Tag Archives: Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache

A Scribe and Illuminator’s Workroom

IMG_3268Having just finished twenty-one new pieces for my forthcoming British Library book (this post is written in July 2023), I decided to re-cover my sloping board – something I do once about every 3-4 years, depending on how dirty it is. As it was so lovely and clean I felt that it might be interesting to show the board and the rest of my workroom. This is the view from the door, and although it looks big, it’s about 2 metres by 3·5 metres. However, don’t think that I’m complaining that it’s small! I know how very lucky I am to have a dedicated workroom when most people have to share their working space within another room, as I did for very many years. My chair in front of the board is padded with two flat cushions and stools are to hand on the right to put completed work or a computer, or texts just written. Note also how close my chair is to the sink on the left.

IMG_3297So, the room tour. Directly to the left of the door are large cardboard tubes. Most of these are from vellum skins sent from William Cowley, but the large one at the back right is from work I did for the Damian Hirst ‘s exhibition held in Venice – ‘Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable’. To the immediate left are red tubes of tracing paper for large projects. The tubes are useful not only for storing large sheets of paper but also for sending large artworks to those who have commissioned pieces. Now, however, I work mostly on vellum, and so large pieces are stretched over board requiring a different delivery system, and so these tubes are a bit redundant, somehow, though, I can’t bring myself to throw them away!

IMG_3296On the work surface to the right of the tubes are swans’ and Canadian goose feathers ready to be cut into quills. It may look like quite a lot for one scribe but most are waiting for workshops I teach on ‘Quills and Calligraphy’. I also don’t cure feathers with heat – sand or a Dutching tool and an iron. I find that feathers cure themselves by just being left to dry naturally as I’m sure happened in mediæval and Renaissance times. It was only with the rise of literacy and growth of empires and the need for records that more and more pens were needed and the curing process had to be speeded up that heat was needed.


IMG_3270Above that are cupboards of books and supplies. This is the first cupboard. At the bottom left is a small folder bursting with papers. These are quotations, poems and prose that I’ve collected over many years and which I write out to give to friends or for my own use. Occasionally someone will ask me if I’ve got something suitable for an occasion and it may be in here or in one of the books to the right which focus on important stages in life – birth, marriage and death mainly. Above that are various books by other calligraphers – it’s always useful to see what the competition is up to. And above that books on Latin, Chaucer, and various reference books to use in my work.


IMG_3298Under that cupboard is a new piece on vellum waiting to be sent to the person who commissioned it. I hope to be able to do a blogpost about this in the future as it was a really interesting artwork to do. Behind that is a strip of lead to be made into lead points to show to classes and for them to use. And at the back, to the right is oak gall ink getting nicely black. Oh and more books!


IMG_3300Below that, all along the work surface are even more books! Book shelves in the house are completely full, so are the cupboards here. I also have my own books here which I also use for reference – not everything stays in mind and so it’s helpful to look things up. In front of the books is a new box of Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache to use in photographs for the new book. They really are the best paints to use for writing and for painting. There’s more about them and mixing colours from the two reds, two blues, and two yellows here.

IMG_3292There’s a small sink just behind where I sit, completely reachable by simply swivelling round in my seat. I cleaned it up specially for this photo! It’s usually covered with ink and colour and not a pretty sight. To the right of the sink is a pot with old toothbrushes in it ready to brush the nibs clean. To the side and behind the sink are clean little jars up-ended and ready to fill with water for washing brushes when painting or to add to gouache to dilute it for writing and painting. It isn’t shown here but the tap is this side of the sink just to the left again for ease of use.


IMG_3272On to the window sill there’s clean paper towels for wiping nibs and reservoirs dry so they don’t rust, and tubes of Schmincke gouache ready to use. There are too many tubes to store neatly but I know where each tube is in that pile and usually just need to reach my hand out to grab the one I want.



IMG_3288Further along the window sill is a pot of quills already cut just waiting to be used. The nibs of all of these will have separated into two halves. This is not a disaster! The strength of a feather is when it is complete, cutting into it weakens it. However, popping the quill into a jar of water for an hour or so brings the two tines together ready for use and doesn’t soften the nib.




