Monday, December 31, 2007

Colour Counterpoint: From Pliny to Cyberscribes

Happy New Year to everyone.

Veni Emmanuel Christmas 2007

The year that has been, 2007, was a big challenge for me and a time of growth both professionally and personally. Most of my writing this year has been to meet the requirements of the university for my PhD. The year ahead, 2008, will begin with a holiday back in the beautiful Hokianga in the far north of New Zealand looking for pipis, blackberries, and some artistic inspiration, as well as enjoying time with the family. There are a number of interesting art and craft purveyors in the Far North so it will be a good opportunity to take a look as I take a break in the expectation of my third child being born toward the end of February.

My year has probably been fuller than ever, never a dull moment. I continued to take on calligraphy work as well as completing my first provisional year of PhD studies looking at occupational hazards of scribes and illuminators.

I am enjoying studying again, and fully appreciate what is now available to tertiary students via the internet and online library resources. It makes it feasible for me to study at home in the evenings using my computer, something that was impossible when I finished studying 18 years ago for my M.Sc. The computer seems much more familiar these days and my typing isn’t quite so atrocious. I even gave a powerpoint presentation (in Auckland) on my studies thus far in November to a panel of established Massey and AUT University supervisors, Auckland and Wellington based, for my first year assessment. It was very well received with a number of encouraging comments. With special thanks to Dr Rachel Page, Director in the School on Massey University's Wellington Campus for the special courtesy of penciling the meeting in.

Working under an ultraviolet nightclub lamp at twilight

I began the year with some very interesting work arriving in the studio including a real doozy from a big ad agency looking to impress its clients with a new range of Macleans toothpaste. I was asked to write 100 A4 letters in invisible ink! So I can hear you ask how is it done? Answer: in the dark under UV light, so I purchased a nightclub grade UV bulb and some safety goggles! We didn't need to use the forensic grade marker pens, little girls' standard diary pens were just fine and less expensive. It was a fun job to get, but just once I think. My husband uses the product though. Perhaps I will take a leaf out of Anne Geddes' book in 2008 and restrict accession to such requests to the the Moroccan royalty, King Mohammed VI and Princess Lalla Salma.

So how many of you have considered what “New Zealand” means literally? New Denmark of course. I have had some lovely correspondence earlier this year with a Danish calligrapher, Lise Kirketerp. Our correspondence was not fluent in either Danish or English, but beautiful letters and a charming Danish website made for nice exchange. Lise knew of Peter Gilderdale, but had no idea he lived so far away in New Zealand! Peter has had the best selling Danish calligraphy text book “Kalligraphi: Kunsten at skrive smukt” for some years having been reprinted 3 times. The images of Lise’s studio look just adorable.

For those of you who have been looking for the results of my lightfastness test on some of the new Derwent coloursoft pencils, here they are.

To be fair to Derwent, I could only purchase them as a set of 12 in New Zealand, and looking at the lightfastness rating on their website, there are other coloured pencils in their range with higher lighfastness ratings in similar shades, if you were able to purchase them individually. For example, the bright lilac included in the 12 set has only a 2 rating (low lightfastness) while pale lavender has an 8 rating (high lightfastness). Their ratings seem to be accurate. It was suggested to me that spraying with studio fixative can improve the lightfastness, so the left hand band of the sample has been sprayed with studio fixative. It has made a slight difference with most of the pigments, but it does not significantly increase the lightfastness of those pigments with very limited lightfastness.

It was great to host Dave Wood over from Australia this year to teach traditional raised and burnished gilding. Pictured above with New Zealand Calligraphers' liaison officer for the northern city of Whangarei Bevan Holmes, Dave is a master calligrapher and gilder (a fellow of the Society of Scribes & Illuminators), with all his gold work finished to a mirror like shine. My effort at the workshop is pictured below.

The group that attended also had the advantage of viewing some of Dave’s recent work, including images of his large commissioned piece for the Queensland State Library, which is now permanently housed in display cases in the foyer of the library. Those of you attending the Chicago Calligraphy Conference next year might like to consider taking Dave’s class, I doubt that you would regret it.

