Not to be confused with paper products named “vellum”, vellum and parchment are natural support materials manufactured from calf, sheep, or goat skins.
This is the support material traditionally used in the manufacture of books in medieval Europe before paper become common. Today, this prized material has virtually disappeared. Severely limited manufacture and prohibitive costs affect quantity and quality. Yet the particular beauty of vellum remains unchallenged for traditional and modern manuscript work. All of my Fine Art Illuminated Manuscript work is produced on vellum.
The following information is an excerpt from my article on “Raised Gesso Gilding.” The complete text can be read at Natural Pigments.
A vellum skin contains two distinct surfaces: the hair side and the flesh side. The hair side refers to the outer surface of the skin, and presents the most beautiful working surface. The flesh side, although workable, is uneven and greasy. Selection of a skin is dependant on the nature and purpose of the work. Two-dimensional works require selecting only one appropriate surface of a single skin. Codex (or book) works requires the hair and flesh sides of several skins.
The limited supply of vellum becomes apparent when searching for matching surfaces. Compromises are necessary in order to balance codex requirements with vellum availability.
Preparation for the acceptance of gilding, painting, and calligraphy involves coaxing the surface to a soft, velvet-like finish. Skins arrive from the manufacturer with a hard, shiny surface attributed to modern production methods.
Three treatments satisfy normal requirements. First, sand the skin by hand to raise a nap or tooth on the surface. The skin should lie on a flat, smooth support, preferably a double- or triple-ply acid-free board. Wood surfaces displaying a distinct grain will imprint this pattern on the vellum. Sanding begins at the center of the skin, working with the grain. The grain will vary at the spine and body areas, and careful examination of the surface is necessary to locate each direction.
The second treatment addresses the natural greasiness of skins caused by incomplete fat removal at the manufacturing level. A light dusting of finely ground pounce will remove excess surface grease and inhibit the migration of inner oils.
The last treatment prepares skin areas reserved for calligraphy. Ground gum sandarac will expedite ink application and assist in the execution of crisp lettering. Excessive pounce and gum sandarac applications will interfere with the acceptance of ink, paint, or gesso. The optimum level of preparation depends on the condition, thickness, and purpose of the skin. A skin selected for painting and gilding might not require the same tooth as a skin used exclusively for calligraphy. Experience will determine the required surface for each medium.
Vellum is available in small pieces (4″ x 5″, 8″ x 10″, etc.) or full skins from John Neal Bookseller.