IMG_3275Below the window sill and just to the left of the seat is a trolley of already mixed (but now dried) small palettes and crucibles of paint, jars of black ink, and ink droppers to add water to paint (never use a brush dipped in clean water as the quantity can’t be controlled). Good quality gouache will last in this dry state with water added when it needs to be used. At the front right are pen holders, the green one in the shape of a dragon, and an Arkansas stone to sharpen nibs. As a right-hander, everything is to my left so that I can easily fill pens with ink and paint with my left hand, and then not take a fully charged pen over where I’ve just written. I did think to clean this up a little before this post, but it’s how I work and so I left it!

IMG_3276Then, proud moment here, my clean new board. This is flat whereas it would usually be at a slope of about 45°. It’s a large board with its own stand with a sloping rule, ideal for drawing the many lines calligraphers need to do. A pad of white paper completely covers the board, and then a fold of paper (fold at the top) goes right across bottom part of the board held at a slight tension, so that the writing paper can go to the right and left, and up and down, and doesn’t slip. The writing paper or vellum isn’t attached anywhere because it needs to be at a comfortable writing level which is usually when the hand is about the same level as the shoulder. The shadow is a large light fitted with daylight bulbs so it gives the truest light. The window, which is another source of light, is of course, for a right-hander on my left so that my hand doesn’t create a shadow where I’m writing and painting.

IMG_3299To the right of the board are all the tools I need for painting and writing. At the back on the left is a long metal straight edge for cutting paper and skin of large pieces, and to the left, in the front, are erasers in a little muller, behind that a tiny jar of pounce, and behind that little bags of sandarac in a shallow pot. Magic tape, used pretty much all the time to attach lines on roughs and best pieces is to the left of a hygrometer which indicates the humidity for illumination. And behind that are scissors, dividers, pens, brushes, paste and wash brushes etc. To the right of the storage pots are large knives for cutting vellum.



IMG_3284 2At the back of the table to the right is a plastic folder which holds set squares. One side of all of these has a metal edge for cutting (don’t cut using a set square without a metal edge as the knife is bound to cut into the plastic and ruin the straight edge). It is easy to stand up from my board and simply reach over for these. In front of them is a magnifying glass on its own stand for working on tiny paintings.


IMG_3285All sit on a variety of sizes of cutting mats. Of course, everything has to be moved off if I want to use the larger one, so I must admit that I usually use the medium sized one and just slide the paper/skin along. This isn’t the best or most efficient and it really would be more sensible simply to move stuff off!



IMG_3286 2A relatively new addition, recommended by my son-in-law who is an excellent photographer, is this flat table and two powerful lights (not the the Anglepoise to the right which has a different purpose) to take good quality photographs of my work, and the camera I use (far too old but I don’t know what new one to get – I’m far from an expert!) is at the back. On the table is a card with gesso at various mixes, and an experiment of shell gold on vellum written with a quill just to make sure that the treatment I was going to give for the actual skin produced the best result.



IMG_3287 2The last of the ‘tour’ are rolls of vellum (and one of paper to the left). It is better to take the relatively tightly rolled skins out of the tube they are sent in so that the roll is much looser; this then makes it easier to cut large and small pieces from the skin. In front of the rolls are smaller pieces of vellum in a clear plastic folder, some far too small to use but somehow I think they may be handy for something. I used to make vellum size from them for making gesso but now I use fish glue (Seccotine). This is a bit of a dark corner so the Anglepoise lamp is there to add light when selecting the skins.



IMG_3283And a last tantalising look at how the sloping board is at the moment (July 2023). These are the twenty-one new pieces of artwork with stage-by-stage of how they were done for the ‘Art of the Scribe’ book to be published Spring 2024 by the British Library. It is an information book about seven selected writing styles – the ones most commonly used by calligraphers –and also a practical section for each script of three graded pieces with detailed instructions on how to do them. You’ll have to wait until the book is published to see what’s in those folders!

The Wait

Cricket poem.PL 2020All those who love sport have been frustrated at either not being able to play it, or not being able to watch it, or both, during the spring and summer of this Covid-19 pandemic. Jimmy Lee from the England and Wales Cricket Board wrote a really poignant poem about this waiting, and the fact that in cricket this is what often happens. But, as he says, waiting isn’t time wasted, and we are a nation that queues. His words are really well chosen and they were read out by Stephen Fry in a wonderful film about the ways in which those who love this sport are just waiting for the game to begin, but that they are also contributing and helping those who are NHS and other Heroes on the front line during these challenging times. Watch the film here and have tissues ready!