I mentioned in a 2006 column for the New Zealand Calligraphers’ Newsletter that I particularly like the Foundational hand in the Purewa Cemetery memorial book that I work on which I have always thought to be an attractive feminine hand.

Purewa Cemetery Memorial Book- the ruler markings on the left are in millimetres

Chatting with Dave Wood recently I have found that he met the person whose writing I admired. Dave was formerly a New Zealand resident. Apparently she traveled to London and was a student at Edward Johnston’s old Central School for two years! So what is her name? The most information that I can get so far is that her Christian name was/is Margaret, and if she is still alive she would be in her 80’s. Her beautiful writing was all done with a quill. Let me know if you can fill in the story.

Susan Hopkins, from Santa Barbara, was a very welcome visitor in November. We enjoyed a day together working on various ruling pen and pointed pen styles as well as sharing stories and thoughts on illustrations, journaling, life, etc. It is remarkable how small the world can be, Susan having been referred to me by a friend on cyberscribes who knew that Susan was coming down under to follow the work of another New Zealand artist also. We had alot in common, Susan having spent her working life as an art teacher to deaf children and my husband now beginning to teach Massey University students audiology including introductory deaf education. I hope to get to Santa Barbara some time soon.

I have been studying the pigments that were used historically in manuscripts throughout this year. Here is a picture of me grinding lapis lazuli in September.

It is amazing the analytical research that has been done in the last 15 years or so, that has enabled us to know exactly what pigments were used at different places and at different times. However, it does not answer all my questions with regard to how they were manufactured and processed, and by whom.

Modern and Traditional Pigment Samples on Vellum. You may have noticed the etching on a number of my samples- the native roaches have singular taste it appears!

Study has been an exciting adventure, with highs when you find a piece of information you have been trying to discover for some time, and lows when you don’t seem to be finding anything useful.

Cheryl Porter and moi

The culmination and highlight of the year’s work was having Cheryl Porter teach her “Inks and pigments in early manuscripts” lecture series and workshop in Auckland from the 3-7 of December at the Whitecliffe College of Fine Art, a private tertiary college.

Whitecliffe College, Grafton Campus Auckland

Cheryl is a manuscript conservator whose interest in historical pigments has taken her on some amazing trips, such as the Armenian border in search of Armenian cochineal.

Mexican Cochineal and Kermes- the ruler markings are in centimetres

I had been in correspondence with Cheryl since the beginning of the year as she is a specialist in manuscript conservation and an authority on mediaeval pigments. Cheryl resides in England, though is originally from the backblocks of Western Australia, and works throughout the world. Cheryl’s next 3 year contract is at the museum in Cairo, Egypt.

Whitecliffe College is housed in some beautiful buildings built in the 1920’s, originally as a Theological College. Unfortunately, the art school is moving to new premises in the middle of 2008, apparently the buildings have been bought by Tom Cruise.

We had an interesting group of people attend who were all able to contribute their own particular skills and knowledge. It was well subscribed by librarians, art historians and interested individuals from Auckland and Dunedin, including Professor Stephanie Hollis from the University of Auckland. It was particularly interesting to have a session at Auckland City Library “Rare Book Room” examining three manuscripts which turned into a very insightful, interdisciplinary study. The Anglo-Saxon scholars provided information on the text, the book conservator on the binding, Cheryl provided information on the pigments, and the odd calligrapher added information on vellum and working practices.

Cheryl Porter manufacturing Madder Lake

So, what did I discover? First, that practically any pigment, such as vermilion, orpiment, ochre or woad, comes in a variety of shades. The colour is also altered by how finely the pigment might be ground and what binder has been used. We obviously couldn’t experiment with how colours might change over time, but this would also be a factor.

Secondly, I have an increased admiration of the skills required by scribes and illuminators in using some of these pigments so successfully, many of which are extremely difficult to use. For example, a bright azurite or malachite is so coarsely ground that it becomes extremely difficult to paint with and to get any sort of fine line with it. Similarly, sap green is extremely sticky to work with. Also, each pigment needs to be carefully prepared before you can start to paint, by grinding and combining with a binder. Some of the organic pigments after being collected and dried, must be warmed in water and then various additives such as alum and/or potassium carbonate added to produce a lake pigment.

