A DIY Illuminated Manuscript

A DIY Illuminated Manuscript


Playing with gold leaf and blood-based thumbprinting as an artist’s signature for a book in progress.

Books! Before I came to Columbia, I could make a book out of an x-ray, a bunch of dental floss and the one-sided misprints from FedEx. Lately, I’ve been focusing on pursuing stronger picture-making skills, but I do wish, at some point, to return to the endeavor of making books. There is such a rich tradition and history of book-making and printing presses that so closely resembles the relationship of photography to the image.

Part of my excitement is due to one of my handmade books being selected for the Filter Photo Festival’s “On The Shelf” exhibition this September. Filter is a local photography organization in Chicago—one that you should all know about. They facilitate networking events, curate shows, are connected to a local photography resource called Latitude, and put on a yearly portfolio review festival for photographers to show off their work to curators and professionals in the field. I’ve had really fabulous success through attending and networking at the Filter events, and I recommend that anyone and everyone sign up for them.

Just as Walter Benjamin noted in his famous essay “The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” the power of photography lies in its total accessibility, whereas its weakness is the degree to which the awe of craftsmanship dissipates with our ability to make the photograph accessible. For a painting, one must behold it to fully understand the nuances of light and shadow, the usage of particular canvasses, the size of the piece itself.
Books of today are essentially versions of manuscripts from ancient times, mass produced and made available to all. At one point in time, having the ability to read from a book was an enormously powerful place to occupy. Books were often illustrated using gold leaf and bright colors to create “illuminated manuscripts,” and it was these one-of-a-kind items that I find myself interested in.

At work in my home studio.

Artists’ books are similar in that they are often unique, existing only in individual copies or small limited edition prints. For the most part, a vast majority of people have the capacity to decipher what is written in books today relatively easily, given the availability of online translation services. What I continue to find relevant, though, is the generation of images in a book and the illustration of these images using traditional methods of “illumination.” The reference becomes holy almost instantly, harking back to the deep history of gold as a referent for light itself.
book of kells

An illustration from the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript written and illustrated around 800 A.D. between Ireland and Scotland.