CIMG3185So as some of you who are now familiar with how to tackle any text, poetry or prose will know, the first thing to do was to write it out. This artwork was to go on the wall so it couldn’t be written too small. And with quite a few lines too, there needed to be adequate space between them so that it was easy to read. I used my favourite green paint at the moment (Schmincke oxide of chromium – it really is wonderfully smooth for writing – mix with water to the consistency of thin, runny cream as always!) and a size 4 Mitchell/Manuscript nib and wrote the lines straight out just as they were.

CIMG3192I then photocopied this and cut the lines into strips to experiment with the best distance between lines. I also wanted to break up some of the lines and emphasise others by writing some of the text in small capitals. So I laid the lines out on to paper and played around with them a little and attached them with magic tape. I had the idea of writing out the title with a lot of space between the letters so that the letters themselves looked as if they were waiting, and when I’d done that I thought that red circles between the letters (a bit larger than just dots) could look as if they represented cricket balls.



Version 2I also wanted to add an illustration of a cricket bat resting on the stumps waiting – my first sketch in pencil is on the rough of the lines above. I searched for a long time to get an image of a bat at the right angle looking as if it could balance on stumps, and stumps too at the best angle, and made a number of drawings with the bat in different positions and the ball in various places. In the end I had what I thought looked best. The crease of the cricket pitch is usually cut very short, but all cricket lovers were waiting, and so I painted the grass longer than it would be in most matches. I also found an image of a bat with a red and black handle and this added a little bit of red to that part of the painting, thus slightly linking it to the red cricket balls in the title and the one by the stumps.

Cricket poem.PL 2020And so the piece was complete. It is so satisfying to write out words that have real meaning and to have a challenge in painting cricket stumps, bat and ball with an aim to get the proportions right and for them to fit in the best way.


‘…With Wakened Hands …’

Layout 1I really like this quotation from D H Lawrence, although I do wish that he hadn’t excluded women – many of whom have wakened hands just like men! However, these were the times and the words resonated so much with me that I wanted to write them out.






CIMG3183As usual, I wrote out the words just as they were and, for the last few months, I’ve been writing quite small, so I cut a swan’s quill to the equivalent of a size 5 Mitchell nib. I knew that I wanted to pop in a couple of flourishes on the top line so introduced these as I was writing the words. Having written the words out in the same script, I then read it through again to consider which phrases had particular meaning for me and wrote them out in small dancing capitals. One of the great things about being a calligrapher is that we all react to words differently, so what I choose to emphasise may not be the same as the next person. For some reason, although I love ‘with wakened hands’ I missed out the ‘with’ in the first write through and then the whole phrase in the second version! What was it about wakened hands that weren’t going through my brain?

CIMG3149I then photocopied the page and cut the text into strips for each line, breaking the text where it fitted my proposed design and allowing for the sense and flow of the words. The advantage of doing this is that when writing things out in rough usually I am much more relaxed and it doesn’t matter if I make a mistake as I can just write in the word or phrase again as can be seen; this means that the text isn’t tight and cramped as it may be when first writing on the prepared surface and on lines carefully measured and drawn. I marked the mid point of each line and placed them in order on a white piece of paper at about the best distance between the lines. I also numbered the lines (very important to ensure that the lines don’t get mixed up!).

I then used two L-shaped pieces of card and slid them up and down and in and out to set the margins of the piece which meant that I could cut a piece of vellum to this size and then prepared it for writing. I used a set of compasses to measure out the distance between the lines with pin pricks, and then ruled horizontal guidelines and also a vertical line indicating the centre.

CIMG3159I loved the green colour of oxide of chromium so I mixed up this Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache to the consistency of thin, runny cream and used a piece of magic tape that I’d taken some of the ‘tack’ off by pressing it again and again on my finger to attach the photocopied strip of the first line above where I was to write, lining up the centre point. Having the text just above where I was to write meant that it was much simpler to ensure that the words were spelled correctly and written in the right place so that the lines were centred.

CIMG3161So the text was written and now for the painting.







