Friday, 11 October 2013

Painting on Vellum

I've been painting on Kelmscott vellum for a number of years but recently tried the natural vellum for the first time. Both are available from William Cowley in the UK. I like the look of this vellum because of the warm colour and venation but it's a slightly different experience to paint on compared to the Kelmscott.

Old Rose Hips, on vellum 2013
This is a slight aside from the recent posts but I thought a short piece about painting on different types of vellum might be of interest, given that I'm using vellum for my core work at the moment, and currently teaching an online vellum course. I've also been getting a lot of emails asking about different types of vellum, so maybe there's a renewed interest. I'm discussing the Natural and Kelmscott in this post, however you can also paint on the Classic calfskin and Manuscript vellum, refer to Cowley's website, which provides great information about all types of vellum and parchment too.

Guelder Rose, Virburnum opulus, on vellum, 2013
  To highlight the difference between the two vellum types, you can see in the image below, the darker natural vellum is on the lower right. The other two pieces are both Kelmscott.
Natural vellum does not have the chalk wash surface coating, is thinner, therefore more transparent, has unique venation and warm colouring, it also has a slightly more shiny surface than than Kelmscott. These properties make it more challenging to work on. You need to use even less water than when using Kelmscott. The coating applied to Kelmscott alters the appearance of the vellum making it slightly more opaque but the luminosity is preserved. Kelmscott is no doubt the best surface for the botanical painter and is easier to paint on than natural vellum because you are painting on the surface coat rather than the actual skin. It's a very forgiving surface and errors can easily be removed by rubbing with fine grade pumice or by carefully scraping away a top layer of the coating with a scalpel. If you've never painted on vellum before always start with Kelmscott.

Vellum: Apologies for the boring photo!  The darker natural vellum can be seen bottom right, it's thinner and more transparent. The other two pieces are Kelmscott. The large piece is the Rory McEwen vellum, it has the edge of the skin on two sides and a thicker surface coating, prepared and applied by McEwen compared to the Cowley's Kelmscott on the upper right.  

  Back in 2007 I was gifted a piece of Rory McEwen's vellum,  the large piece seen in the photograph above. It was given to me by the late James White of the Hunt Institute, following the 12th International, which I participated in back in 2007. The Hunt Institute were given his vellum by the family, following McEwen's death in 1982. They gift  pieces to artists who show an interest in working on vellum, at their discretion. I've been a huge fan of Rory McEwen's work for many years,  so it was a great honour. However I haven't felt confident enough to paint on it yet but hope to make a start shortly. So I'm brushing up on my technique at the moment. I find it takes me a day or two to get into the method of painting on vellum. It  requires a very light touch and a lot of dry brush work. I've included some detailed images from my works below to demonstrate.

When working on vellum it's always a good idea to give it a rub down with fine grade pumice powder first. I put it in a small round bag, you can use muslin or I use a piece cut from a pair of ladies tights - works really well! Use small circular motions evenly over the surface.  This removes any grease and blemishes from the surface. I didn't prepare the first piece of natural vellum and it still worked OK but was a bit greasy in places and resisted the paint slightly, but if you work dry enough it's not a problem. For my second attempt I rubbed it down very lightly taking care not to apply any weight.

Detail from old rose hips, using dry brush over an initial wash

Detail from Guelder Rose

Detail of the leaf, showing dry brush and fine line work

Painting on Kelmscott vellum, First layer
Finished paintings on kelmscott
It's also difficult to draw on the natural vellum, I painted directly on to it free hand without drawing for the two paintings shown above. I made a pale under-painting first but there's not much room for error so decided a better approach for more complex compositions would be to use a lightbox, or, if the image is drawn on paper first it could traced with the brush because the vellum is so thin. Pencil work should always be kept to a minimum whatever type of vellum is used because it can be difficult to remove. 

