Monday, May 1, 2017

Step-by-Step Watercolor: The Modern Illuminated Manuscript

I made a decision several months ago to give up the commission side of my art business. As my calendar had filled with teaching engagements and trips to far-flung places, it became more and more difficult to find time to squeeze in the labor-intensive custom artwork. But when my friend Mary approached me a few months ago about doing a very special piece for her, I couldn't say no.

Her cousin, Rita, had been her best friend since childhood. They were like sisters, always there for each other. Rita's husband, Tim, had recently passed away, and Mary, wanting to help her friend in some way, had the idea for a very special sort of memorial. It would be a tribute in the form of a traditional illuminated manuscript, but with a modern twist. Not only would it include a formal reading from his funeral, one which had great meaning to the family, but it would also capture the essence of who he was as a man.

(If you're not sure what an illuminated manuscript is, you can read about them here.)

I'd like to share with you how I approached this unusual commission and give you a glimpse into the life of a man who was cherished by his wife, family, and friends.

"Tribute to Tim", 9" x 12", ink and watercolor on Stillman and Birn ivory Delta series 270 gsm paper

The design process began with Mary emailing me background information about Tim. We discussed what some of his interests had been, and she began gathering the appropriate reference photos for me.

I started practicing the chancery italic calligraphy style, which I hadn't used much in recent years, and experimented with different nib sizes and inks to see which would give me the results I wanted.

I used a Speedball C-5 nib and DeAtramentis black ink

Since I wanted the piece to have a vintage feel, I chose ivory-colored 270 gsm Stillman and Birn Delta series paper for the final artwork. It comes in 22" x 30" sheets, its surface is smooth enough for the lettering nib to glide across, and it doesn't wrinkle or bend when watercolor is applied. Also, since I use Stillman and Birn sketchbooks with 270 gsm paper quite often, I'm familiar with how the watercolor behaves on it. That gave me one less thing to concern myself with on this project.

The rough sketch was drawn on tracing paper with a pencil. I did a draft of the lettering on one sheet, then layered another over it to draw the border. That way I wouldn't disturb the lettering when I modified or erased parts of the border design. I started by drawing one of the Celtic corner designs then tracing it onto the other three corners. The small illustrations were blocked in and curving vines added to fill the remaining space.

I used a Daylight Wafer LED Light Box to trace my design onto the Delta paper. (Disclosure: The nice folks at Cheap Joe's Art Stuff gave me this product to try.)

I like that it's flat and thin, so my hand doesn't hang over the edge of the light table when tracing. And it has different levels of illumination. It was easy to see through the heavy Stillman and Birn Delta paper to trace my lettering and border design.

I did my tracing with a pencil, then inked the lettering.

I thought it would be wise to complete the lettering first and proofread it very carefully before tracing the elaborate border. (Not that I've ever made a mistake on an important project, mind you!) The decorative border was drawn with a Sakura Pigma Micron 01 black pen.

Everything looked good...I was ready to begin painting. The vines came first, painted with mixtures of olive green, yellow ochre, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, and permanent alizarin.

Next, I began painting some of the small illustrations of things that Mary had told me were meaningful to Rita and Tim. First, a lucky penny. Mary hadn't stipulated that the penny be from a particular year, but I thought, "Why not use a significant date on the penny?" A quick email to Mary, and we decided to use the year Rita and Tim were married, 1998.

Calla lilies were important to the couple, so I decided to make them a prominent feature of the border.

Tim was a wine connoisseur, so I painted a bunch of grapes and trailing grape vines...

As a little surprise for Mary, I added a pair of mourning doves. Mourning doves are gentle birds who are faithful to each other and mate for life. I thought it was fitting to include them in the painting to represent Rita and Tim's devotion to each other.

Tim was a CPA, and I found the perfect way to reference that - a CPA symbol with intertwining Baroque-style letters.

He was also a very spiritual man, so Mary suggested we include this Christian symbol.

Tim was of Irish heritage, and he and Rita had enjoyed traveling to Ireland, so we wanted to include something Irish in the piece. Looking through books on Celtic design, I came across this corner motif - it was perfect! I debated long and hard about what color to paint it and finally decided to use pure Cobalt Blue. I thought it would lift the page a bit and keep it from becoming too heavy and serious.

The large initial capital A block was begun by painting the vines to match the border vines I had already painted.

Tim loved many different kinds of music, so Mary wanted me to include something in the memorial referencing that fact, but instead of doing something generic like musical notes or a treble clef, I thought it would be better to add some meaning to the musical motif. Since he was a fan of Chicago, Mary suggested I feature a portion of the chorus from "Feelin' Stronger Every Day".

Here's how the illuminated manuscript looked so far....

Tim loved his dogs, Jade and Charles, so we wanted to include them in the artwork. Even though the drawings of them were small, I wanted to be sure they were fairly accurate. (Each dog sketch was only about 1-1/4" high.) They had to be recognizable, after all!

Jade has a touch of golden brown on her paws and face, so I painted those areas first then added light- and mid-tone washes over both dogs.

Some dark brush strokes were added, and I called the pups done.

On to the finishing touches...