CIMG3166I really enjoyed painting squirrels on a recent piece so I decided to paint some more. Previously I had painted squirrels on grass. This time I thought I’d paint them in autumn on a bed of leaves, so I looked up images of red squirrels online and chose three in different poses for the top. I used a 000 Kolinsky sable brush (I prefer da Vinci brushes from Cornelissen and Son in London as they are such good quality) with watercolour and a strong magnifying glass – they were only about 10 mm tall! For the bed of leaves I used dilute light red and ochre to paint a wash, and then a darker brown to paint the leaves themselves – half of it is done in this enlargement.

Layout 1At the bottom, I decided to use different images of squirrels on a dead tree trunk including a baby. I am on a campaign to get calligraphers to ensure that their work can be identified in the future by putting their names or their known cipher on their work. Here I wrote my name as small as I could in the same red colour underneath the leaves. And now the piece was finished!



No roses for Christmas

Layout 1Each year I try to find something a little different for our Christmas card, and the Shakespeare quotation of ‘At Christmas I no more desire a rose Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth; But like of each thing that in season grows’, from Love’s Labours Lost, seemed rather apt. I so enjoyed writing and painting the card I did a couple of years ago where I used the words of the first verse of the ‘Holly and the Ivy’ carol, writing round an oval and then painting holly and ivy in the centre as here, that I thought I’d do something similar again.



IMG_3471I sketched an oval and made a first attempt to see if the words fitted. Interestingly, the number of letters was about the same as the Holly and Ivy card so I knew it had to work. As before, I wanted the first line to go across the top of the oval rather than starting at the top middle. The first attempt here almost worked, but I started too high up on the left hand side, which meant that it didn’t balance on the right. I tried once more and finally I had it about right.




IMG_3419So I prepared the vellum, sketched on an oval, and got ready to write. I do wish that I could just keep things simple – but no! Writing in a circle, spiral or in an oval shape is always a challenge. The substrate has to be continually turned so that the letters are upright compared to the baseline and it’s very difficult to develop any rhythm and flow. And now I’m thinking, bearing in mind all of the above, why did I decide to write in not one, not two, but three colours? I thought the lettering would look good in oxide of chromium green (a really lovely colour to write with – the Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache version is so smooth), madder red and vermilion but this additional challenge was one whereby each individual stroke had to be considered in terms of the colour that was used before, and the colours were changed even in single strokes. I held the brushes apart in my left hand and simply stroked the quill nib gently on the paint to pick up the smallest amount of appropriate colour before writing.

IMG_3420But it was so lovely writing on vellum that even these challenges couldn’t put me off! Yet again authors don’t always consider calligraphers! Why didn’t Shakespeare know that at some point a few hundred years later I would want to flourish his words when written round an oval? Fortunately the two stretches of words without ascenders from ‘wish’ to ‘fangled’ on the right, and from ‘that’ to ‘Christmas’ on the left, fell sort of evenly either side of the oval, so there weren’t loads of extended strokes on one side and few on the other, and the two areas with no flourishes balanced out. Some of you may also notice that in concentrating on the writing and colours being fed into the pen I got a little short on space and so had to drop the ‘e’ from ‘fangl’d’. I reckoned that this was something that Shakespeare may well have done so didn’t feel too badly about it!

IMG_3463Then it was on to the rose painting. I had taken some photographs of the last roses of summer from our garden, and although it’s always better to paint from life, doing this in November meant that there were no decent roses left to paint! Here I’m two down and three to go. (The colours here are slightly different because I took this photograph in the evening under artificial light – I was working long hours on this!)




Layout 1And again the finished piece with the three colours blended in places in the text picked up by the different reds and greens in the paintings. The darker areas on the right are wear the unstretched vellum has dipped. It seemed to turn out reasonably well despite this.

Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache

CIMG2401It is often very confusing when starting out in calligraphy to be faced with bottles of different inks, some specifically for calligraphy, some for drawing and some for fountain pens. What’s best to use? To avoid any confusion I would strongly recommend paint rather than ink, and, in some cases, paint is actually far better than ink on challenging papers or when writing in books. So if using paint, then the only paint I would recommend is Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache. I know I’m a bit biased because I did work with Schmincke to develop the paints, but my payment ended there, and I now recommend them because they are really good!



******Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache special offer! L Cornelissen, main suppliers of Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache, have very kindly arranged a fantastic offer! THIS IS ONLY FOR SUBSCRIBERS TO MY NEWSLETTER, and if you are a new subscriber, it is expected that you are honourable and subscribe for at least a year and hopefully longer, rather than being dishonourable and subscribing to get the offer and then unsubscribing a month or so later (subscribe here) then the price of the set of 12 x 20 ml tubes in a wooden box with an explanatory leaflet is £75 instead of £140 +p+p. (The cost of p+p from Cornelissen for non-UK is very reasonable). If you would like to have this set, which will last most people a lifetime if they are calligraphers and/or painters of mediæval miniatures (ie don’t use a whole tube at one go!), then send me an email through my website and I’ll send you back your own personal code which you then use when you contact Cornelissen. You will also need to send me a screenshot of your subscription confirmation or the most recent newsletter.

***PLEASE NOTE: It is just me doing this, I’m not a business nor do I have administrative help or a PA, and dealing with every request for this offer takes time. There are occasions when I am really busy probably working on commissions, designing, teaching, preparing lectures and talks, writing articles for journals, writing and doing the artwork for my books, being the Secretariat for the All-Party Parliamentary Group, working on the Stanford Calligraphy Collection, answering and writing emails, and occasionally having a little bit of time to myself! There may therefore be, a delay in dealing with your request, and occasionally it may get lost in the quite considerable number of messages I receive!

Layout 1The colours chosen for the set are based on Michael Wilcox’s book, Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green, which is well worth reading if you’re not familiar with it. This means there are two reds, two blues and two yellows. In addition there is a green – oxide of chromium (which works particularly well with a pen), burnt Siena as the brown (mix it with ultramarine for a great grey), Jet black (a great black ink), permanent white, goldpearl and silver – both metallic pigments. All are particularly finely ground so pass well through a pen and also almost all have great coverage so pencil guidelines don’t show through (important for we calligraphers!)


IMG_1898For more information about the selection of colours and how to mix them, there is a special Calligraphy Clip here.





CIMG2423The tubes are a good size, and in calligraphy and painting miniatures, you don’t need much paint, so they will last a long time. Palettes for most paints are usually wide to allow for big brushes, this means the paint evaporates quite quickly, this is not what we want for calligraphy. I use small science crucibles for mixing paint as they have less surface area for evaporation. Squeeze about 1 cm (just under half-an-inch) of paint into the palette and then add water to the paint drip by drip. This is easiest done with an ink dropper (available at Cornelissen); if you add water from your brush, you don’t know how much liquid it is holding and so may add too much and then have to add more paint – and so it goes on!

CIMG2403The consistency of paint you want is that of thin, runny cream, so add sufficient water and mix up all the paint until that is achieved. If the paint is too thick then it won’t flow through the pen, and if too thin then it won’t cover pencil guidelines. The consistency is the same for painting mediæval miniatures.




CIMG2404Always add dark colours to light as you will need less pigment. It takes a lot of a light colour to make a difference to a dark colour, but only a touch of a dark colour to change a light colour. See my Calligraphy Clip about this paint to find out an easy way to reproduce mixed colours. It is important to mix up all the paint before using it. On the right there is clearly some red still unmixed and this could change the colour in the pen when using.



CIMG2402I never wash up palettes or throw paint away. Using crucibles, I simply pop on the lid and leave them. When I want to use that colour again, I add water drop by drop until the paint has softened and then use a brush to gently stir and add more drops of water with the ink dropper to mix to the consistency of thin, runny cream.





CIMG2424The same applies with paint palettes; I don’t wash them either, and, as they’re used by students on my courses, they often have quite a mix of paints on them. I love these porcelain palettes with many tiny wells which are ideal for the small amounts of pigment used for miniature painting. They also come with a lid which provides another surface for mixing, but you do have to let the paint on the lid dry before putting it over the welled part of the palette. I forgot this once – oops!.

