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July 2022 - A Pelican for Pennsic

I was commissioned earlier this year to produce a Pelican scroll for Elayne Gwenhlian de Belleme, to be awarded at Pennsic. I've been told it was awarded earlier this evening, so now I can finally share the progress pictures!


This scroll was based off the Psalter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, dated to roughly 1185. The original page illuminated Psalm 1, and portrays King David with his harp in the top of the capital, and David facing off against Goliath in the bottom. The page is especially challenging because it uses a LOT of gold, and also displays a LOT of uninterrupted color in the blue background. Large areas of color can be difficult to lay evenly, depending on the quality of the paint as well as on the painter's technique. Fortunately, I didn't have to worry about paint quality, so any mistakes would be down to my own skill or lack thereof.



The text for the scroll was also a challenge; the client wanted French to reflect the recipient's persona, but there's not a lot of room for wording on this one, unlike a "standard" SCA scroll which is generally a paragraph long, or longer. The first few words are divided down the right side of the page with only one to three letters per line. I counted and rearranged repeatedly trying to get the right look. In the end, I needed one more full line than the exemplar had at the bottom, for a total of eleven "short" lines, and five rather than four "full" lines of text. You can see the difference in my text mockup here.



Another challenge I discovered was in spacing the lines evenly along the right side of the capital. In the exemplar, the thickness of the red "spacers" between the text actually varies slightly, but I did not want that for this piece. So there were a few rounds of measurement to get the right proportions between the thickness of the text lines and the thickness of the spacers. My lettering guide definitely came in handy here.

Speaking of handy tools, a compass to craft the circles for the capital was a lifesaver. I did, however, "eyeball" the inner and outer diameters on each circle rather than attempt to measure them with the compass. Fortunately that was relatively easy to do, with the uprights of the capital on the left to use as a guide.


After that, it was time to draw the figures, both from the exemplar as part of the B's structure, and original to match the recipient. I was told that Elayne was both a bookbinder and an exchequer, so I included her holding a book and a set of scales for counting money. The top of the letter contains the badge of the Order of the Pelican.


Note the pencil smudges. Perg is notorious for smearing pencil lead, no matter what you do to try and prevent it.



Finally, however, it was time to gild; since there is no calligraphy on this piece to be done in standard ink, I was able to skip straight to the gold. Perg is also notorious for buckling when exposed to the slightest moisture, so it simply wasn't safe to attempt raised gilding with thick, wet gesso or modern sizes. Instead I opted to flat gild with as thin a coat of size as I could possibly use, and hope for the best. I was pleased with the outcome, as the page only curled slightly rather than buckling and turning wavy, or worse, delaminating into several layers.


Anyone who has followed my blog elsewhere knows how satisfying I find the final step of gilding, wherein I brush away the excess, ragged gold to reveal the crisp final design beneath.

Next it was time for the lettering, applied with a dip pen and the same gold size (Jerry Tresser's "Pink Stuff", specifically). The process was the same as with the painting: apply size, allow to dry to tacky, then apply gold and brush away the excess. Still, the result with gold lettering is spectacular when it goes well.


Before and after: just such a fun moment.

An interesting aspect of medieval art, for me, is the presence of pastel colors, when we might think of them as a modern affectation with the Middle Ages restricted to bold, solid colors. Here there is not only a pink border, but in the original there were two distinct shades of pink. It's hard to say whether they were more similar when the Psalter was new, or where the contrast was of a different character, but the one has possibly faded to peach while the other has remained red. I suspect that the peach was originally a madder red, which does fade over time, but I have not found any sort of pigment analysis of the manuscript that would tell me if my guess is correct. Regardless, the border consists of both a warm and a cool red, which have exaggerated over time into red and peach.

I divided each bar in half, then used a ruling pen to mark the center line of the "zigzag" or "tetris" blocks: another drafting tool that comes in remarkably handy when scribing. If you look carefully, you can see where I painted to allow the pencil line to show through.


