I started using vellum, nearly two decades ago, because of its cool, traditionalist, medieval credentials as ‘the real thing.’ I bought small rectangles from Cornelissen (still a place of pilgrimage now) and scrap, at the time when they still sold scrap.
Vellum seemed quite hard to work on, and the instructions I found on how to handle it were inconsistent and didn’t always seem to work out well. It buckled when damp. It cockled when drying. It went furry when sanded or scraped, and then when wetted with a brush it glazed over in a gelatinous layer that, infuriatingly, picked up onto the brush with subsequent layers of paint. But I persisted, because it seemed like the right thing to do.
You’d think I would also have got into making my own oak-gall ink and grinding my own pigments at the same time. But my desire for cool kit is tempered with a healthy laziness and a strong appreciation for the virtues of contemporary life, such as Winsor & Newton Permanence A watercolours. Vellum was enough to deal with.
One day I went back to heavy watercolour paper for a commission and realised I didn’t like it much anymore compared with vellum. Later, I tried parchment for a small gift, and realised that wasn’t as nice, either. What exactly had I fallen in love with in the fickle, enduring substrate that is calfskin?
Vellum is indeed skin from young(ish) cows, a tight-knit protein structure grown by a large prey mammal, and it retains the placid obduracy of cow. Each piece still bears the stamp of an individual animate will. Even a hand-made paper, despite its lovely fibrousness and tangled structure, feels mass-produced and inanimate by comparison.
A piece of vellum has been soaked, scraped, stretched and scissored into a tidy, flat oblong more or less. But when you pick it up, it flexes with a curious energy, asymmetric. Tip it to the light, and you see it’s marked with semi-translucent tracks where the veins used to wander, sometimes resembling tree branches, sometimes rivers seen from the air. A cut rectangle of vellum is generally springier at one corner than another, it may be spotted here and there with faint thickenings of colour, barely discernible to describe as yellowish; a long curve of tiny dark speckles might drift across part of the rectangle, where hair follicles ghost a black patch on the former calf. The proponents of vellum talk about ‘hair side’ versus ‘flesh side’ and rub it with pumice and cuttlefish to soak up the heavy bovine grease that used to keep the hide supple for strolling through muddy grass. The spine skin is thick and crackly, the belly skin is thin and frail. Everyone wants that perfect, even patch taken bang out of the middle of one flat healthy flank where horseflies never bit nor barbed wire tore.
Faced with such blunt reminders that, in this ecosystem, creativity begins in death, the artist can (I think) go several ways. She can back off and use something else instead: paper, for example, or aluminium sheet, or wood, of course, if she feels that the unmeaty, unhobbled demise of a tree is less objectionable than that of the cow – or even silk, if the death by steam of so many nascent moths is likewise more acceptable. I guess I’ve made my point.
Or she can suppress the idiosyncracies of the vellum in front of her: damp it, stretch it on wood, prime it with gesso or a base layer of tempera, and commence painting on a surface as bland as housepaint.
(You see where I’m going with this?)
The third option is to work within the constraints and suggestiveness of the material, to be guided by its unique characteristics. Those tree-like lines will add movement at the top of a calligraphic piece, interacting with a set of long flourishes. The follicles demand that she leave part of that section bare, so what style of painting shall she use? This piece will probably cockle across its thin side, so supposing it were gilded elaborately, the gold might ripple and shimmer over the irregularities.
It’s not about some mystical idea that the artist collaborates with the posthumous cow. It’s just acknowledging that, dead as it is, the skin continues to possess a physical identity, reflecting the fact that it has been alive, and that it is not a standardised medium. And to work with that.
There are other reasons to use vellum, such as the effort not to waste valuable animal resources, and of course historical verity. It’s a very tough medium, too, so mistakes can be literally scraped or washed off (within reason) and overpainted. Clients tend to like it (though you should check they’re not strictly vegan, for example).
And finally, if you’ve read this far, there are the artistic qualities of the medium, which are what I have fallen in love with. When it’s sanded and pounced, vellum is slightly toothed, or even minutely fuzzy. Close up, it looks a feathery white colour. Its structure is not water-absorbent like paper’s, although it changes shape far more in response to atmospheric humidity. When a wet brush touches prepared vellum, the napped surface sinks into the moisture and gels; it becomes almost translucent. Light can therefore pass through a thin glaze of applied watercolour and bounce back out, giving a lacquered effect when using some of the more dye-like watercolours (viridian, quinacridone red, phthalocyanine spring to mind).
Conversely, body colour, being opaque, sits on top of the vellum and only reflects. A titanium white line trailed across thin lazurite blue looks as though it’s pushing forward off the page. A heavy dark line practically leaves a shadow inside the surface, like a photocopy of ink on tracing paper. These delicate but pronounced surface qualities aren’t visible in reproductions.
This can be useful, or annoying, or inspiring. In any case, it’s very different from paper. Part of the delight of handling a finished miniature or illuminated page, for me, is this textural detail. It’s not just the brushstrokes but the way the texture of the vellum has been handled to create contrast between a variety of painted and unpainted surfaces and with the shimmer or gloss of accompanying gold.