Occasionally, just very occasionally, a project somehow seems to work without a great deal of effort, and this is what happened with this piece. I was asked by Landlove, a UK lifestyle magazine, to have ‘a festive piece’ ready to be photographed for their Christmas 2016 issue, when they were running a six-page piece about me. This was at the end of September, and thoughts were not turning to Jingle Bells!
On a walk in the woods I saw some ivy trailing over a tree, and pulled a strand off, and a few steps away was a holly tree. This reminded me of the Christmas carol ‘The holly and the ivy’, and I thought that I could perhaps do something with this. I cut a few twigs of holly and took them and the ivy back to my workroom so that I could paint them.
I had the idea of a circular design, with the words going round in a circle and the greenery in the middle. I wrote out the words using a small nib (Mitchell size 5) and checked on the guidelines in one of my books – The British Library Companion to Calligraphy, Illumination and Heraldry (available from my website here) – on how to measure a circle to fit the text. I knew what to do but couldn’t find any compasses! So I found a stencil for ovals, and decided to change my design (such trivial reasons can change designs in this way!).
Not knowing how the words would fit I chose a size of oval that somehow looked about right, and started to write. The easiest way of dealing with the words would be to start at the top centre point of the oval, but I wanted the words in the first line to be obvious and sort of ‘straddle’ the top curve. Without really knowing where to place my pen, I started where I thought it was about right, and wrote around the line of the oval. Amazingly, the words fitted! I really couldn’t believe it, but there were some adjustments needed, with gaps where there shouldn’t be and a bit of bunching elsewhere. Also, the first line of the Christmas carol wasn’t placed evenly along the top curve and required a bit of tweaking. Using the holly and ivy that I’d brought home, I used a pencil to draw holly and ivy inside the oval, trying to create a balanced design.
I wrote it out again, starting a little further to the right for a better balance of the first line, but this time I ran out of space. I should have written it again, but didn’t have the time, so I knew that it was a deep breath and hope situation!
Usually the calligraphy should be completed first, as it’s easier to correct painting than it is lettering, but I had been doing a lot of calligraphy, and I wanted to do some painting for a change. I prepared the vellum skin and transferred the design using Armenian bole paper as carbon paper (see my Illumination book and DVD). I then reinforced the design with very dilute red gouache, and finally started painting. Once the design was in full colour, I realised that there was a bit of a gap on the bottom left, so I added in some more holly leaves to remedy this.
Then it came to the writing. Really I should have written this out again to ensure that the words would fit, but I was really pushed for time. I placed the vellum over the first effort, adjusting the starting point so that the first line would be balanced, and lightly traced through, tightening up the spacing where I thought it was a little loose. It seemed to fit, and I decided to just trust to luck and a following wind! I cut a quill to approximately the same nib size, mixed up Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache to make a dark green, and, with a deep breath, just went for it. I really couldn’t believe it when the words seemed to fit and looked even all the way round. I tidied up the lettering and the painting and then the piece was ready to be photographed by the magazine. I also had some cards printed to use for our Christmas greetings card this year – spoiler alert!