Layout 1So to mix good colours using the Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache set, use those which have a tendency towards one another. So for a good orange choose a red which has a bit of yellow in it – vermilion – with a yellow that has a bit of red in it – cadmium yellow. To get a less pure orange, here I mixed cadmium with madder. Madder has a bit of blue in it, so works well with ultramarine, which has a bit of red in it to make a good purple (better than the colour shown on the right!). A less pure purple is made by mixing madder with Paris blue. Paris blue has a bit of yellow in it so makes a great green if mixed with lemon yellow which has a bit of blue in it. A less good green is made by mixing Paris blue and cadmium yellow. Oxide of chromium is a bit of a dull green so add other colours to liven it up. And burnt Siena and ultramarine make a grey with great depth – you’ll never use just black and white again once you’ve mixed this!

The metallic gouaches do need a bit of practice, and I show how to use them both on my DVD – Illumination – and also in my book Illumination – Gold and Colour. Order here.

IMG_2466The Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache set comes with a useful two-sided leaflet which explains more about mixing paints and also has some ideas for using the paints too.

Calligraphy and Ashes

CIMG2373Occasionally, it is so pleasing to abandon guidelines, formal letter construction, working out differences in size and script for design, incorporating illustration with lettering, and simply take a pen ‘for a walk’. I do this now and again after I’ve had a period of formal writing, as in the last few months. I had a golden opportunity as I was given a copy of a poem about the Test Matches between England and the Australians. It wasn’t the best poetry I’ve ever seen, but it did encapsulate the spirit of winning and the rivalry between these two teams. I haven’t been able to find the name of the poet, so if anyone does know, please contact me and I can acknowledge them and ensure they are happy with me posting this.


CIMG2362I knew that I didn’t want the piece to be huge, and the poem had a number of lines, so I chose a size 5 nib. I prefer to write on good quality paper even for roughs, and I have a stack of old certificates I had printed for a defunct award so I am using up the backs of those, a lovely Saunders Waterford 350 gsm HP paper. With the typed poem in front of me, I then simply wrote in free Italic Capitals. Here and there words that had some meaning were written in San Vito/Renaissance Capitals for emphasis, such as the first word, ‘Honours’ in the third line, a ‘dot ball’ (apparently a ball that results in no runs, as it is recorded in the score book), and so on. It always takes some time for your hand to become comfortable with any script and to ease yourself in at the start of a writing session, and this happened on the top line here. You can see that I made a horizontal pen fine dash at the end of that line to remind me to allow a bit more space when writing it out properly. The sixth line seemed to be getting rather long, so I decided I was going to split it (scribe’s licence!), hence the crossing out of ‘atmosphere’. I wrote the last four lines in the same pen nib, but realised as I looked at it that it was too large and blocky, so then used a size 6 nib which gives a better contrast.

CIMG2363The next stage in the way I work is to cut up the lines into strips, as on the right, and I just placed them on another piece of paper. At this point, I can adjust the spacing, cut out any mistakes, stick in any re-written words or phrases etc. In pencil I wrote the number of each line in sequence so as not to get them confused, and also the size of nib I used. (5 on the top line, and 6 on the bottom section). It was beginning to come together. I also needed to turn the section in small writing at the bottom the right way up!




CIMG2366I didn’t want a centred piece as with that, often the eye is taken more with the shape of the outline of the lines of text than the words themselves. So I adjusted the lines here and there, and made sure as much as I could (and it’s not always easy with short lines!) that there weren’t any diagonals of three or more beginnings or ends of lines. If there are, the eye is often ‘led’ off the paper and not on to the next line. As well as this, of course, the lines had to have a spine, all the lines had to overlap in the centre – the piece falls apart with lines flying off the edges of the main text. To ensure that the piece was balanced, I used a plastic ruler placed vertically, stood back, closed one eye and slightly blurred the other to see if there was about the same amount of text on the left-hand side of the ruler as there was on the right. Lines were then adjusted accordingly.

CIMG2370I marked the position of the ruler and then drew a vertical line down through all the lines – this would be the centre as I had worked out. I also used two L-shaped pieces of card to create a central rectangle, and slid them one way and another to determine the margins of the piece, The lines were then gathered up in order and placed on the sliding rule on my drawing board, line 1 on the top.





