I was asked to write out this poem for a special birthday present, and was delighted when the budget stretched to calfskin manuscript vellum, and real gold leaf on gesso base. As soon as I read the words, I had an idea of the shape and feel of the design. The poem talks at the end about the kite taking off, itself alone, and so I saw the kite flying free through the piece as the wind took it. To do this, and to create that feeling of the flight through the air, the piece just had to be long and narrow, there was no question of any other shape.
I experimented with various sizes of lettering – the lines are quite long and there are six verses, so it couldn’t be too large. On the other hand, pieces that are hung on the wall, as this was intended to do, need to have larger lettering than that in books, for example, which are held in the hand, as people read further away from a wall-hung piece. I wrote the verses out fairly quickly on to Layout paper (for types of calligraphy paper, see Calligraphy Clips – Paper), and then cut these up into strips and placed them either side of a quickly drawn kite. The piece didn’t hang together, though, and rather than unite the verses, the tail of the kite seemed to separate them.
So I changed the design a bit and pulled the verses together. I did have an idea of the size of pen to use for the lettering, and maintained that thought of the verses being slightly offset, and so wrote out the first more formal rough on to proper paper. Layout paper is fine for first trials, but it doesn’t always give the real feel of how long the lines will be, what the final spaacing will be, and so on, so after experimenting I do then prefer to use a good quality piece of paper. As someone once said, paper is no use if it’s stored under the bed or in a drawer; it needs to be used!
So I was pretty sure about the dimensions from this writing out, what shape the kite should be, and how the tail would fall in the piece. I used two large, wide L-shaped pieces of card, placed carefully to make a rectangle, to determine the margins, and then cut the vellum such that it could be stretched round a piece of wood. For more information about vellum, why it needs to be stretched, and how to do the stretching see my Illumination DVD. It stretched beautifully flat and I then set to marking out the skin using a compasses and a 4H pencil (again see Calligraphy Clips for Measuring Lines). I mixed up Paris Blue and Madder Red Calligraphy gouache (again Calligraphy Clips – Ink and paint) and fed this into the nib as I wrote. When there is illumination well away from lettering, it is usual to do the writing first, as in this case. The centre line was marked on the skin and, taking a deep breath, I drew on the tail of the kite freehand.
The illumination and decoration was next. I mixed up some new gesso and laid it with a quill. I turned the piece upside down for ease of working and so that laying the gesso would be away from the area of writing, although my paper guard did slip a little as you can see here. The gesso is still wet and glistens in the light. It is also possible to make out the markings of the hair follicles. And there is a better idea in this enlargement of the variegated colours of the red and blue gouache.
Again masking off the lettering, I then went to the lower part of the panel to concentrate on the briar hedge. This had been designed especially for this piece, and consisted of pink roses with gold centres and rose leaves with prickles on the leaves and the intertwining stems. Almost pure real gold leaf (23·5 carat) was placed over the dried, scraped and polished gesso. Raising the gold from the surface like this makes it shine and catch the light.
Once the gilding was done, the flowers and leaves were painted, as well as the kite and blue kite bows. The title and dedication was finally added, and then, the next day, the pencil lines removed with a soft eraser.