Thursday, November 21, 2013

Beginner Scribal Tips and Hints

Basic Materials
1.     Archival is a term which means your paper, paints, and ink won’t fade or degrade over time. 
2.     Use paper with a smooth finish. The terms plate, vellum, and hot-press, all mean the paper is smooth enough for calligraphy. Hot-press Arches or Fabriano brand watercolor paper is what I usually use.
3.     Gouache or watercolor paints are good. Acrylic paints tend to look plastic. Oil paints don’t work on paper. The oil will eventually destroy the paper. Commercial ‘tempera’ paints are not good either – they can chip & fade.
4.     Buy a decent brush with a very pointy tip. A sharp point will help when you’re trying to paint details. I use a size #1 ‘round’ watercolor brush most often.
5.     A basic pencil, eraser, and ruler will be very useful for tracing, sketching & working out your designs. Use a white eraser. Colored erasers may leave color smudges or smears. ‘Kneaded’ erasers also work.
6.     I prefer a ‘dip’ pen which consists of a separate metal nib and a nib-holder. Cartridge pens also work well. Cutting a quill pen from a feather takes some practice but is the ideal tool for writing and drawing on real vellum (animal skin).

In addition to checking out your local craft & hobby shops, here are a couple of online sources:
High-quality, inexpensive, brushes that have a fine-pointed tip:

Watercolor paper and a wide variety of art supplies:

Artist & Craftsman Supply - variety of art supplies

Scribal supplies & instruction books:

Griffin Dye Works: small lampwork mullers, glass grinding slabs, some pigments, brush rests, ink stones, ink bottles, mixing pans, etc.

Dry pigments & supplies for making your own paints:

M. Horowitz gold leaf
(718) 740-6175
221-23 Hartland Avenue, Hollis Hills, NY 11427

Random Tips & Tricks
1.      Tracing is totally period. There are descriptions and recipes for a variety of tracing papers in medieval writings.
2.      Straight edge – Use a ruler with cork backing or put several pieces of tape along the back to raise the edge from the paper slightly. This will keep ink from wicking under the ruler when you draw along the edge.
3.      White work – is a term used in the SCA to describe fine white lines and patterns painted over an area of color. 
4.      Thin the paint (watercolor or gouache) with water to a consistency like heavy cream. Thin it more if you need to get very thin lines or tiny details.
6.      Use the tip of your brush to get into corners and make fine lines. A light touch will give you more control. You can also use a bigger brush to lay in large areas of one color. A larger brush that comes to a very fine point will hold more paint and make it easier to do long lines than a very tiny brush with a few short hairs.
7.      Look at and study medieval examples. Be aware that photographs in books may not be true to the actual colors of the original. What you are looking at in a reproduction is printer’s ink, not gold leaf, shell gold, actual pigments or ink. Medieval colors may degrade or tarnish over time. Gray might be tarnished silver leaf. Also read the text and note the size of the original. Many photos are greatly enlarged. Medieval manuscript sizes varied from huge books several feet across to tiny ones an inch wide.
8.      Metal ‘dip pen’ nibs have a thin coating of varnish to keep them from rusting while they sit on the store shelf. You need to remove this coating before using the nib for the first time. Run the working tip of the nib through a small flame (candle or match) very briefly. The varnish will burn off and leave black soot. Wipe off the soot and you are ready to go. Be very careful not to burn yourself. The nib is metal and will heat up if you hold it in the flame for more than a moment.
9.      Pounce: gum sandarac is a type of pounce - a powdered substance applied to paper or vellum to improve the writing surface. If your ink ‘feathers’ or ‘beads up’ on the surface of your paper or vellum, tap a ‘pounce bag’ of gum sandarac over the surface. Dust off the excess. This will help keep your ink where you put it. (Pounce bag: cloth bag full of finely powdered gum sandarac. The powder sifts through the fibers of the bag when you tap it on the paper surface.) Pumice and several other substances are also used as pounce.
10.    To practice a new calligraphy hand, xerox a copy of the exemplar you wish to learn on the lightest setting. Match the width of your pen nib to the letters on the copy. Then trace over the letters to familiarize yourself with the strokes, letter shapes, and spacing of letters, words, and lines.
11.    Don’t become too attached to a specific pen nib. They will eventually wear down and corrode over time. Buy several of the same size in the brand you like.
12.    If your metal pen nib has a burr or is not quite sharp enough to give you the fine hairstroke lines you want, rub it across a piece of emery paper or crocus cloth several times to smooth it. Don’t sharpen it too much or it will slice through your paper. The finest grit of nail-polishing emery boards work well for this. (The variety used for polishing the fingernail surface.) Make sure the emery paper or crocus cloth is on a hard flat surface to ensure your nib retains its straight edge.
13.    Get on the scribal lists and ask questions. The scribes are very happy to talk to you and are very helpful and knowledgeable.
14.    Good website with instructions on learning left-handed calligraphy:
15.    When using loose gold leaf, you can use a VERY clean pair of small scissors to cut through the leaf and the paper page of your leaf booklet. Cutting with the scissors crimps the edge of the gold leaf & paper slightly, so that you can use the paper to position the gold leaf (like patent leaf) without haveing to invest in a gilders cushion, tip, & knife. Make sure you don’t use the scissors for anything else or you may get oil or some other substance on the blades which will stick to the leaf. Wipe the scissor blades with a cotton ball dipped in rubbing alcohol to help clean them.
16.    You can use a straight-edge or ruler to help rule straight lines with a paint brush. You must firmly prop the straight-edge/ruler at an angle with your hand, or place a block under the straight-edge to raise it high enough to touch only the ferrule (metal part of brush that attaches bristles to handle). Hold the ferrule of the brush firmly against the straight edge and the bristle point just touching the paper. Then draw the brush steadily down the length of the straight edge to mark your line.