Joan Cornish Willies Art In Miniature

Vellum as a Base for Miniatures
by Joan Cornish Willies

Any acid free smooth base can be used for the technique of the miniature, even a linen canvas, if it is well primed to a good smooth surface. In this section today we will discuss vellum.

Historically, miniature paintings, illuminated documents, and calligraphy were made on treated skins -- kidskin, lambskin, calfskin -- usually of young animals but also of abortive animal fetuses. The skin was durable and held the paint well, and there were no hair follicles to dimple the skin.

Early documents were held down and stitched together in book form, which kept the pages flat. Others were tightly rolled, also to keep the skins from wrinkling as they would if they became damp, for there was no regular cool air flow in ancient stone and wood built homes. Skin could wrinkle and curl when the miniatures, originally painted on pages, were removed from the safety of the book or roll. In order to be transported from place to place, they were mounted with rabbit skin glue onto playing cards and placed in a thin gold or silver circular frame under curved glass. The curve would protect the vulnerable watercolors, and the tight seal kept out the moisture. Playing cards date from mediaeval times, and at that time, they constituted practically the only use for cardboard. No one knows for sure when the paintings, if they were portraits, were cut from the documents and mounted on playing cards for the purpose of carrying. The collection amassed by J. Pierpont Morgan in the1920's contains one of the earliest known examples of a miniature cut from a document c.1100 and mounted onto a card. The firmness of these cards made excellent backs for the paintings. The skin was called vellum, and still is to this day.

Like the word veal, vellum is derived from the Latin vitulus (calf), and its diminutive vitellus. Thus, strictly speaking, vellum is made from the skin of a calf or abortive calf, although the skin of young or abortive goat (kidskin) or lamb (lambskin) is also sometimes referred to as vellum. There are several qualities of vellum, and the finest Kelmscott vellum was made from the skin of fetuses, as it was free of hair and imperfections. Nowadays, the fetuses used are products of natural abortions. The skin is dressed by experts in the field to the required smoothness to take ink, watercolor, and even oils. Although vellum is mostly used today by illuminators, miniaturists, and calligraphers, other vellums of lesser quality are also used for books, and the less fine ones for lampshades. In the 4th century scrolls were frequently made of papyrus, which was made from reeds, and a few of these have survived. But skin is extremely durable, so the skins of goats, sheep, and pig were also used to make parchment of varying quality, from fine to coarse, while the fetuses of calves were used to make the finest vellum. Hundreds of skins were used, and history books mention that if a village had too many animals when winter approached, some of these were slaughtered to bring the herd down to a number that would not require more than the fodder saved for the winter. Possibly the skins were used for parchment as well as clothes. The skins were prepared by scraping off the hairs, after which they were soaked with lime, then stretched, and finally dried. This was a major job, rendered perhaps easier by the use of hairless fetuses. The more scraping was done, the thinner and more flexible were the skins. Today, this job is done by specialists, and the skins are dressed as well with a special type of pumice powder which produces a fine smooth surface as in the case of Kelmscott. Although fine enough for the calligrapher, the lesser grades do show some flaws or fine lines. These are actually attractive for the background of a script, but are unsuitable for the smooth surface sought in miniature painting.

Before the Renaissance, Bibles and sacred books of prayers were copied by monks, who were often retainers of wealthy families, and worked in small rooms in monasteries. Some used brushes and some used the split end of a feather - incredible feats of penmanship were achieved on pages made of fine vellum. I learned some calligraphy only by using brushes, which were cut to sharp shapes. The illuminations were of the holy family, records and paintings of battles, and family honors such as those found on battle shields. These of necessity had to be extremely accurate and clearly detailed. Red lines and borders drew the attention of the reader to the painting, or to an important sentence. The red paint being called minium led to the word miniature, which descending through the ages came to signify the description of the highly detailed technique known as the discipline of the miniature. Hence, we see that the use of vellum, meaning young animal skin treated for use as a writing or painting surface, is an integral part of the history of illuminations, or decorated documents, that contained both calligraphy (fine writing by hand) and small detailed paintings or miniatures.

In 1455, with the introduction of the printing press, hand written books began to disappear but they continued in Europe until circa 1700. By this time however, the miniature had long been produced separately from the book, and the subject miniature (landscapes and genre paintings) took a back seat in favor of the portrait miniature, which featured a single important person, with or without a distant landscape behind the sitter. The concentration was then on the details of the clothes, jewelry, and the air of importance of the person depicted. The techniques became even more realistic, often three dimensional, with deep jewel colors often contained in a frame described as about the size of a man's hand. By 1700, vellum had given way to ivory. Watercolor was still mainly used as a medium, then gradually oil colors appeared, and although cheaper than ivory, vellum was less used. Originally cut in thick slabs, in England they found a way to cut ivory paper thin, which brought out the luminosity of the painting, and the use of ivory became all the rage. After the introduction of ivory, vellum was still used for fine books, marriage certificates and miniatures. Nowadays it is as expensive as ivory, but more readily obtainable due to ivory restrictions. Watercolor and gouache are the most popular mediums with which to paint a miniature on vellum. I tend to do an under painting on it with watercolor, then I over-paint with oils. Other artists have their own favorite methods.

When painting on vellum, particularly Kelmscott, the paint sinks in just a little, unlike with cold pressed paper. If using a fixative for watercolors, I would recommend testing on a spare bit of vellum. Delicately tint the under painting with a minimum of water. Under no circumstances should the vellum be wetted down as with the more modern loose watercolors, or the skin will buckle. A slightly wet wash, blotted immediately could be okay but test first, then use cross hatchings as with watercolors painted on a dry base. A gentle blotting with a slightly damp paper towel will soften the lines. Vellum will not tear when over-painted or lifted out as cold press does, but wetting it too much will cause it to curl and wrinkle. If this happens, nothing at all will bring it back!

It takes practice, and possibly instruction from a calligrapher or a watercolorist, to achieve a work on vellum, but when achieved it is extremely rewarding. However, it is expensive, particularly on Kelmscott, which is why I would recommend practicing with a professional. If you can find Marie Angel's book, Painting for Calligraphers (out of print but sometimes found on e-bay), it is a marvelous instruction book using watercolor on vellums among other bases. And it includes instructions for miniature paintings.


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