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Archive for April 16th, 2009

Acanthus leaves are an extremely versatile design element with calligraphy.  The fluid, organic shapes can provide a visual relief from dense blocks of text such as Gothic, add an element of color to monochromatic lettering, enhance a decorated initial or bring a sense of movement to a static layout.

Work In Progress - Acanthus Leaves Painted on Vellum

Work In Progress - Acanthus Leaves Painted on Vellum

Take a look around – you might be surprised at how often acanthus leaves are used as decorative design elements – not only in illuminated manuscripts, but in architecture, metal work, furniture, fabrics, porcelain, wallpapers – almost anywhere!

A fascinating insight as to how acanthus leaves were drawn and painted in manuscripts is in the 15th Century Gutenberg Model Book.  A digital facsimile with translation is available at the Gutenberg Digital site.

There are many styles of acanthus leaves in illuminated manuscripts, and variations can be found in borders, initials, backgrounds and other decorative elements.  Many wonderful examples can be found at the British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (enter “acanthus” in the search box.)

In this demonstration, we’ll draw and paint a simplified “Gutenberg” style acanthus leaf.  The shapes are easy to draw and can be folded, twisted and turned to fit any design requirements.  But beware – once you discover how fun it can be to draw acanthus leaves, it might be difficult to stop!

Drawing Acanthus Leaves

What you need:

  • paper or graph paper (about 4 squares to the inch or print one out from Incompetech)
  • pencil
  • eraser

Step 1:

Draw a wavy line on the graph paper.  This will determine the basic form of the acanthus leaf and represents the “spine” or the main vein.

Step 1: Drawing a wavy line

Step 1: Drawing a wavy line

Tip:  Once you are familiar with drawing acanthus leaves, many of the steps can be combined with one pencil stroke to draw a more fluid line instead of breaking up the forms.

Step 2:

Starting at the base of the spine, draw the top half of the leaf with two lobes.

Step 2: Drawing the Leaf Lobes

Step 2: Drawing the Leaf Lobes

Step 3:

On the under side of the second wave, draw half a leaf with one lobe.

Step 3: Drawing Leaf with One Lobe

Step 3: Drawing Leaf with One Lobe

Step 4:

Draw the second half of the first leaf.  Extend the line from the spine to add a stem.

Step 4:  Completing First Section and Stem

Step 4: Completing First Section and Stem

Tip:   Drawing the leaf shapes by turning the drawing vertical instead of horizontal can help visualize the flow and proportion of the lobes.

Step 5:

Draw the upper half of the second leaf.  Add a line extending from the base of the first curve to the lower half of the second leaf.

Step 5: Completed Second Leaf with Extended Base Line

Step 5: Completed Second Leaf with Extended Base Line

Step 6:

Starting at the top of the last wave, draw the bottom half of the third leaf.

Step 6: Drawing Bottom Half of Third Leaf

Step 6: Drawing Bottom Half of Third Leaf

Step 7:

Draw the upper half of the third leaf, and then add the terminal shape.  Erase the lines shown in green.

Step 7: Completing Third Leaf

Step 7: Completing Third Leaf

Your leaf is now complete!

Completed Acanthus Leaf

Completed Acanthus Leaf

Next, let’s try drawing a leaf with a different spine shape to illustrate how easy it is to fit a leaf into a design.

Leaf Spine Shape

Leaf Spine Shape

Draw the leaf shapes as with the first leaf, and we have an acanthus leaf that would fit well in a border corner.

Corner Border Acanthus Leaf

Corner Border Acanthus Leaf

We could use our drawing as a pattern for painting, or complete it as a pen and ink drawing.

Pen and Ink Acanthus Leaf

Pen and Ink Acanthus Leaf

Tip:  Drawing acanthus leaves, particularly using pen and ink techniques, will help with painting details.

Painting Acanthus Leaves

Acanthus leaves can be very simple or extremely detailed depending on your design requirements.  We’ll start with a simple painting and then add a few details.

What you need:

  • Acanthus leaf drawing
  • Gouache – white and two colors (Ultramarine blue and Yellow Ochre for this demonstration)
  • Palette for mixing gouache
  • Paper suitable for water media
  • Brushes – a medium-sized (about #2 or #3) and a smaller brush (#00 or #0)
  • Pencil
  • Clean water
Tools for Painting

Tools for Painting

Three colors are generally required – one for the outside of the leaf, one for the inside of the leaf and an opaque white to paint details.

Color Pattern

Color Pattern

Step 1:

Transfer your drawing onto the paper.  Refer to the post Painting a Simple Initial for one method of transferring a drawing.

Step 1: Drawing Transferred to Paper

Step 1: Drawing Transferred to Paper

Step 2:

I generally prefer to start painting with a lighter color as it is easier to cover a mistake with a darker color.  First, paint the inside and tip of the leaf with the Yellow Ochre.  I usually paint up to the vein line leaving a bit of the paper showing instead of covering the pencil line.

Step 2:  Inside and Tip of Leaf Painted

Step 2: Inside and Tip of Leaf Painted

Try to follow the curve and direction of the leaf and lobes when painting.  Turning the work as you paint often helps when painting curves as it is easier to pull the brush towards you then to paint curves horizontally.

Step 3:

Paint the outside of the leaf and stem with Ultramarine Blue.

Step 3:  Painting the Outer Leaves Ultramarine Blue

Step 3: Painting the Outer Leaves Ultramarine Blue

Step 4:

Mix up a bit of white gouache keeping it rather thin so it is a little translucent, and using a very small brush, paint fine lines following the curves of the leaf and lobes.

Step 4: Painting Thin Lines with White Gouache

Step 4: Painting Thin Lines with White Gouache

Step 5:

Mix up a bit more white gouache that is more opaque, then paint a few lines to create highlights on the leaf lobes.

Step 5: Completed Acanthus Leaf

Step 5: Completed Acanthus Leaf

Our simple acanthus leaf is finished!

Now that you have a basic idea of how to draw and paint acanthus leaves, look at examples in illuminated manuscripts to see the variety of styles, colors, techniques and how they are incorporated into the overall design.

A demonstration using acanthus leaves in a certificate design is at the Calligraphy Layout: Designing a Certificate post.

We could still continue adding more details to this simple design such as dots along the vein, color modeling to add more depth and dimension, etc.  whatever you like – be creative!

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