Applying the Paint

This method does not apply to icon painting, although icons are painted with egg tempera (made with the yolk).

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With a manuscript page, the surface is very flexible and will be handled frequently. With icon painting, the surface is rigid and the item is not handled. Egg yolk tempera dries to a very hard, tough finish. This may prove to be too brittle for a page.

In earlier centuries, the toxicity of some pigments was not known. Today, any decent art shop can provide information on toxicity and this is something to consider when planning the colours. Health and Safety must be considered. If the manuscript is to be handled frequently, you may want to avoid toxic pigments. Although the tempera is fairly tough once dry, it can flake and rub off over time (i.e., centuries).

book of Durrow holed page
Some of the pigments, usually the toxic ones, do not combine well. If allowed to mix at all, they will have an unfavourable effect upon one another. This can range from turning each other black, to burning a hole in the surface. The Book of Durrow demonstrates this well. Always reserve one brush and one shell for each separate colour. Do not mix colours unless you are sure that they are neutral and will behave themselves. Do not allow them to touch on the page.


I was once told by a tutor to either lick the tip of the brush to achieve a fine point, or lick my finger and thumb and then model the tip of the brush. NEVER, EVER DO THIS, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, REGARDLESS OF PIGMENT. Do not get into the habit. It may be OK if the pigment is one made of crushed beetles or rotten shellfish (cochineal and murex purple, respectively) , but DO NOT get into the habit. One day you'll end up licking Orpiment, which is not to be advised (as it's an arsenic sulfide).

  • To model the tip of a brush to a fine point:

  • First, make sure that you are using a brush that already has a reasonable point.
  • Mix the paint in a broad, shallow shell, or old saucer, or similar.
  • Dip the brush in either a little water or paint.
  • Hold the brush, with a normal grip, with the brush head almost flat against the flattest part of the shell or saucer.
  • Roll the brush handle between finger and thumb, keeping the head in contact with the shell/ saucer. As you roll the brush, also pull it toward you, along the surface of the shell/ saucer. Keep going until you have rolled the brush off of the edge of the shell/ saucer. This is usually sufficient to coax the hairs into a point.
  • If they're still not behaving, you may need to thoroughly wet the brush (washing it if necessary) and then tightly wrap the tip in a strip of tissue and leave it to dry.

Applying the Paint

The paint, once mixed, should be fairly fluid. If it is too thick, it will not apply smoothly and may crack off of the surface once dry. With the design transferred to the surface:-

1. Mask off with clean paper all areas of the design not being worked on.
2. Using a very small brush, with a fine point (see above), paint a thin line around the perimeter of the area*. Do not overload the brush with paint. You don't want the paint to splodge.
3. Collect more paint on the brush and 'puddle' the paint inside the outline. The outline should contain the paint and avoid it running everywhere. The paint will look like a very wet cushion.
4. Leave well alone until it is dry. DO NOT PAINT NEXT TO IT.
5. Repeat the above in another area or segment well away from the wet paint.
6. If using more than one colour, use a clean brush for each colour.
7. Make sure sleeves, hair, etc are well out of the way!

*If using obnoxious pigments, paint the perimeter line a little inside the transferred outline. This will leave a small – but important – strip of plain vellum or paper between the pigments. When painting very small, tightly packed areas of detail, careful consideration must be given to choice of pigments. Ensure that you have an inert pigment or two to separate the nasty ones. I frequently use Chinese stick ink black, yellow ochre and indigo. Many of the nasty pigments, and some others of modern (chemical) manufacture, contain sulphur. This leads to darkening and blackening of the colour if it comes into contact with acid.

If you want to use or add white, do not use lead white, which is toxic. This is alternatively known as Flake White or Cremnitz White. Similarly, avoid Zinc White – unless you are certain that it is the lead free type, also known as Chinese White. Other whites to use are Titanium White and good old Chalk. The latter has been identified by the British Library during its recent Raman Microscopy examination of early illuminations.