CIMG2371I chose a piece of hand-made Khadi paper which I’d had for many years. It has a good, smooth HP surface with strands of green water algae which I thought would tie in well with the green of a cricket pitch. I mixed up some oxide of chromium Schmincke Calligraphy gouache – it is a wonderfully smooth paint to use with a pen, and one of my favourites. I drew a faint pencil central line on the Khadi paper and was almost ready to write. To avoid mistakes, which are so very easy in calligraphy, I attach each line just above where I’m to write. This helps with spacing, spelling, letter formation and so on. So, taking some of the stickiness off a couple of small pieces of magic tape to avoid lifting the soft paper surface, I lined up the vertical pencil line on the Khadi paper with that on the strip of paper and pressed the sticky tape down gently. I used the horizontal edge of the guard sheet on my board as a guideline as there were no ruled horizontal pencil lines, and started to write. The paper absorbed the ink well and I didn’t have to wait long for each line to dry, but I have, with some papers, had a hair dryer in my lap to dry the paint as I go. As each line is written, I checked it, and then dried the ink with the hairdryer!

CIMG2373Finally the piece was written, the lines reasonably straight within the ‘free’ feeling of the piece and the words of the poem, and I then needed to remove all traces of the vertical pencil line. I left the piece for half a day to ensure the paint was completely dry, and then, rather than just scrub at the vertical pencil line with an eraser, I very gently ‘rolled’ it on the pencil line, being very careful near the paint.

The piece of paper wasn’t hand-made exactly to the exact size and shape of the final piece, as on the right. The only ‘real’ deckle edge was on the left. So with clean water and a brush, I ran a line of water along the final dimensions of the piece, each edge at a time, allowed the water to soak in for a minute or two, and then gently pulled the two sides of the paper apart, which left a ragged edge of paper fibres. While it was damp, I pushed my thumb against the paper edge to make it ‘clump’ a bit, similar to the left-hand deckle edge. And then the piece was finished, ready to wrap in tissue paper and be given to the recipient.



A very special Book of Remembrance

Book of RemembranceI am often asked, when I’m talking to arts, general interest and history groups, what project or commission I have done which has meant the most to me. Without a doubt it’s the Books of Remembrance for Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. This year I have been associated with this for over 25 years, and there are more than 3,200 names written in what are now four volumes.



I was fortunate enough to have been involved from the very beginning such that when I was asked where to buy books of remembrance, I was able to say that the best place to start was with the paper, and then get it bound, and fortunately this is what happened. It makes setting up the book such as drawing the lines so much more straightforward and it is much quicker to work initially on flat pieces of paper.

Important decisions were taken early on in the planning. Rather than a list of names, the book was to be a ‘day’ book, whereby each day would be on display consecutively, showing those children who had died on that date. This meant that there were to be 366 pages at least for the days, plus prelims and pages at the end, including the colophon.

Most books of remembrance are written in black, red with sometimes a touch of gold. This seemed too cold and harsh for children, and we decided early on that green would be the best colour to use; it suggests youth and, indeed, life. Oxide of chromium calligraphy gouache is one of the best colours to write with and it is a fresh and light colour, yet with good coverage, and this is the colour I chose to use. It is from the Schmincke Calligraphy Gouache set of paints that I developed, and so is particularly finely ground to pass easily through the pen.

Another decision that was made before any pencil had been put to paper, was how the record of the children’s lives should be written. We had much discussion about the dates – 1st January 2014 – 3rd March 2014, or 1 January 2014 to 3 March 2014, or 1.1.2014, or 1.1.14 etc etc. The night before the final meeting and sign off I realised that these forms of dates were appropriate for monarchs and politicians, but were just not right for children. For children we think of their age, not their dates. So the ages are written in specifically – until 2 weeks the age is recorded as the number of days, from 2 weeks to 2 months in weeks, from 2 months to 2 years in months and after that in years.

a pageI made quite a few trials on how the pages should be set out, avoiding anything over fussy and elaborate. Again for the children we didn’t want a tightly spaced list. For a number of children, their short lives are full of drips, bandages, injections, and general intrusion; at least in death, we felt, there should be some space for their names. The book is large, and when open is about the size of a small coffee table. There are only 14 names of children, with their ages, on each two-page opening spread, 7 on each page.