We painted out a variety of pigments from the medieval palette over the five days; earth pigments, natural minerals, manufactured minerals, inks, and organic colours; the pigment samples that I painted can be seen in the images. Just don't spill the oak gall ink (metallo-gallic ink) on your sandstone floors!

We also had a go at painting some alum tawed skin using organic colours, which was the traditional book covering material used in the medieval period. It is a lovely thick, soft and flexible white skin that was also used to make gloves, which can be transformed into brilliantly coloured book coverings. I have become a member of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) on Cheryl’s advice and have already found their correspondence to be very rewarding.

On another not quite so old note, I was asked to participate in my daughter Shelley’s school “Victorian Day”, endeavoring to teach Victorian writing, that is copperplate, to 40 7-9 year olds. We were all rather covered in ink and I lost about 20 nibs but really enjoyed a precious opportunity to introduce another generation to the delights of calligraphy.

I recently had some extended correspondence on cyberscribes with a number of members including Séamus who pointed me in the direction of some online advice on woad. So prior to Cheryl’s visit and after some online searching I found an interesting French boutique and art material supplier Bleu de Lectoure. So this Christmas I had a number of authentic woad items under the tree including a lovely scarf, some ink, pigment and watercolour. Apparently they may be supplying Levi Strauss nowadays with their historic dye which is now cropped more sustainably and processed more efficiently.

I have to say I have enjoyed reading some historical books this year which I thought would bore me silly. Humanity, and history, is just fascinating of course, and to find someone’s thoughts that you can wholeheartedly agree with, even though they may have lived hundreds of years ago, is amazing. I have even read much of Layamon’s Brut, a middle English recount of King Arthur that was very special to C.S Lewis towards the end of his life. But that’s a story for another time. Pliny the Elder’s “Natural History” Book 33 (AD 70), begins with his thoughts on humanity’s strange relationship with nature in search of metals:

“We trace out all the fibres of the earth, and live above the hollows we have made in her, marvelling that occasionally she gapes open or begins to tremble – as if forsooth it were not possible that this may be an expression of indignation of our holy parent! We penetrate her inner parts and seek for riches in the abode of the spirits of the departed, as though the part where we tread upon her were not sufficiently bounteous and fertile. And amid all this the smallest object of our searching is for the sake of remedies for illness, for with what fraction of mankind is medicine the object of this delving?”

I also delighted to read the 1573 English treatise “The Arte of Limming” as much for the language as for the information. I am now enjoying Nicholas Hilliard’s “Art of Limning” for much the same reasons, and to discover an artist far more pedantic than me! Hilliard painted delightful and extremely delicate miniature portraits of Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh and the like, so I guess he had even more reason to take care.

Below is some doodling using some "new" antique ruling pens that I received for Christmas and a range of commercially available watercolours, mostly Schmincke. My old faithful ebony ruling pen is joined here by a bone handled, smaller pen and two larger ivory handled ruling pens one of which has been gold plated. The gold plated one is my favourite so far.

The new ivory and bone handled additions to my antique ruling pen collection - Happy New Year!

Wishing my readers all a very happy new year.


PS Congratulations to Akiho Sugiyama- now where are you Akiho?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Footprints in the Sand

Knowing that my day never feels complete without a morsel or two of dark chocolate, John bought me “Bittersweet: recipes and tales from a life in chocolate” (Artisan 2003) by Alice Medrich for Christmas. In this chocolate lovers’ cookbook, Alice describes the use of cocoa nibs. “Cocoa nibs? A new type of confection for calligraphers?” I wondered.

