Advanced Illumination

Mistress Nerissa de Saye

This lesson is aimed at those who have created a few illuminated works, and now wish to improve their skills in this area. The objective here is an illuminated piece that is so "right", and so similar to a period manuscript you could well expect to find it reprinted next to its period counterparts. Mind you, this is a very high goal, so take courage.

To achieve this end, there are a few common mistakes and pitfalls the modern illuminator will grapple with at some stage in their scribal careers. And one more thing; do not confuse large painted portraits with our subject, painted miniatures.

1. Faces, hands, feet (See Figure 2)

It does not matter if your entire work is 100% perfect; if your central figure is cross-eyed people will point and laugh! The first thing we look at are faces because every picture tells a story.

Figure 1

If you look very closely at the faces and hands in your original source, the first thing you will notice are the bland expressions on their faces. You will rarely see a laughing face or one twisted in torment (although the latter can be found in depictions of Hell!). You may also notice the faces are very similar to each other.

On the few occassions when faces are distinctive, it is to depict a very important person, for example the Duc de Berry, in the Limbourg Brothers' illumination for January. Should you decide to tackle a portrait, don't just copy a photo. Use it as a guide to remind you of their features certainly, but beware harsh shadows and the realistic drape of their clothing.

Avoid a cartoony style by copying the look of your original source. Remember, the illuminator (as with the modern designer) is attempting to create a stylised, beautiful picture of the world.

2. Clothing

Small details can make such a difference! For starters, the only clothes your figures should wear are those of the correct time and place. (Its ridiculous to see Henry VIII in an arabic illumination!) And don't forget accoutrements such as headwear, fans, daggers, pouches, etc. Also, the drape and fall of clothing should be appropriate to the style of illumination. For example, early Christian figures had washes of colour, overlaid with simple linework to describe the drape (see fig 1). Whereas later figures were more three dimensional, with combinations of shadowing and highlighting (see fig 6).

Figure 2

3. Attitude

Remember the world of the painted miniature only portrays the height of fashion. Therefore the human body is stylised to new and interesting proportions! (fig 3) The stance of your figures is also important.

The whole "attitude" of each figure should be carefully worked out before actually painting them to your final work. Perhaps its fashionable for a Lord's hips to be thrust forward (see fig4) or for Ladies to look pregnant (fig 3).


Figure 3
Figure 4

4. Research

Just say you are asked to create nothing less than a masterpiece which will include the following: a lion, some period architecture, a few fleur-de-lys, their personal heraldry, and an army on land and in ships!

Yes it can be done. It helps to find these items already illuminated, and see how they were viewed through medieval eyes.

Animals are an excellent example of this (medieval cats look hilarious! see fig 5)


Figure 5 

Herbs and flowers often have symbolic meanings and some were used in everyday life to relieve minor ailments. Armies are simple once you learn the secret: one row of soldiers at front, and the tops of helms behind, as shown here (fig 6). I have also seen a mob of Angels pictured where the front row is painted, and many halos are seen behind, to give the impression of a crowd. Cheating? Maybe.... but its period!

Figure 6

But remember that armies - like everything - are depicted differently from country to country and in different periods.

5. Overall Composition

Remember the list of items from point 4?

Now that you have found and chosen from your period examples, you must somehow arrange them into a sensible composition. Some items may look nice as part of the border (perhaps the more simple elements), which will reduce the number of elements to manage in your primary miniature. Medieval composition usually distributes the elements evenly throughout an area. Trees and shrubs (outdoors) or columns and walls (indoors) can seperate different scenes, or can serve as a space filler. (Just whack in a shrub to fill that compositional gap!!!) Perspective in medieval art not only applies to architecture, but also to people and animals - they become small. Although children or servants are often depicted as smaller people too. In my experience, it is best to base your composition loosely on period examples.


Figure 7

To reproduce the above miniature, I would start by painting flat colour on the sky and ground (all background elements first). Next, the houses/battlements would be coloured several flat shades of grey (or other suitable colour) to aid perspective. Then I would apply flat basic colours the foreground elements (figures etc). The fun bit comes next, with the finest details delicately applied by...

6. Limning

Because artist's gouache gives you lovely swathes of flat colour, your miniature can look quite flat and cartoony. If this is not the look you want, then limning is the answer. Commonly used in miniature Elizabethan portraiture, a cruder form of limning was used in earlier miniatures too. Take for example the close-up here (fig 8b).

Figure 8a
Figure 8b
Figure 8c

Many very fine strokes of differing colour creates a pleasing grass effect, and adds depth to the gentleman's clothes. This type of fine brushwork can often be found on other areas such as: skies (fig 8c) -- shading from deep blue to white, trees -- adding texture to trunks and depth for foliage, faces, clothing and many others. Be careful about architecture though. Usually walls are flat areas of colour, although sometimes they are treated to a little limning.

Anyway, these fine brush strokes can be created br "dry-brushing". That is, by using an almost dry brush (because the gouache must be wet to be effective) but the brush will be extremely "scratchy" and give you very fine strokes indeed. These will be sharp, well-defined strokes. For fine facial areas you can use fine strokes of skin-greys for shadowing (subtly- using very diluted colour), and slightly pinky-whites for highlighting forehead, nose, lips and chin (little dots of more solid colour). The diluted gouache will give a subtle effect. And using your finest brush loaded with WET diluted colour, you can achieve a "soft" effect (as the wet gouache blends with the pigment already on the page) like the grassy look in figure 8b.

7. Being Professional

Plain determination to "get it right" and accepting nothing less than the best from yourself will certainly help. After completing a work, there's always something you wished you did better. If not, talk to someone better than you, and they can help you find room for improvement. (In a friendly way of course!) Or if you truly have outdone yourself..... find a new challenge.

As they say: "The road to Paradise is...Paradise!"

Happy Illuminating...


Browsing List

'Painting for Calligraphers' by Marie Angel. Published by Overlook Press, reprinted 1997.

'Boccaccio's Decameron' in the Illuminated Manuscripts series published by Miller Graphics, 1978, printed in Spain. (Over 100 miniatures!!!)

'Manuscript Painting at the Court of France - 1310-1380' by Francois Avril. Published by Chatto & Windus, London. 1978. (A big range of tiny illustrations) ISBN 0-7011-2307-9

'Debrett's Peerage and Baronetage' published by MacMillan, London. (reference books, heraldry)

If you can't find it, you can buy it on the internet at


Other Great Books

'The Illuminated Page: Ten Centuries of Manuscript Painting in the British Library' By Janet Backhouse, 1998. ($39.95 USA, ISBN 0-8020-4346-1

"A History of Illuminated Manuscripts" By Cristopher de Hamel, 1994. Phaidon Publishers. ISBN 0-7148-5452-1

'Manesse Codex'…. Heidelberg, Switzerland ???

'Medieval Illuminators and their methods of work' by Jonathan J.G. Alexander, 1992. ($30 USA, from Yale University Press, New Haven & London. ISBN 0-300-05689-3

'Renaissance Painting in Manuscripts - Treasures from the British Library'. Hudson Hills Press, New York, 1983-4. ISBN 0-7123-0024-4 (out of print)

'Illuminated Manuscripts - The Book Before Gutenberg' By Giulia Bologna, 1988 Thames & Hudson. (out of print)

'The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art - 966-1066' edited by Janet Backhouse & others. British Museum Publications Ltd. 1984. ISBN 0-7141-0532-5 (out of print)


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Authored by Jehan, Giles, and Yseult AS XXXVIII (2003)