The traditional art of Illumination - the creation of elaborate, decorated letters and initials - is now attracting new enthusiasts.

It reached its apogee in the monasteries of medieval Europe and was practised with great skill and artistry.

Embellished with gold leaf, the illuminated letters of those early scribes seemed to reflect light, as though they were indeed 'illuminated'.

Taken from her new book, The Bible of Illuminated Letters,  Margaret Morgan demonstrates an Ottonaian letter 'K'.

On this initial, two layers of transfer gold are laid on a base of gum ammoniac, a technique known as flat gilding (see below).

Patches of light blue and green and the red outline lend a glow to the gold, enhanced in original manuscripts by the dyed purple vellum on which the letters were drawn. Note that the branched stems grow directly out of the letters.

Gilding using gum ammoniac

Have all your materials at hand, as you will need to work quickly to lay the gold after you have breathed on the gum to activate it.

Before you start, stir the solution slowly and thoroughly to incorporate all the gum from the bottom of the jar. This should avoid problems with bubbles, but allow it to settle for a while before use.

You will need:

  • 300 gsm (140 lb) HP watercolour paper with pre-drawn shape or letter
  • Gum ammoniac solution
  • Plastic or glass rod for stirring gum
  • Old small brush for applying the gum
  • Breathing tube
  • Transfer gold (U.S .. patent gold)
  • Glassine
  • Dogtooth agate burnisher
  • Large soft brush to remove excess gold
  • Piece of soft washed silk


  1. Work on a flat surface so that the gum dries level. Using an old brush, lay a thin, even layer of the gum, working methodically across the area, wet into wet. Leave to dry for 30 minutes, then carefully add a second layer over the first and leave to dry completely for an hour or more.
  2. With the paper on a smooth, hard surface, use a breathing tube or small rolled piece of paper to direct your breath onto the gum and breathe three times.
  3. As soon as you have breathed on the gum, lay the transfer gold face down onto it, pressing down firmly (without twisting) with your fingers. If the gold does not stick, breathe on the gum again and re-apply the gold. Peel off the backing sheet to reveal the gold stuck onto the gum. Repeat this step to cover the whole area completely.
  4. Burnish the gold gently through a sheet of glassine. Repeat step 3 to add a second layer of gold.
  5. Leave to dry thoroughly for at least 30 minutes before removing surplus gold with a large soft brush, then give it another burnish through glassine before a final polish with soft silk.

Red ochre carbon paper

This type of carbon paper was used for transferring designs to lithographic plates and was once available through art suppliers, but it is no longer made. It is simple, if a little messy, to make your own.

Because the "carbon" is red ochre, not graphite, it is easier to erase and to paint over. It is also more visible than graphite if you are working on darker coloured papers. It does tend to transfer pigment where you don't want it, so you will need to mask off any writing first. Red ochre carbon paper is used in the Ottonian project on page 116.

You will need:

  • Newspaper or other scrap paper
  • A4 sheet white acid-free tissue paper (cut down to size required)
  • Red ochre powder (ground artist's pigment)
  • China palette
  • Cotton wool
  • Rubber gloves (to stop your fingers getting stained)
  • 2H pencil for tracing off
  • Finished drawing on tracing paper
  • Good paper or vellum
  1. Cover the work surface with newspaper and spread the tissue on top of this. Tip out some pigment into a china palette.
  2. Dip the cotton wool into the red ochre powder and rub it into the tissue paper, working out from the centre of the sheet to the edges. Keep adding more pigment and rubbing it in until the sheet is well covered.
  3. Shake off any excess pigment (best done outside)
  4. Peel back tracing and carbon sheet to check that the drawing has been transferred.