Common Colours in Manuscript Illumination

Meanings of Colours

Paint Pigments


Colour Symbolism in Manuscript Illumination

Whether the illuminators of Celtic Medieval illuminated manuscripts used pigments because they were bright or because that is all they could get or even because they were aware of a particular symbolic meaning is uncertain.


Of Gold, Hildegard of Bingen said: 

“...shining fire, unfathomable, inextinguishable, fully alive and existing full of life....”


Genesis 10: 12 -16:

And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth........and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature......


The Lost Sutras of Jesus:

“ Purity is like empty space, it produces the light of love whose brightness illuminates everything. Because it illuminates everything, it is called the Way of Peace and Joy”


Revelation 21; 19 - 20:

And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. The first foundation was jasper; the second, sapphire; the third, a chalcedony; the fourth, an emerald; The fifth, sardonyx; the sixth, sardius; the seventh, chrysolite; the eighth, beryl; the ninth, a topaz; the tenth, a chrysoprasus; the eleventh, a jacinth; the twelfth, an amethyst.


If we look at Genesis, the colours used in manuscript illumination - red, red/orange, yellow/ gold, green, blue/ indigo and violet – could have been seen as a representation of the rainbow, a sign of the covenant, between God and Earth. The stones referred to in Revelation 21, that make up the foundations of the Heavenly Jerusalem, are variations of red, red-orange, yellow, green, blue and violet.

It could be that the pigments chosen were seen as representational of the foundations of the Heavenly Jerusalem and a reminder of the ultimate goal to which the faithful aspired: to escape the torments of Hell and gain a place in that Heavenly city.

Toxicity of Pigments


* downright poisonous  

Of the above list of pigments, the British Library has identified Orpiment, Indigo, Verdigris and Red Lead as the main pigments in use in early manuscripts. Additionally, white lead, chalk, and some earth pigments were used. Vermillion and Lead Tin Yellow appeared around the 12th century or so. Lapis Lazuli is occasionally seen in early manuscripts, but in small doses. Even today, a ¼ pan of genuine Lapis Lazuli, extra dark, will set you back in excess of £245 and just 10 grammes of 'Fra Angelico Blue', genuine Lapis loose pigment, will cost you over £150.


When choosing pigments, you have to decide whether you will follow historic pigments, use only non-toxic ones, or affordable ones (!) or simply go for the brightest colours. A manuscript illumination must be bright. It must have impact. There are some exceptions to this. Some illuminations have quite a muted palette of earth pigments. If a manuscript was historically used in a dimly lit interior, then the pages must need be bright. The surface of vellum has a degree of luminosity and the available light is reflected back off the page, through the pigment. The toxic and poisonous pigments frequently contain metals and these tiny, metallic particles also reflect light.

Always check the toxicity of the pigments you choose. Science moves on and pigments we thought were OK once turn out to be not so nice.

Paint Preparation for Manuscript Illumination


Referring to the table of pigments, we see that a number are toxic, if not poisonous. Unless you're going to make your own, pigment comes supplied in powder form, in small bags or jars. When handling these dusty pigments, it is important to take precautions to protect your health. You do not want to inhale the dust, especially pigments like Orpiment, Realgar and Vermillion – you'll end up poisoning yourself.

  • A sensible precaution is to wear a dust mask when handling dry pigment.

  • Particularly when handling toxic pigments, wear gloves or use a barrier cream.

  • Do not work near a draught or fan – you don't want a toxic pigment blown all over you.

  • Do not eat, drink, rub your eyes, pick your nose, etc. when handling pigment.

  • Wash hands thoroughly after preparing pigment. Wash hands before eating, drinking, using the toilet, etc. If you have any break in the skin, make sure it is adequately covered. You do not want Orpiment or Vermillion in your system.

Preparation of Pigment

1. Place a small amount of pigment on a clean slab of glass or marble. Ensure that the slab is on a stable surface.

2. Add a little water. If using toxic pigments, you may want to add the pigment to the water, to reduce the dust risk as soon as possible.

3. Using a glass muller (I have resorted before now to a large, flat, smooth, hard stone), grind the pigment in a circular motion. Apply a small degree of pressure.

