Saturday, 2 May 2015

V is for Vellum

Buff tailed bumblebee Bombus terrestris, on kelmscott vellum
“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Winston Churchill

Where has the time gone? I can hardly believe that it’s been over two weeks since my last blog post but recently I have been as busy as a bee in a wildflower meadow.

My Spice Market painting at the SBA's show in Westminster
The highlight of the past couple of weeks was my visit to the Society of Botanical Artists Exhibition in London. This year was the 30th anniversary of the SBA and it really was an impressive celebration of Botanical Art. For a great review of the exhibition, read Katherine Tyrrell's excellent blogpost  

To my delight, an image of my painting was also used on the poster describing the theme of the exhibition.
I love visiting the SBA exhibition. It’s such a treat to be able to see such beautiful and inspiring art up close, but it was also really fantastic to meet up with all my friends, old and new. It made a great event into something really special.

This year I was honoured to be asked to do a demonstration of my work during the exhibition. Honoured and ever so slightly daunted, because the other demonstrating artists are all incredibly talented, award winning artists. Just seeing my name included on that list was a thrill. The lovely paintings hanging behind me are by Enzo Forgione
I decided to do my demonstration on vellum, because it’s the topic that I’m asked the most about. There is a video at the bottom of this post taken by my good friend Sarah Morrish.
I was fortunate because Paul Wright, the manager of William Cowley’s  the Parchment and Vellum makers, agreed to meet me at the exhibition. Paul is a self-confessed ‘vellum-nerd’, and he regaled myself and Sarah Morrish with wonderful stories about vellum, it’s history and how it is made. If you are curious about how vellum is made, there is a link to a video about it here (not for the squeamish) 

I liked vellum before, but now I have an even greater respect for it. It’s easy to forget that each piece of vellum comes from a living creature (calf, sheep, goat), How that creature lived it's life really effects the appearance of the vellum. For example the calf that dies after a summer out roaming in the fields will have different skin (more tanned, less hair) than one that has been overwintered in a shed (paler and with visible hair follicles).
I should point out here that animals are NOT killed to make vellum, it is a byproduct of the meat industry. You can read a statement on the ethics here 

Paul from William Cowley's explains how vellum is made 
Vellum most typically comes from a calf, but can also come from a goat. Parchment comes from sheep. Sheep tend to have a lot of fat, so parchment is very thin and white, which means that it is not as suitable for painting.

A selection of  calfskin vellums showing the variety of colours and markings 
Manuscript vellum is very thin, almost transparent and creamy in colour. It’s more often used for calligraphy.
Natural calf vellum is my favourite vellum and the one that I use the most. Each piece is completely different and has it’s own character. It can range from a lovely honey colour to one that has a dark mottled appearance. I especially like the Veiny vellum, which has distinctive markings that give it character.

The mottled appearance of natural calf vellum (Erythrina lysistemon seedpods)

Kelmscott vellum is considered the best vellum for botanical artists. It is coated with a special chalky paste that is made from boiling up all the tiny vellum offcuts together with some secret ingredients. That paste is painted onto the vellum, allowed to dry and then sanded smooth. Then the whole process is repeated several times more until the vellum is quite thick and sturdy. This coating gives a beautifully velvety surface to paint on, which is so forgiving. You can wipe the paint off at any time, and also scratch into the surface, albeit carefully. I would definitely recommend kelmscott for vellum newbies. My only grumble is that the smooth white surface is a little bland in appearance in comparison to the natural calf vellum.

A close-up of a calmondin orange on kelmscott vellum. You can see how I scratched out details 
Goatskin vellum I like goatskin vellum because it has an interesting appearance with large visible pores. However these pores can present a problem when painting because the paint has a tendency to catch in the little holes. It’s probably better in this case to avoid subjects with a smooth shiny surface and go for something with texture instead.

Close up of a Iris foetidissima seedhead on goatskin vellum. You can just about make out the large pores on the surface of the goatskin.