If you are just starting out with vellum. I would recommend starting with something small and simple, such as seed-heads or small fruits, leaves or flowers. The most difficult subjects are large shiny leaves and large smooth surfaced fruits. Building up paints to create such smooth surfaces is difficult territory until you get the hang of it....and wasting vellum is an expensive mistake! 
Always tape down the vellum, although for very small pieces you can actually get away with not securing it. I tape smaller pieces to thick card which is a couple of inches bigger than the vellum, so that I can rotate it. Don't leave tape on the vellum for too long though because it will mark the vellum edge. Large pieces of vellum should be secured to a frame. It can also be glued to a surface to keep it flat.

One of the biggest problems with vellum is buckling,  This is caused by incorrect storage, too hot, cold or damp or using too much water when painting. Water is most certainly the enemy of vellum, so always work fairly dry. I apply only one light 'wash' and then use various dry brush techniques. Pay particular attention to the edges, when applying the first wash - it's not like a typical watercolour wash, because unlike paper the surface of the vellum is non-porous, paint will sit on top - you want to avoid any pooling at the edges, if this happens you need to mop it up  it using a small dry brush, you need to achieve a fairly soft edge. If you get an hard edge  this will create problems later on when the paint becomes too thick, if you try to lift it later you will get into all sorts of problems. It's best to avoid this in the first place by using less water. Thereafter gradually build up the paint in layers of dry brush.  Most of all remember to work work lightly and keep water to a minimum!

Larger work on Kelmscott, life size foxglove, 2011
Cherry leaf on Kelmscott, 2010. The background has been lightened for print on this image but it is more cream in colour.
Finally, if you have never painted on vellum before, give it a try, its unique properties are a gift to the botanical painter! and once you become experienced with vellum, you can even buy whole skins and prepare them yourself!

For more information thers's also an article on my website about painting on vellum.


  1. Thanks Dianne!! Really looking forward to starting your course! :)

    1. Me too Shevaun. I do love to paint on vellum, you'll love it. I'm looking forward to trying out the papyrus too :)

  2. Thanks for the interesting post. I am trying out the Kelmscott vellum right now but love the organic look of the natural vellum--so maybe someday. Your paintings are beautiful!

    1. Thank you Janene, Look forward to seeing your painting on vellum. What are you painting? ... I'm being nosey :)

    2. Not nosey at all Dianne--thanks for your interest! I am painting a twig from an oak tree that is native here in the PNW...or I should say attempting it. We'll see how it goes. The leaves are slowly taking shape...haven't tried the acorn yet.

  3. Great post Dianne. When I was at the Chelsea Florilegium Sarah Gould gave a super demonstration on vellum. It was really interesting seeing her work. She had cut out A7 pieces of each different type of vellum (manuscript, natural, kelms, fake, possum skin, sheep skin, goat skin) and had painted something on each piece so you got an over all idea of how each piece compared. Then she taped them all (along the edges) to a piece of board which was passed around the group. It was a brilliant aid. Sarah paints on Manuscript number 1 and said that that too was pretty forgiving for the botanical artist. She found Kelms a bit too shiny I think. Anyway - it's fascinating stuff. Incredible to see the renaissance in vellum really - bet Cowleys are doing well! On another note - have you heard of artsorb? We here in the gallery frame all our vellums with a piece in the back to help with the humidity control. It's very clever stuff and well worth investing in.

    1. Thanks for this Jess, Sarah's work is amazing, she exhibited at the Hunt institute the same year I did, that's when I first became aware if her work. I've never heard of Artsorb but it sounds like a great idea, will check it out :)

  4. Sow good, enter in my blog

  5. Dear Dianne,
    Many thanks for your very helpful guidance on painting on vellum. I have never painted on this surface and am just about to order some Kelmscott vellum from a UK supplier. I plan to create miniature landscapes, but it may all end disastrously! The advice on your blog is a tremendous help - and your work is amazing!

    1. Pleased to hear it was helpful, you'll have to let me know how it went

  6. Hi there, Could you recommend a way of removing paint from a vellum surface? You might of mentioned it in the past so please excuse me for asking again. Thanks, Martin