4. If the pigment spreads out too much, use a palette knife to scrape it back into the middle of the slab.

5. Add more water if the pigment gets too dry, a few drops at a time.

6. Different pigments require grinding for different lengths of time. Pigments that derive from stone or earth generally need a lot of grinding.

7. Listen to the pigment as you grind it. At first it will be quite noisy. As the particles are ground down and become finer, they get quieter. When the pigment grinds quietly, it is probably ready. There are some pigments that you could grind until doomsday and they would still benefit from a little more! Good old Orpiment is one of these.

I hate grinding pigment. I must confess that I frequently grind it in the shell as I'm preparing the paint. This doesn't work all that well for indigo or earth pigments.


The binding medium used in manuscript painting, particularly in Europe, was egg. The white of the egg is used most often. Egg yolk is greasier and doesn't stick all that well to vellum or parchment. Having said that, there are recipes for using egg yolk and the proprietary egg tempera paints available use the yolk. Egg yolk gets tougher and harder as it dries. On a flexible surface, it is liable to crack. The general rule is to have a small offcut of vellum or paper and experiment to see what works and what doesn't.


To make egg tempera, you first need eggs. I'm not aware of whether there is any one egg that is superior to all others. Old recipes tend not to say. I would think that they used what was plentiful – probably chicken. There is a marked difference between organic, free range, barn and factory eggs. If you are using the egg yolk, this difference may be very important. Free range, organic eggs have a much richer, deeper yellow yolk. There is also some difference in the colour of the white; organic, again, being slightly more yellow. It's worth thinking about, especially if you're after a lovely, bright white.

Preparing the Glair for Egg Tempera Paint


Take a thoroughly clean bowl. Break your egg carefully over the bowl, being sure to separate the yolk from the white.

  1. To separate the yolk, pass it from one half of the broken shell to the other. You can also use your hands - but this is very messy and sticky.

  2. Catch the white of the egg in the bowl. If you also want to use the yolk, pass it from one hand to the other, CAREFULLY, to dry it out. When dry (doesn't have to be bone dry), hold the yolk carefully in your cupped hand. Use your little finger to hold it in place. Pierce the yolk sac and allow the contents to run out into a clean jar. DO NOT let the sac fall into the yolk. Now wash your hands :)

  3. For the egg white, take a clean whisk or fork and beat the living daylights out of it, until it is about stiff peaks stage. Cennino Cennini (14th Century monk)  said that you couldn't beat the white too much. Beat it until you're fed up and/or aching.

  4. Leave the bowl of white froth in the fridge over night. The next day, there will be some liquid that has drained down and collected in the bottom of the bowl. Pour this (the glair) into a clean jar and put the lid on the jar, to keep the glair clean.

  5. There are a number of different recipes out there as to what you do now with the glair to make your paint. Additives include honey, gum arabic, white wine vinegar, even ear wax! I tend to use just glair:

  6. In a shell (something like an oyster, clam or mussel shell) or saucer, add a small amount of glair. I use wide, shallow shells for the paint, reserving one shell for each pigment.

  7. Add a few drops of water to the glair to dilute it a little. The amount of water varies according to the surface. I find that painting on vellum requires a weaker solution than painting on paper.

  8. At this stage, I also add a few drops of garlic (beat garlic bulbs to a pulp, gather in a cotton cloth or similar, squeeze until you can't squeeze any more. Collect juice in a clean jar. Stink of garlic for days after).

  9. Add a tiny amount of pigment. With pure pigments, a little goes a long, long way. Which is just as well, given the price of some of them. By little, I mean no more than about one third of the size of you little fingernail. Grind the pigment into the liquid with a palette knife or similar. Do not use this implement for anything else (see poisonous and toxic pigments).

  10. Test a little of the paint on a scrap of vellum/ paper. Paint a small strip or blob and allow to dry. When dry, rub the paint. If it is too weak, it will rub off - add more glair. If it is too strong, it will crack off - add more water. The strength of the paint needs to be varied according to the pigment. Minium requires stronger glair than most pigments – or the paint rubs off.

  11. Generally, I add 4 drops of glair to the shell, a teeny bit of pigment,3 drops of water and 2 or 3 drops of garlic, on average. I then grind the mix well, using a palette knife.

Applying the Paint


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

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).

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 trisulfide).

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.

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© Diane George 2018

39 Stepney Road, Burry Port,SA16 0BE