If you have ever looked at images or have been lucky enough to examine old illuminated manuscripts, you have probably noticed the beauty and range of decorated initials – a simple painted letter, letters with intertwining white vines, acanthus leaves or geometric patterns, and inhabitied or historiated initials.
Although initials can become quite complex with many painted or drawn details, a simple painted initial is a good starting point to add focus, color and interest to a calligraphy project.
One style of initial that is easy to paint is the “puzzle” initial – an interlocking two-color design – usually red and blue in manuscripts although any two well-selected colors can be used effectively.
An excellent resource on manuscripts including detailed images is at the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. Enter “initial” or “puzzle initial” in the search box to see an amazing selection of painted and drawn initials.
Painting a “Puzzle” Initial
This demonstration will use the word “Alphabet” combining a painted initial “A” (sometimes referred to as a Lombardic style based on Uncials) with a simple puzzle design and lettering in calligraphy.
What you need:
- initial letter – you can print out the sample below or draw your own
- small round paint brush (#1, #0)
- gouache paint (red and blue)
- mixing palette
- watercolor paper or paper suitable for water-based media
- bowl of clean water
- scrap paper
- dip pen, nib and ink if you want to add lettering
- soft brush for brushing away eraser crumbs
- 3M Scotch Magic Removable Tape
- magnifying glass
Use your ruler and pencil to draw a horizontal line lightly on your paper. Print out or draw an initial “A” similar to the sample.
Cut out your initial, flip it over and cover the letter areas with graphite using the pencil.
Turn the letter over and line up the base with the horizontal line on your paper. Tack the top and bottom of the initial with removable tape. Trace over the outlines with a pencil to transfer the design onto the paper.
Remove the paper, and if necessary, lightly reinforce the lines so they are visible.
This is the point where we would complete any lettering with ink before continuing – in this demonstration, we’ll be adding the rest of the letters. More information on the order of executing lettering, painting and gilding can be found at the Calligraphy: Avoiding Mistakes post.
Letter a draft of “lphabet”, cut out the draft, and tack it into position – about in the center of the initial “A”. Pencil in the guidelines and complete the lettering.
When the lettering is dry, tack a piece of scrap paper over it to mask it during painting.
Mix a bit of blue gouache in the palette for the “inside” color (Color 1). I prefer to start painting from the inside to the outside as it helps avoid smearing previously painted areas.
It often helps to turn your work as you paint so you are pulling the brush towards you instead of pushing the brush away.
Let the blue dry and clean your brush if you are using only one brush.
Mix a bit of red in the palette (Color 2) and paint the outside areas. Try to leave a bit of paper showing between the red and blue sections. If you make a mistake – don’t worry – you can clean up the lines with a bit of white gouache after the paint dries. Painting is much more forgiving than lettering!
When all the painted areas are dry, carefully erase any pencil lines.
Now that you have a basic painted initial, look at historical examples in manuscripts and examples of contemporary work to give you ideas and inspiration to create your own unique initials!