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.
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)
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.
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.
Starting at the base of the spine, draw the top half of the leaf with two lobes.
On the under side of the second wave, draw half a leaf with one lobe.
Draw the second half of the first leaf. Extend the line from the spine to add a stem.
Tip: Drawing the leaf shapes by turning the drawing vertical instead of horizontal can help visualize the flow and proportion of the lobes.
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.
Starting at the top of the last wave, draw the bottom half of the third leaf.
Draw the upper half of the third leaf, and then add the terminal shape. Erase the lines shown in green.
Your leaf is now complete!
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.
Draw the leaf shapes as with the first leaf, and we have an acanthus leaf that would fit well in a border corner.
We could use our drawing as a pattern for painting, or complete it as a pen and ink drawing.
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)
- Clean water
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.
Transfer your drawing onto the paper. Refer to the post Painting a Simple Initial for one method of transferring a drawing.
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.
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.
Paint the outside of the leaf and stem with Ultramarine Blue.
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.
Mix up a bit more white gouache that is more opaque, then paint a few lines to create highlights on the leaf lobes.
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!