How To Design Calligraphy Versals

 “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”,
from the 
Cotton Nero A.x manuscript
1400s. Via Wikimedia commons

One of my favorite scribal books is The Illuminated Alphabet by Patricia Seligman with calligraphy by Timothy Noad. I value it for its 12 oversized illuminated letter projects taken from five historic eras. These versal letters are used to teach illumination techniques that make images of beauty. 

Versals, similar to today’s drop-cap, are large capital letters used to draw attention to the beginning of a line, paragraph or chapter. Any letter style can be refined to be a versal and add decoration. In medieval times, versals were often ornate and had tiny illustrations that referred to the text.

These letters are “built-up” line by line creating an outline. They can be left in that form or filled in and decorated.

To create a versal first determine the area you plan for it to fill, the number of lines and the width’s space. This will take up scroll text space, so consider your total text amount too. 

You might want to design this on a separate paper to get the angles and proportions correct and then transfer it to your scroll. You may even create several options if your deadline isn’t looming shortly.

Vaterunser, Initial P. In: Albani-Psalter
12th century. Via Wikimedia commons

To create your versal, 

  1. Use a pencil to lightly sketch the letter beginning with its inner lines, so the enclosed spaces within the letter are well proportioned. 
  2. The outer edges of curved strokes are added next, followed by serifs and decorative flourishes. 
  3. Transfer your chosen design to your scroll, at this step using a 4H pencil and light strokes.
  4. Next, using a small nib and ink or a .005 black Pigma Micron pen outline over the pencil marks and then erase them. 
  5. Fill in the center with ink, gilding, or paint. 
  6. Add decoration such as whitework after the paint is well dried, perhaps overnight. Continue as with any other illumination.

While versals were intended as decoration to go with a text paragraph or page, today many artists elaborately decorate them for stand alone art. They also include them as part of one meaningful word or a proper name. I like to give them for SCA competition prizes or largess.

Related Prior Post:
Why Lay A Scroll’s Groundwork With Permanent Ink?
The Making Of An SCA Scroll, Part 1
The Making Of An SCA Scroll, Part 2

Categories: How-to

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