A Crash Course in Islamic Manuscript Illumination: Classical Technique

Flower Basmalah (2007) by Ayesha Gamiet
When I was a little girl, I remember flicking through art history books and viewing pictures related to Islamic art: intricate stucco carvings and mosaic work, vibrant embroidered textiles beside jewel-like miniature paintings, calligraphy – austere kufic contrasted against fluid, day-dreamy nastaliq (my personal favourite!)… and always, always exquisitely illuminated Qur’ans. The art history books could tell me all about the different stylistic influences that had contributed to the structure or decoration of a particular artefact or monument. But no-one could tell me about how these artworks were made, or why the artists had chosen to express themselves in a particular manner. It would be many years before I would begin to find the answers to these questions, and a hidden world of peace and beauty would reveal itself to me. In fact, I’d like to think that a part of me is still like a child in awe of the world, still seeking answers.
But I digress! The intention behind this post was to share a little of what I’ve learnt about how certain atefacts from the world of Islamic art are created. In particular, I’d like to talk about illuminated manuscripts, as this is my area of interest. Firstly, the most important element of an illuminated page is always the calligraphy. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is revelation from God, so an illuminated border should compliment the calligraphy, but not overshadow it. Usually, the calligraphy is written first, then passed on to an illuminator who will design a suitable composition. I use tracing paper to sketch out my rough designs first, then when these are finalised, I trace my composition on to the artwork. The image below is of an illuminated border that I’m currently working on. The calligraphy was stuck onto a sheet of sized and burnished handmade paper (not handmade by myself, I hasten to add!) 
I’ve used this photo because it shows the border in different stages of completion, so you can see how the design progresses (starting from the left of the photograph).
Once I’ve traced my design with pencil on to the artwork, the next stage is to apply shell gold. Gold is used to paint all of the leaves and stems of flowers, as well as parts of the outside and inside border.In this piece, I’ve used two colours of gold – an orangey gold (23 carat) and a yellow gold (18 carat). The gold is then polished with an agate burnisher to make it shine, “illuminating” the page. 
The next stage is to paint the palest colours in each of the flowers. Eventually, each flower will have at least 3 different shades of colour within it, but these will be added later.
Next, a black outline is painted around the flowers, leaves and borders of the piece. I use a ten-zero sable brush for this – it’s the tiniest brush you can get! Well, as far as I know! It literally enables the artist to paint with just one hair. You can see the outline coming into play in the corner section of the piece. (See photo above).
The photograph below shows what the piece looks like after the background is added. Traditionally, an ultramarine blue is used, although it’s not uncommon to also see deep maroon, green, brown or even turquoise coloured backgrounds. 
This piece just needs a few finishing touches before it is complete, but I haven’t quite got there yet! So I’ll be posting more images as things begin to take shape. I still need to add the shaded details in each of the flowers, and paint a pattern inside the large areas of yellow gold. Watch this space – I’ll be posting more pictures as the work progresses. 
Oh, and by the way, this style of illumination is called “Classic”. I would like to write a little more about the other various styles of Islamic manuscript illumination, though I hope that you’ve enjoyed  learning about this one. And I hope that this post helps in some small way to answer any questions of “How did they do that?” I know I haven’t touched on “Why did they do it like that?” just yet, but maybe I’ll try to answer that one at a later date :)  

Love and Peace. 

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One Response to A Crash Course in Islamic Manuscript Illumination: Classical Technique

  1. Helen says:

    Hi Ayesha this is a lovely blog-am glad I stumbled across it! I’ve been looking at illuminated manuscripts-and found the Islamic script to be breathtaking in their design. I can’t read the language-but I can appreciate the love that has gone into the work-and the sense of peace. Unfortunately your pictures don’t show-perhaps because the blog is from 2010? I was wondering if you had some more information on what paint/brushes/paper you used, and where you purchased them? I’d love to have a go!

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