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Lesson 10

Capital Letters, Versals and Initial Caps

Gael Stirler


NEW Information and pictures added to this page 6/2008! Scroll down.

Bringing Text and Illustration Together

The first letter on a manuscript page or scroll is usually enlaged and decorated in an ornate manner. We refer to these as "initial caps." When enlarged decorated letters are placed at the begining of each verse of a poem they are called "versals." From the 13th to the 16th century Initial Caps and Versals were typically drawn in a hand called "Lombary" or "Lombardic" for the region of Italy where they were first popularized. Click here for two examples of Lombardic Capitals Cymbeline, and Callifont 43.

An initial cap (Click here to see original in context) can be as large as you want it to be. I like to make mine 3 to 4 times the height of the other letters in the paragraph. In the example to the right the letter "D" is has been enlarged to 7 times the height of the other letters and elongated so a minitature of Mary and the Angel can be painted inside. Click on the picture for a more detailed example. Notice how the artist drew an odd border around the "D" and filled it with gold leaf. This is the most common treatment for the outside of an inital cap in this style. I use it most of the time on my scrolls as well.
To the left this example from the 14th century (ms. 431, f° 56 Liège) is one of the more bizzare examples of the "spear and vine" style. The gold spear and vine are thick and ungainly with little of the tiny leaves that are usually present in this style. However the treatment of the capital letter "D" and its background is pleasant and instructive. Notice how the whitework makes it all come together. It has that fresh appearance that lets you know that the artist made up the design as he was painting it. In fact there is nothing about this piece that looks like it was rehearsed or traced. The little figure in the bottom right aims a blunt arrow at an owl hiding in the foliage. If you look closely you will see a mistake that the artist had to leave where there is a stray line in the middle of the bow.

This scroll also is a good example of how to use versals within the text. Many of the versals are made with a quill pen and red and blue ink instead of a brush. Click on the picture for a larger view.

Rarely is a letter left plain. A tiny bit of white decoration will make the letter sing. I like to put quatrofoils (four-petaled flowers) or circles in the widest parts of the letters and fill the rest of the letter form with squares or triangle that follow the form of the letter. Where the letter form gets narrow I draw a single thin white line down the center, sometimes crossing the line with a dash or dot. In this 15th century letter "D" we see a simple scrolling leaf design in the right side of the D and the upright on the left is decorated with a sort of ribbon. The inside of the D is embellished with simple fan shapped flowers and leaves with some "floatees" in the background. Notice the way the versals are used within the text. Click the image to see the detail better.

In this example the inside curls of the letter "B" are tipped with three-lobed leaves. The letter is also divided in half and painted in red and blue counter-changed. This is a common treatment as well. The background inside the letter is painted gold but there is no border around the letter.

The "B" on the right is painted gold with a red and blue counter-changed background with diapering. I have put miniatures of a King and Queen inside the letter. The King is saying goodbye and the Queen is giving him her love. The ends of the "B" turn into woody vines on the left and another vine grows out of the background on the right.

The letter "L" to the left is painted in red and blue with white work and a gold background. It looks better on an "O" or a "D".

This "L" to the right is painted gold and has a blue background with a decoration of whitework over it making it look like an embroided tapestry. Note how simple the design, a child could do it.

Now we get a little more complicated. This design is meant to look like tooled leather or wood. I started with the letter "0" then added the central double circle. Then I drew lines forming an "x" coming out of the hub to the inner edge of the circle. Then I drew the first petal of the flower in each quadrent. Above each petal I drew a heart shape then two more on each side of it if I could fit them in. Then I added some lines of shading. In each corner I drew a triangle inside a triangle, then a small three lobed leaf in each corner. The rest you can figure out.

Refresh your screen to see this animation showing the steps in painting an initial cap without drawing it first in ink. This cap is similar to the 15th century letter "D" above.

1. Draw the letter lightly in pencil as a guide. 2. Paint it with a medium shade of blue or red. 3. Using strong white paint and a thin brush paint the main white lines. 4. Add more white line embellishments. 5. Paint the centers in bright yellow and shade with red. 6. Give the designs on the letter more "oomph" with shadow accents and white highlights. 7. Paint some flowers, acanthus leaves, or vines inside the letter with opaque paint.

examples of "D"Here are two more examples of the letter D. In the first one I began the white work by outlining just inside the D with a white line. Then I painted the dark blue quatrafoil on the column and two "x" shaped flowers. On the bowl I painted three large dark blue dots. I outlined the dots with white then connected the outlines with a kind of zig zag that created a leaf shape in the negative space between the dots. Then I filled in the the space between the outline and the zig zag line with white. I shaded the tops of the "leaves" with dark blue and added some rays on the other side. I painted a white squares around each "x" and the quatrafoil.

This "D" is like the "B" above but the shading is reversed on the waves that are painted on the letter.

In this more elaborate version, all the same elements are in place but the shading has been worked more on the letter. Then I added a compartment like the one in the first example, but in blue with whitework around the outside. The art inside the letter was painted freehand over the yellow. I added shadows to give it a trompe l'oile effect and added highlights to the center of the background and the edges of the petals.


In example F. I used dark red decoration over a pink compartment. The acanthus leaves on the letter were painted freehand with white paint over medium purple. I allowed the underpainting to mix with the white as I painted to give shading to the white leaves. Then I went in with darker purple and added shadows under the leaves and on the right side and bottom of each stroke of the "E". I further refined the shapes of the acanthus with a small brush, often only using water to blend.


Go to Next Section How to paint Jewels .
Go back to Lesson 9: Spear Borders.


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© 2002-2004Gael Stirler, Inc. 1-520-721-8346
Unless otherwise noted all art is the work of Gael Stirler.
AKA Mistress Dairine mor o' hUigin, OL


This page was last updated Friday, 27-Mar-2009 20:04:10 CDT