They are in fact the broken shards of roasted and shattered cocoa beans. Intrigued, John sourced some Valrhona Venezualan cocoa nibs from Sabato ( in Auckland and took them away with us on holiday together with the ice cream machine. My favourite New Zealand chocolatiers, Whittaker’s, evidently don’t sell their Ghanaian cocoa nibs as they all go into the chocolate! They also have a very interesting history to their package lettering told to me by their designer of 25 years, Marilyn Ching. Marilyn has told me that in the early 1980's she suggested as a base for development, some lettering that appeared in an old photograph, of a Whittaker's delivery truck, circa 1936. Similar lettering had also been used to embellish a Chocolate tin. With these as reference Marilyn developed "by hand" the present day logo. You might like to view their website

On their own the nibs have a nutty quality to their taste and texture that you don’t get with cocoa. My said darling husband had us testing a range of chocolate gelato and sorbet using infused cocoa nibs and some with crunchy cocoa nibs added in the final stages- all delicious!

So here is an original recipe for chocolate nibby sorbet, by and for the calligrapher.

Sometimes you just can't predict where or when your work will turn up. I received a beautiful Sabato catalogue just before Christmas and discovered my lettering on the cover photo via some Rachel Carley plates which use lettering I designed for her a number of years ago.

A second incident before Christmas was driving towards the Auckland Harbour Bridge and seeing my “Love someone?” lettering on an enormous Australian Consolidated Press billboard.

They were running a promotion for their 2007 magazine subscriptions and one of my clients had reused some work done for them earlier in 2006 for something else. I thought it looked very elegant as a whole design and it’s so great to be reminded how supportive my clients have been. I have a half finished Christmas card design with raised and burnished gold on vellum in a drawer- I promise you it will go out this Christmas!

Speaking of project management, John has acquired the title of Project Manager in recognition of his role in facilitating my work. John is the first contact for many of my online inquiries in particular and enables me to do what I do best.

New Year's Eve at the Copthorne Resort Omapere looking across Hokianga Harbour

Opononi in New Zealand’s Far North provided a wonderful place to take a break away from it all. Opononi is probably most famous for "Opo" the dolphin who made friends with children swimming in the harbour in the 1950's, allowing them to ride on his back. Opo is remembered with this sculpture and even has a headstone just across from the beach.

Opo and the boy sculpture, Opononi

Some of my highlights include- an 8am low tide collecting pipis with water gently lapping around my ankles; the changing colours of the sand dunes; your first sight of the dunes as you come over the hills from Kaikohe; the open friendliness and frank honesty of the locals (Ngapuhi country), young and old; picking wild blackberries from the side of the road for homemade blackberry and apple tart; the quiet timelessness of the Stone Store, demonstrating calligraphy sitting by the window looking out to the river, and knowing some of the history of this place; the wide expanses of the Hokianga harbour, from all its vantage points luminous, sparkling and unencumbered by too many people; Webster’s Restaurant in Opononi; the Boatshed Café at Rawene; locals riding from place to place on horseback…

An article , with a very flattering title appeared in one of the Bay of Islands' newspapers before my third demonstration.

I demonstrated at the Stone Store in Kerikeri for three Saturday mornings while I was on holiday.

Getting started on my first morning at Bishop Selwyn's old desk, quite an object and showing signs of its purpose built design for writing with a pointed pen

The Stone Store is New Zealand’s oldest stone building built in 1836. It functions today both as a historic building that people can visit, as well as retaining its function as a store selling supplies. These include nibs, nib holders and ink.

A framed set of Manuscript company nibs from Birmingham UK

I demonstrated copperplate writing with steel nibs and italic with quills- copperplate was the style in use in the earliest colonial times at the Stone Store and adjoining Mission Station.

People seem somewhat stunned by writing that would have seemed commonplace by educated people at the time. It seems we as a generation have lost pride in our writing skills. I don’t think that it is simply an issue of pervasive shorthand symbols or Vista flicks, rather finding a place in our culture for anybody who so chooses to be able to write a good, legibly beautiful letter for example. It should be a skill and pleasure for everyone, don’t you think? I found today that a budget Parker (not disposable) fountain pen only costs $NZ29.95 from Whitcoulls stationers anywhere in New Zealand. And there are many other contemporary applications of handwriting that people enjoy if they are able to be done well, like an elegant restaurant specials board that changes daily. I had heaps of fun writing out children’s names on bookmarks using sharpened ice block sticks and food colouring at the Stone Store. It almost feels like a magic trick making their names appear in rainbow colours. Try telling them that type is better than that! I am very grateful to the manager, Liz Bigwood from the New Zealand Historic Places Trust for the opportunity and the fine Far Northern hospitality.