For each color, I started with a red or orange-red, then added white to two batches of each, to get a lighter shadow tone, another even lighter that I used as the midtone, and then white as the highlight, The borders were painted in the midtone of each color, then outlined in the darkest, pure color, shaded in the darker color, and finally highlighted with white.

I enjoy working with limited palettes, largely because for a long time I was uncomfortable with mixing my own colors to produce various shades! Earlier period works tend to have single or double tones of each color and no more than that, as you see here. I was also able to repeat the warm red in the outline of the B, and the cool red in the lady's gown. Then a middle tone blue and green filled out the rest of the palette.

The green repeats in the horns of the beast heads in the structure of the B, followed by the pure color of the cool red. Looking very carefully at the source material, I suspect that there may have also been some faint, warm pink/peach in the roundels, but it was hard to see, so I skipped it and painted with only red. After that it was time to use that same red to fill in the "spacers" between the lines of text.

I'm not using a ruler or anything else here, because I have to go around the gold letters and don't want to risk covering them up. The straight lines are done freehand, with the pencil marks as my guide.

After the red comes the blue, this time a nearly-pure ultramarine, diluted with white because my original was extremely dark to the point of purple. It's still quite dark here, even with the white mixed in.

Again, I'm carefully painting around each individual letter and punctuation mark, leaving no blank spaces but also trying to avoid covering up either the red or the gold that is already there.


A side note on the lettering: Lombardic capitals are just plain fun. There are often multiple letter forms for each letter, for example the two M, N, and E shapes throughout the text, and the potential ligatures and overlaps (AR in Arch, or DE immediately below that) allow for a lot of creativity in the layout of the text, making for words that are visually pleasing as well as legible.

Now for the hard part: all that blue background needs to be filled in evenly, without obvious streaks, bumps, changes in stroke direction, or anything else. I mentally divided the space into smaller areas and filled them in one at a time. Keeping the paint to an even consistency so that the perg didn't buckle also helped it to go down without any thinner or thicker spots.


I was very pleased with -- which is to say, relieved by -- the result. After that, it was time to outline everything. I used to find outlining tedious. It's still a long and slow process, but mentally something has changed. Perhaps it's the satisfaction in seeing just how much outlining does for each element. Below you can see the difference between the letters to the right and left, with and without the added black. It's that added crispness that makes this step worthwhile, and I think I've finally had time to allow that realization to sink in, so that now I look forward to outlining rather than dreading it.

The lady finally has facial features! The beasts' faces are a bit more defined as well, and overall the entire piece has come to life, just with the addition of black paint, judiciously applied.

Ah, but we're not done. Ordinarily on my pieces, outlining is the final step, however, a close look at the manuscript exemplar revealed that the gold itself was highlighted in white. It's possible that the white was done before the black, but I couldn't quite tell if that was the case or not, so I opted to hold off and save it for when I added white to the blue background as well.


It ended up looking great, so I think I made the right choice.

The blue then was highlighted in white and red, which I found interesting, in a simple repeating pattern. White was also added inside the arcs of the B, then the entire area outlined in red and white. For the straight lines, I experimented; ordinarily using a paintbrush with a ruler is a bad idea, but I know that other art styles have used it elsewhere in the world (notably Turkish tezhip art), and I wanted to try it here. The brush was a little wobbly, but most importantly, it didn't bleed paint down under the ruler to ruin the work.

The finished scroll... almost. I very carefully measured everything about this piece except the white space around it, and there is no room here for royal signatures and seal. Sigh. Sometimes that is just how it goes.

Fortunately, our beloved kingdom Signet suggested a workaround, and I was able to cut slits to insert three strips of perg at the bottom, to accommodate the names and seal. When they're finished and glued together, it'll look like I intended to do that all along. No one will have to know... and wax seals look cool anyway.

The scroll arrived at Pennsic safely despite the deluge that struck right as my courier drove in, and the Signet was able to get the seal and signatures affixed. Here is the finished piece, ready to present.

This post is going live about two hours after the scroll was meant to be presented, so hopefully I'm not ruining the surprise for anyone. Congratulations to Mistress Elayne, newest member of the Order of the Pelican.


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