Preparing vellum

I use a bag of pumice powder that I bought in Cornelissen. A large bag costs £5.50 and is enough to last a lifetime! 

Because I was flying into London, I didn’t fancy explaining a bag of white powder in HM Customs, so a kind friend supplied me with a small pot for the demo. 

I brought my own footie though! You put some of the powder into the footsock and gently rub the surface of the vellum to remove any grease spots.

Kelmscott does not need to get the ‘powdered footsock rub’ as it is already prepared, but as with all vellum you do need to take care not to touch the surface with your fingers as you can transfer grease onto the surface which can repel the paint.

I also use the powdered rub to remove graphite or to knock back some of the painted areas if I feel that they are losing tooth. This happened when I was painting the grapes and it got to the point where I couldn’t add any more layers (the paint had started to lift). The grape second from the right has been rubbed back.
I use a soft brush (the fan brushes are ideal) to dust off the powder.

Mounting vellum

Vellum will always try to go back to the shape of the animal it once was. It is sensitive to heat and humidity, and can buckle and roll up quite alarmingly. Don’t worry though, it will settle down and lie flat once more. I found that the blue scotch tape is the only thing that can tape it down effectively. Masking tape and even brown painters tape can’t hold it down for long.
Vellum buckling within it’s mount and frame can also be a huge problem. I discussed this with Paul and he suggested that for larger pieces, more space should be left around the painting than would normally be left for with paper (think of Rory McEwen and how much space he left).  Ideally with larger pieces, the vellum should be mounted onto board. It’s something that I have never tried, so I was very interested to hear that William Cowley’s also offer a vellum mounting service. 
(Oh yes!! that’s next year’s Christmas present sorted then! With bevelled edges please).

Painting on vellum
The key ingredient with vellum is PATIENCE.

I try to avoid drawing on vellum as the graphite can smear, and the putty rubber can leave a mark. I prefer to transfer my drawing using tracing paper. My first washes are usually quite wet, but you need to make sure that once the wash is laid, you leave it alone until they are dry! Paint seems to go onto vellum lighter than it does on paper. The paint needs to get progressively drier with each layer. I usually dry the brush off on a piece of kitchen towel before I touch the vellum. If the brush is too wet, it will disturb the lower layers and before you know it, you are pushing globs of pigment around in circles. Sometimes it better in this circumstance to reach for the powder-filled footie and when the paint is dry, give it a gentle rub.  It takes time to build up the colours. When it goes wrong it’s frustrating, but when it goes right, the results are beautiful.

Grapes on natural calfskin vellum, finished
It’s definitely worthwhile paying attention to your pigments and sorting out the transparent and semi-transparent ones from the opaque colours. I do use opaque colours, but usually in the first washes only.

I just want to say thank you to all the lovely people who came to my demo, and to the people who came up to me and told me that they read my blog (you know who you are). It was humbling and heart-warming to get such great feedback. Thank you.

Many thanks to Katherine Tyrrell and to Sarah Morrish for taking the photographs and allowing me to share them here.


  1. i have got to stop hanging with you euro artists
    you all have way too much fun
    (you sure all do have way too much fun.....i have vellum envy now)

    1. Oh Vi! I can send you some if you like xx

  2. Great post Shevaun :) so sorry I couldn't get back in time for the demo - typical hypo time!

    1. Dianne it was great to see you and Polly. I just wish you could have met Paul, he was so interesting. We spent ages looking at your painting

  3. Lovely post Shevaun, I was so sorry to miss your demonstration. One day though...

    1. Polly, it was so lovely to see you in London. I'm looking forward to next year!

  4. What a nice post and entertaining read. I must try vellum now. I bought a skin a while ago and it it beckoning me!

    1. Wow, you bought a whole skin? How fantastic. You really must try it, Monica. And I must try silverpoint... you have really made me want to try that

  5. How lucky am I to be able to see some of your beautiful pictures and read your interesting blog. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Interesting explanation of the different types of vellum--I'll have to expand my repertoire.


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