Illuminated Diapering

One of the easiest ways you can embellish a scroll is to add diapering. Diapering is the geometric checker-board pattern you see in illuminated manuscripts. It adds dramatic visual interest and fills the vacuum medieval art abhorred.

Link to image.

Link to image.

You may see them include gold leaf or without it. 

Link to image.
Link to image;

You may even find it decorating a grotesque animal or clothing article.

Diapering isn’t difficult. You can make it simple or complex, whichever you want. The more complex patterns are easily created when worked in steps.

It’s all based on a supporting grid, even if it’s invisible. You first construct a grid then systematically insert your chosen colors or patterns.

Quality diapering is determined by evenly distributed grid lines. While you want an accurate grid I think extreme precision detracts from a medieval feel. You don’t want it to be vector-graphic perfect.

With every diaper pattern, you begin with a grid. If you want you could generate one on Incomptech and trace it using your light-pad.

I use a ruler and a 4H pencil, and evenly measure each side of my chosen space and make marks. I then connect opposing dots. If you want your lines visible go over them with ink then erase your pencil lines.

This first diapering pattern was done into the late 14th century. It is the less complex one I’m sharing. It’s also easily modified using other shapes and patterns. 

  1. You begin by selecting the area you want to embellish. 
  2. Paint it all over with your choice of light to medium color. Let this dry completely, even overnight. 
  3. Using your best method construct an even grid over the selected space. Making your gridlines black makes the colors stand out and hides straying paint. I use a black Pigma Micron pen. 
  4. Next, build your pattern. Here I place a small red square in each grid-square’s center. Use a color that contrasts with your underpainting color.
  5. Last using white gouache you make a small X over the intersection of each grid line.

diaper pattrn construction (2).jpg
Tip: If your selected space doesn’t have straight sides like in the clothing and grotesque I’ve pictured above, imagine the area is set within an external frame. Construct your grid straight with that frame. Your frame doesn’t have to be straight with the support’s edge; turn it however you wish. If you rotate your grid 45 degrees you’ll create diamonds.  

My second pattern turns up later in the Gothic era. 

  1. Select the area you want to use for diapering. 
  2. Use your best method to construct an even grid over the selected space. As before, if it doesn’t have straight sides, imagine the area is set within a frame. Place the grid straight with that frame. 
  3. Apply gold to every other space, making a checker-board. 
  4. Paint red all the squares in one diagonal row. 
  5. Paint a second red diagonal row two spaces to the right. Repeat this throughout your selected area. 
  6. Perpendicular to the first red rows, paint one red diagonal row of squares. 
  7. Two spaces over paint a second red diagonal row. Repeat this throughout your selected area. 
  8. Select a group of four squares to paint blue. It will be just to the right of your intersecting red squar
  9. Just below the intersecting red squares, paint the four squares green. When both green and blue are completed, the pattern should alternate four-square groups of green and blue.
  10. Add small black plus lines to each of the blue and green squares. 
  11. Go over your grid lines in black again. AND In each red square use white to place an X and a tiny square. 
  12. Finally, place a tiny white dot over the black cross in the green and blue squares.

diaper pattrn construction2 (2).jpg

Tip: With the second method it’s less confusing if you paint one color at a time. It’s also easier the further you go in the process. Once you paint step 6 you’ll see the design clearer. 

There are many ways to detail diapering; boxes, crosses, dots and diagonal lines are only a few. You’re only limited by the space you have, your smallest brush, and your steady hand. 

After looking at countless medieval manuscripts with geometric diapering you’ll have the “eye” to see the steps and layers building the whole. They become simple. You’ll also find your own methods to recreate them. 

Just create the grid. Fill sections with colors. Add tiny highlights. Repeat.


  • Alexander, Jonathan J. G. Medieval Illuminators and Their Methods of Work. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
  • Asplund, Randy. “Making an Illuminated Cover Illustration” on Randy Asplund’s website. accessed 20 March 2016
  • Backhouse, Janet. The Illuminate Page. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997.
  • Lehmann-Haupt, Hellmut ed. The Goettingen Model Book. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1972.
  • Lynskey, Marie. Illumination for Calligraphers: The Complete Guide for the Ambitious Calligrapher. Hong Kong: Harper Collins Publishers, 1990, pp 52-58.
  • Reynolds, Caleb. Caleb’s A&S BlogHow-to Diaper a Scroll” accessed 21 May 2018

Categories: How-to

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