I ordered a set of Finetec gold watercolors from Paper and Ink Arts, so I could give my illuminated manuscript a look smiliar to the medieval ones with their gold leaf accents.

The hardest part about using this set was deciding which of the five gold tones to choose. (I picked the second from the left.)

The decorative elements on the right side of the painting were given gold borders...

then finished off with blue, yellow and red watercolor.

I painted the background of the Celtic corner motifs gold...

along with the large letter A. I added a few final touches to the border around the A...

then decided to add more fine-line flourishes of gold with a small round brush throughout the vining border designs on the manuscript.

It was finally finished! I couldn't wait to take the painting down the hill to Mary's house and show it to her. I sat her down, told her to take a deep breath, then revealed the illuminated manuscript in all its colorful glory. "Ohhhhhh....," she breathed. She looked at the painting, then at me, and there were no words that could convey what her eyes told me. It touched her. She loved it. And she couldn't wait to share it with Rita, knowing how much it would mean to her and what a comfort it would be to her every day.

Click to enlarge

As we talked about the painting, we marveled at how we had worked together to create this exceptional piece of art. I told her about my deliberations over what color to paint the Celtic corners. She looked at me and said quietly, "Leslie, that blue is the exact color of Tim's eyes." It still gives me chills to think about it. How did I know...?

I'm so thankful that my artwork can make a difference in someone's life, that by using this creative gift that God has given me, I can create something wonderful where there once was only the spark of an idea. I hope that this painting will bring light to Rita's life every day and remind her of Tim, who loved his life with her so very much.


  1. Wow! Wow! Wow! This is an incredible! I could look at it for hours! I am sure Rita will be blessed by this beautiful and sentimental piece. Well done Leslie! You should be proud of this masterpiece!

    1. Thanks so much, Annie. I received a thank you letter from her yesterday, and she said it means the world to her and that it makes her feel closer to Tim every day. Isn't that wonderful?

  2. The is spectacular! It is even more so for being only 9x12. I once did this style of work but never smaller than 16x20 for something this complicated. It is so beautiful and fitting, creating a wonderful memorial.

    Kate B
    (can't get the form to post).

    1. Thank you, Kate. I"m not sure I'd want to do these on a regular basis - there was so much work involved - but I'm so glad I took on this project. The end result was something I'm really happy with.

  3. This is a marvelous masterpiece and lovely tribute. Magnigicient!

  4. Leslie, this is magnificent! I hope you are very proud of what you've done, as a piece of art, a tribute to Tim, and an amazing gift for Rita for the rest of her life. It's truly incredible.

  5. Stunning Leslie!!

  6. This is gorgeous and thank you, so much, for generously sharing your process. It reminds us all of the beauty that can be achieved with patience and care in our art.

  7. Leslie- this is absolutely beautiful and so complicated to do well. There are so many pieces that have to come together well (not least of which is spelling everything right-- which you hint at, but I know too well how easy it is to miss). Thanks for sharing your process. I've done several pieces like this, but none so lengthy. All of the careful artwork you do (painting, borders, thoughtful pieces) really came together here. Bravo!

    1. Thank you, Jean. I was so worried that I would overlook a spelling mistake or ommission. Even at the very end I was afraid to read over the text again, terrified that I would finally see a glaring mistake. Luckily, I haven't noticed one (yet!)

  8. "Ohhhhhh....," took the words right out my mouth.

  9. What an incredible tribute to this man's life and a beautiful and inspirational source of comfort and encouragement to his wife!

    1. I think it is proving to be a comfort to her. She wrote me a wonderful thank you letter and said it makes her feel close to Tim when she looks at the piece. That makes me happy.

  10. Leslie - this is such an amazing tribute! I loved reading the details of your work, and about the story of this man. This is one of the most exquisite gifts I've ever seen. Truly magnificent!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind comments, Roxanne.

  11. "When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left and could say, I used everything You gave me.” ~ Erma Bombeck

    When I saw this illuminated manuscript and read through your post, this quote is the first thing that came to mind. I think you used everything you’ve been given in creating it. It’s breathtaking, Leslie. What a wonderful gift.

    1. Thank you so much, Susan. I did pour a lot of myself into this. It feels good to be proud and happy when you finish a very involved project, knowing that it will make a difference in someone's life.

  12. Beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  13. Gorgeous! What a wonderful tribute to a life well-lived. I'm blown away by your talent.

  14. Leslie, I am just in awe of the beauty of this and the planning that went into it. It is absolutely beautiful and hearing the story of how you created it just makes it that much more special. Thank you for showing us your process. Rita must have been touched beyond words.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed seeing the steps that went into this project. I always enjoy a peek behind-the-scenes, and I know my readers do, too. When I took this project on, I didn't realize how personal it would become, and how close I would feel to the people involved. It feels good to know that my efforts were appreciated by Rita, and that the painting is a comfort to her.

  15. I received a thank you letter from Rita the other day, and she said that my artwork makes her feel closer to Tim every day. That makes all the work worthwhile.

  16. Wow, this is glorious and amazing! What a wonderful tribute for your friend's family. I can only imagine how long this piece took to brainstorm and then complete.


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