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Watercolour on vellum

Materials used in the preparation of a miniature in watercolour on vellum, A) Vellum, B) Playing card, C) Burnisher, made from a dog's tooth

Materials used in the preparation of a miniature in watercolour on vellum, A) Vellum, B) Playing card, C) Burnisher, made from a dog's tooth

The first portrait miniatures were painted by artists trained to illustrate hand-written books. They used similar materials and techniques, painting in watercolour on vellum, a fine animal skin (shown right, A). The Elizabethan miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard particularly recommended painting on the skin of an aborted calf, which was hairless and very smooth.

The vellum was stuck to a playing card for extra support using starch paste. It was smoothed down by rubbing with a burnisher (shown right, C) a dog's tooth set in a wooden handle. The playing cards (shown right, B)were made from pasteboard (sheets of paper glued together). The translucent vellum was stuck to the plain side to give it a white colour.

In the 16th century most miniaturists prepared their own paints. Pigments were made from minerals, natural earths, plants, insects, and gold and silver leaf, or manufactured artificially. They were ground to a fine powder and bound with gum arabic. These ingredients were then mixed with water in mussel shells which made convenient little pots.

Miniaturists used brushes made out of squirrel hair set in quills and mounted on wooden handles. To polish the gold and silver used to paint the jewels and inscriptions, they used a small stoat's tooth set in a wooden handle.

Some of the materials and tools are shown below, click on the images for larger versions

Watercolour on ivory

From around 1700 miniaturists began to paint on ivory. The sheets of ivory were cut lengthways from an elephant's tusk and at first were 1 mm thick. By the 1760s the ivory was cut so thinly that the sheets were translucent.

Ivory is difficult to paint in watercolour as it is quite greasy and non-absorbent, but miniaturists developed ways around this. They roughened the surface lightly with sandpaper or powdered pumice stone, and bleached the ivory in the sun to make it whiter. Some miniaturists suggested degreasing it with vinegar and garlic, or by pressing it between sheets of paper with a hot iron.

Since it is difficult to use watercolour on ivory, miniaturists learned to prepare their paint differently. They used more gum arabic to make it stickier. They also discovered that adding the liquid from the gall bladder of a cow or bull made the watercolour flow more easily. This allowed them greater freedom when using the brush.

Some miniaturists probably still made their own paints and tools, but most would have bought their materials. By the 1760s William Reeves, a maker and supplier of artists' materials, was selling paintboxes with ready-made tablets or 'cakes' of watercolour in specialist shops.

Some of the materials and tools are shown below, click on the images for larger versions.

A gift in your will

You may not have thought of including a gift to a museum in your will, but the V&A is a charity and legacies form an important source of funding for our work. It is not just the great collectors and the wealthy who leave legacies to the V&A. Legacies of all sizes, large and small, make a real difference to what we can do and your support can help ensure that future generations enjoy the V&A as much as you have.

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