January flowers

As the book was to be open each day for that date, I realised that, initially, there would be many pages with nothing on them apart from the date at the top. I suggested that I paint a little flower picture on the left-hand page for a bit of visual interest. I chose what were generally British flowers appropriate for each month of the year, but I did also add a personal touch here, in that they were flowers that I enjoyed drawing. Calligraphy and illustration on the same page can be a problem – which should be more important? In this book it certainly was the children’s names, so a full colour, detailed painting would have detracted from these. After much experimentation I decided on something simple and compatible with the design of the book. I outlined the design with a fine dark green line, and used two colours of dilute watercolour to paint only some of the flowers and leaves, leaving others uncoloured; similar to the children’s lives – they are finished but not complete.

I had the choice of paper, and so chose a favourite Arches which is quite robust, not too thick but also not too expensive. I experimented with pen nib size on the paper I was to use. Some names are very short – Sam Dun, for example, other children may have five or even six long names. How to give prominence to Sam, yet not have to squeeze the multiple names so much so that they would be almost illegible. I also decided to make the age and the year smaller, so that the names were prominent.

Then it was the time to start. I set out a template so that I could rule lines across the opening spread of both pages – wider guidelines for the names and narrower ones for the ages; I also needed guidelines for the beginning and endings of the columns. Just ruling the lines took well over a week of long days. Simply folding the paper to make the pages of the book took over a day.

I added some red and a bit of blue to darken the oxide of chromium green for the dates to head each paper. Again this was not straightforward. What size nib, and thus size of writing, would be best to use to allow for large lettering that will cope with both December twentysecond to be written along one line (not two) and yet May first would not be lost?

I lost count of how long each little flower drawing took – all 366 of them – but this was a labour of love, not one where I was totting up the hours.

bound bookWhat I did realise fairly soon, having all these pages stacked up in a huge pile, was that one book would be far too unwieldy, and asked the hospital if they could stretch to having two books bound by designer bookbinder Jen Lindsay. In fact, although not planned, this resulted in a great positive in that one book could be on display while the other volume was then available for the names to be written in. Jen did a great job of binding the books in a matching green leather, and made two book boxes which keep the volumes protected and safe when being stored.

ready to startThe names are written in at least twice a year, and we are now into volumes 3 and 4 because some of the pages in the original books are full. For those of you who are calligraphers, the names are written in a pen nib size of 3·5, and the ages in the line underneath in the smaller nib size of 4. I am now on my second sets of nibs after 3,200 names. Before I begin writing in the names I set everything out on a stool as on the right. A well-used kitchen towel protects the stool top, and on this a Chinese jade (coincidentally also green!) pen rest has dips for the two pen nib sizes and a paint brush for mixing the paint. I use a small scientific crucible for the paint, and this has a little lid to pop on top to protect the gouache when I need a break. A small jam jar of water is available for washing the pen nibs frequently, as well as a jar of fresh water and an ink dropper to add water to the paint when it gets a bit sticky. Then, just in case, another jar of clean water, a fine brush, and an electric eraser for the times when I make a mistake. I also always sharpen the nibs before writing; this ensures that the letter-strokes are clean and crisp.

day lily © patricia lovett 2014But all these are the nuts and bolts of what is certainly not a nuts and bolts job. First, it has been absolutely crucial to have a marvellous team at the hospital, especially Kathy Ramsay and Senior Chaplain Jim Linthicum who collate the names and ages, check, check and check again (and some of the names do need a huge amount of checking with combinations of consonants that are very difficult to pronounce), and contact the parents at what must always be a very difficult time to ensure that everything is correct. However, even more than this, it is about the children. Many of us have never been through the incomprehensible and devastating experience of losing a child. When I am writing out the children’s names I think about each and every one – their names and then their ages – those that are only a day or so old; the bigger babies who may be sitting up or even starting to walk; the toddlers talking away and such a cause of enjoyment; children who may have just started school and then growing up, and the teenagers, and even the few in their twenties; all are someone’s child, and the loss must be impossible to bear.
Ben Jonson's poemRecording their names in these wonderful books means that, no matter how short their lives, each child is remembered and is not forgotten. What has always impressed me about Great Ormond Street as well is that the sense that I get from them is the joy and delight of children while they are with us and how valuable that is. The verse of Ben Jonson’s poem, written at the beginning of the first volume (right), does seem to sum it up, and the illustration of a day lily (above) is on the front of the card that was sent to parents.