Dear blog readers,
I would like to share some of my student’s fantastic work from the course that I taught last week: a one-week summer school workshop in Islamic manuscript illumination held at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London.
The week started with a session on geometry, where students learnt how to construct 6, 8 and 12-fold patterns that are commonly used designing illuminated manuscript pages. We then looked at traditional floral motifs and painting techniques.
Each student got to practice their brushwork skills by outlining leaves and flowers using size 0 and 2 sable brushes. The objective of this exercise was to practice brush control, creating a line that went from thick to thin and vice versa.
The next stage was to learn about composition. Many people seem to think that Islamic designs happened spontaneously, with no planning or thought behind them. Another common misconception is that there exists some kind of pattern book, where designs are simply copied from an older source. The truth is that each illuminated composition is bespoke to the calligraphy that it is intended to ornament. Every design goes through a rigorous process to ensure that both the geometric and floral elements compliment each other and harmonise into one unified piece. This can easily take between one and several days of work, depending on the scale of the project.
Arabesque designs begin as hand-drawn spirals to imitate the growth patterns of nature. Flowers and leaves are then added to these spirals so that the space is filled in equal proportions. An illuminator will then re-work and re-develop the composition over and over again until they are happy that every aspect of the design is in harmony with the rest. Most importantly, if calligraphy forms a part of the piece, the illumination needs to compliment the calligraphy but not overshadow it.
To the right is an example of one of my student’s paintings in progress. If you look very closely, you can see pencil lines from her original composition. Once this was finalised, I taught a session on the use of gold leaf and shell gold paint. Traditionally, the gold is the first colour to be applied, with flower shades painted afterwards. The technique used here involves subtle shading with gouache or watercolour, followed by a more defined outline. The Turkish name for this technique is halkar.
And here is the completed work! As a first piece, I think this is an excellent start. The student is well on her way to understanding the principles of traditional Islamic floral design. Had there been more time, we could have refined this design further, but considering the time that we had, I’m very happy. The gold has been applied with accuracy and the halkar technique is working well. Outlines are also very good. A great start!
This next student wanted to try several different illumination techniques all on one page. This meant that she could easily compare styles. The photo below is just a small section of a much larger sheet.
Below is a detail from another student’s work. She’s tried a technique called tarama, where very fine lines are used to shade each flower. A very brave decision! I think that tarama is one of the most difficult techniques to master.
Bold colours and a striking design using a layering of flat colours. This technique is called kadameli, or klassik in Turkish.
The following two images are from students who chose to compose their designs within shamsa shapes. A shamsa literally means “little sun” in Arabic.
Such joyous colours! You can feel the warmth and enthusiasm in this painting.
Detail from another shamsa design. Simple, elegant and refined – just like the artist! I love how she has kept the palette very restrained – just three shades of purple, which have been lightened with white. The simple leaf embellishments are also a lovely addition to the border.
Two experimentations combining flowers with geometric design. The piece on the left uses halkar, the gentle shading technique, while the painting on the right demonstrates bold silhouettes, known as negatif.
One ambitious student set herself the challenge of painting an entire illuminated border. She has yet to decide on what to go in the middle – perhaps either a miniature painting or some calligraphy. I think that this is absolutely beautiful and cannot wait to see the completed design! Take a look at the details below:
Well done everyone, and thank you for such an inspiring week! Keep up the great work! I’m looking forward to receiving emails of your completed designs.
My next course will be held at Morley College in Waterloo. For details, take a look at my previous post.
Future courses at the PSTA will be held over four weekends in October / November. Details to follow soon.