I love good creamy textured coloured pencils. I have two jars exploding with brilliant shiny painted and lacquered wood pencils, their sharped multi-coloured leads all bristling with potential and ready for action. For 15 years or so I have tried to ensure all the products I use are archival and lightfast. This seems to be the one drawback of coloured pencils- they are as a rule not particularly lightfast as you will see by my lightfastness test samples.

Caran D'Ache

Faber Castell Polychromos

Lyra Rembrandt & Derwent Signature



One side of each of these paper strips has been left in a brightly lit window for approximately one year and then compared with the original sample kept in my filing cabinet. Prismacolor from the USA come in an amazing range of colours and are soft, creamy and very easy to use. Some colours are very lightfast while others are not. Faber Castel Polychromos are a little harder but still easy to use, but they don’t fare very well for lightfastness. I tested two Lyra Rembrandt Aquarells from Germany because my daughters are so fond of their Color-Giant range. They keep a sharp edge and are easy to use, but have low lightfastness in the two difficult colours I tested. Caran D’Ache Supracolor II Soft from Switzerland are really lovely to use in very brilliant colours. They were reasonably lightfast in some of the colours, but were not lightfast in the pink range I tested. Derwent Signature from England I found to be a little hard and gritty to use and were not completely 100% lightfast in the three difficult colours I tested. I am retesting these with different paper at the moment as my choice of paper also altered colour with the light quite a lot. I have just recently tried the new Derwent Coloursoft range, which is indeed true to its name and are very easy to use. I haven’t had time to test their lightfastness yet; results due in about a year’s time! I take a conservative approach to the Coloursoft pencils at this point however as the Signature range has been represented to me as Derwent's premium coloured pencils.

My quest to find lightfast pencils in my favourite pinky magentas, oranges and purples has failed despite all of the wonderful pencils from around the globe. I even enquired of Schminke, my favourite watercolour manufacturers, if they had ever considered making coloured pencils, but they have no current interest in it. Their lightfastness ratings use the same blue wool standard as some other manufacturers however their ratings I find to be consistently reliable and the others simply are not, according to my methods.

Just today I have discovered that Caran D’Ache have a premium range of pencil leads called “Museum” which appear to have very good lightfast ratings. Their only drawback is that you have to purchase expensive lead holders to use them. One suggestion that I highly recommend, even stress, is to frame coloured pencil pieces using special UV protective glass. This is approximately twice as expensive as standard glass, but is almost the only ethical approach to coloured pencil pieces for framing. Studio fixative is said to have only temporary UV properties- I am currently testing exactly what this means.

The key to using coloured pencils is to keep them extremely sharp. I remember a workshop I attended when I first started learning calligraphy in which we had to create an almost geometric type of design using the counters from inside letters and between letters. One woman created a beautifully coloured and extremely sharp edged design using coloured pencils. I asked her how she got such clean edges using coloured pencils. She showed me her pencil sharpener in her left palm which continually resharpened her pencils while she worked. I prefer to sharpen pencils with a Stanley knife.

Speaking of knives, I love my new quill knife, designed by Stan Knight and Denis Ruud, but as I have learnt from cutting quills and paddle pop sticks with it at the Stone Store demonstrations, it too needs to be kept very sharp.

A different sort of cutting edge entered my studio at Christmas. I now have a Wacom Cintiq 21UX graphics tablet running on a MacPro with the Mac Tiger operating system for the moment. It has the “wow” factor allowing me to write directly onto the screen. I can alter the angle of the screen from flat through 90 degrees to vertical. The most relevant books on the subject of graphics tablets, calligraphy and photoshop are helpful bearing in mind that software updates can render the books of conceptual value only as the menus have changed. I love the Mac operating system, the whole interaction is a real “wow”. And it looks great too. I can highly recommend it.

Footprints in the Sand

I was commissioned to do this piece by an old American friend and very able calligraphy student of mine in December. Thanks a million Morgan. Happy New Year everyone.