TUTORIAL: The Ancient Art of Letter Illumination

Letter Illumination Lead Image

The art of decorating capital letters can be traced all the way back to the 5th century. In ancient manuscripts, scribes would decorate the capital letters or “versals” for added emphasis, as well as for color and beauty. The decorating was also an outlet for the scribes unique creativity and you can discover all kinds of delightful creatures, plants and flowers entwined in and around the margins of their letters.

I love this artform because it combines some of the things I love most: letters, watercolor and design. Let me walk you through some basic steps I used in creating this design, and then hopefully you can personalize with your own letters and designs.

It’s good to start with graph paper because this art form really needs to be symmetrical to look right in the end. It doesn’t matter what size graph paper. I used what I had on hand – 1/8” grid. Even though it’s not a set ratio, I’ve chosen to enclose my letter in a rectangle, 2 x 2.5”:

You can see from this first picture, that I’ve drawn a 1/8” border and then sketched in my capital letter “T”, with a ½” wide stem. Then I have “candy-caned” the stem with 6 slightly curved diagonals that are going to eventually create a beautifully wrapped letter.

Letter Illumination Step 2

To create the illusion of the ribbon, I’ve combined the diagonals on the sides in sets of twos to create three ribbon wraps. It’s important to note that I’ve extended the sides of the ribbons just a tiny bit from the stem of the letter – just enough room to add the small shaded shapes that gives that illusion of wrapping around. See close up below:

Letter Illumination Step 3

Next it’s time to add in your own designs. In light of the fall season and upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, I’ve chosen to draw in a pumpkin and fall leaves. But you could fill yours with zentangles, your favorite flowers, or even leave it plain and fill later with a wash of colors.

Letter Illumination Step 4

Now it’s time to transfer the design to your journal page, or whatever paper you’ve chosen. I’m transferring mine to a piece of watercolor paper (Fabriano, 140 CP). There are a number of ways to transfer. You can use a light table, hold up against a window with good light, or use graphite. I’ve used the latter, covering the reverse side of my design with a good shading of graphite. Using the side of my pencil, I try to make sure the whole area has a good covering. Then, placing my original over my w/c paper I carefully trace over my lines. (Sometimes it helps to lightly tape in place while tracing).

Letter Illumination Step 5Now the fun begins. I used a 3/8” flat brush to paint quinacridone gold at the beginning and ending of each ribbon, making sure the mixture was heavily loaded with pigment. Quin gold has a beautiful range of values, able to create dark ochre -type golds all the way up to pale yellow, so it is good for painting ribbons reflecting light.

Without giving a lot of time for these initial paint strokes to dry, I added water to loosen up the pigment and release it across the ribbon, lifting out the pigment in the middle for highlight effects.

Letter Illumination Step 6At this stage you can continue to paint your images as desired. I used Aureolin Yellow as an under wash for both my pumpkin and leaves, then added orange to the pumpkin, and serpentine green/ and ultramarine blue to fill in the leaves. I used Naples Yellow with just a touch of Mayan Blue and Winsor Green for the background. The main body of the letter was painted in with a rich burnt sienna.

Letter Illumination FinalFinal touches : lifting out the burnt sienna pigment down the center of the letter stem for added depth, outlining the design with various widths of waterproof black ink pens, adding shadow with a soft grey marker (I use Tombow), adding diagonals for a rope effect around the 1/8”border, adding a light gold wash over the “roped” border, and tiny gold dots in the background with acrylic gold paint (I love Lascaux – Sunshine Gold). A tiny pencil shadow under the dots makes them pop. Lastly, I used a fine point white Posca pen to outline the “T”.

*Watercolors used are Daniel Smith

Recommended5 recommendationsPublished in Tutorials
11 Comments
  1. Anne Bonney 1 month ago

    I am fascinated by illuminated lettering. Thanks for the interesting tutorial.

  2. Mugdha 1 month ago

    Hello Ruth,

    Thank you so much for this simple-to-understand tutorial. The letter you’ve created is gorgeous!

    Love,
    Mugdha

  3. Zoie McIntyre 1 month ago

    Thank you so much Ruth – that was a wonderful tutorial!

  4. Sandra Strait 1 month ago

    What a fantastic tutorial! Thank you, Ruth!

  5. Brenda Sommerville 1 month ago

    Excellent tutorial!

  6. Mary Roff 1 month ago

    Very interesting! Thank you for sharing!

  7. Robert Coleman 1 month ago

    Back in the ’60’s, as a member of a Catholic religious community, I spent my free time doing illuminated manuscripts, with Speedball pen nibs and watercolors or acrylics. Receiving a copy of the Book of Kells made illumination quite inspiring, and amusing. The monks put a lot of strange little creatures in the margins, doing some odd things….
    However as a leftie, I had problems with the speedball pens and often saw the pen nib shoot little black spots of india ink as I pushed the pen to the right! The trick was to pencil in the letters and then letter them backwards so I was pulling the pen to the left, giving the letters an odd slant though….
    Felt tip wide nibs changed calligraphy for lefties allowing us to push the broad nib and make thin and wide strokes. however, hand and neck surgeries put me out of one of the most inspiring and satisfying endeavors.

  8. Robert Coleman 1 month ago

    Wait a minute, I meant this comment to be posted before the one I just sent! Ruth, I really enjoy your method and the colors you use (Daniel Smith!). So I went over to your website and signed up for a look at FLOURISH. I couldn’t log on to Instagram but I’ll look at your work there when I can log in. But I dropped in on your Facebook page and really enjoy your sketchbook work.

  9. April 1 month ago

    Thank you for the tutorial, Ruth. Very interesting and easy to understand! I’m going to have to try this out!

  10. Marisela Delgado 1 month ago

    Thank you for your tutorial. It’s so beautiful to see.

  11. Nellie Nellie 3 weeks ago

    I love the illuminators and illuminated manuscripts! I hope you get to see ‘The Secret of Kells,’ it’s such a gorgeous film. It inspired me to get back to art😏😌

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