Color In Medieval Manuscripts-Black & White

A Fine Medieval ManuscriptMedieval manuscripts are prized for their extravagant colors and rich opaque glory. What did the European illuminators use to produce intensity like that? A variety of different things.

Black-The most necessary of colors for any manuscript, this was the color of the text and had to stand out from the mottled cream colored vellum background upon which it was set. Gall inks were very popular and made from processing “galls” or bladders found on oak trees after insect damage. Water that these things were soaked in turned black and became ink. Gall ink has the property of being indelible, especially on anything as porous as vellum (sheepskin). The shaded variations of gall inks are legendary and give them a wonderful expressive quality. Alas, iron gall can become corrosive to the support and eat away neat holes exactly in the shape of letters!

Soot or lamp black was used to make inks which were very dark and not too variable in their shading. These lamp black inks were prized for their intense blue/black darkness and probably made the darkest of black inks in illuminated manuscripts.

Burning bones and using the ashes from that will produce a rich brown/black ink or pigment for painting. Mixed with white it becomes a neutral brown paint. Bone black is also known as “Ivory Black”.

In modern art, Ivory Black and Lamp Black are still used with all forms of paint: watercolor, acrylic, oil paint, gouche, or alkyds! The properties which made these excellent inks also allowed them to be liberally mixed with other media and make a fine black or shading color.


White-White was always a useful color for lightening other hues, highlighting areas, and for its own blankness. Lead white was the favorite pigment because it was plentiful, very soft and easy to use, combined well with other pigments, dried fairly fast and could be built up to produce an opaque layer of paint. Of course it was quite poisonous and over time, if the painter had enough contact with it, they would develop lead poisoning. Lead white was pretty flexible, a good thing when painting pages in a book.

Chalk was another white agent. It was a bit more difficult to combine with other pigments and not as “suave” as lead white, a bit more brittle; but it was also plentiful and very inexpensive. Chalk white was a favorite to combine with other pigments to make “lakes” which were the opaque version of most colors, some of which were normally transparent.

Lead or “Flake” white can still be purchased as an oil paint and in other media as well, however Titanium White is more popular and more opaque than Flake White in the modern artist’s palette and it is not as toxic.

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