieces. It's nearly the complete opposite of what I usually do, which is to paint an area in a mid tone color, let it dry, then add a shadow, then add a highlight, and call it good. With this other style, I never feel confident that I know what I'm doing or that it's going to turn out, until it does, and then I feel immense relief that I didn't wreck the piece.

Fortunately, I did start to get the hang of it after a little while. I still whined about it, though.

The image below was taken at the end of a day's session, just to mark my progress.

Here is the end of the next session; compare the finished areas with the unfinished, "flat" areas across the top of the page and in the capital, where the highlights have not yet been built up. The difference is striking!

A closeup of the nearly-finished peacock. By this point, I'd gotten used to using black to go back in and touch up areas of shadow, so you can see where the acanthus stem behind the peacock's head has not yet been darkened, and its eye has not been drawn in. I also haven't yet corrected the vine to pass "in front of" the peacock's tail. Overall, though, the shading and highlighting with just the silver paint is going very well.

Below, most of the corrections I just menti0ned have been taken care of. The black along the vine looks starker in this picture than it really is; I worked damp, with a diluted black that still allowed the sparkle of the silver to show through, and swept it back and forth through the vine to wipe out the details of the peacock's tail feathers. In natural light, the vine is still fairly silver, but for some reason it looks very black here.

Once all the largest elements are complete, it's time to go back in and do the "fillers": these are everything from smaller leaves on the vines, to tendrils, starbursts, and squiggles to fill in any obvious blank space. This is the step that adds density to the border and separates it from the text; for all that it's incredibly easy to do, the difference it makes cannot be overstated. I'm just beginning to do the fillers in the bottom right, around the vine nearest to the goat.

Below is a great comparison of the difference between the finished and unfinished areas of the border. Tendrils have been added, and you can spot starbursts (sometimes they look more like squashed spiders) and squiggles in between the leaves and filling in any sufficiently large open area. If you've laid out your work well, you probably won't have to rely on starbursts too much, and the ones you do put in will appear balanced and more or less evenly spaced. You will also often find yourself moving back and forth, finishing one area, then going back and adding just a little more to the area behind it, making sure everything is equally dense. It's easy to get into a groove and become more confident as you go, with the result that the first areas you finish aren't as densely filled in as the areas that you did later. It's important to keep everything balanced.

And finally, once the fillers are laid in completely, it's time to go back with a ruling pen and set the boundary around the text block and the outermost margin. Once again, a small step that makes a big difference. I also finally remembered to go back and put the smaller capitals in for the name of the award and the final paragraph of the text. The decoration on them, the simple dots and vertical lines, comes from the source manuscript as well.

If you really want to stare at these pictures for longer, you can also go back and forth between this image and the previous one, to see where I added a few more fillers here and there along the bottom-right vine, to make sure the density was balanced with the rest of the page.

And there we have it. The piece came together more quickly than anticipated, and despite my whining, turned out even better than I had hoped it would. When presented in court, it managed to rock everybody's socks, which honestly is one of the things that makes all this effort worth it. Most importantly of all, however, was that the recipient loved it. The coloring, the goat, the detail, and the fact that he sat at my lunch table and I managed not to give away any hints about having done his scroll, were all highlights that he related to me afterward. I had a fantastic time creating this one, and I look forward to another chance to make something like it.

Thanks for reading this far. I look forward to answering any questions or comments you might have about the piece or this post. Cheers!

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